Las Vegas Raiders QB Derek Carr On How Kobe Bryant Shaped His Career

Derek Carr
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Derek Carr
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THE EXPRESSION “NEVER MEET YOUR HEROES” EXISTS FOR A REASON — NINE TIMES OUT OF 10, THE REALITY DOESN’T LIVE  up to the mythology of the person you’ve had on a pedestal. But luckily for Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, an encounter with Kobe Bryant, the person upon whom he had modeled his entire career, was an exception to the rule.

“I’ll say this: I learned what a work ethic was from my dad,” the 29-year-old athlete maintains. “But I also wanted to find an athlete [who had a similar assiduity], and the one I found was Kobe. He’s my favorite athlete ever. I modeled every bit of what I do after him, and he inspired me at a young age to embrace the suck, embrace the tough moments, embrace the pain, the scrutiny, the criticism — embrace it and love it.”

He vocalized as much firsthand when they finally met face-to-face, just after Bryant played his last-ever game at Oakland’s Oracle Arena in 2016. “I had dreamed of this moment my whole life,” Carr recalls. “I don’t even know if he knows who I am, but when he walked out of the locker room, he walked straight up to me and said, ‘Derek, what’s up, man?’ and gives me this big, old hug. I was like, ‘He knows my name!’ [Here we need to note that Carr had just played one of the best statistical seasons by any quarterback in franchise history, so he was definitely on the sports radar. He’s just humble.] So we sat there and talked for a long time, but I didn’t want to bother him. He was like, ‘Man, I’ve got nowhere to go. I’m waiting for the bus, hang out with me.’ And so, we sat there forever, just talking, and I shared how much his grind meant to me, how it inspired me to get to where I’m at today. He was the nicest person I’ve ever met.”

The two stayed in touch, texting and talking sporadically. And to this day, a photo taken during that first meeting has a prominent place in Carr’s office, hanging right behind him, perhaps as a reminder that in some way, Bryant would always have his back. Needless to say, the NBA legend’s death earlier this year hit Carr hard. “When he passed away, it was like a family member had died,” the quarterback recalled. “I had about 30 people text me saying, ‘Derek, I’m so sorry for your loss.’ I wasn’t family with the guy, but they knew how much that relationship meant to me.” His slow, Southern drawl softens for a second as he collects himself. Even now, he’s a bit emotional. “For the rest of my life and the rest of my career, he’ll always have a place in my heart. And so I’m doing my best — especially this year — to honor him with my play and that mentality, to [showcase] everything I learned from him.”

2020 has certainly been a year to remember for the world at large, though for the Raiders, it’s especially momentous in that it will be the team’s first season in a new city after calling Oakland home for more than 20 years. And as the starting quarterback during its premiere year in Sin City, Carr, too, has an opportunity to do something significant. He already holds multiple franchise records for the Raiders, including pass completions (2, 120), pass attempts (3, 313) and most game-winning drives (19). But this year brings the opportunity to be ‘the first’ given that it’s the team’s freshman year in Vegas. Yet, there was — and still is — a very real danger that this major moment in sports history will be eclipsed — if not completely crippled — by the novel coronavirus.

Though the Raiders haven’t made the playoffs the last three years, Carr, a three-time Pro Bowler, is confident the team is ready to rumble, bolstered by its new location and a slew of strong, new players. Regardless of any restrictions, he’s ready to go.

“I feel like this is the first year where offensively and defensively, we have weapons, we have talent and we have the ability with our schemes to really go out and win a lot of football games,” he says. “This is one of those first years where I look at every position and I look at the backups of those positions and think, ‘This is the best group we’ve had in a while.’ It’s finally starting to come around.” The roster includes Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski, two of the most sought-after linebackers in free agency; new players Prince Amukamara, Javin White and Nick Bowers; rookies Henry Ruggs III, Damon Arnette and Amik Robertson; and returning players such as Damarious Randall, Nelson Agholor and Jason Witten.

Derek Carr
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In the off-season, Carr was training harder than usual, staying healthy, refusing to slack and pushing himself to be his best self. “I’ve been blessed to be able to have a gym in our [new] house, so I was able to get all my workouts in, my running, throwing and football activities,” he says. “I was able to go to the park and still do those things with a couple teammates that live here in town [including Darren Waller, Derek Carrier, Foster Moreau, Zay Jones, Hunter Renfrow, Bryan Edwards, Alec Ingold and Lynn Bowden, as well as Ruggs, Bowers, Algholor and Witten].” He hastens to add, as one must during these uncertain times, “We’ve all been tested to make sure everything’s alright, so we could still throw and get our work in.”

Refusing to give in to the mindset that the season might not happen is critical. Carr needs to be able to say he tried his best and pushed his hardest, whatever the circumstances … or maybe, in spite of them. “I took [the quarantine] as an opportunity to work even harder and hopefully get an edge on everybody else,” he says. “I didn’t want the things that are going on with Covid to be an excuse for me not to do my work. And so, I made sure to respect everything that’s going on and abide by all the mandates, but at the same time, get ready if and when we did have a season.”

And at present time, after months of uncertainty (even as of late July he only knew to report to training camp, nothing more), it’s confirmed: the NFL will have a season. Needless to say, Carr is ready, as are the residents of Sin City. The franchise’s move has brought much excitement to Las Vegas, and supporters are ready to welcome the team with open arms at the newly-built, $1.9 billion, Allegiant Stadium. Unfortunately, they’ll have to do so from afar. As Covid-19 continues to ravage the city, the Raiders have determined fans won’t be allowed inside the arena. When the team plays, those 68,000 brand-new seats will remain empty — which is disappointing, to say the least, for someone like Carr, who thrives on the energy of his fans.

“A lot of people don’t like the crowds and people watching them, but I love it,” he declares. “Ever since I was a little kid, I made everybody watch me shoot baskets in the front yard. I’d be like, ‘Mom, come watch me, come watch me!’ So the idea of playing football without fans is weird. It’s more like scrimmages, really, where two teams meet up at someone’s facility and you practice against each other with nobody out there. It’s going to be interesting [without fans]. Are they going to pump in crowd noise? Is it just going to be dead silent? You’re going to hear us talking to each other, and is that the most interesting thing for TV? I don’t think so. With that said, at the end of the day, I think we all just want to play football in the safest way while still keeping ourselves and our families and relatives safe and not exposed. We’re living in a time [where we don’t have answers], so I guess everyone’s trying to figure out the best way possible to go about it without really having a game plan.” While the NFL might not have everything figured out in this constantly evolving time, Carr seems to have his strategy in place and his act together. The off-season gave him time to recharge and prepare himself fully for whatever comes, with a renewed desire to go, fight and, more importantly, win.

“These last six years have flown by, and at the same time, been as slow as possible,” says the Raiders quarterback. “I think [what this time period] has done is allowed me to take a breath. It was nice to have a little breather to where I could get my work in and work my tail off, but on my terms; nice as a veteran player to be able to have that off-season and just be close with my family, see them every morning. I haven’t had an off-season like that since ever, so it was refreshing. But now I’m just ready to play football. It’s time to go out there, put the pads on and see what happens.” 

Derek Carr
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DEREK CARR HAS ALWAYS PLAYED FOOTBALL, AND HE’S ALWAYS BEEN REALLY, REALLY GOOD AT IT — WHICH MOST PEOPLE would consider to be a really, really good thing … until there was one who didn’t.

His journey of gridiron greatness saw him move from his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., to Sugar Land, Texas, when his eldest brother David — now a sports analyst — was drafted by the Houston Texans, giving Derek the opportunity to shine brightly under the Friday night lights as a 10,000-strong crowd cheered him on. Which is no mean feat: In Texas, football is like religion. And during college, at California’s Fresno State, he was admired and revered. But when a gorgeous blonde waitress wrong-numbered him because he played football, he was at a loss. How could the odds not be in his favor now? So, with his typical grace, perseverance, and assurance, Carr set about winning the girl who wanted nothing to do with him. And then he married her.

“I met [my wife] Heather one of my first years in college, while she was waitressing at this chain pizzeria, BJ’s Brewhouse,” he recounts. “I had never been nervous to talk to a girl before in my life. This was the first time where I had this weird feeling in my stomach. I was like, ‘What is that? What is going on?’ And so when I finally talked to her I asked for her number, and she ends up giving me the wrong number! I found out it was because she wanted nothing to do with a football player. She said, ‘I was attracted to you, I wanted to be with you, but I wanted nothing to do with the whole football thing.’ I immediately fell even more in love. [Initially] I guess part of my ego was hurt, so I had to go back in and try and win her, because I knew she was special. I went back in the next day because she didn’t answer my texts and I said, ‘You call me when you’re ready, because I’m going to wait for you.’ She ended up calling me, we went on one date and then from there on out, I guess we both kind of knew we were going to get married.”

And once they knew, they literally couldn’t wait. On June 29, 2012, just one year after they started dating, they tied the knot. He was still technically a college sophomore at the time. What’s more, before he started his senior year, Heather had given birth to their first child.
The logistics of figuring out a wife, kid, classes and football is mind-boggling. A typical senior year is for grinding, but there’s also a pretty substantial socializing element, being it’s the last year before the real world sets in. But for Derek Carr, reality set in early, and he not only managed to score a wife and baby, but became a two-time All-America selection as both a junior and senior; a two-time Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year (the third in league history to win the award in back-to-back seasons); winner of the 2013 Sammy Baugh Award, which goes to the nation’s top passer; and the national leader in 2013 in total offense (5,199), total passing yards (5,082), passing yards per game (390.9), passing touchdowns (50) completions per game (34.85), touchdowns responsible for (52), total points responsible for (302) and points responsible for per game (24.2) as well.

On top of it all, his son, Dallas, was born with intestinal malrotation, an abnormality that occurs when a baby’s intestines don’t form a coil in the abdomen. He needed three surgeries to survive and spent a month in the NICU, but today, at 7, Dallas is completely healthy. “Not only is it hard having a child in college when you have no money and are trying to figure [life] out, but [my son almost died],” Carr recalls. “I remember being in the emergency room at Valley Children’s Hospital in Fresno, just terrified to be a dad. I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know if my son is going to make it. It’s this whole chaotic scene; it was so nerve-wracking, but we held on to our faith, and were given this blessing.”. [To pay it forward, he and Heather founded DC4KIDS as a thank you to the hospital who saved his child’s life. The non-profit helps Valley Children’s network meet the needs of over 1.3 million children who live in their 12-county service area. He and brother David also own Carr Elite in Bakersfield, a community-driven effort to “give kids in our area an opportunity and a place to come that we didn’t have, so hopefully they can achieve the things we’ve achieved and achieve more than we’ve achieved.”]

Outside of Dallas’ sickness, the only thing Carr found difficult about his situation is that others thought it was strange. “That last year in college was weird because everyone was like, ‘You have a kid and you’re in college,’” he says. “But to me, I always wanted to start having kids and get married. I wanted to be a young dad. When [Dallas] graduated from high school, I wanted to be around 40.”

He’ll definitely have the young dad thing down for his ever-expanding brood. In addition to his eldest son, he and Heather are parents to sons Deker, 4, and Deakon, 15 months (all variations of the name “Derek” as he didn’t want a junior; “Derek” is also Dallas’ middle name) with another on the way. Daughter Brooklyn Mae is due in December.

The most important lesson he’s teaching all of his kids, bar none, is to have faith — and we do mean this in the most literal sense. Christianity trickles into every aspect in his life. We have no trouble at all believing he’s given sermons in the past because of what he says next. “I’ve lived without my faith and I’ve lived with it,” he explains. “Life can give you highs and lows as we all know, and if you don’t have a foundation to stand on to say, ‘This is who I am,’ then you’ll get tossed with the waves and blown with the wind. I’ve learned that in my own life. And that’s the most important thing I can teach my kids, because the way I love people that I don’t even know, the way I love my family, the way that I treat others — it all stems from my faith and what I believe in, how we’re supposed to act and how I believe in God. Once I lived a different way, where I was very selfish, self-centered, egotistical and just all about me and I saw where that led me. Ever since, I’ve lived a different way, I’ve believed a different way, and I’ve seen where that has led me, so I’m going to try my best to make sure my kids love people the way that I’ve learned to love them.”

We can’t imagine when Derek would have had time to go through a bad boy stage, but he assures us he did indeed have one. “I’ve always been very nice, but I had a spurt where I was like a little rebel, going through high school and my first year in college,” he says. “Really, it was up until I met Heather. I was going down a path that to say the least was really not good. As I look back on it, that I didn’t screw everything up, because there were many times that I almost did. Now I thank the Lord that I’m even where I’m at today, because there were some situations, some phone calls that could have went one of two ways, and which worked out for me, so I’m thankful for that. But ever since I met Heather, she’s helped me get my thinking right. She has helped shape me and helped me become the man I am today. I knew the Lord had put her in my life for a reason.”

The irony is not lost on him — nor is the amusement factor — that someone so pious is living in a place most commonly referred to as “Sin City.”

“[Initially] I was like, ‘If I had to choose, I don’t know if that would have been the place,’ you know?” he muses. “But I consider this home now. I just love this place. I have a way that I live, I have a way that I’m a teach my kids, but I don’t judge anybody [for what they do here]. I’m not over here, throwing bibles at people’s foreheads, trying to make them listen to me.”

The only thing he’ll be tossing in Las Vegas is pigskin, thank you very much. He’d rather be enjoying his new home and all it has to offer — although, he admits, that hasn’t been much yet. He moved to Las Vegas early this year, but his exploration of the city was curtailed by the coronavirus quarantine in March. Nonetheless, Carr is very much looking forward to taking his kids out to more shows, referring to the city as a surprisingly “family-oriented, community-driven town” and taking his wife on copious romantic date nights in one of his fleet of luxury cars. [He has a Rolls-Royce Wraith, which he admits having “driven through an In-N-Out Burger drive-through” in the past; a Ferrari 488 Pista; BMW M8; and a Ford Raptor. He also recently purchased a sexy new Porsche 911 992 Turbo S, which isn’t even officially out yet.]

“I do have a problem with cars, but it’s the one thing that I actually spend money on,” he acknowledges “I mean, I’ll wear the same clothes for literally 10 years in a row. I still have Fresno State shorts I still wear and they’re falling apart, but all that kind of stuff doesn’t matter to me. My wife picks my clothes out, but when it comes to cars, I do enjoy those, but I’m not hooked to them so bad where I can’t live without them. I’ll probably take [the Rolls-Royce] out once a week — maybe not even that — but something about knowing it’s in the garage is a good feeling.”
But the best feeling? That would be taking care of his family. Their happiness makes him feel complete. “My dad always provided for us,” Carr recalls. “We didn’t have much growing up, but he never let us know that. It’d be football season, and I’d be like, ‘Dad, can I get a new pair of cleats?’ And he’d be like, ‘Absolutely.’ I never knew where money even came from, that he’d work another extra eight hours of overtime just to make sure he could pay for it. So for me, no matter what I did — whether I played football, was preaching, was coaching, was a trainer — whatever I was going to do, I was going to work my tail off to make sure I provided for my family.”

Should the coronavirus decimate the 2020-2021 season, he has a backup plan in place to ensure he’s supporting those he loves the most. A loose one, but a plan nevertheless, that indulges one of his three favorite pastimes (which are, for the record, golf, playing video games and driving beautiful cars). “If we [didn’t] have a season,” he says, “[I’d] still obviously be doing my training for football — that comes first — but I [would] also get better at golf and start competing that way [in pro/am tournaments]. It’s not on the forefront of my mind, but if we [didn’t] have a season [I would need] to have to compete at something or else I’d go crazy; I pretty much always feel the need to compete. [Plus] if I can make some money and help my family out, that’s what I’m going to do. Taking care of them is the most important thing. So it’s not like, ‘Oh football is not happening, I get to go play a different sport.’ It’s like, ‘No, football is not happening — I need to figure out a way to get paid to help my family.’

That,” he declares, “is the biggest luxury in life — my family, my wife and kids. Having those cars, being able to go on a boat, having a nice home or nice clothes, all that stuff is fine and I appreciate it. But I could live in a cardboard box and if I had my family, I’d feel like the richest man in the world. Making sure they’re healthy, protected and safe, that is a luxury that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

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