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Ja’Tyre Carter’s rise to the NFL was sparked by an unexpected change of heart

The former Southern University offensive lineman had hoop dreams growing up, but was convinced by his high school coach to pursue a career in football

Ja’Tyre Carter could hardly hear Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles when the phone call came April 30 on the third day of the NFL draft, but he knew from the deafening screams behind him that good news was on the receiving end.

After having high anxiety while watching each subsequent round pass without his name being called, Carter was able to take a deep breath. He became the fourth historically Black college and university (HBCU) player selected in this year’s draft when the Bears took him with the 226th pick in the seventh round.

“It was funny because when they [Poles] were saying their name, my family was screaming so loud, I couldn’t hear,” Carter said during his first media availability with the Bears. “All I heard was, ‘How does it feel to be a Chicago Bear?’ And I was like, ‘I’m ready, let’s get to it.’ ”

Carter was ecstatic that a team fell in love with him during the draft process, and knew the decision to focus on football years earlier had paid off.

But the 6-foot-3, 311-pounder’s first love wasn’t playing with a pigskin on the gridiron, nor was it protecting a quarterback’s blindside. He instead had an early passion for shooting hoops.

“[My family] talks about it every day. They be like, ‘Man, you used to love basketball. Now look at you, about to go to the NFL,’ ” Carter said. “We joke about it but they’re proud of me.”

Carter was a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan growing up and still has a Kobe Bryant poster hanging on his bedroom wall at home. He fully embraced Bryant’s Mamba mentality, which he credits for shaping his work ethic.

“Kobe was my favorite player,” he said. “That’s where I got my work ethic from, watching him. Growing up watching LA and seeing how hard he worked and stuff like that. I just want to be the best at anything I do. I was only thinking about the NBA draft. I said I was about to work my tail off in this gym, get faster, get smaller and work on the game of basketball to get drafted to the NBA. I was thinking about the NBA draft. I ain’t know anything about the NFL draft.”

Carter hails from White Castle, Louisiana, a town of roughly 1,700 people and a 40-minute drive from Baton Rouge. He attended White Castle High School and led the team to a 1A basketball title his senior year, and was named MVP of the championship game. Carter averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds and was named first-team all-district, all-metro and all-state. Then 6-foot-2 and nearly 260 pounds, Carter was a big, skilled guard who could take opponents off the dribble and the strength to finish in the paint.

Ja’Tyre Carter led his White Castle High School team to the 1A boys basketball state championship during his senior year.

Ja’Tyre Carter/Twitter

One of his few Division I basketball offers came from Saint Peter’s, which made a deep run to the Elite Eight in this year’s NCAA tournament. Carter laughed at the possibility of playing collegiate basketball. That dream now lives in a past life, the one before his high school football coach Quentin Payne chased him down the hallway during his junior year.

“[Payne] kept asking me every time he saw me in the hallway to come play football. He kept asking me every day,” Carter said. “So I go out there and I’m playing. I’m like, ‘I’m not going to be out here for real. I’m just here so I can skip conditioning for basketball.’ I’m just a big kid out there playing football. At the time, I didn’t like touching weights. I enjoyed [football] a little bit, but I was just passing time until basketball season.

“My senior year came and I was getting noticed for football, but I really wasn’t doing nothing. I had bigger offers in football so it was gonna be a hard decision because I like basketball.”

While still clinging to his NBA dreams, Payne believed Carter was a sure thing for the NFL.

“He certainly gives me a lot of credit for it, but he just was a pro athlete,” Payne said. “Ja’Tyre was a great basketball player. I watched him in the gym during a basketball practice. I just remember when he would touch people, they would move and it just seemed like he wasn’t even trying to move them. He had no idea that basketball was not his calling. I told him [for basketball], you’re a guard. If God blesses you and you grow some more, go that way. You got it right now to play football, you can make millions of dollars doing this.”

Payne wasn’t wrong.

Although Carter was still a novice on the football field, his athleticism was undeniable and captured the attention of Alcorn State and Southern. Recruiters saw his potential, affirming what Payne already knew.

Carter bought into the idea and at the end of his senior year announced on Twitter: “I want to thank all the coaches that offered me for basketball and gave me the opportunity to play for them, but I have had a change of heart and want to pursue my career in football. Reason being, that I have a higher percentage of going pro.”

“Just to see him grow into it was just confirmation of what we already knew,” Payne said. “So I guess it’s thankfulness and appreciation that he listened.”

When then-Southern offensive line coach Chennis Berry saw Carter at a Friday Night Lights Camp, he recruited Carter as a future offensive lineman, a position different from playing tight end and defensive end in high school. His reason for throwing Carter into the trenches was none other than the fact that Carter was an athletic guy with thin ankles, two characteristics Berry believes every great offensive lineman possesses. Pointing out the similarities between football and basketball defenses helped Carter get adjusted to the new position.

“I look for athletic ability. I want to see skill set, guys with thin ankles, guys that have great feet and they can bend,” said Berry, now the coach at Benedict College.

“One of the main things I loved about Ja’Tyre early on in the process was he had little ankles, an athletic basketball player and he was twitching. I looked at pass protection for him because that’s the first thing he was gonna excel at because he was a former basketball player. … Your objective is to be twitchy, stay in front of the guy in front of him and move your feet. That’s one of the things he excels [at] very well.”

Carter redshirted his freshman year at Southern to learn the position and gain weight. He slowly outgrew his aversion to the weight room and spent most of his collegiate career there, increasing his weight from 260 to 311 pounds from his freshman to graduate senior year of college.

“Just getting that small-school stigma, it just made me play with a chip on my shoulder. I go the extra mile because everything I do is under a microscope. So I have to go 10 times harder than that dude at LSU or Alabama.”

— Chicago Bears rookie offensive lineman Ja’Tyre Carter

“I’m playing offensive line and I’ve never played it in my life,” Carter said. “So I got myself better. I was in the weight room. I wanted to get stronger because I didn’t touch weights in high school and had to get way stronger. I was in the weight room day in and day out. First one [in] and last one out, trying to get stronger.”

Carter was a starter on Southern’s offensive line his sophomore year, transitioning from scoring touchdowns in high school to blocking for his quarterback. While the duties of an offensive lineman aren’t the flashiest, Carter found himself enjoying his new role.

“When a quarterback gets hit, that’s when people notice the line, but the quarterback throws a touchdown they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, the quarterback did that … not the O-line,’ ” Carter said, laughing. “It’s what you make out of it. We don’t get accolades right now. You out there blocking, nobody will see it, but putting a man on his back is fun.”

He didn’t give up a sack and only allowed three quarterback pressures during his senior season at Southern. Carter attracted the attention of NFL scouts and was one of four HBCU players invited to the NFL combine, a moment to show he could compete against the nation’s top prospects.

“Just getting that small-school stigma, it just made me play with a chip on my shoulder. I go the extra mile because everything I do is under a microscope. So I have to go 10 times harder than that dude at LSU or Alabama,” Carter said. “It just made me go even harder than what they will go for. I had to play fast. I had to play more aggressive, more dominant, just to get noticed because I’m at a smaller school.”

During one-on-one battles between offensive and defensive linemen, Carter lined up against Oklahoma’s Perrion Winfrey, which captured the attention of Bears area scout Breck Ackley. 

Ackley was a former kicker for Southern University and left the school in 2006 as the all-time leading scorer. He spent time at his alma mater getting to know Carter throughout the course of Carter’s playing career, but the Senior Bowl performance is what left a lasting impression on Ackley.

“I’m kind of back there standing by the goalposts like, ‘Oh, here we go, right, baptism by fire.’ He gave a little ground [and] kind of sat on it. When he came out of the rep he almost barked back a little,” Ackley said of Carter. “It’s almost like he himself realized, ‘I can hang.’ Then after that, every other rep he battled and held his own.

“He wasn’t stressed. When you’re watching a lineman, a lot of times if they’re playing better players, you’ll see a guy that gets athletically strained and it looks a little different than his normal conference game. You didn’t see that with [Carter]. He handled him well. I thought he played his game well, and you didn’t see any bad beats, which for a lineman you want to see consistency in his play.”

A month later, when scouts left powerhouse LSU’s pro day, many drove down the street to Southern’s campus to watch Carter in person. He didn’t disappoint them.

Ja’Tyre Carter impressed scouts with his speed and agility during Southern University’s pro day.

Tre’Von Ware/Southern

He had a 5.02 40-yard dash time, impressive for a 300-pounder. His agility numbers added to the awe when he posted a 34.5-inch vertical leap and a 9-foot-3 broad jump. His record pro day was no surprise for Dawson Odums, who coached Carter for four years at Southern before heading to Norfolk State.

“I thought he was as advertised. He’s earned it. All he did was take his gifts and the platform that was given to him and he showcased it week in and week out to me,” Odums said. “He could have went into the portal, [but] he stayed, and look at the benefits. I think right now players will be trying to go to HBCUs because the publicity is there. The NFL is putting the emphasis on HBCUs. I commend him for staying [at] Southern and finishing what he started. Now look at what he’s positioned himself to be.”

Last season, the Bears finished third in the NFC North at 6-11 and gave up a league-leading 58 sacks. Poles spent much of the draft adding extra protection for young quarterback Justin Fields. Carter is one of four linemen drafted by the Bears, and despite spending most of his collegiate career at the tackle position, he’s expected to move to the interior as a guard. The transition has been a work in process for Carter, but he has no preference on where he lines up. He just wants to play.

“[I’ve gotten] better at guard. I’ve been practicing more so the teams [would] want to have me all over the line. I’m just trying to be versatile so I will be in the league longer and be more of a help, because you never know who could go down or what could happen,” said Carter. “I can be that swing person that could play any position [on the offensive] line. Just put me somewhere and I’m gon’ play.”

After the Bears’ rookie minicamp, Carter is looking forward to learning from the coaches and veterans on the team, but his most important mission is to make the final roster and become a starter ahead of his rookie season.

“They have me [as] a backup, but I’m going to go in and try to go start. I’m going to try to take the spot,” Carter said. “I’m very competitive. So when it comes to sports, I want to be the No. 1 person.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."