Each time I think of Ka’Deem Carey entering the NFL draft, I think of an old black-and-white photograph Art Luppino pulled from his wallet to show me.
“That’s me on Mount Lemmon, about 1955,” Luppino said. “I was literally on top of the world.”
Luppino looked like a movie star. Blond hair. Big smile. With his T-shirt off, he was sculpted. Luppino was probably the fastest runner in college football, and surely the most elusive. He led the NCAA in rushing in 1954 and 1955.
Tucson had never seen a football player like the Cactus Comet, not even native son Fred W. Enke, who sacrificed his final two years of UA eligibility in 1948 to become a starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles.
A year or so after seeing Luppino’s on-top-of-the-world photograph, we were playing golf at Tucson Country Club. Suddenly, he fell to the ground and grabbed his knee.
“Help me straighten this thing out,” he said. “It pops in and out on me.”
And for the next few minutes, in the middle of the fairway, the Cactus Comet lay prone, stretching his aching knee.
On the first day of Luppino’s senior season at Arizona, in August 1956, his right knee was torn up. One hit. Boom. Given the medical technology of the era, he limped through the season, gaining a mere 327 yards.
The Washington Redskins invited him to training camp a year later. Luppino failed the physical. His football career was over. He was 22.
Carey turned 21 the day before Halloween, about the time he knocked Luppino from virtually every rushing and scoring category in the Arizona record books. Carey went from star to legend. Team Ka’Deem was born. The only debate became whether he should return for his senior season or enter the 2014 NFL draft.
On Monday, I asked David Adams, Arizona’s superb 1986 All-Pac-10 tailback, what advice he would give to Carey.
“It’s time for him to go,” said Adams, a Sunnyside High School grad and a business entrepreneur who played for the Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts. “It’s not about education at this point; it’s about putting yourself in position to make as much money as possible.”
Isn’t that what Carey is doing? Putting himself in a position for a life-long payday?
I asked Pat Nugent, Carey’s first head coach at Canyon del Oro High School, how he would counsel his former All-State tailback.
“He’s got nothing to prove in college football,” said Nugent. “He’s gotta go to the NFL. He can’t come back to Arizona and take another 300 hits, or carry 40 times a game. I hope for his family, and for him, he goes.”
And so he did. Ka’Deem Carey is now a former Wildcat, entering the real world the way Amphitheater High School’s Mario Bates did almost 20 years ago today.
Bates held a press conference to announce he was leaving Arizona State after three seasons; he had gained 1,111 yards as a junior and was a first-team All-Pac-10 tailback.
“For once I wanted to do something I wanted to do,” said Bates, who admitted he found himself listening to outside forces and got caught up in the Big Numbers.
“I thought my name would carry me, which it didn’t. I thought my name would get me 100 yards, which it didn’t. I was too wrapped up in the Heisman talk. Too wrapped up in the media.”
Mario Bates left ASU and was drafted in the second round, No. 44 overall. The difference between Bates and Carey is that Bates didn’t want football to be his identity.
Even Bates’ Tucson-based agent/attorney, Burt Kinerk, would give his client pep talks, telling him that the NFL chews up and spits out those who don’t go at it with 100 percent commitment.
“Ka’Deem plays with more of an I-have-something-to-prove attitude,” says Adams. “Mario was bigger and faster than Ka’Deem, but to him the NFL was more of something he just liked to do. Their mentalities are different; Ka’Deem is going to be more like this is what I wanna do.”
Bates was a full-time NFL starter just once, at New Orleans in 1995, gaining 951 yards. He was able to hang on for seven years before his body gave out, earning an estimated $3.5 million.
He was out of football when he was 27.
Is leaving college the right move for Carey any more than it was for Mario Bates 20 years ago?
The UA would’ve intensified its Team Ka’Deem campaign. The school would’ve instituted a Heisman Trophy awareness operation and, had he remained healthy, Carey probably would’ve been a finalist at the 2014 Heisman ceremony.
But Carey is a year older than most of those from his high school class of 2011, which in football years, makes him a senior. It was ironic to see him posing at last week’s Walter Camp ceremonies with former ASU safety David Fulcher, now the Walter Camp Alumni President.
Fulcher left ASU a year early, in 1987, intent on getting his pro career started before he suffered the fate of his brother, former Arizona quarterback Mark Fulcher.
In 1980, Mark Fulcher appeared to be an NFL-bound quarterback, taking charge at Arizona before mangling his knee in a victory at Cal. Fulcher had surgery and lost his edge; he ultimately quit school in the middle of his junior season.
In football, the odometer is always clicking.
“One thing you’ve got to remember about Ka’Deem,” says Adams, “is that now he’s going to get paid every time he carries the ball. At Arizona, you don’t get a nickel. It’s ridiculous how the system is. Everybody’s making money but you.”
Team Ka’Deem has left the station. The meter is running.