An interview with Mark Carrier
The most feared man on the Tampa Bay Buccaneer roster in the late 1980’s stood barely 6 feet tall and weighed 185 lbs. A relatively unknown receiver out of tiny Nicholls State (Louisiana), this 3rd round draft choice’s work ethic, quiet demeanor and high level of production made him a fan favorite and a Buccaneer legend. More than twenty years later, the Buccaneers are still looking for another Mark Carrier.
Recently, Bucpower caught up with Mark Carrier and spoke with him about his memorable playing career and the work he is doing with the youth of Tampa Bay.
Mark Carrier came to the Buccaneers with little in the way of fanfare. A column in the St. Petersburg Times portrayed the selection of the Nicholls State product as questionable at best, with some scouting organizations projecting him as a ninth round draft choice. The main knock against Carrier was that at Nicholls State he wasn’t exposed to top-flight competition. More than 20 years later Carrier is still mystified by those opinions.
“I’ve said this before to a number of guys that have played at that level (Division I-AA),” Carrier explained. “When you are talking about the skill positions, receivers, backs, defensive backs, often times we are very, very similar skill wise. In my case, like a lot of people who have played at that level then went on to play pro ball, it wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough to play Division I, it’s that I came from a school that graduated just 91 people.
That’s almost two classes in high school now. So schools like Nicholls State were able to get those jewels so to speak. The greatest wide receiver to ever play, Jerry Rice, played at that level (Mississippi Valley State).”
Motivated to show he belonged in the NFL, Carrier first had to overcome the awe of being drafted and taking part in an infamous training camp. “It was a shock because it was not like I grew up anticipating going to the pros,” a humble Carrier recalls. “There was nobody in the small town where I grew up that had done that. It was a true blessing that I was able to make it a career.”
Before his career started, Carrier and the rest of the class of 1987 were introduced to their first NFL training camp by new Buccaneer coach Ray Perkins. Perkins, eager to discard the remnants of the Leeman Bennett regime, instituted a three-a-day practice schedule. While some pundits scoffed, Perkins’ plan did succeed in changing the mindset of the team. No longer a group of pushovers; the Buccaneers were a hardened if raw team of hungry young players in 1987.
“It wasn’t what I thought the NFL was, I can tell you that,” Carrier says of his initial training camp. “Growing up watching the NFL on television, growing up in Louisiana watching the Saints and their interviews on television, you didn’t see that level of work so it was a culture shock for me. I didn’t anticipate the work as it was. That was a rarity because not every NFL ball club did that (three-a-days).”
“I think Coach Perkins had a plan and his plan was to start everything fresh and see who wanted to play and work through it and wean some people out. It was tough, it was really, really tough. But I realized then that once I made it through my rookie year training camp everything else was going to be a lot easier.”
The 1987 Bucs were known for a series of late-game collapses, and it has been debated if the strenuous training camp was the culprit. Carrier thinks too much has been made of the effects of the camp and points out the entire NFL got a reluctant four week “bye” after Week Two. “You have to understand that my rookie year we had the strike,” Carrier said. “It came right after training camp. Everybody was tired at the end of training camp, but we had the opportunity once the strike came to in essence regain ourselves and rest a little bit.”
If the team was tired, they didn’t show it in the season opener, a 48-10 beat down of the Atlanta Falcons. Carrier caught his first NFL touchdown in that contest, a two-yard pass from Steve DeBerg. But then Carrier and the rest of his teammates walked away in solidarity with the union.
At first glance it would appear Carrier would have been unduly hurt by the strike. As a third round draft choice, Carrier didn’t command a large salary or signing bonus. However, Carrier displayed a maturity and work ethic that illustrated all the lessons he had learned as a boy from his mother.
“To be quite honest, I grew up raised by my mom and I watched her,” Carrier said. “I saw her W-2 at the end of the year and she made roughly $11,000 a year. You never would have known that because we never did without. You can’t miss something you don’t have.”
“So, when I came into the NFL and I was able to receive the money I did, the first thing I did was put it away because I didn’t have use for it. So, when the strike came, even though we were missing paychecks, I wasn’t concerned because my money was set aside and I was able to withstand anything. I think that was instilled in me as a young person from my mom. That is what has enabled me to be away from the game as long as I have.”
When asked if he resented the replacement players, Carrier was honest about his conflicted state. “Well, you did but you didn’t because there was mixed emotions. Some of those guys that came in were guys that were in training camp with you and were released a week or two into camp. There were a lot of mixed emotions, because you have to understand where they are coming from because they want the opportunity to play. But at the same time, this is my job and someone is taking my job.”
Fortunately, the strike ended in plenty of time for Carrier to establish himself as an elite receiver. In a December contest at the Superdome against the team of his youth Carrier had a coming out party. Snagging eight passes from first-time starter Vinny Testaverde, Carrier totaled 212 yards and a touchdown. The performance set a record that still stands and Carrier looks back on that game as one of the highlights of his career.
“That was probably one of my best games. It was a rookie record, but it is still a Buccaneer record. It was just right to be against the Saints in New Orleans. Growing up watching the Saints and thinking of possibly going pro and hoping to play in New Orleans, it was my opportunity to showcase myself at home for family members who didn’t get a chance to see me play often.”
Carrier followed up his rookie year with a solid sophomore season. Teamed up with Bruce Hill and Vinny Testaverde, Carrier was part of one of the more prolific passing games in the NFL. Granted Vinny had a stunning 35 interceptions in 1988, but he also passed for more than 3,200 yards with Hill topping the 1,000 yard plateau and Carrier not too far behind (970). Lost in the sands of time is the fact that Ray Perkins was the coordinator of Air Coryell in San Diego and helped mold Phil Simms while with the New York Giants. Perkins may have not had much success in Tampa Bay, but the man did know passing.
When asked if the Bucs felt they had a potent offense, Carrier said they did. Unfortunately, he believes that Perkins had to bring in so many new players they never got the chance to jell.
“I actually thought we did (have a dangerous offense). I think the biggest thing that caused us not to be as successful as we could have been was when Coach Perkins came in he brought a lot of new guys and there was a lot of re-building. Throughout his entire time there, there was constant re-building.”
“With a lot of young guys playing, the experience factor wasn’t there and time just ran out on that. I guess as an overall team we never matured quickly enough. Individually, I think we had some guys that had outstanding games and seasons, but weren’t seen as well as others because of the overall record.”
One of those teammates was his friend on the team, defensive back Ricky Reynolds. “Ricky Reynolds had an outstanding career but never received the accolades like the others because if you only win two, three or four games a season, you don’t get the opportunity to play in the post-season.”
To be continued...
Denis Crawford, August 2009