After long wait Carson finally headed to Hall of Fame

Updated: August 4, 2006, 2:39 PM ET
Associated Press

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Harry Carson was considered by many the fiercest foe and the best teammate.

A chiseled athlete who combined speed, great instincts and unsurpassed vision in the middle of the field, Carson was one of the NFL's most feared linebackers in the 1970s and '80s with the New York Giants.

"Harry was also the guy you wanted to be your next-door neighbor, whether you were playing with him or against," said Super Bowl MVP Ottis Anderson, who did both.

A nine-time Pro Bowl selection, a Super Bowl champion and the undeniable leader of the Giants' rise back to respectability in the 1980s, Carson will end a somewhat frustrating trip to Canton, Ohio, on Saturday when he's enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"There were guys that were faster, and there were guys that hit harder and there were guys that were stronger than him, but nobody had greater heart. People have been trying to find the formula for a great football player for years and they still can't find it. Harry Carson has it, whatever it is."
Phil McConkey, former Giants WR

A middle linebacker in the first half of his career, Carson is the first inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme elected to the Hall.

Carson nearly short-circuited the trip two years ago when he asked Hall of Fame voters not to consider him. The request came after he made the final 15 candidates for the sixth straight year, and was passed over by a committee of sports writers.

"I knew where I stood with my teammates," said Carson, who was among the final six candidates in 2003 and 2005. "I knew that I'd earned their respect over the years."

When fellow players talk about Carson, the dominant word is "respect."

"There were guys that were faster, and there were guys that hit harder and there were guys that were stronger than him, but nobody had greater heart," former Giants receiver Phil McConkey said. "People have been trying to find the formula for a great football player for years and they still can't find it. Harry Carson has it, whatever it is."

When running back Doug Kotar was diagnosed with cancer in the early 1980s, Carson gathered teammates and arranged a schedule for them to visit him in the hospital, and then set up a scholarship fund for Kotar's kids.

When quarterback Jeff Rutledge was injured in a car accident, it was Carson who made the drive to see him.

When center Jim Clack, who was only a Giants for four seasons, died earlier this year, Carson paid his respects.

"That's the kind of person that Harry Carson is," former Giants defensive tackle George Martin said.

Carson hasn't been immune from his own personal heartaches. His son, Donald, who will present him on Saturday, is battling a rare blood disorder. His daughter, Aja, has battled cervical cancer.

"In light of the situation with family, (the induction) is a nice honor," Carson said in a statement issued by the team. "But I think my priorities are a whole lot different now. It really doesn't carry the same weight that it might have years ago."

Carson didn't start playing football until he was in the ninth grade. He quit his high school team late in his senior year and he lost a scholarship at North Carolina A&T when the program ran out of money.

A high school teacher eventually took game film -- and Carson -- to South Carolina State, where he was offered a scholarship. He played four years as a defensive lineman, moving to nose tackle as a senior in 1975.

Marty Schottenheimer, then New York's linebackers coach, persuaded the team to draft him in 1976 with the 105th pick overall. The goal was to convert him to a middle linebacker.

"He had great physical skills and desire to achieve," Schottenheimer said. "He just loved football. He is a guy that could just go and make plays."

Despite Carson's personal success, the Giants struggled. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, then a Giants assistant, recalled coach Ray Perkins after a big loss in an 0-4 start, asking how many players had fun?

"I remember Harry was the only person who put his hand up," Belichick said. "He said, 'I did. I love to play football.'

"And I remember Perkins saying, 'Damn it, that's the way everybody should feel. I mean, sometimes you can't do anything about the score or the situation, but you should love to play the game and play hard and put your heart into it."'

Carson's ability to take on offensive linemen made New York tough against the run and allowed Lawrence Taylor to roam with reckless abandon.

"He wasn't flashy like Lawrence Taylor and didn't grab the headlines," Giants center Bart Oates said. "He was the guy in the middle who did his job exceptionally well, and he inspired other guys to do their jobs well."

Anderson, when he was with the Cardinals, said it was frightening playing against Carson, who would stand outside the huddle during timeouts with his big cage mask and neck brace and try to make eye contact.

"I had big games against the Giants," Anderson said. "But I would look where Harry was lined up and go the other way."

But Carson wasn't perfect at everything. He was miserable on coin tosses.

"I sent him out there for a hundred coin tosses, I bet you he didn't win 20," Parcells quipped at a news conference the Giants held in New York. The event was yet another indication of the respect Carson still gets from his former coaches and teammates.

Not only did Parcells make the trip in from Dallas less than a week before the opening of the Cowboys' training camp, but Belichick came in from New England and Schottenheimer made the trip from San Diego. Taylor and about a dozen other former teammates also showed up along with Willie Jeffries, Carson's coach at South Carolina State.

Jeffries may have summed their feelings best.

"It's easy for me when your best player is your best person," he said.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press