Posted: 3:10 p.m.
The Bengals selected Ki-Jana Carter with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 NFL Draft. (Getty Images)
"This time of year, sure, I think about it," says Carter, as always pleasant, honest and no CC of bitterness. "I hear them talk about me sometimes, but who knows what would have happened?"
It was like a sudden Vegas wedding uniting Carter, the Penn State running back and consensus best player in the draft, with the NFL's worst team. It was bold, daring, risky, fun and, in the end, heartbreak.
Carter, now a year older than his No. 32 jersey, spent 44 of his 80 games in Cincinnati on injured reserve, had just one 100-yard game, and 1,114 yards in his career. Or less than Rudi Johnson had in 2006 going into the last two games.
"I like watching Rudi," says Carter of the man that now wears his jersey. "That one year he and Corey (Dillon) were in the backfield together, he was good, and he really stepped up when Corey went to New England. Their offense is stacked. With Carson (Palmer) they've got the power to come up with big play at any time."
If it sounds like Carter is a fan, he is. Even when he was grinding through the final three years and 24 games of a journeyman's career in Washington and New Orleans, he would watch the Bengals if they were on before or after he played.
Even now, nearly three seasons out of the game as he secretly harbors hopes of an improbable comeback at the home he built in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he keeps an eye on them. Even though the only guys left from his star-crossed days here are pretty much only running backs coach Jim Anderson, right tackle Willie Anderson, trainer Paul Sparling and the man who pulled the trade, president Mike Brown.
Oh, and offensive line coach Paul Alexander, the man that got a phone message from one of his cohorts in the NFL moments after the pick that said, "Congratulations, you just got the best offensive lineman in the draft."
Brown had to be congratulated, too. Not only is it the first and only time he ever moved up in the draft, the secret stayed private for nearly 48 hours, or until just a few hours before NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped to the lectern in New York.
"That never could have happened today; never with all the technology," says Carter, suddenly sounding old school. "The media just wasn't as big as it is today. I didn't find out the trade was finalized until we were on our way over to the draft in New York."
It was the best poker hand Brown ever played. The year before at the annual draft eve dinner hosted by the late Cincinnati attorney and Bengals fanatic John Lloyd, the selection of Ohio State defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson was such an open secret that there was a life-sized cutout poster of Big Daddy.
Someone had the good sense to bring it to Riverfront Stadium the next day, and after Brown announced the pick the cameras recorded him pulling out his wallet with a smile and extending a $1 bill to the paper tiger.
Of course, many argue the poster would have been better against the run. But in '95 the Bengals needed someone to run the ball for emerging long-ball threat Jeff Blake after two straight seasons of no 100-yard rushing games.
Brown gave no hint at Lloyd's '95 draft dinner that he already had a deal with Panthers general manager Bill Polian to give Carolina the fifth and 36th picks in exchange for the expansion team's top pick.
"A trade was being talked about because it was still on the table," says Jerry Jones, the draft analyst who attended the dinner. "But like I told someone associated with the team, 'If they do, it's for Ki-Jana or (USC tackle Tony) Boselli, but they'll never do it because they never have.'"
"We thought he was a special player," says Brown and, yes, he does wonder 'what if.'
The Bengals were set with the fifth pick to take defensive end Kevin Carter, now 2.5 sacks from becoming the 22nd man to reach 100. And they still could have got the franchise running back in the second round because they were poised to take Pittsburgh's Curtis Martin. The future Hall of Famer didn't go until the third round and the Patriots' 74th pick.
"Two pretty good players; you'll never know," says Brown, who insists he didn't engineer the trade to get the public behind a new stadium project, a popular conspiracy theory at the time. "The stadium was never a factor when it came to players."
The rest, as they say is history. Carter arrived a little heavy but looked sharp on his first two carries of his career in the preseason in Detroit. When Lions defensive tackle Robert Porcher broke into the backfield on the third carry, Carter cut the other way on the Silverdome's AstroTurf and the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee exploded.
"I'd made that move a thousand times," Carter says. "He came across my face and I tried to get away. I wish they had that stuff everyone plays on now, FieldTurf. I may not have had two of those injuries."
Although Jones argued for the Bengals to draft Boselli as the successor to left tackle Anthony Muñoz, still three years shy of Hall of Fame induction, he defends the Carter pick.
"He's one of those guys that was a consensus No.1," Jones says. "If they didn't take him, somebody would have before the fifth pick. You can't rip them for taking a guy everyone wanted."
Carter came back to miss only one game in the 1996 and 1997 seasons and while he split time with Garrison Hearst in 1996 and a rookie Dillon in 1997, he did become a goal-line threat with 15 touchdowns in two of the three best seasons between Sam Wyche and Marvin Lewis of 8-8 and 7-9.
Although he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in '96 and 3.5 in '97, Carter insisted his knee didn't feel any differently.
But he had just four games left in his Bengals career. After his sixth catch of the 1998 opener, he braced his fall to the Riverfront turf and suffered a shattered wrist that shelved him for the year.
In 1999 on grass in Carolina in the third game of the year he incredibly suffered another season-ending injury to the other knee when he dislocated his kneecap on his last snap as a Bengal.
"Just unbelievable bad luck," Sparling says. "That wrist injury was devastating. It was so bad it was similar to the ones people suffer when they're in a car accident. And there were fans cheering when he got hurt. That was the tough thing. It hurt him. It hurt us. But they didn't know him like we knew him. He tried to come back every time. He did his best. A great guy. They didn't understand. It was bad luck."
Naturally, Carter says the Cincinnati fans were good to him and the Columbus product always liked the idea of staying in Ohio.
"They would get on me for not going to Ohio State and going to Penn State, but they were great fans," Carter says. "They were sweating it out, but they were always enthusiastic. The thing about it is I didn't get hurt in practice or doing something stupid off the field. I always got hurt in games trying to help the team win.
"And they were injuries that kept me out the whole year," he says. "I could never really get the chance to get into the rhythm of the offense."
When the Bengals released Carter before the 2000 season, he understood. He had to have another surgery and they needed bodies. He has never been in PBS, but from TV he says, "It's a beautiful stadium."
"They did everything they could. What more could they have done?" he asks. "Paul and everybody spent a lot of time rehabbing me."
After sitting out 2000, he averaged nearly five yards per his 63 carries with the 2001 Redskins but couldn't get a job in '02 before ending in 10 games with the '03-04 Saints. The kid once at the top of the football world never minded the most menial jobs in the game.
"I liked playing. I still want to play, really. Of course, I still think I can. I haven't signed any (retirement) papers yet," Carter says. "It was never about the money. I kept playing because I loved it. It's what I've done since I was a kid. The injuries have helped me deal with not playing because I've had to sit out before."
Carter could have packed it in after '00. He admits he's uncomfortable in the sense that he doesn't have a salary coming in, but that doesn't mean he's not comfortable. He reminds you between his then-record signing bonus of $7.1 million and his salary, he took home about $8 million in '95.
"Yeah, I've been pretty frugal. I've still got some of it," he says. "I've been pretty lucky with some of the business investments I've made and some of the people I've met."
Carter, still single, doesn't want to get specific about the business ventures he's pondering full-time. He's dabbled in broadcasting some college ball and he's been on Miami radio often, but his only consistent gig has been charity golf tournaments. He plays whenever he can and has become pretty good.
"A lot of guys live down here and in the offseason there is probably 10 to 15 of them," he says. "I'm enjoying it. I'm having fun. Things are going well."
No what-ifs or maybes. His favorite Bengals moments are clear. His first NFL touchdown, a 31-yard run at Riverfront on Sept. 15, 1996 in a 30-15 win over the Saints and the ensuing ritual of handing his mother the ball in the stands. Kathy Carter, who raised him alone as much as a big sister as a mother, lives close to her son more than a decade after "I retired her" from her hair salon.
And a not so trivia note for him: Carter and Boomer Esiason actually played together in that 4-1 finish of '97.
"That's a guy I grew up watching," Carter says. "He had that winning aura around him. He could joke and be funny, but when it was time to get serious, he could do it and win. That was a fun time."
Yes, Carter will watch a bit of the draft this weekend, and he hears that LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell could be No. 1 to Oakland. He offers some advice when asked.
"Keep your head up no matter what happens," Carter says. "There'll be tough times. Don't get down. Listen to those you trust and the people that care about you."
Like '95, he may stick around only for the first couple of picks.
"Come on man, something like from 11 to 8 or something?" he says. "Too long for me."