By GEOFF HOBSON
Running back Ki-Jana Carter doesn't want to quit just yet. Just hours removed from another knee surgery, Carter said today he expects to return in time for the start of training camp and vows to repay his teammates and people of Cincinnati for their support.
He knows the way his contract is structured it would be quite easy for the Bengals to cut him after June 1. But it sounds like he wants to return to the town that never blinked in booing him.
"No. 1, I want to do it for myself because I haven't done the things I wanted to do in the league,'' said Carter, after he finished his first rehab session in Birmingham, Ala., following arthroscopic surgery on his dislocated kneecap.
"No. 2, I want to do it for (Bengals President) Mike Brown,'' Carter said. "He's invested a lot of time and money in me. No. 3, I want to do it for my teammates because I still think I can help this team. And No. 4, I want to do it for the people (in Cincinnati) even though I've gotten some flak, and I guess I can understand some of it, but a lot of people have supported me.''
Carter's continued optimism and grace amaze most, particularly Brown. It was Brown who traded up on the morning of Draft Day 1995 to make Carter the draft's overall No. 1 pick. Since that day, Carter has had more season-ending injuries in August and September (3) than 100-yard games (1). Brown called him Wednesday, a day after the surgery, and just shook his head.
"I admire him. I really do,'' Brown said. "I've seen guys never come back after getting hurt once, but I've never seen a guy go through what he's gone through. He's kept his spirits remarkably. When I talked to him, it was like he might usually talk. But he had to be in some pain.''
Actually, Carter felt little pain today. He's always looking for positive signs and this is one because he's usually stiff and sore after surgery. But he was able to do some leg lifts and he was pumped up because his medical people were telling him it looks like rehab will take eight weeks.
Carter figures that puts him at about July 1, making the start of training camp three weeks later a very real shot. But the team is being more conservative, saying the middle of training camp at the earliest.
"When it was first reported it said it was career-ending and I don't know how they could say that,'' Carter said. "It's a scope. I should be back in two months. I'm not going to get down, discouraged. There's a lot of other people doing a lot worse than me.''
That big, uncertain cloud hanging over the running back position is probably going to delay the Bengals' decision concerning Carter. That record $7 million signing bonus from 1995 that prevented the Bengals from cutting him isn't so big now. If they cut him after June 1, they will eat just $1 million.
But can they cut him? Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon says he'll sit out the first 10 games. Michael Basnight and Brandon Bennett have had big games in the NFL, but only one each. Oddly, Carter's biggest battle for a roster spot may come from a fellow Columbus, Ohio prep product in Curtis Keaton.
Keaton, the club's fourth-round draft pick from James Madison, has a Carter poster hanging on his bedroom wall. The title is "Fire in the Hole.' But Carter is looking to douse flames instead of start them.
"I want to keep it positive. I'm not going to think about things like that,'' Carter said. "I'm going to get healthy, show them what I can do and if they like what they see we'll go from there.''