BY ADAM KLIONSKY
On a September night in Houston, a rookie quarterback named Carr took the field for the first time under primetime lights. As he started his first NFL game on one of the league's biggest stages, a future star bearing the same name sat in the crowd, took out his notebook and set to work.
That was 2002, and the young man taking mental reps from the wings was Raiders' rookie quarterback Derek Carr, the 36th overall selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. After a decade of dedication, patience and intense study, the younger brother loosens up his arm in the tunnels of O.co Coliseum as he prepares to introduce himself to the football world on national television.
Carr has been preparing for success at the professional level ever since his brother, David, paved the way as the Texans' first-overall pick in 2002. A shadow by David's side through much of his NFL career, Derek could pick apart sophisticated defenses in the film room before he even donned a college uniform.
All of that studying is part of why coaches, scouts, teammates, pundits and even casual fans have praised his poise and maturity as wholly uncharacteristic of a 23-year-old. It is also unlike a 23-year-old to take the reins of a legendary NFL franchise in Week 1, the first rookie to do so, and go on to set all of the franchise rookie-passer records in just over half a season.
If you ask Derek, however, he would say the most important maturation he underwent came off the field. When he first arrived at Fresno State, where he went on to set 27 school records including passing yards, completions and touchdowns, Carr admits his attention was divided between the football field and the social scene.
"I was doing whatever I wanted to, living however I wanted to," Carr said of his first year as a Bulldog. "I've lived selfishly in the way I've wanted to and I've lived with [my faith], and I know the difference. I've lived both ways and that's what I want people to know."
As a young man with a rocket for an arm, unique football intellect and a newly acquired status as a local celebrity, Carr was living a certain lifestyle. Then, Derek met his future wife, Heather, and her guidance helped him realize that his faith, not his arm, would be his ticket to happiness.
"My wife actually [pointed] me in the right direction," said Carr. "She just reassured me in what I believe in. I've been living that way since."
Since then, Carr has had his faith tested time and time again. In August 2013, Heather gave birth to their son, Dallas, who immediately had to undergo three surgeries to untangle his intestines and ultimately save his life. For Derek, that was the first time he learned what it truly meant to be a leader.
"You have to be completely selfless in a situation like that," said Carr. "I found out a lot about myself… I never pointed fingers or blamed anybody. As bad as the tears want to come out, you have to be tough for everybody else."
During those trying first few months with his newborn son, Carr would shuttle between the Fresno State facility and the hospital to be by his family's side. Despite his off-the-field obligations as a husband and father, Carr still managed to lead the nation in total offense, passing yards and passing touchdowns as a senior.
After an experience like that, it is no wonder why Derek chuckles each time he is asked whether the pressures of being an NFL quarterback are too much for him.
"The fact that I play quarterback for the Raiders is a blessing," said Carr, "and I want to be a great role model for all the kids and even adults out there… But I know who I am. I know where my foundation is."
A lifetime of adversity in just over 20 years has molded Carr into a man mature beyond his years and secure in his convictions. He has not forgotten, however, there is a lot more growing to do if he is to continue having success between the lines, and moments like his first start in primetime on Thursday Night Football are a great time to start.
"For us to be able to [play in primetime] is really exciting, especially having it at our place," he said. "But all these cheers are going to stop unless we complete some passes, so I've got to be focused and locked in."
Photo by Tony Gonzales
Nearing the end of his rookie campaign, Carr knows the honeymoon is over and it is now time to deliver results – and no better place than in front of his home crowd. With more than 50,000 drenched fans looking on, Carr at last gave Raider Nation the elusive first win it had been craving.
When he took the field late in the fourth quarter down by three points to the visiting Kansas City Chiefs, 80 yards stood between Carr and his first NFL victory. On the 17th play of the drive, a 9-yard touchdown strike to James Jones secured Carr's place in the record books as the only rookie in franchise history to complete either a game-winning drive or a fourth-quarter comeback.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Carr dropped to his knees in relief and celebration. His long journey to the pinnacle of the sport reached yet another landmark. Carr now knows what it feels like to win in the National Football League and he experienced it on the national stage.
That winning feeling is something he would like to experience over and over again. The young quarterback is ready to be the leader of the Silver and Black. The Thursday Night Football victory, under the lights, in primetime, is just the start for Derek Carr.