COSTA MESA, Calif. — Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver DeAndre Carter stood in front of a crowd that gazed at him with excitement.
“When I grow up I want to be a professional football player,” Carter read from an essay, before adding a line of his own.
“Crazy thing,” he said. “Me too!”
A student wrote the essay at Mayo Elementary School in Compton, where Chargers players spent part of a recent off day surprising 150 second and third-graders with bicycles.
When Carter united with the student who wrote the essay, the 29-year-old Carter and a student danced the “Griddy,” while wearing two smiles that infected the entire school auditorium and proved to be a challenging moment in determining who was enjoying it more — Carter or the student.
The auditorium was a much different arena than the one Carter typically stands in the center of on NFL game days, but one that felt incredibly familiar.
An undrafted free agent out of Sacramento State in 2015, Carter bounced around NFL practice squads for a season before being cut by the New England Patriots ahead of the 2016 season.
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No one picked him up — except Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Hayward, California, where he spent early mornings and evenings working out to continue his pursuit of a professional football career, but spent daytime hours as a substitute teacher.
“I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world,” Carter said.
The Chargers are 10-6 as they prepare to play the Denver Broncos in a regular-season finale before continuing onto the NFL postseason for the first time since 2018.
A fifth-year journeyman, Carter signed a one-year, $1.14 million contract with the Bolts over the offseason, a big raise over the $150 a day he made as a sub.
The Chargers brought Carter on as a return specialist, but he’s proven throughout the season to provide much more.
“He’s a coach’s dream,” head coach Brandon Staley said. “He is such a hard worker. He’s so unselfish. He does so many different things from a role standpoint.”
A sometimes overlooked but key component of the Chargers’ return to the postseason has been a turnaround on special teams, including the punt-return unit.
The Bolts are averaging 11.19 yards per punt return, fourth in the NFL and a team-best over the last 20 years. Over the last three years, the Bolts averaged 5.6 yards per punt return — the worst in the league.
Carter’s 11.19 average yards per punt return ranks fourth in the NFL.
“He is a decisive returner,” Staley said. “The impact of 10 yards is big. Those hidden yards in a game add up.”
“He’s creating a lot of great field position,” wide receiver Keenan Allen said. “That’s big-time for us.”
Carter also proved himself as a dependable role player on offense as quarterback Justin Herbert navigated significant injuries to wide receivers Allen and Mike Williams, who did not play a complete game together until Week 14.
“As soon as he stepped in here, we knew we had a special guy,” Herbert said. “I’m not sure how much he was used at his prior place, but he came here and has such a good feel for sitting down in coverage, beating man coverage … he stepped up big-time.”
Carter has put together a career-best season with 43 catches for 495 yards and three touchdowns.
“I’ve been on [an] up and down journey throughout the league and you kind of get to a place where you feel like you get an opportunity to contribute on a regular basis and have a real role on a team,” Carter said. “It’s been fun. I’m having the most fun I’ve had in the football season in the NFL for sure.”
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi called Carter a “fix-it” guy because of his ability to play all four wide receiver spots at a moment’s notice.
“As you look back at all of the players you have coached, he will be one of the favourites,” Lombardi said. “Tough, competitive and just a guy you can trust to go out there and get the job done.”
Get the job done, no matter what the job is.
That Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, Carter wasn’t a substitute teacher who would roll in a movie cart and wait for the bell to ring. He taught lesson plans and continued working after class was over. And if no substitute was needed for the day or period, he would still show up.
“If I didn’t have a class, I would just like to walk around and check on individual kids and stuff like that,” Carter said. “It was cool just being able to be around the kids, be somebody that — I mean, it was a rough area. So being able to be somebody that they felt comfortable to come and talk to and kind of lean on was pretty cool for me.”
Carter, who grins when confirming that he once was “Mr. Carter” to students, taught every subject from math to history and English. He helped with the after-school tutoring program and also helped kids learn how to work out.
Eddie Smith, a former coach and mentor of Carter’s who is the head counselor at the school and encouraged Carter to become a substitute, said kids especially took to him because he was young — 23 years old at the time and engaging, but most importantly because he set an example of graduating from college and earned an opportunity in the NFL.
“It was really pretty awesome seeing what DeAndre did for those kids,” Smith said. “But that’s just him. He’s built that way. He wants to and continuously gives back.”
Despite the uncertainty that surrounded his NFL goals, Carter thinks back fondly of the time, knowing as much as he tried to help students, that students — likely unknown to them – helped him, too.
“Mentally, like in my own personal life, it definitely was a tough time not knowing, obviously I wanted to keep playing football, like not knowing if I was going to get another opportunity or if I was going to be able to play in the NFL again,” said Carter, who was given an opportunity the following season by the San Francisco 49ers and has been in the league since. “The kids helped me get through it… in the grand scheme of things, it was one of the brighter spots in my life.”