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HOW TO BLOW A $37-MILLION NFL JACKPOT WITH ONE DEADLY JOYRIDE
It wasn’t enough for Jalen Carter to savor national titles at Georgia and rate as the NFL’s top prospect — he had to race his SUV against another, which may have led to the crash that left two dead
So, was it worth it? Rather than enjoying the greatest moment of his young life and the NFL riches awaiting him, Jalen Carter decided to go racing in the streets. Instead of focusing on the league scouting combine in Indianapolis, he entered a 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk into his version of the Indy 500, a would-be thrill ride to a Waffle House after a night at a strip club.
If only he’d headed home after the parade and joyful stadium ceremony that celebrated Georgia’s latest national championship. If only he’d considered his future football life in, say, Chicago, where the Bears weren’t hiding a desire to trade down from their top perch in next month’s draft and take him fourth. If so, a game-wrecking defensive tackle was looking at a rookie contract projected at $36.6 million, including a $23.8 million signing bonus.
Now he’s looking at a fraction of those amounts — if not a criminal record — his life in limbo after a Jan. 15 drag race exceeding 100 mph left a university football staff member and a teammate dead. Carter was driving one of three vehicles that left Toppers International Showbar in downtown Athens at around 2:30 a.m., six days after the Bulldogs routed TCU in the title game. Police said Carter and recruiting staffer Chandler LeCroy — whose blood alcohol level was .197, more than twice the state’s legal limit — literally were vying for reckless pole position on Barnett Shoals Road as LeCroy steered a 2021 Ford Expedition. They passed other cars, switched from lane to lane and drove distances in opposite lanes and the center turn lane, endangering themselves and others in an idiotic joyride. The convoy was headed to a wee-hours meal at a fast-food dive three miles from the strip club.
They never made it, a senseless crash killing LeCroy, 24, and a passenger in her vehicle, offensive lineman Devin Willock, 20. “Alcohol impairment, racing, reckless driving and speed” were a deadly combination, police said. At first, Carter denied involvement, telling police he heard the wreck at an apartment complex almost a mile away. Then he changed his story, admitting he was at the crash scene — confirmed by documents and 911 recordings — and that he’d driven his high-powered vehicle behind and beside LeCroy’s vehicle. If guilty of lying, in the context of contributing to a fatal accident, Carter at the very least becomes an unhireable commodity in the draft’s upper reaches.
In a much larger picture, his foolishness will haunt him the rest of his life. In a statement, Carter vowed to “make certain that the complete and accurate truth is presented,” adding, “There is no question in my mind that when all of the facts are known that I will be fully exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing.” He already has been convicted, regardless of the decision in a case involving misdemeanors, in the court of NFL caution and sensibility.
Wednesday, as he began auditions in Indiana for executives and coaches from the 32 teams, Carter was charged with reckless driving and racing. With franchise-changing financial investments at stake, his standing as the draft’s No. 1 prospect might free-fall toward the middle half of the first round or much farther — depending on the outcome of the case, his interviews with teams and the sweet-talking talents of agent Drew Rosenhaus. In this day and age, when the NFL dominates America’s attention span and entertainment economy, teams don’t have patience with the public-relations fallout of an avoidable tragedy, much less the continuing risk of a 21-year-old’s immaturity. As it was, Carter had a recent history of speeding and entitlement when it came to cars. During fall semester, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he was cited three times for traffic violations — one for parking in a handicapped zone near the school’s athletic complex, another for driving 89 in a 45 mph zone west of downtown, another for failing to obey a traffic-control device on campus.
The officer who ticketed Carter for speeding, J. Lewis, told Carter, “Your break is not going to jail. That’s your break. It’d make all kinds of news.”
His mercy might have cost two people their lives. By giving Carter a break, the officer enabled a speed racer who, yeah, has made all kinds of news since. Was Carter drinking? The Athens-Clarke County coroner, Sonny Wilson, ordered a toxicology test only for LeCroy, believing no other drivers were involved in the crash. The question should be answered easily enough by studying surveillance tapes of Carter at the strip joint. While they’re at it, NFL teams should look into other concerns, such as the people he associates with and his reluctance to play with a high motor on every snap.
All in all, he’s blowing his future. If he slides to, say, No. 12 in the first round, the $36.6 million shrinks to a projected $18.9 million. If he slides to No. 22, the amount is $14.9 million. If he slides to No. 32, where Kansas City and Andy Reid sit with a reputation for taking chances, the number is $12.3 million. A free fall into the second round reduces the total amount, three picks in, to $9.7 million. That’s quite an expensive price for a waffle and hash browns.
Didn’t we just take a similar path down Irresponsible Highway? Twice in the last week, future multi-millionaires at Southern college sports factories have been involved in disturbing legal cases, with Alabama basketball star and potential top-three NBA lottery pick Brandon Miller alleged to have provided a gun used in a Tuscaloosa murder. Unlike Miller, Carter has been charged with crimes, forcing NFL teams to reassemble draft boards and the Bears to adjust sights to edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. Or will they? Are they doomed to be burned by Carter’s legal mess, which might limit their trading options?
Before arrest warrants were issued in Athens, general manager Ryan Poles was publicly leaning toward keeping incumbent quarterback Justin Fields and gambling he’ll become more than a one-dimensional track star. That would have allowed Poles to trade the No. 1 overall pick for a haul of assets including draft choices. It was believed he would select Carter at No. 4 after a trade with the Indianapolis Colts, who would move up to draft quarterback Bryce Young despite extreme size deficiencies. But, oh, how things have changed.
If Arizona keeps the No. 3 pick and wants Anderson, the Houston Texans would be positioned at No. 2 to take their choice of quarterbacks, Young or C.J. Stroud — who, unlike Young, can see over the windshield of his car. Stroud also threw four touchdown passes against Georgia in a national semifinal. At No. 4, the Colts still could take the quarterback that falls to them. So, if the Bears want Anderson badly, they might have to take him at No. 1, meaning they’d miss out on the trade haul. Or, might this twist — the likelihood the Bears will pass on Carter — make Poles reconsider whether to trade Fields and draft Young or Stroud with the first pick? NFL franchises spend substantial sums on security initiatives and considerable time on vetting procedures. No team is zeroed in on Carter’s case more than the Bears. “I’ve been in this league long enough that some curveball’s going to pop up,” Poles said Tuesday, the day before Carter was charged. “And we’re going to have to adapt and adjust to it.”
The sports world at-large is left to ponder a more troubling question. What in the name of Herschel Walker is going on in Athens? Did Kirby Smart, hailed in recent weeks as the new Nick Saban atop college football’s next dynasty, stop overseeing his program after his second title trophy was in the case? Shouldn’t he have warned his players, including a top NFL prospect such as Carter, that prosperity often is followed by trouble in young people’s lives? Shouldn’t the strip joint have been the last destination after a day of euphoria?
“The charges announced today are deeply concerning, especially as we are still struggling to cope with the devastating loss of two beloved members of our community," Smart said in a statement. "We will continue to cooperate fully with the authorities while supporting these families and assessing what we can learn from this horrible tragedy."
This comes weeks after Stetson Bennett’s fairy tale ended in a 6:15 a.m. arrest for public intoxication. Revered for his legendary perseverance — he overcame derision by Smart, playing-time slights and a transfer to a Mississippi community college before returning to win back-to-back championships — Bennett is in Indianapolis asking NFL teams for another chance after Dallas police observed him wandering around a gated apartment complex. He said he was looking for a friend who lived nearby but didn’t have a cell phone to call the friend. Police said they found him hiding behind a brick wall. Would you trust Bennett even as a second-day pick at quarterback?
The photo of the mangled wreckage in Athens is sickening. Jalen Carter should be required to stare at it every day the rest of his life. He’ll argue he didn’t cause the accident, but he cannot claim he wasn’t racing. Let this be a lesson to those who seek thrill rides behind the wheel of a machine, on roads where 1.35 million people are killed worldwide each year.
Go home. Play a video game. On the screen, drive as fast as you want.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.