SHREVEPORT, Louisiana—Signs your grand plans have gone slightly askew:
You toke your way out of a job as quarterback of America's Team, shepherded from Dallas Cowboys training camp by the notorious Bishop Terry Hornbuckle.
You file a "wrongful termination" grievance against the Cowboys which, when you lose, makes nary a ripple of news.
One week into a comeback attempt in Canada, you are unceremoniously cut by the Montreal Alouettes.
On an early December morning you are arrested for possession of marijuana, only to sit in jail for 12 hours before being bailed out by a columnist exploiting you as a radio bit.
In the first game of your next—and last—attempted resurrection, you throw six touchdowns for a rinky-dink outfit called the Bossier-Shreveport BattleWings and collect your paycheck: $200 base, $50 bonus for winning.
"You can't believe it?" Carter says last Saturday night in CenturyTel Center. "Trust me, I can't believe it."
Since getting dismissed by the Cowboys in the summer of 2004, Lavonya Quintelle Carter's life has gone to shit. And, arguably worse, Shreveport.
"I kick myself almost every day," Carter says thoughtfully while peeling off his sweaty, black-and-green BattleWings uniform. "I was quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, about as high-profile as you can get. And I'd love to have that back, I won't deny that. But I can't get that back."
Instead of sold-out NFL stadiums and national TV audiences, Carter toils in the modest arena alongside the Red River just down the street from a nest of casinos. For BattleWings' games the parking is free, admission is $8 and attendance—with the upper deck curtained off to create the illusion of a crowd—sometimes tops 3,000.
Like you, Carter wonders how the hell he got here.
"I made some bad decisions, did some stupid things," he says. "I can only point the finger at myself and try to move on. But it's hard being patient. I've got to realize I can't get three years back in one day."
Just like that, Carter went from riding in limos to washing them.
His fall from grace reads like a man slipping down the trunk of tree, grasping for safety only to have the branches whack him in the crotch each painful rung into despair. While Michael Irvin somehow parlayed his drug abuse into street cred, sympathy and even Canton, Carter's sentenced him to insignificance.
"If I'd never picked up pot I'd still be playing for the Cowboys," says Carter, who in Dallas routinely quoted Bible verses during interviews. "I have to live with that."
With a five-year, $4 million contract and endorsements from owner Jerry Jones and coach Bill Parcells, Carter started all 16 games and led the Cowboys to a 10-6 playoff berth in '03. But six days into '04 training camp, he flunked a drug test and was released, comforted in part by the reprehensible Hornbuckle.
Carter filed a grievance against the Cowboys, claiming he was wrongfully released. Last month the NFL Players Association lost the case on his behalf.
"Isn't that funny?" Carter says with a seemingly unbefitting laugh. "Look at how it went down. And somehow I lost? I don't know, man, it's just funny. God tells us to forgive and I'm doing my best, but what the Cowboys did to me...it's tough to swallow."
Says Jones, "Although Quincy's time in Dallas did not result in the type of success that we all had hoped for, we wish him nothing but the best in his pursuit of a new opportunity in professional football."
After a short stint with the New York Jets, skipping the '05 season and the humbling release north of the border last spring, Carter crashed into rock bottom December 15.
Called to Shady Grove Road in Irving around 5:30 a.m., police found Carter "throwing things around" and arrested him for possessing less than two ounces of pot, a Class B misdemeanor. He sat in jail until 5 p.m., when Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist and ESPN 103.3 FM radio host Randy Galloway paid his $500 bail. Upon his release, Carter, apparently without money or transportation, hitched a ride home with a KDFW-Channel 4 van.
"It started as radio-show bullshit," Galloway says. "But it turned into a legitimately sad story. The former quarterback of the Cowboys had no money and no friends, at Christmas? That's a pretty fast downward spiral."
With charges pending, Carter says only of the incident, "Let's just say the police didn't handle things the right way."
Worse, when Carter called Galloway the next day he was snubbed.
"He called, but I said no thanks," Galloway says. "You know your life's not going well if I have to bail you out of jail. I just didn't want to talk to him. I wanted him to move on and get his life turned around."
Fortunately, at the very base of the tree trunk, the BattleWings were willing to listen.
Claiming he's been drug-free for nearly four months, Carter plans to use Arena2—a developmental minor league to the AFL—as a one-year stepping stone back to the CFL and, ultimately, the NFL.
But before he can play Broadway again, Quincy has to perfect Bossier.
Fittingly, on an Easter Eve sprinkled with snow, Carter looks ridiculously out of place in the quaint building about the size of a concession stand in the Cowboys' new $1 billion baby. The joint is sponsored by Shoney's, has all the ambience of a nursing home knitting hour and boasts a grainy black-and-white scoreboard video screen not unlike the set your old man used to watch The Honeymooners. The game is 8 on 8, the 50-yard field is surrounded by padded walls and the referee constantly stops play to yell "Please turn down the music!"
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Instead of his old No. 17, Quincy wears No. 8 ("I'm trying to put the 1 and 7 back together again," he explains.) He wears a yellow Livestrong bracelet, talks with that familiar lisp and carries the weight of a crappy franchise that has never made the playoffs and last year lost a game 72-3 in Tulsa.
Despite the pressure, Carter performs. Matched against former Texas Tech quarterback Cody Hodges, Carter leads the BattleWings to a 67-52 victory over the Fort Wayne Fusion with 20 of 29 passing for 237 yards, countless points to the sky, a couple of enthusiastic towel waves and the first, tiny steps toward salvaging a career.
"I'm not kidding myself. I know the talent level drops off, and it's not 11 on 11," says Carter, 29. "But this is my last chance. No doubt in my mind I will be back in the NFL."
Just not in Dallas.