Carter shows a flash of greatness

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kathy Carter was trying to beat the traffic. With two minutes to play in the first half, she began to weave her way through the crowd in the direction of the blue-level lounge.

Then, like all great running backs, Ki-Jana Carter's mom recognized a reason to reverse her field. Her peripheral vision picked up on her son ''skipping'' at the other end of Cinergy Field, and she knew this was tantamount to a touchdown. She decided her halftime refreshments would have to wait.

Good thing, too, for Ki-Jana Carter never really stopped running after he finally reached the end zone Sunday afternoon. He jogged back toward the bench, waving his arms, exhorting the crowd, and then continued along the sideline until he found his family's section of seats in the opposite corner of the stadium. There, the Bengals' ballyhooed running back bestowed the ball on the woman who gave him birth.

Now then, wasn't that tender scene worth the wait?

Ki-Jana Carter is not yet what the Bengals once imagined him to be, but he has at last delivered an intriguing preview of coming attractions. On a first-and-10 off-tackle play, Carter got his first big piece of professional daylight, and suddenly there was sunshine all over the place.

He went 31 yards for a touchdown, untouched by human hands, or the New Orleans Saints. He gave the Bengals a 17-6 lead in their ultimate 30-15 victory and, more than that, a reason to believe.

''As an offense, in general, it was a relief,'' Carter said later, at his crowded dressing stall. ''We haven't had a rushing touchdown and our rushing offense wasn't doing too good. Sooner or later, I had to come in and make a big play.

''Everybody had hyped me coming into the season: 'He's a game breaker.' But I really hadn't done it in the preseason or the first few games. I think there will be a chain reaction. They (Bengal linemen) know when I get a crack, what I can do.''

Truth be told, a hippopotamus with a pulled hamstring might have made it through Carter's cavernous hole Sunday afternoon. Yet there was a tantalizing burst of speed in that touchdown run.

Carter's rushing totals for the day were unremarkable - 63 yards on 19 carries - but they represented a quantum leap from the quagmire he has found himself in this fall. Carter has totaled 90 yards on 40 carries in his first three professional games. This works out to 2.25 yards per try, or roughly half the going rate for top-flight running backs.

''I think you're going to see more,'' he said Sunday. ''It's just like when you give a dog a biscuit. You give him one, you're just teasing him. He wants another one. That's how it was with me. I got that score and I want to get in again.''

Wanting won't make it so, but each time Carter turns a crack into a touchdown, it should motivate his blockers to do better. It should lead to more man-to-man coverage on Jeff Blake's receivers. It should work to all Bengals' benefit.

''We all know what Ki-Jana can do and has done in the past,'' Blake said Sunday. ''Today, he played a balanced running back game, and that's what you've got to do. We're not asking Ki-Jana to go out and run for 200 yards and score three or four touchdowns.''

Eventually, those things may happen. The Ki-Jana Carter who played at Penn State was a back of infinite possibilities. If he is less than that now, after knee surgery and a year's layoff, it is too soon to say he will be unable to regain greatness. Typically, rehabilitated running backs require at least one shakedown season before they find their old footing.

''You've just got to be patient,'' Carter said. ''I learned that throughout college. I knew sooner or later it was going to happen, but I didn't know when. I'm just happy I finally busted a long one . . . It's a big monkey off my back.''

Carter continued to talk until he was the last player left in the dressing room. Ultimately his mother came looking for him, toting her game ball, gleaming with parental pride. Kathy Carter was much relieved by her son's performance and greatly pleased that she had not been able to beat the crowd to the concession stand.

''I thought the half was about ready to end and I looked back and he was skipping,'' she said. ''I said, 'Oh-oh, he must be in there.' ''

Henceforth, Kathy Carter will think twice about her halftime errands. Her son should keep her on the edge of her seat.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Sept. 16, 1996.