T.J. Carter thought hew was being pranked. It had to be some sort of sick joke. After all, why would he sign an NFL contract, only to be cut before arriving to rookie mini-camp? It made absolutely no sense, sort of like a lot of things in 2020.
“Obviously, last year was very weird.” That’s one way to put it, Mr. Carter.
The former UK defensive lineman was preparing for his pro day when the world shut down in March of 2020. Uncertain of what would happen next, Carter continued to work as if he was playing for an NFL roster spot.
“Nobody really knew what was goin to happen with Covid and how it was going to play out. Definitely was crazy. We were still training, trying to stay in shape for pro day because we didn’t know until like a week out that they were going to cancel it,” Carter told reporters this week. “It was definitely weird being in limbo, not really knowing what was going on. I wish we had it. It definitely would’ve helped us out.”
Once it was canceled, his opportunity to work out in front of NFL scouts was taken away. His resume was his collegiate film, that’s it. Even though he did not have the scouting combine drills or in-person interviews at his disposal, Carter did have 71 tackles, 12.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks, five pass breakups and 10 QB hurries over 28 starts in 50 career games at Kentucky. It was more than enough for the Arizona Cardinals to take a chance and sign Carter as an undrafted free agent. He was one step closer to reaching his NFL dream, but that joy would not last for long.
“Going into camp, I got cut my first week there,” he recalled. “They cut down the roster size by ten people because if they didn’t, then they’d have to work out with two separate groups. That definitely was crazy. I didn’t even believe it when they told me. I thought it was a joke or something.”
Carter was cut because of Covid protocols. Stunned, shocked, Carter could have quit. A Cardinals’ coach told him to pray on his purpose. The defensive lineman responded without hesitation. “I already prayed about it. It’s football.”
Unable to play over the last year, Carter used old Cardinals’ workouts to remain in shape. He kept grinding until his opportunity came to shine at Wednesday’s 2021 edition of UK Pro Day.
“He deserved an opportunity,” said head coach Mark Stoops. “TJ did not have that a year ago because of Covid and so it was really good to give him that opportunity today. He’s been working really hard. I know he’s been close with some teams that are looking at him. Hopefully he caught some eyes out there today.”
Carter performed well enough to earn a second look from NFL teams, completing 26 bench press reps and cracking the 5-second threshold in the 40-yard dash. Coronavirus forced T.J. Carter to take a much longer road to the NFL.
“It’s definitely a want-to thing. It’s a mind over matter thing,” Carter said. “To get through that, it’s perseverance and sticking to your goal. If you see a goal in your mind, you just gotta keep having tunnel vision and keep working for it.”
It has not been easy, but T.J. Carter’s NFL dream finally feels within reach.