The ultimate irony of Chris Carson is that the very quality that made him an epic Seahawk is the same one that almost certainly contributed to the end of his NFL career.
Namely, the sheer physicality that first captured Pete Carroll’s affection when watching film of Oklahoma State. It sometimes seemed Carson was just as interested in inflicting damage to the would-be tackler as in gaining yards – just the sort of attack mentality that Carroll had been seeking in a Seahawks running back since the master, Marshawn Lynch, had sent Beast Mode into retirement.
And so Carroll crossed his fingers and hoped Carson would still be there in the seventh round, and celebrated when he was – the fifth-from-the-last pick in the entire 2017 draft, No. 249 out of 253. Twenty-eight running backs were taken ahead of him, fueling Carson’s desire to show he belonged right with the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon. And for a glorious stretch, in 2018 and 2019, when Carson rushed for 2,381 yards and 16 touchdowns, he moved into their echelon.
From that humble beginning, Carson forged a career that was a monument of over-achievement, yet almost pre-destined to have a premature ending. It came on Tuesday when the Seahawks released Carson, just 27, after he was unable to pass their physical as the result of a lingering neck injury. Not even cervical fusion surgery in November could gird him for the brutality of his position, as was foreshadowed all offseason by vague assessments from Carroll that, reading between the lines, made it highly unlikely Carson would ever play again. The re-signing of Rashaad Penny and drafting of Ken Walker III in the second round was another tacit embodiment of this inevitable conclusion.
It appears only a matter of time before Carson makes his retirement official. The Seahawks did the noble thing with their failed physical designation, as they had done before with other injured players, allowing Carson to recoup millions of dollars in injury protection benefits.
It’s an appropriate payback for the relentless effort Carson gave them in his meteoric rise to elite stature as an NFL running back. Carroll would say that the injury was perhaps the offshoot of his zealous weightlifting regimen, yet surely there was a toll to be paid for the contact he never shied away from in his five NFL seasons. The very trait that made Carson great also made him ephemeral, the ultimate paradox of his position.
Injuries always seemed to dim Carson’s prospects, dating back to high school in Lilburn, Georgia, when a torn ACL as a senior resulted in losing an offer to the University of Georgia. But such setbacks always seemed to drive him to even higher heights. Carson went instead went to Butler County Community College in Kansas and performed so well (994 yards and 7.1 yards per carry as a sophomore) that Georgia’s offer re-appeared. But Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy swooped in, bringing Barry Sanders’ Heisman Trophy for Carson to hold during a recruiting visit. Carson committed to Stillwater and had a brilliant career with the Cowboys – working around a sprained ankle and broken thumb that dimmed his draft status.
In Seattle, after beating out Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise and Eddie Lacy for the starting job as a rookie, he endured a new series of injuries – yet always seemed to come back with his tenacity intact. Not to mention an undeniable flair, as when Carson did a full flip, landed on his feet and kept running in a game against Carolina. His mom, Dina Rowe, gently admonished him not to try that again; it was too stressful for her.
After watching the rookie shine in his first training camp, Russell Wilson gushed that Carson “always seems to do the right thing.” Wilson was referring to Carson’s football instinct, but that description was apt off the field, too. When Carson signed his first (and last, it turned out) big contract, for two years and up to $14.6 million (with $5.5 million guaranteed), he used the windfall to pay off his mom’s house. She had been renting it since an electrical fire destroyed the family home in 2013 while Carson was home on a visit from college, a seminal moment in Carson’s life. Everyone got out safely, but the Carson family wound up forced to bounce around, staying with family or in hotels until they could secure new residence. That’s when Carson vowed to buy his mom a house when he was financially capable.
In Seattle, Carson persevered through a fractured leg, a groin injury and a cracked hip. But the neck injury was one that could not be overcome, no matter how diligent his rehab or how fervent his desire to run the ball again. Especially not the way Carson runs the ball, without heed to the personal toll he’s wreaking.
That may have been Carson’s ultimate undoing. But it is also his legacy, and the reason he will be remembered forever in Seattle as a running back who wrung every possible bit out of every single carry, until his body would no longer let him.