Nov. 2, 2012
By Ben Taylor, Illinois Sports Information
It wasn't supposed to end this way, not for Andrew Carter. A four-star offensive line prospect who seemed to always have a smile on his face. A Massachusetts kid by way of Florida who fell in love with the University of Illinois. A hard worker who picked the brains of veteran team members on everything from football to life lessons.
Ever since he moved to Champaign, Carter hadn't been able to hear as well as he used to. Sounds were muffled, like Charlie Brown's teacher in the old Peanuts episodes on television.
People around him noticed. He seemed to always be talking loudly; almost yelling even when he was working closely with an academic counselor or tutor. But it wasn't the sort of thing you bring up in polite conversation.
After the Illini's 38-14 win over Baylor in the 2010 Texas Bowl, Carter returned home to Tallahassee, Florida.
"I told my parents `Look, something's wrong,'" Carter said. "'It's been a year-and-a-half and it's still happening.' So we went to six doctors within a week-and-a-half to figure it out because nobody could tell us why. One doctor said `Let's do an MRI with contrast. There's a two percent chance you have this,' but he wouldn't even tell me what `it' was, just that he wanted to rule it out. The next day, I got a call saying `You have a very large acoustic neuroma on your right side.' That was the two percent chance. The average age of people who get it is 55 years old and I was 19, just about to turn 20."
According to the Mayo Clinc, "Acoustic neuroma is a benign and usually slow-growing tumor that develops on the main nerve leading from your inner ear to your brain. Because branches of this nerve directly influence your balance and hearing, pressure from an acoustic neuroma can cause hearing loss, ringing in your ear and unsteadiness."
Still dealing with the shock of the diagnosis, Carter kept the news to himself as he returned to Illinois for the Spring 2011 semester. He and his family met with a specialist during spring break of that year and underwent surgery to remove the tumor after final exams ended.
He spent most of the summer recovering and undergoing physical therapy to regain his balance, which was affected because of the location of the tumor in relation to his brain. But the desire to suit up for the Illini still burned within Carter.
Despite his health issues, Carter went through 2011 spring practice with the team and was listed second on the depth chart at strong-side guard behind senior Jack Cornell heading into the summer.
But when Carter returned to Champaign a week before Camp Rantoul was scheduled to begin in August, his visit with the team physician revealed a truth he hadn't expected. He was told that because of the surgery, he would be wise to end his football career.
"The team doctor told me `I don't want you to play football any more," Carter said. "'If you get hit on that side of your head, you could die or have severe headaches the rest of your life, and we don't want that for you.' I talked it over with my family and it was pretty easy when he mentioned that I could die out there, that it might be time to hang it up and focus on my life instead of football."
So Carter began his life after football. But he quickly realized how much he missed the game.
"My girlfriend is from Wheaton, Ill., and I went up there for three weeks (while the team was at Camp Rantoul)," Carter said. "It was the hardest three weeks of my life, just sitting in her house doing nothing while all my friends were practicing and playing the game that I love."
He stayed involved with the team a bit, helping an hour or two each week in the weight room, but he could hardly stomach being on the other side. It was supposed to be him out there, getting playing time in a couple of early blow-outs and possibly earning more as the season progressed.
"All this stuff happened and it made it kind of hard because I knew that I was going to play," Carter said. "I saw guys younger than me playing for the first time. My roommate, Jake Feldmeyer, played his first game when I was standing in the stands. I was very excited for him but it was kind of hard for me because I knew that I should be right next to him playing guard in that game."
On top of the emotional pain, there was physical pain, too. Carter started getting headaches - once or twice a day, but very intense.
"Most people would probably take off work for the headaches I was having, but I was getting through school and all my other stuff during it because I just got used to the pain in my head all the time," he said.
Like the rest of the Illini players, he felt some uncertainties when the new coaching staff was named, but those fears were calmed when he spoke with offensive line coach Luke Butkus a few days into the spring semester.
"He sat me down and said `Andrew, I want you to be as involved as you want to be. You're as big a part of this program as Graham Pocic and Nate Scheelhaase and all those guys; I want you here. You're a part of my family and I want to be a part of your family because we're all Illini and we're all a family.' I said I wanted to be involved to the highest extent and he was right on board with that, and so was Coach Beckman."
But the headaches persisted for Carter, eventually forcing him to leave school in the middle of last spring's semester.
"I didn't know if I was going to be healthy enough to return at all," Carter said. That was my biggest fear when I had my surgery and when I went home: if I would ever come back.
"Because I love it here. I'm not from Illinois, I've never lived in the Midwest, but I absolutely love this campus and this team and this whole university. My biggest fear of this whole thing wasn't `Am I going to survive, am I going to have all these residual effects?' it was `Am I going to come back to Illinois and graduate from here and be a part of this family forever?'"
He was able to work with his doctor to find medications that controlled the headaches and allowed him to resume normal life. And that has allowed him to not only return to school but also to the Illini team, where he is helping as a student assistant coach with the offensive line.
At some places, events like those that have happened to Carter might push a person into the background. Off the depth chart, out of sight, out of mind. But not here, largely thanks to the coaching staff and to senior long snapper Zak Pedersen.
It was during this past spring that Pedersen got to know Obi Egekeze, who was a kicker at Maryland and friends with former Illini kicker Derek Dimke and current kicker Nick Immekus. Egekeze had come to Illinois to pursue an MBA degree and became friends with Pedersen.
He told the Illini long snapper about the Uplifting Athletes organization, where football teams across the nation adopt a rare disease that has in some way affected a member of their teams, then raise money and awareness for those diseases. It seemed like a no-brainer for Pedersen.
"The more I learned about it, the more it seemed like it was something that we should definitely do," Pedersen said. "I wanted to do something tailored around our program and the first person that came to mind was Andrew. That whole thing just worked out perfectly. He's been one of my great friends since he's been here and I think it's great that we can help people who are in his position."
Pedersen called Carter, who was at home in Florida at the time, and asked if it would be OK if the team put together a Lift for Life event, the trademark of Uplifting Athletes chapters, in his honor and to benefit the Acoustic Neuroma Association of America.
With Carter's blessing, Pedersen scheduled the event and began the fundraising process, an undertaking that proved to be a bit more difficult than he had expected.
"I didn't really know where to set our goals, but if we could just get the ball rolling here and do something to make people aware of what's going on with acoustic neuroma, that would be great," Pedersen said. "But we got a hold of a few businesses who helped us out and the Quarterback Club gave us the most generous donation of all. And we also reached out to some of the players' parents, too.
"We raised over $4,000, which was honestly more than I expected. I didn't know what to expect, but that was great. And I'm sure the Acoustic Neuroma Association of America will be very proud of it."
On Saturday, June 23, the Illini - with the help of strength and conditioning coach Aaron Hillmann and his staff - held a two-hour competition that included a variety of activities that seemed more suited for ESPN's World Strongest Man than for a college football team.
"There was all kinds of stuff. You had the tire pull and the tire flip, the shoulder press, the log hang clean and bench press, the farmer's walk and the sled push," Pedersen said. "Something tailored to everybody's ability. You might have a guy on the team who doesn't bench the most but maybe he has diesel forearms and can walk the farmer's walk super fast. So no matter what position you are, you can contribute to the team in some way."
Carter also helped at the event, counting repetitions at one of the events. He also met a local woman whose 23-year-old son had been diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma just a few days earlier.
"She heard of the event and came out, and I talked to her and exchanged emails with her afterward just to help her and her son get through this because I know how they feel about the whole situation," Carter said. "I came into the event thinking that if I help one person, I will be happy with this because I didn't know anything about (acoustic neuroma); my parents didn't have anybody to go to."
The event also reminded Carter that he was still a part of the Illini football family.
"It was really touching because all of the guys on the team said something when they got to my station that they were proud that I was back and happy I was there," Carter said. "And they were more than willing to raise money for acoustic neuroma."
This fall, Carter has moved into a new role, that of a coach. He helps Butkus with the offensive line, watching film, preparing scouting reports and assisting with other tasks. And he plans to work with the team next year, too, as he finishes his degree in communication in December 2013.
And while it hasn't turned out exactly how Carter would have planned his college career, he has been able to return to the university and the team he fell in love with. And it's even helped him find a potential future career.
"I've always wanted to be a high school coach," Carter said. "I don't know if I could do the college level; that's a lot of traveling and being away from your family. All I ever wanted to do growing up was be a father and a husband. So I think high school coaching would definitely be in my realm."