We see these players every fall wearing helmets and shoulder pads, playing varsity football and striving to win championships. We see them make tackles, sack quarterbacks, run for touchdowns and celebrate victories. But we rarely see the paths that brought them there.
Some took a smooth road, some had a bumpy ride. And then there are those who traveled well beyond the bounds of extreme, where it is virtually a miracle that a young man still could be alive, let alone play football. Meet Malcolm Cater.
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On a Saturday night in May 2008, Cater literally was running for his life. He was sprinting away from a house party that had turned ugly, away from a kid brandishing a gun. As he ran toward a wooded area in a Long Island town, there were three gunshots, followed by the sudden heat and pain in the back of his left knee.
Cater said he lay wounded in a friend's yard before an ambulance took him to a hospital. He spent three days in intensive care with his mom, Lisa, by his side. He could have been shot dead. There would have been no tomorrow.
But there are tomorrows for Malcolm Cater. He will run onto Bob McKillop Field in Riverhead wearing No. 4 on his home blue jersey Saturday when Riverhead faces West Babylon to open its defense of the Long Island Class II championship.
He will be the middle linebacker and the captain of a ferocious defense that propelled Riverhead to Long Island's first 12-0 season and the top ranking in Newsday's Large Schools poll.When his coaches talk about him, they whisper with a sense of awe. They talk about a sculpted body. They talk about his speed. They talk about how he lights up opponents with his hard-hitting style. And, they talk about how they never heard about Malcolm Cater until that day last August when former NFL player James Hill, a Riverhead product, ushered the young man into coach Leif Shay's office.
"The first day of practice, I saw this big body walk in with James Hill and the coaches were like, 'Who is this guy?' " Shay said. "He was a physical specimen."
'This guy' was living at the Timothy Hill Children's Ranch in Riverhead, having arrived as a court-ordered resident. He had been sent to the Hill Ranch to get away from the gangs.
"I was recruited at 11, 12, 13 years old," Cater said of the gangs. "Little kids get beat up for no reason on the streets, just to intimidate them into joining a gang and running drugs."
Life as a kid in a rough neighborhood wasn't easy for Cater, who recently turned 18. "You didn't walk down the street alone,'' he said, "and you didn't go out after 10 o'clock at night."
Cater said he was caught shoplifting at the age of 12.
"He was bored," his mother said. "He wasn't playing PAL football anymore and he wasn't eligible for the school team because of his grades."
Cater said he was given three years of probation by the juvenile court. He said he got into more trouble when he was involved in a few fistfights that extended his probation to five years.
And that's the road Malcolm Cater was traveling until that fateful night when the bullet ripped into the back of his knee, where it remains lodged.
"The judge sent me to the Hill Ranch," Cater said. " It's a good thing and a blessing to play football and get an education. This is a chance at having a better life."
Cater is making the most of his opportunity. The All-Long Island linebacker, a highly-sought-after college prospect, has accepted a football scholarship to play for Syracuse next year.
Shay said he had a sense that Cater could be something special the first time they went into the weight room. The 6-2, 225-pound senior linebacker can bench-press 335 pounds and squat 495.
"He's on track academically and he's just a beast on the field," Shay said. "He's the first guy in the locker room and the last one to leave. Football is his passion. He loves the physicality and he's so tough."
The toughness came through in the first week of practice in Cater's junior year.
"He told me he might miss a day to have some shrapnel removed," Shay said. "I was blown away when he said that."
It's clear that James Hill, one of the directors of THCR and a 1993 Riverhead grad who played for the Seattle Seahawks in 2000, envisioned a better life for Cater through football.
"Football is important to Malcolm, and the more we talk, the more I see how much it means to him," Hill said. "He's been open to change and moving in the right direction."
Cater's mom also sees change. She called it a 360-degree flip for her son. "We're very close and getting closer," she said. "This is the best place for him because he has a future now. There were too many distractions at home and the environment is awful. I was worried when he was out at night, but apparently not as worried as I should have been. He had a routine, I could always find him. I never thought about the gangs and those problems."
Cater faced a difficult decision last week when he turned 18, an age at which he could legally leave the Hill Ranch - and Riverhead High School.
"He's 18 years old and has the capacity to walk out and leave," said James Regan, the residential program director at the Hill Ranch. "We're all happy with his decision to stay. He was a tutor in our reading program for the elementary school kids. He was a personal trainer all summer, encouraging other boys to stay fit and take care of themselves."
Cater has learned discipline and all about hard work on the Ranch - chopping firewood, cleaning up the barn, taking care of the horses and managing his time.
"The coaching staff and the people at the Ranch have done a lot for me," Cater said. "If I didn't live here, I wouldn't be eligible to play football at Riverhead because I wouldn't have residency anymore."
Cater said he thought about leaving and going back to his mother's house. "I don't like the lockdowns [at THCR] and being stuck in my room all day,'' he said. "Someone else in the house can mess up and everyone pays the price. That makes me very angry. But my house, in the potato barn, is where everyone chills and everything is cool. So this is the right place for me before I go to Syracuse."
So on Saturday, Riverhead opens another football season and begins its defense of its Long Island Class II crown. Malcolm Cater will be right at the center of that defense. And that in itself is something to think about.