He was in the fast lane on the path to destruction. He took a detour on another road that saved his life and transformed it. And now Malcolm Cater sits at the very top of the Suffolk high school football world.
If you had mentioned his name three years ago as a prospective star, there would have been no reaction from any coach. No one knew who he was. He would have seemed the least likely to be celebrated as the county's best player.
Cater is the real-life Horatio Alger story.
Cater was playing JV as a sophomore at Wyandanch and getting into trouble off the field. He was one of those kids whose future seemed hopeless. And now he's one of those kids whose future seems limitless.
"A young, troubled boy, in a big man's body, walked into my office two years ago," Riverhead coach Leif Shay said. "He made a commitment to our program and lived up to that agreement. And when he graduates in June, he'll have a focus and a future. Malcolm Cater was our captain, vocal leader and a feared player in our division."
Cater led Riverhead to a 7-3 record and the Suffolk Division II semifinals. The hard-hitting linebacker totaled 103 tackles, including 16 for a loss. For his accomplishments, he was named the co-winner of the 50th Hansen Award presented to Suffolk's top player last night at the Suffolk Football Coaches Association banquet at the Hyatt Regency Long Island in Hauppauge.
"He's a symbol of hope," Shay said. "He didn't come in here with much. And he'll leave here with a degree and a great opportunity before him in college."
Cater accepted a full scholarship to Syracuse. The 6-3, 225-pounder also earned the Collotta Award, given to Suffolk's best linebacker.
"I have an excellent opportunity to get an education and play in college," Cater said. "Who knows what would have happened had I not been moved out to Riverhead and found such great support from so many good people."
Cater was living at the Timothy Hill Children's Ranch in Riverhead, having arrived as a court-ordered resident in August 2008. He had been sent to there to get away from a gang-infested culture that pervaded his hometown of Wyandanch. After a brush with death, where he was shot in the leg at a house party in May 2008, he was sent to the Hill Ranch for a new start.
"He still needs guidance and Syracuse will do that for him," Shay said. "He's a teddy bear at heart. He just needs structure."
Riverhead recognized the hardest hit of each week with a sledgehammer award. It came as no surprise that Cater earned seven of 10 sledgehammers. And when the hits kept coming, Pat Kelly of Riverhead's WRIV-FM coined the phrase, "You've been Caterized."
"I love it because it means I made an impact," Cater said. "People will remember me."
Cater's season ended in a heartbreaking 3-0 loss to East Islip. With bare knuckles bleeding and gritting his teeth as he held back the inevitable tears, he said, "This is the end of my Riverhead career. But it gave me a life and I will never forget that."
And as Cater dragged himself off the muddy field, East Islip coach Sal J. Ciampi said, "There goes a high school warrior. That was one dangerous kid, who'd rip your head off. His motor never stopped."