The task for most documentaries is pretty simple. Find the story, and tell it with a degree of suspense and humanity. What Carter Lost, the new ESPN 30 for 30 film about the beleaguered 1988 Carter High School football team that airs Thursday, faces a different challenge. There are at least two stories here, both of them tragic, definitely connected and cautionary in more ways than one.
The first story is about a prodigiously talented, mostly black football team that was singled out and railroaded. The 1988 Carter team is widely considered one of the greatest ever, in any state. It dominated the regular season and stormed into the playoffs, led by future NFL star linebacker Jessie Armstead. Then, the day before Carter's first postseason game, an anonymous caller phoned in a tip. Dynamo two-way player Gary Edwards might not have passed his algebra class.
The timing was fishy, to say the least, and it led to the logical assumption that one of Carter's opponents was trying to beat them without actually having to beat them. What followed was a legal roundelay, as Carter was declared ineligible, then eligible, then ineligible, and so on. It all smacked of racial scapegoating, an old guard attempt to discredit a team of swaggering black kids. As Carter parent David Jones Sr. says in the film, "White Dallas didn't want to see a black school doing well."
That's story No. 1. Story No. 2 is even sadder, its consequences far greater. After the season, a group of six Carter players, feeling entitled and strapped for cash, went on an armed robbery spree. They got caught, and most of them did serious time. With married women asking them out, with police officers letting them slide on traffic infractions, they figured the rules didn't apply to them.
"We were 18-year-old movie stars," says P.K. Williams, who served almost four years in prison. "We thought we could get away with anything," says his teammate, David Jones Jr., who got probation. Both men are now pastors.
Director Adam Hootnick, who has also made ESPN films about Congolese NBA star Serge Ibaka and Olympic bombing suspect Richard Jewell, sees race and culture as keys to the Carter High story. "It's about a community that was easily misunderstood or misrepresented, maybe intentionally, maybe not," Hootnick says by phone from Austin, where he lives. "I think it's a story that reflects power structures and, probably, racial attitudes that influence who does and who doesn't get the benefit of the doubt."
It's also a story about how we build up our heroes to tear them down. Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen, one of a chorus of sports media voices included in the film, feels some culpability. "We in the media created an environment for Texas high school football players where if they don't have it, they're gonna get it," he says in the film. "We share in some of the responsibility. We put them on a pedestal, and then we wonder why they fall off." Hansen is also among those convinced that whoever called in the tip did so on behalf of a Carter rival.
This isn't the first time the Carter story has been told on film. In 2015 Carter alum Arthur Muhammad made Carter High, an independent film starring Charles "Roc" Dutton as Carter head coach Freddie James. But What Carter Lost is playing on a different field. It's a polished documentary with the ESPN imprimatur and a wide-ranging grasp of the material. It features the key figures in the saga, telling their own stories. It should prove illuminating even to those in Dallas who know the outline of the story.
Those outside Dallas might know that Carter team from the movie version of Friday Night Lights, the story of the 1988 Permian Panthers. The film depicts the Carter players as unscrupulous cheap-shot artists, late hitters, a band of thugs knocking around the noble Panthers. Friday Night Lights perpetuated the image of Carter as somehow less-than, the big, bad city kids intruding on the Permian football Eden.
What Carter Lost puts these stereotypes in proper context, without soft-pedaling or excusing the crimes committed. Six Carter players were involved in the robberies. None of them ever committed another crime. Then 28 were offered college scholarships. Eight played pro football. Nine became civil servants.
What Carter Lost shows them as grown men, looking back with regret, remorse, pride and the permanent sting of lost years. Those years can't be reclaimed, but Hootnick's film offers a touch of redemption and closure to the Carter High story.