A defensive end who's drafted in the first round by the Rams is as rare as making good time on the 405. In the 51 years since Jack Youngblood was selected, only seven, including Kevin Carter, have been the team's top pick.
"The Rams really hadn't showed a lot of interest, and I didn't know that I was on their radar," Carter said. "They had a whole new coaching staff. Rich Brooks had just come from Oregon. So they were looking to just get the best player that was available at the time. And I guess I fit the bill for what they wanted."
A consensus first-team All-American as a senior at the University of Florida, Carter, taken sixth overall, was the first defensive player chosen in the 1995 NFL Draft.
And while some would be so excited that they'd feel like they were on top of the world, Carter felt the weight of the world on his shoulders and feared being labeled as a bust.
"I think a lot of players won't admit that, but when you're drafted that high, there's a tremendous amount of unspoken pressure and expectation," Carter said. "And by the law of averages, just how the NFL Draft has gone, it's always 50-50. You have these top picks, and the teams invest all this money and time and then three to four years later, you see what you get out of your investment.
"I didn't want to be one of those guys that came to a team and didn't make a positive impact. Didn't quote, unquote, live up to those expectations that have been placed upon me.
"I ended up being the first guy, so I really wanted to blaze a path. I really wanted to be that dude that they said, 'Oh, who went first in the 1995 NFL Draft?' 'Kevin Carter.' 'Oh, great player, had a great career.' I want to be thought of in that vein."
The rookie had the opportunity to start on that path from day one thanks to his new teammates on the defensive line.
"That was one thing about my transition to the NFL. When I first got there, I had a really awesome group of veteran guys that were just really good to me: Fred Stokes, Sean Gilbert, Robert Young, D'Marco Farr," Carter said.
"So I had a really good group of guys within my own (defensive linemen) room. But there were other guys like Todd Lyght, who looked out for me. Roman Phifer, a lot of guys on the team that taught me a lot about what it meant to be a pro. And what it was like to thrive in that situation. I really learned a lot by listening and emulating those older guys."
The education was just beginning. In 1997, after the first two seasons in St. Louis were less than memorable, Brooks was replaced by Dick Vermeil, a head coach with the Philadelphia Eagles – turned network TV analyst – turned head coach again.
Vermeil had made an impression on the defensive end years earlier at a Florida practice while prepping for one of Carter's games.
"I remember just really taking a liking to him. I remember him with all these big information cards. He was by himself and the rest of the crew was standing with the coaches, kind of grandstanding, kind of getting nuggets and stuff like that. But he was walking around on his own writing all this stuff down, and it was all color coded," Carter said.
"He really intrigued me, and he and I ended up having a wonderful conversation. He asked me about my parents, what made me tick, what my motivation was. And he told me that he found me to be an engaging young man. He was really just a wonderful man in that moment when I met him.
"And then when he came in to be our coach, I was ecstatic. I was all excited because I thought that I finally had the kind of coach that was consistent with the organization that I came from in college. Having Steve Spurrier, having that top-notch, top-level championship expectation, that was the biggest kind of culture shock coming into the NFL.
"Dick Vermeil came in, and from day one in the press conference, he promised that in three years we'd be world champions. Of course, me sitting there naive on bated breath, I believed him. And I said from that moment, 'I'm going to do everything this man says and I'm going to be part of that world championship team.' And three years later, we were."
Vermeil had indeed kept his word. And after posting a 5-11 record in 1997 and going 4-12 the following season, in 1999, his predicted third year, the Rams were 13-3 and won Super Bowl XXXIV over the Tennessee Titans.
What was the key to the team's turnaround?
"About midway through his third training camp, Coach Vermeil told us, 'We're going to change the way we do things. We're going to scale things back,'" Carter said. "And we were overjoyed because at that point we've been going through hellacious, barbaric training camps.
"We changed everything we did from that day forward and never looked back. It was a culture standard that was, at the time, completely foreign to a losing organization. We held ourselves differently. We had to start walking, talking, and acting like a championship team."
Not only did the Rams prove to be the best and win the Super Bowl that season, but Carter proved it personally, as well. Leading the NFL with a career-high 17 sacks, he was a first-team All-Pro.
"It was basically the organic process of which you step into your power, so to speak. Where you step into maybe your potential or the full magnitude of what you can accomplish," Carter said. "I think at the time I'd been playing fairly well and getting better to that date, but really hadn't established myself as 'That Guy' in the NFC or in the league. I still had overshadowing from guys like Reggie White, Sean Jones.
"But that year, everything was perfect. It was a perfect storm. Everyone made that decision to be their best self. And we created an environment where the expectation was to bring your best self, no matter what, to our organic mix, to our total esprit de corps. We were dead set on that. And I was no different. I knew that I expected a lot of myself. I had a chip on my shoulder because I never, like I said, wanted to be that bust."
And he never was. In the league for 14 seasons with the Rams, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carter, a two-time Pro Bowler with 637 total tackles and 104.5 career sacks, successfully led by example. The definition of reliability, he didn't miss a game over the course of his lengthy career.
"I had a great career just in terms of being able to transition and keep that standard of play wherever I was, and in whatever organization that I happened to be in at the time," Carter said. "So I think that's what I'm most proud of, my measure of consistency.
"I'm also proud of the life that I was fortunate enough to lead off the field. The NFL is not the easiest way to make a living. It's hard on your life, it's hard on your kids, your marriage and everything else. And when the music stops, we all have to transition to being regular people and find our way economically, socially. And as history has shown, that's not always the easiest transition for football players to make."
Carter, who has been married to his wife, Shima, for 26 years, and has a son, Zion, who will be a senior at Dartmouth in the fall and plays tight end for the Ivy League university, has made the transition, and is a college football studio analyst for CBS Sports.
"Our research department puts out a synopsis of all of the games that we're going to be both covering on our network and that are in the college football world at large," Carter said. "Basically, I have an ongoing homework assignment, if you will, every day, to read the published notes.
"So my prep work, covering the 130-plus FBS teams and 10 different conferences is pretty much never ending. I'm pretty much a football junkie. And from an X's and O's standpoint, I've got a PhD in football. So those two things combined with a lot of hard work and a lot of preparation allow me to do my job, and I love it."