NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - The North Little Rock Charging Wildcats earned a week off to start the playoffs, after finishing an undefeated regular season on Friday. They have been led by a senior linebacker who will not get to play a single snap this season, but has shown his teammates what toughness really means.
“Cruz has been the heartbeat of our football season this year,” acknowledged North Little Rock head coach Jamie Mitchell.
Cruz Carter put on his jersey for the first time this season when he walked onto the field during the team’s Senior Night ceremony before Friday’s victory over Cabot.
“It was a big goal for me. I’ve always wanted to play my senior year. So I made it a goal to definitely make it to this game.”
Carter collapsed during a camp in June and was diagnosed with leukemia, ending his senior season before it started. He did not play much as a junior, but expected to contribute more in his final season.
“I almost cried, to be honest, when (the doctor) told me my season wouldn’t happen,” Carter recalled. “I thought I would at least get to play the last few of the games, or in the playoffs. But you know, stuff happens.”
He endured dozens of rounds of chemotherapy, but frequent hospital visits from his teammates and coaches kept his spirits up. “[The] toughest part, to be honest, was not being able to come to the games on Fridays,” he said, “and trying to ask (the doctors), ‘Can I go? Can I go?’ And they’d tell me I can’t, because I’m too weak, or I don’t have any defenses.”
All the while, Mitchell used Carter’s struggle as a reminder for his team about what it means to fight, and why they should always give their full effort on the field.
“He’s really one of those characters in the locker room,” Mitchell explained. “One of those guys that always kept something going. You know, he’s been missed dearly in there, and our senior guys, we talk about him on a daily basis.”
The Charging Wildcats raised thousands of dollars for Carter’s medical care through a GoFundMe page. But they also did many smaller things, like mow the family’s lawn, just to help the Carter’s in any way they can while he was in treatment.
“So proud of our guys for reaching out, putting their arms around Cruz’ family,” Mitchell stated. “He’s a unique guy, that’s for sure. And I think we could all learn some life lessons from what he’s gone through.”
Carter finally got the news last week that his cancer was in remission. He got to leave the hospital and return home, but he also got to walk with his parents for Senior Night. All three of them had wide grins on their faces, and received big hugs from Mitchell when they made their way to midfield.
He stood on the sideline with the team during the game. He has to wear a protective mask when he’s around a crowd, to guard against germs while his immune system remains compromised. But he joined the rest of the defense when they met with coaches between series, and carried the team’s symbolic oar back and forth between the 20’s, feeling the energy as North Little Rock came from behind to win and cap a 10-0 regular season.
“It’s our year,” he exclaimed. “I mean, I’m part of it. I’ve always known we was good. We got the talent, and we always got heart so we never give up.”
Carter will continue to be on the sidelines during the Charging Wildcats’ playoff run, which begins at home on November 18. He expects the playoffs to go just as the rest of the season has: with Charging Wildcats coming out on top.
“We gonna get a ring,” he said. “We gonna get a ring.”