By Dave Kiefer
Sometimes life's most important moments come when you least expect it. And even as they happen, often only in retrospect does the significance come to light.
For Stanford football freshman Alex Carter, such a moment took place in February.
Carter, then a high school senior, was returning from Los Angeles where he was honored as a finalist for the Watkins Award, which promotes academic excellence among African American athletes. His father, former NFL cornerback Tom Carter, picked Alex up at the airport in Washington, D.C.
Alex wanted to go home and hang out with friends, but Tom insisted they head straight to a volleyball tournament where Alex's 14-year-old sister, Cameron, was playing.
"I already have plans," Alex said.
"C'mon, it'll be real quick," Tom answered.
As Alex recalled, "At the time, I was upset. But now, I'm extremely thankful he brought me."
After the match, Alex and Cameron goofed off on the court, running around, laughing, and playing like they were little kids.
That night, Cameron, a Type 1 diabetic, died in her sleep.
Only later, a tearful Alex realized how fortunate he had been to spend those moments with her. Now, just hours from starting at cornerback for the Cardinal in the Rose Bowl Game, Alex continues to feel that connection.
"She's not physically around, but I always feel like she's there with me," he said.
Alex wears a wristband on and off the football field, inscribed with the words, "Let Cameron's Light Shine." It's a small tribute to an individual whose warm nature, charismatic personality, and even her hugs, were treasured by those who knew her in the tight-knit community of Ashburn, Va.
"She was a loving person," Carter said. "Everyone wanted to be her friend. Even my friends wanted to be her friend."
Cameron was the youngest of four Carter siblings. At 5-foot-9 and with a solid build even in middle school, she already was a standout athlete.
"All muscle," Alex said. "She was faster than half the guys on my football team. It was crazy the potential that she had."
But it was her nature that was so magnetic.
"Cameron uplifted and touched every person that knew her," wrote a local resident, Marissa Levin, as a tribute to Cameron on Ashburn.patch.com. "Her smile warmed and illuminated every room she entered. Her hugs wrapped around you like your favorite blanket on a frigid night."
How the Carters coped during the wake of the tragedy is a testament to their belief in God.
"Our faith is what held us together through all this," Alex said. "My dad has always told me that as long as God is first in our life, that everything will be all right."
In the spring, Alex gave a speech at the Washington Post All-Met luncheon after receiving an award for community service. Though anxious about public speaking because of a lifelong stuttering problem, Alex was simply eloquent, and left a lasting impression.
Cameron was his inspiration, he said in a speech described later as thoughtful and honest, about life, faith and helping others.
"If I could be half of what she was, I can accomplish anything in life," he told a spellbound and deeply moved audience.
Carter, listed as a four-star recruit by scouting services and named the Gatorade Virginia State Player of the Year, had long aspired to go to Stanford, even over his father's alma mater of Notre Dame.
His parents, Tom and Renee, had long stressed academics and encouraged the development of positive cerebral role models for African American boys. When Alex was 12 and an `A' student who loved science and reading a book a week, his parents created a social club for African American parents who had similar goals. They called it Club 2012 in reference to the year their children would graduate from high school.
Alex had been long committed to Stanford, but Cameron's death changed things. Should he remain closer to home -- perhaps attending University of Virginia -- to be there for his parents? Could he justify moving across the country during a difficult time?
"I prayed about it," Alex said. "I didn't want to leave them."
But two things changed his mind. First, he respected the inner strength of his parents. He knew his father would take care of the family and knew deep down his mother would be fine.
"My mom's one of the strongest women I know," Alex said. "I saw her strength and that gave me strength."
And, finally, "I felt like Cameron would have wanted me to live my dream," he said.
The Stanford coaches were aware of the tragedy and gave Alex space to change his mind if he chose to do so. But they also felt that they could provide a strong support system. That's something his new teammates felt as well.
"As a unit, we kept him and his family in our prayers," said junior safety Ed Reynolds, who hosted Carter on his recruiting trip. "There really wasn't much we could do, other than show our support for him and his family.
"You have to understand, when you come out here, we bring you in. You're part of a family now, as a team and as a secondary. I feel like it was great for him to have that brotherhood.
"It wasn't that long after his sister died, and I'm sure he was still dealing with it. But as a team, once you are here, you're part of this family and we take care of our own. In any situation, no matter what it is, we help each other out."
Carter has truly blossomed at Stanford. He became the first true freshman to receive extensive playing time, and has started seven games, making 31 tackles, including three for loss, and forcing three fumbles.
"Alex came in and blew us away from Day One," said coach David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "They go through the initial testing, and as a 17-year-old freshman, he had NFL combine numbers: 40-inch vertical, 10-foot-4 long jump. He's running in the 4.4 range. Just an explosive, very strong, physical athlete."
However, the 6-foot, 200-pound Carter had some rocky moments on the field. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason asks a lot of his secondary, in communicating, making calls, and diagnosing formations and schemes.
"For any young guy, it's tough," Reynolds said. "It's a little mind-boggling thinking of all the responsibilities you have when you're out there. In the end, it's just a matter of telling him, `Don't think too much. Just go out there and play. Do what you've done all week. Your week of preparation has gotten you ready for right here.'"
The secondary was expected to be the question mark for an otherwise proven defense. And difficulties, particularly in the open field against up-tempo attacks like Oregon and Oklahoma State, had been exposed in the past.
"All the media was talking about was how the secondary was the weak link," Carter said. "The front seven was amazing, but we had a lot of young guys in the secondary."
The secondary responded in big victories over USC and Oregon, shutting down the Trojans' star receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, and stifling Oregon speedster De'Anthony Thomas.
"We made a statement that we're here and we can play," Carter said. "This was a great year to start off with, but it's a base, a building block. We'll keep going and keep getting better every day."
Carter has room for improvement, but the upside is extraordinary.
"Physically he's gifted -- to have his size, his length, and his speed and explosiveness," Reynolds said. "Now, the challenge for him is to apply those tools."
"Once he learned what to do -- being able to come up, tackle and make hits and run cover deep - he was huge. He's a guy that we'll be looking to for leadership not after too long. He's one of those guys we don't have to wait for him to be a senior to be a leader. He's got the character. He's got the work ethic, and he's got the physical tools.
"The sky is the limit for a guy like Alex Carter."
As Stanford makes its final preparations for Wisconsin, Carter has traveled a long journey in a single year to get to the Rose Bowl Game, and it has little to do with football.
Come New Year's Day, Cameron, as always, will be with him. And when he thinks of her, as he undoubtedly will, he will recall that smile.
Asked to describe it, Alex smiled himself.
"It was beautiful," he said.