It’s been a long journey, but I would be highly sad if I didn’t play in this game. —Utah wide receiver Darren Carrington II
DALLAS — Say what you will about Darren Carrington’s character. The superb wide receiver was dismissed from the Oregon football team before transferring to Utah for his senior season. But already coach Kyle Whittingham has made his call: Carrington is a stand-up person who, in a different life, made youthful mistakes.
It’s true that Carrington had no off-field problems this season. Yet strangely enough, under far different circumstances, his judgment is again in question. Tuesday he plans to risk his professional career on a bowl game that will decide whether the Utes finish above .500.
Carrington isn’t the only Ute player endangering himself by playing. He’s just the best.
Whittingham says Carrington has been a model teammate throughout his senior season. He is also an NFL-bound talent. Hopefully everyone on both teams stays safe. But players in bowl games will get hurt, some maybe enough to lose the chance to get paid to play.
If I were Carrington, preparing to play in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, I would ignore what’s in his own heart. The game is played in the famed Cotton Bowl, but the difference between this and the actual Cotton Bowl game is as vast as Texas.
“Just with me, even though I’ve only been here a year, I still look at (teammates) as my brothers,” Carrington said, explaining his decision. “If I wasn’t playing and was just standing on the sideline watching — just because of my future — I would feel like a dummy.”
Just because of his future is precisely why he should sit out.
Carrington’s loyalty to team is commendable, even admirable. It would look mercenary if he bailed on the bowl game after appearing for just a year at Utah, on his way to the NFL.
“It’s been a long journey, but I would be highly sad if I didn’t play in this game,” he said.
Imagine how he’ll feel if he gets injured.
But skipping bowl games has become a trend. Not long ago, cutting a postseason game was unthinkable. West Virginia running back Justin Crawford, the Big 12’s third-leading rusher, is skipping the game against Utah as he awaits the draft. Florida State players Derwin James and Josh Sweat have said they will be taking a knee this month, as will Texas tackle Connor Williams. Oregon running back Royce Freeman skipped the Las Vegas Bowl, which the Ducks lost.
This is where NFL executives and college coaches diverge. The pro people want to protect potential draft picks. College coaches carry on about loyalty and character.
Whittingham has said he always felt players who come to a college on scholarship owe it to the team to play out the entire schedule. What does playing this week say about Carrington?
“It says he’s a competitor,” Whittingham said, “and that he loves the game. And it speaks to who he is as a person.”
It also says he’s a gambler.
No wonder bowl people and coaches worry. Smaller bowl games, which have little national importance, are a particularly unnecessary risk. Millions of dollars that a player might earn are riding on a game played at 11:30 a.m. on a Tuesday.
Bowl participation plays well with fans, teammates, coaches and universities. It doesn’t play so well with NFL executives. A year ago, Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports quoted an unnamed NFL executive thusly: “Look at what these coaches are making now. Those guys are making five or six million a year and they may pressure these kids to play? Look at what these coaches and ADs are doing. It’s OK for them to leave, but it’s not OK for players to think about their futures?
"For coaches to (be critical), that’s incredibly selfish. Hold on a second here, guy. You pressure these kids to play, and then one of them (suffers a career-altering injury) and it’s, ‘I love you, and you’re a great teammate. Sorry about that.’ And it’s all for some bowl game who no one cares about? That’s a joke. I’m looking at it practically. If it was your son, what are you gonna say? It makes sense.”
At last check, no Utes were breaking rank. One of those with a built-in excuse is defensive end Kylie Fitts, who was in and out of the lineup with injuries all year. Would he consider sitting?
“Absolutely not,” Fitts said. “This is a big game for me and my team. I want to finish the season right. I want to do it for the rest of the seniors and the rest of the team.”
The rest of his posterity is on its own.