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John Carlson: A long time coming

Kate Gales | Friday, November 17, 2006

Editor’s note: This story first ran Nov. 3, 2006.

For John Carlson, life is all about balance.

He balances student life with the pressures on a Notre Dame athlete.

He balances the dual nature of a tight end – blocking and receiving.

He balances a love of both basketball and football.

He’s been doing it since high school, and now, it’s who he is.

“Being a student athlete, you don’t have as much time or have as many opportunities to participate in dorm events but it’s a trade off,” he said. “I have an opportunity to do things not many people get to do so I understand that tradeoff is there and I just feel fortunate to be in this place.”

Getting involved with football

Carlson still remembers putting on pads for the first time.

“When I was younger, real young – probably 5 or 6 years old – my dad was an assistant coach for a high school football team, so we had some old pads lying around the house,” he said.

He and his older brother tried them on and were hooked.

“He and I used to play one-on-one tackle football in our backyard,” Carlson said. “It seems a little absurd because there’s only one guy on each side but we used to do it.”

By seventh grade, Carlson was playing organized football. But he didn’t settle in at the tight end position immediately.

“I played running back and linebacker as a seventh grader, and a little bit of tight end,” he said. “Everyone plays running back in middle school I think.”

He settled into the tight end position at Litchfield (Minn.) High School. In four years, he recorded 95 catches for 1,331 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Carlson also notched 493 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on the ground.

But in high school, football wasn’t Carlson’s only priority. He was a standout in basketball and tennis and spent most of his time either in practice or doing homework.

Being busy prepared him for the life of a college student athlete, though.

“It’s a year round thing where you have both academics and athletics and you have to make a priority to excel in both,” he said. “I didn’t really do anything else. After school I went to practice then I did homework then I went to bed. It might seem boring but it’s what I like to do.”

As a basketball player, he started at center and won the state 2-A title three times, as well as being conference MVP as a junior and senior.

But as he moved toward college, Carlson was faced with a choice.

“What’s not to like?”

Carlson’s parents and three siblings all attended St. Cloud State University in Minnesota (his youngest sister is still a student there). But when he visited Notre Dame, his search was over.

The decision to attend the University wasn’t an easy one, though. In addition to leaving his family, he had to face the decision to prioritize football over basketball.

“Basketball was really my first love,” he said. “But I knew I had a greater opportunity to play at a higher level in football and I took a visit here and I couldn’t pass the place up – what’s not to like?”

He walked onto the basketball team as a freshman for a last hurrah with the sport he loved.

“It was [hard to give up],” he said. “It was a great experience. I met a lot of great people … it was mostly practice but it was still competing and I really enjoyed it.”

Not that basketball is completely out of his life. Carlson reached the semifinals of last year’s Bookstore Basketball tournament, but lost to Irish quarterback Brady Quinn’s team.

In addition to Bookstore Basketball, the former St. Edward’s Hall resident loved dorm life.

“Dorm life is great from an athlete’s perspective because you get away from your sport,” he said. “We spend so many hours meeting and practicing with the same people that sometimes it gets monotonous and sometimes you have a bad day – a bad practice or something, just to go and get away from that and kind of have that as a release, I really enjoyed that experience.”

Life on the end

Carlson has 529 receiving yards this season, with two touchdown catches. Irish coach Charlie Weis, a former tight ends coach with the New England Patriots under Bill Parcells in 1993-94, said that Carlson’s experience on the hardwood has helped him develop into a major receiving threat for the Irish.

“I think the basketball background he had [helped],” Weis said. “I think that really helps at the tight end position. We always said in the NFL that a lot of the best tight ends are those power forwards you see playing in the NBA, a lot that have those hands. He already had potential to be a receiving tight end, it’s just that he hadn’t been put in that position yet and he’s making the most of this opportunity.”

Carlson said he felt the tight end position was a natural fit for him.

“We have a dual role, we’re blockers, we’re receivers,” he said. “Every play I try to execute my assignment to the best of my ability. … When I get beat on a blocker or drop a ball I take that pretty seriously and try to not make the same mistakes over again.”

As defenses often use a “cover-2” scheme against the Irish or are forced to cover Jeff Samardzija, Rhema McKnight and David Grimes, Quinn often finds Carlson on seam routes over the middle.

“I think a big part of [getting passes] is the guys we have on the outside,” Carlson said. “You have to pay attention to Jeff and Rhema and David Grimes, and the other guys we put in there because they’re dynamic athletes. They’ll beat you deep if you don’t cover them.”

The duality of the tight end position is a constant challenge for Carlson.

“It’s fun because it’s kind of a mix between a wide receiver and an offensive lineman,” he said. “You take pride in blocking and providing holes for the running backs but you still get to run downfield and try to make plays.”

Carlson challenges himself to be a “complete player,” not just a blocking tight end or a receiving tight end.

“I’m trying to be a complete player,” he said. “I’m not there yet and I feel like I really need to improve my blocking especially. But as far as receiving goes, there’s still a lot of things to sharpen up on, route running, precision in route running is important.”

Anthony Fasano, who graduated last year and was taken in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys, was an example of a complete player to Carlson.

“I learned a lot from him as a player, not really by what he told me but just what he showed me on the field,” Carlson said. “The intensity he played with, his physicality in blocking, the way he ran routes – I learned a lot from him as a player.”

What next?

A history major, Carlson is on track to graduate in May. He has another year of eligibility left, but could join Fasano in the NFL. He’s also considering graduate school, law school or teaching.

And at this moment? He’s not thinking much past Saturday’s matchup with North Carolina.

“Right now I’m just focused on the season and trying to do everything I can to help this team win,” he said.

That always tips the balance.