On the last Friday of October four years ago, Norcross High School hosted Peachtree Ridge for a football game. In the stands, DeAndra Brooks sat with her friends. A senior at Peachtree Ridge, she wore her school’s letter jacket over a sweatshirt. As she watched the game, she felt hesitant.
Brooks had been texting Norcross defensive end Lorenzo Carter for a few weeks. Carter had liked her pictures on Instagram and messaged her anonymously through an app. One message from Carter read, “Do you know who Lorenzo is?” After looking him up and asking friends about him, Brooks gave Carter her number. They hadn’t met in-person yet, but she was beginning to like him. She sensed he liked her, too.
Then, Brooks watched Carter play. On the field, Carter has an aggressive reputation. Those close to him say while he’s playing, he’s a different person. It’s like an internal switch gets flipped.
Brooks had friends who had dated athletes. They tended to be self-absorbed, and Carter was the top-rated player in the state of Georgia. Plus, he was already 6-foot-6 and had the body to, five months later, pose in compression shorts for a talent show fundraiser. Brooks got scared. She thought, “Heck no.”
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After the game, a 24-20 Norcross win, Carter and Brooks went with a group to a nearby Waffle House. They sat side-by-side in a booth. He ordered an All-Star Special; she ate a waffle and hash browns. Then the check came. The waiter asked the question all potential couples face on a first date: together or separate?
“Oh, it's together,” Carter said.
He picked up the check. Later that night, they kissed for the first time. After Carter stepped off the field, Brooks discovered the aggressor she observed on the football field couldn’t be more different once the game ended. She saw, as few people do, that there is another side to Lorenzo Carter.
Notre Dame drove down the field. The clock ticked under two minutes in the third quarter, and Georgia held a one-point lead. It was second-and-10 from Georgia’s 35-yard line.
From his outside linebacker position, Carter crouched over the right side of Notre Dame’s line. The ball was snapped. The tight end released. The right tackle blocked defensive lineman Tyler Clark. Carter ran unblocked toward Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Running back Josh Adams couldn’t step over in time.
Carter sacked Wimbush, forced a fumble and picked up the loose football. The play was a perfect storm of speed and ferocity. As Carter got off the turf, he prowled, pumped his fist and high-stepped forcefully. Right before he reached the sideline, Carter swung his arms in a violent, celebratory arc.
“Terrific job by their best blitzer, Lorenzo Carter,” play-by-play man Mike Tirico said on the NBC broadcast. “So talented, they thought if they needed him in a pinch this year they could put him at corner.”
Carter finished Georgia’s win over Notre Dame, now ranked No. 3, with two fumble recoveries, two quarterback hurries, one sack, a tackle for a loss and one forced fumble. It was the most productive game of his career and it came in No. 1 Georgia’s most important game so far this season.
Two weeks later, Carter delivered a crushing tackle for a loss to Mississippi State running back Aeris Williams on the first play from scrimmage.
It’s in these moments, when Carter is at his best on the field, that Lisa Carter sees the version of her son everyone else knows. He screams and yells, pumps his fist and generally looks intimidating.
“Once the buzzer goes off or once the whistle is blown, it's game time baby,” Lisa Carter said. “I see a whole different Lorenzo. I know when he's mad. I know when he's hype. I'm like, ‘OK. They got the other Lorenzo now.’”
After Georgia’s win over Mississippi State, Carter said he wanted Georgia to have a “defense full of savages.” Following the game, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was asked if Carter is a savage, a word that can mean anything from fierce and untamed to barbarous and rude. Recently, the word has slipped into vernacular with a meaning comparable to ruthless.
“Yeah, Lorenzo’s not a savage,” Smart said. “He’s a nice young man if you ask me.”
It’s not that Carter is a savage or a nice young man. In different ways, in different settings, he’s both.
Carter was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to Lisa and Leonardo Carter. The family moved to Atlanta after Carter finished kindergarten. With Carter’s current height and size, it’s hard to imagine him as anything resembling a baby. But that’s what his mom calls the youngest of her four children.
Carter was always the biggest one in his class. Lisa, who played volleyball in college, is 5-foot-10. Leonardo played collegiate basketball. He’s 6-foot-4. Growing up, people told Carter he would become a preacher like his father and paternal grandfather because of the way he dressed (bow ties and suit coats) and the manner in which he carried himself.
As a child, Carter was mild-mannered, his mom said, and an observer. He wondered why things worked the way they did and would dismantle objects so he could learn how to put them back together. His parents taught him to treat others they way he wanted to be treated and help those less fortunate. Within a month of transferring to Norcross from Whitefield Academy for his junior year, Carter joined a mentorship program at the school.
“He's a helper,” Lisa Carter said. “It's in his spirit.”
When Carter answers questions in an interview setting, he radiates positivity. His smile, which features a gap between his front teeth, never seems to leave, no matter the question. It’s almost infectious. Sometimes at practice, Smart said Carter doesn’t play well. So Smart gets mad, but Carter keeps smiling, which just makes Smart more upset.
“Those days when you're down, you can always look to him to cheer you up,” inside linebacker Reggie Carter said. “He's full of energy and he's always positive. You just feel it when you're around him.”
Added Carter: “You got to be happy with life. Enjoy the little things. You got to treat every day like you're grateful for it because you didn't have to wake up. That's what I try to do.”
The size of the expectations surrounding Carter when he came to Georgia were nearly as large as he was. In a recruiting class with Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, Carter was Georgia’s highest-rated commit.
“(Outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer) told us we needed to land this guy,” said Jordan Jenkins, an outside linebacker at Georgia from 2012-2015.
Football coaches would come to Carter’s high school basketball games and practices. Former LSU head coach Les Miles called Norcross’ basketball coaches and wished them good luck, Norcross head basketball coach Jesse McMillan said. Eventually, Carter’s parents changed their son’s phone number.
On national signing day, while wearing a camouflage print suit jacket, Carter picked Georgia for its proximity to home and belief he could compete for championships with the Bulldogs, something that hasn’t happened yet in his four-year career.
As a freshman, Carter recorded 4.5 sacks. Entering his sophomore year, the expectation from the general public was Carter would simply get better, even though he was still a backup to Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.
In 10 games that season, Carter totaled just 19 tackles. In his senior year at Norcross, he had 132 tackles. He didn’t play in three games as a sophomore and he didn’t record a sack or a force a fumble.
“It was something that was heavy on him,” Norcross defensive end coach Marcus Jackson said.
Carter expected to play as a sophomore, Jackson said, and he found himself mostly on the sideline. The competitor inside Carter wanted to play, not just for himself and his personal goals, but for the team. As someone who had never struggled in an athletic setting, the experience was new.
“He had to learn to toughen up mentally as well as physically,” Lisa Carter said.
This season, Carter is an essential part of Georgia’s third-ranked defense, both for his performance on the field and guidance away from it. He recorded 3.5 sacks in Georgia’s first three games, but entering Georgia’s bye week, hadn’t brought down a quarterback in four weeks.
Four days before Georgia’s 42-7 win over Florida, Carter took the elevator inside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall from Georgia’s locker room on the first floor to a rotunda one floor above. When Carter stepped off the elevator, he wore a long sleeve Rugrats T-shirt.
“That's my show,” said Carter when asked of the Nickelodeon cartoon during interviews.
The conversation shifted back to football. Minutes passed. Carter explained how he’s aggressive on the field because it’s “fun to beat people” and “to win you got to be aggressive.” But Rugrats was still on his mind. As Carter left the interview area, he had a question for the remaining reporters.
“Who’s Tommy’s cousin?” Carter asked.
“Aw she’s evil,” Carter said.
Then Carter weaved around a pole and into a room where he returned the Georgia polo he had changed into for his interview.
“Oh, there’s food!” Carter said excitedly, his voice rising in pitch.
That Saturday, as Carter looked out the window of Georgia’s team bus toward EverBank Field, he realized how close his season is to ending. There are five games guaranteed in the remainder of Carter’s collegiate career, six if Georgia clinches the SEC East.
Hours later, Carter ended Florida’s first possession with a sack, his fourth of the season. As he crawled up and off the grass, Carter slapped the ground.
When the game ended, he ran down the sideline high-fiving Georgia’s fans, his tongue hanging out of his mouth and a smile stretched across his face.
“He's two different people,” Brooks said. “But it's the perfect balance.”