Minnesota's tackling machine doesn't mind having to make more saves than the Mayo Clinic. "I'm here to make plays—that's what I do," says Tyrone Carter, an All-America strong safety who has 4.4 speed and is a leading candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award, given annually to the nation's best defensive back. "Every play, I ask my teammates, 'Who's going to beat me to the tackle?' "
Carter, 5'9", 184 pounds, has made 413 career tackles (including a staggering 321 solo), the most by any active safety or cornerback, according to statistics compiled by the Minnesota sports information office. He needs 69 more to break the Division I-A mark for defensive backs, set by Tulane's Mike Staid from 1991 to '94. "I've never seen a secondary guy make as many tackles as he does," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez says. Adds Badgers running back Ron Dayne: "He's like a fly, always buzzing around you."
Generally coaches don't like their safeties making a lot of tackles because it means that their linemen and linebackers aren't doing their jobs, but Golden Gophers coach Glen Mason isn't unhappy about the numbers accumulated by Carter, whom he uses almost as a linebacker against run-oriented Big Ten opponents. "We play to our strengths, and that's Tyrone," Mason says. "We try to spill the ball toward him."
Carter is more than just a human stop sign, however. In his first college start, against Syracuse in 1996, he set an NCAA record by returning two fumbles for touchdowns. As a kick returner a year ago he ran back the Gophers' home-season-opening kickoff 86 yards for a touchdown against Arkansas State and finished second in the Big Ten with an average of 26.7 yards per return.
Carter had his choice of big-time schools when he came out of Ely High in Pompano Beach, Fla., where his exploits as a running back earned him the nickname Touchdown Tyrone. (He rushed for 1,349 yards and scored 23 touchdowns for the Tigers.) He wanted to attend Florida, Florida State or Miami, but chose Minnesota at the behest of his paternal grandmother, Mamie, who had been impressed by the recruiting pitch of then Minnesota coach Jim Wacker. She had raised Tyrone, along with 11 of her own children, helping him steer clear of the drugs and crime that infested the area where they lived. "She wanted me to experience a different type of lifestyle," says Tyrone.
Mamie died in May 1997, but Tyrone hasn't forgotten her or his roots. On his left biceps is a tattoo of her name, the date of her death and a pair of hands clasped in prayer. He has pledged $50,000 of any earnings that he might make in the NFL to help an uncle build a church in Pompano Beach in her memory. "She taught me to work hard, to stay out of trouble and to not let anybody give you anything," Carter says. "I loved her, and I want to honor her any way I can."
Carter would also like to do so by helping Minnesota earn its first bowl berth since 1986, the longest postseason drought in the Big Ten. He'd like to repeat as first-team All-America too, a feat no Gophers player has accomplished since Bobby Bell in '61 and '62. Supersized goals to be sure, but Carter, as Big Ten rivals will attest, isn't afraid to tackle anything.