Northwestern's Chance Carter marches to his own beat

He plays in what's called "the box" — a front designed to corral running backs and harass quarterbacks.

But only a fool would put Chance Carter in a box.

Northwestern's fifth-year senior defensive tackle is a free thinker in a sport that discourages freelancing. He grew up two miles from Ryan Field but rooted for Oregon. He speaks openly of "fake juice" — contrived enthusiasm meant to please the caffeinated coaches.

He refused to suit up for football in the eighth grade because he didn't want to play offensive line. He waited so long to select a college, Stanford and Notre Dame gave away his spot. The Chicago team that has his devotion is not the Bears, Bulls or Cubs; he's obsessed with the Blackhawks.

"I try to watch every game on TV," he says. "If someone has tickets, I'm jumping out. If I have a test tomorrow, I'll (still) go to the game. Something about that national anthem gets you going."

He once loved the Bulls but says he was "very upset" about some of their front-office moves, namely trading Elton Brand in 2001 for the rights to Tyson Chandler and signing Ron Mercer. But he might be the only Chicagoan who will admit he wanted the Bulls to draft Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose.

"So props to John Paxson on that," Carter says, "and getting (coach) Tom Thibodeau in here."

Like the Bulls under Paxson, Carter has yet to reach the pinnacle. In truth, his career has been up and down.

He started all 12 games last year but gave way this season to Greg Kuhar and C.J. Robbins while remaining prominent in the rotation.

"Last year he played too high," NU coach Pat Fitzgerald says. "I call it getting on a bicycle. We teach our guys up front to play with their feet apart. When you get your feet close together, you get narrow and high, and that's a combination for getting blown off the ball and not being able to control your gap.

"That opened up an opportunity for other guys, and they seized it. Chance didn't pout or feel sorry for himself. He's probably playing his best football of the last two years right now."

Carter graded out perfectly against Western Illinois and recorded NU's only sack at Minnesota, a powerful takedown of Mitch Leidner that nearly resulted in a fumble. The 6-foot-3, 295-pounder celebrated by crossing his wrists, explaining: "We have little shackles on our hands, like bad boys would."

The "bad boys" refers to the Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s and early '90s. NU defensive tackle Sean McEvilly loved the ESPN "30 for 30" documentary on those teams, and the Wildcats defensive linemen are "trying to take on the persona that the Pistons had," Carter says.

Hey, when you have to wake up around 6 a.m. for treatment, meetings and practice, you need something to get you fired up.

"Sometimes you have to fake your energy," he says. "Not everybody wants to go to practice, but if you bring a great attitude, you trick yourself into having more energy and having fun.

"Coach Fitz would say that my freshman and sophomore year, and I was like, 'Yeah, all right.' But even false positivity does help you produce a lot more, rather than just moping around."

As Carter was wrapping up at Loyola Academy, Andrew Luck gave him a tour during a visit to Stanford. Carter ultimately selected Northwestern over Nebraska, the team that visits Evanston on Saturday. Carter recorded his first two career sacks last season during the Hail Mary loss in Lincoln.

He holds a psychology degree and is in graduate school for strategic marketing. In the spring he turned some heads when he called the regional National Labor Relations Board decision permitting NU football to unionize "pretty cool" and now says, "We think there should be changes because guys are getting screwed over at other programs."

Carter will always be a free thinker and "kind of laid-back," as he puts it. He gets that from his Jamaican-born father, Alvin, whom he describes as "very quiet too — kind of standoffish, actually."

On Sunday, Chance went home for his 22nd birthday. His mother was sleeping after making the long drive back from Minneapolis. His father greeted him but then went off to watch the History Channel. So Chance watched the Bears game by himself. There was no blowing out candles.

"It's OK," Carter says. "I don't like (birthday) cake that much."

tgreenstein@tribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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