How the worried kid brother of an embattled NFL QB became the clean-living, swearing-averse leader of the Oakland Raiders
By Michael Silver | Published Sept. 5, 2017
It was a scene that made a grown man cry -- and for the record, few sobbing men in the history of Oakland have been quite as grown as Donald Penn.
Penn, the Raiders' 340-pound left tackle, had just trudged off the Oakland Coliseum playing field following a 33-25 victory over the Colts last Dec. 24, and he was feeling pretty far from festive. After going nearly an entire season without surrendering a single sack, Penn had slipped on a play early in the fourth quarter and watched in horror as Indy defensive end Trent Cole landed hard on his quarterback, who clutched his right leg and began writhing in pain. Now, with the Raiders heading for their first playoff appearance in 14 years, the face of the franchise -- Derek Carr, an MVP candidate in only his third NFL season -- had agony written all over it.
"It's broken, man," Carr said, referring to his fibula, as he sat on a training table in an enclave adjacent to the Raiders' locker room. "I'm done."
Penn looked at Carr's wife, Heather. He turned to make eye contact with Khalil Mack, the Raiders' star pass rusher, and Jack Del Rio, who was in his second year as the team's head coach. Penn hugged Carr, and the group began to pray together. And that's when the tears began to flow.
"I'm a big guy, and a tough guy, but I'm a very emotional guy, too," Penn explained. "And when I saw my guy go down, it was hard. That was my first time in 12 years I ever got a quarterback hurt, and it kinda hurt my pride, too. At that point, with our team, I knew we were going as far as Derek goes. So I'm sitting there going, 'Man, I f----- up the whole franchise.'
"Most of all, it hurt to see DC like that, because I love the guy, and he's my brother. I've had a great relationship with all my quarterbacks, but something with DC is special. So yeah, we were in [the training room] and were all getting emotional, and we cried. 'Cause at that point, it wasn't about football anymore."
And oddly enough, it was in that maudlin moment -- leg throbbing, dreams dashed, Christmas Eve marred -- that Carr felt the most secure about his place in the Silver and Black universe, and about his status as Raider Nation's shining star for the foreseeable future.
"On the field, I was like, 'I am not crying out here ... they are not gonna catch me crying ...' " Carr recalled in June while doing a sitdown interview in his hometown of Bakersfield, California, for an NFL Network feature that will air Sept. 10 on "GameDay Morning." "Then I was in the X-ray room with my wife, and instantly, when the game ended, every single teammate ... just came in and hugged me. A few of them were crying, which didn't help me. That let me know, one, I don't want to go anywhere else, and I would do anything for these guys. And two, the fact that they cared that much about me -- because I know how much I care about them -- the fact that they care the same amount about me, that was one of my favorite moments as an athlete."
Six months later, Carr had another magical moment, signing a five-year, $125-million contract extension that made him (at the time) the NFL's highest-paid player. So yes, he has plenty of_paper_ ... and on paper, Carr has it all: At 26, he's the unquestioned leader of a talented team striving desperately to bring a championship to Oakland before the franchise's impending move to Las Vegas, which is scheduled to occur no later than the 2020 season. He's a clean-living, swearing-averse father of two who nonetheless commands locker room cred from all quarters -- just witness his budding bromance with recently signed hometown hero and celebrated iconoclast Marshawn Lynch. And he's now firmly in command of a prolific offensive scheme that promises to grant him far more freedom than in previous seasons, one of the many reasons so many smart football minds are so high on the Raiders.
"They've got a cool thing going," said the Titans' Marcus Mariota, another promising young passer whose team hosts Oakland in Sunday's regular-season opener. "It's gonna be fun to watch them grow together. He's got a great group of receivers, and he makes it easy on them. He puts a nice touch on his passes, and it allows them to go up and get it and make big plays downfield. I think he's a great quarterback."
Vikings cornerback Terence Newman, now in his 15th season, called Carr and the Raiders "pretty scary." Newman continued, "They've got great weapons all around him, and the offensive line is very, very good, as well. He's super competitive. He can make all the reads and all the throws. And he doesn't seem like he gets rattled at all; if he makes a throw, he completely forgets about it and moves onto the next play. He has a chance to be one of the better quarterbacks for a long, long time."
And perhaps the best thing Carr has going for him is that he's in complete control of his environment, with teammates who regard him with an affection bordering on reverence.
"I don't think I've ever seen a guy command so much respect," said Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who was elevated by Del Rio from his role as quarterbacks coach following the 2016 season. "He handles people with a certain amount of couth that is beyond his years, and that's an amazing thing to say. He can handle the guy on the far left and the guy on the far right, and everything in between. Since he's been here, he's had to be the constant. And the guys believe in him, completely."
They have their reasons. In 2016, Carr led the Raiders to seven comeback victories in games they trailed in the fourth quarter, one fewer than Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who established a new NFL record in the process. (Last week, Stafford signed a five-year, $135 million contract extension, surpassing Carr atop the league's pay scale.) The other Raiders' faith in Carr is so fervent that their hopes couldn't help but sink when he went down in that Week 16 victory over the Colts. Subsequent defeats to the Broncos (in the regular-season finale) and Texans (in a first-round playoff clash) -- games in which Oakland scored a combined 20 points -- did nothing to dispel the belief that Carr is the Raiders' Khaleesi. In 2017, he'll be the driving force behind their efforts to dethrone the Patriots as Super Bowl champions.