TAMPA, Fla. — Iva Carter is admittedly skeptical as she arrives at the University of Florida.
It’s the spring of 2016 and she’s visiting the campus for the first time with her husband, Frank Carter Jr. Their son, 4-star defensive end Zachary Carter, is a top target for the Gators.
As the Carter family parks on campus, Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph makes quite the first impression.
“This golf cart with a tall man on it swerves around to the door right by me,” Iva says. “I’m looking at him like, ‘Who the hell is this person?’ Then he says, ‘Skee-Wee!’ That’s my sorority signal. I’m like, ‘Wow, what a greeting.’ ”
That greeting precedes a meeting with Gators coach Jim McElwain, who also grabs the attention of Carter’s mother with a signal.
“We’re leaving Coach Mac’s office, I notice he has a lighthouse on his desk,” Iva says. “It’s a Gator one and the light is on. Ever since Zachary was little, he’s had a fascination with lighthouses.
“I’ve bought him several that he keeps in his room. So I see this lighthouse and I’m like, ‘OMG! It’s a sign. This must be the right place.’ ”
Carter later committed to the Gators over Clemson and is one of the top signees in Florida’s 2017 recruiting class.
Heading into her trip to Gainesville, Iva was on the fence about the Gators because she liked the nurturing environment at Clemson.
“I don’t know how,” Iva says, “but that lighthouse just stuck with me.”
Passion to play
Youngsters often emulate their siblings, and Carter was no different.
His brother, Frank Carter III, is three years older and played little league football, providing Zachary with early exposure to the game.
He competed in the Mike Alstott Football Camp at age 5 and started practicing with his older brother soon afterward. Their father tried to steer them toward baseball, but Frank III and Zachary had NFL dreams.
“They wanted to be Bucs and they were very competitive kids,” Frank Jr. says. “For Zachary, it was the little brother syndrome that drove his competitive spirit. But baseball was too slow for him.
“He just can’t be standing around on a field. He needed something to keep him active because he has a lot of energy. He had never played actual football, but he was determined to do it.”
Without that drive, Carter wouldn’t have been able to play in elementary school. Initially, he was too heavy to play in the Tampa Bay Youth Football League.
“I could barely make weight my first year,” Zachary says. “I was bigger than everybody else.”
Carter had two choices: wait until next year or get smaller. He chose the latter and started a rigorous diet and workout routine at 7 years old.
“He used to do 1,500 jump ropes a day just to make weight,” his father says. “So he was doing that and eating salads. It was awful, but he turned into a jump-rope expert. You give him a jump rope and he will show off with it.”
Zachary adds, “Yeah, I wanted to play really bad.”
Carter played nose tackle his first season and then moved to middle linebacker his second year. But at age 9, trying to maintain his weight became too much of a burden.
“I decided to stop playing,” Zachary says. “I let football go for three years.”
When Carter hung up his cleats and put down the jump rope, the pounds poured on.
His classmates teased him for being overweight in middle school and he struggled with his appearance in sixth and seventh grades.
“I used to get made fun of,” Zachary says. “They called me ‘Big Mac.’ I used to walk through the hallways and they had chants. They weren’t trying to hurt my feelings. A lot of people just messed around with me because I was fat.”
Carter’s father admits he made matters worse by taking his son to Wendy’s on the way home from school.
“Everybody knew him there because we went every day,” Franks says.
But as Carter’s weight increased, his father recognized the issue and started sending him to a personal trainer. Carter also took up kickboxing and started playing AAU basketball.
“With all that running, it didn’t take him long to start shedding those pounds,” Franks says. “Once he saw the difference, I think he embraced it and said, ‘OK, this is what I want to look like.’ That was his motivation.”
Carter returned to football at 14 and also began lifting weights.
“Toward the end of eighth grade I started training at a gym and I felt good again,” Zachary says. “I started to see results. I wanted to change my look and I did. That helps me work out to this day.”
His mother, however, claims that sports and workouts weren’t the only vehicle for Carter’s weight loss. She gives credit to her brother in Louisiana.
“We went to see his uncle and he had this ab roller,” Iva says. “Zachary was like, ‘Uncle Bobby, I want a six-pack.’ He wanted to look just like him.
“So when he came back home, he bought an ab roller and used it religiously in his room like every day. That’s when he stopped being chunky.”
Finding his way
As a freshman, Carter made the varsity team at Hillsborough High School in Tampa and started on the offensive line with his brother, who is now an offensive lineman at Jackson State.
But Max Warner, a former Hillsborough assistant who is now the head coach at Bloomingdale High in Valrico, Fla., thought Carter needed to be on the JV team in 2013.
“He felt like I made the team because of my brother and I didn’t deserve it. He told me I wasn’t good,” Zachary says. “I was one of two freshmen on varsity and he was trying to put me down. It just changed my mindset.”
Carter’s parents believe Warner’s harsh words were meant for motivation. It upset Zachary at the time, but also lit a fire that still burns.
“Coach Warner basically told him he can’t just ride on his brother’s coattails,” Iva says. “You have to put in the work.”
Carter moved to the defensive line as a sophomore and quickly caught on. During his junior season, he would review his Hudl highlights every weekend with his brother over the phone.
“They were doing that game after game, unbeknownst to us,” Iva says. “We found out after the fact that they were doing that behind the scenes. That’s how close they are.”
By the end of 2015, Carter was a consensus 4-star recruit and held more than 20 scholarship offers.
His mother is from Baton Rouge and liked LSU, his father was a Florida State fan and his older brother rooted for Ohio State. But Carter knew early in his recruitment that Florida would be his destination.
“He was the only person chomping in the house,” Iva says. “I even bought a flashing LSU light that I plugged in his room every night. This boy still liked the Gators.”
As the recruiting process played out, Carter’s parents wanted him to attend Clemson because of Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. However, McElwain won them over during their trip to Florida.
“I liked Coach Mac the first time I met him,” Franks says. “I asked a lot of pointed questions and he handled it well. He was good. So at that point, I was comparing to Coach Swinney and he passed the test with flying colors. I gained confidence in him being an extension of us.”
Iva adds, “We were standing in the hallway on the visit, but Coach Mac couldn’t see us. The players had a team meeting and he was at the door hugging everybody as they came in. You would think every player was his child the way he loved on them. I was just standing there like, ‘Wow. That is great.’ It’s not like that everywhere.”
Carter officially joins McElwain and the football team in June when he enrolls at Florida. He will leave behind a house full of awards and trophies he accumulated during his high school career.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end recently ran into Warner, the coach who challenged him as a freshman, at an awards ceremony for Tampa-area athletes.
“He told me he was proud of me,” Zachary says. “Hearing that was big. Ever since middle school I’ve been trying to prove everybody wrong — coaches, peers.
“I had a lot of doubters because of my chubbiness and immaturity. But when that light turned on for me, I never looked back.”