Stephen Carr hadn’t made pasta like this before. Back home in California, Carr cooked pasta, but there was always a family member looking over his shoulder if he needed help. Now in Bloomington? He’s on his own in the kitchen. So he learned how to make tacos, steak and pasta. Sloppy Joes too. He’d call back home if any questions came up.
His culinary skills, though, are just one of the many adjustments Carr has made over the past few months.
This spring, Carr made a difficult decision to leave the University of Southern California. Carr grew up idolizing the Trojans and it was always his “dream school,” he says. In high school, when he got the offer from USC, there was never really any consideration that he’d go anywhere else. After four years, he graduated in the spring of this year.
There was also the fact that he’d be leaving California, the state he’d always considered home. As a kid, Carr’s parents went to his Pop Warner and high school games. It continued when he starred at USC. His mother’s house, he said, was only 30 minutes away from USC’s campus, meaning that he could go home after practices. She’d make tacos and his favorite, enchiladas.
This is what Carr decided to leave behind. In Indiana, though, he saw an opportunity.
He had a prior relationship with Indiana’s running back coach Deland McCullough, who coached him at USC. He admired what Tom Allen was building. But it also gave Carr a chance to look internally, a journey of self-improvement during his move across the country, away from his family and friends.
“I feel like this gives me a great opportunity to focus on myself and learn a lot about myself,” Carr said over the summer.
A few months later, Indiana’s season hasn’t unfolded the way that many expected. The Hoosiers are currently 2-6 and haven’t won a Big Ten game yet. But in his look inward, Carr has developed into a leader not only by necessity but by choice. On Saturday against Maryland, he had his best game of the season, rushing for 136 yards and two touchdowns, doing all he could to keep Indiana afloat in an eventual 38-35 loss.
It was much of the potential that Carr had once shown as a five-star recruit. As a freshman at USC, he was named All-Pac 12 honorable mention. The rest of his career, though, was marred by injuries. In his first two years, there was a sprained ankle, plus a herniated disk that required surgery. Then a hamstring injury as a junior. In his senior season, he rushed for just 176 yards.
What’s important to understand is that Carr isn’t afraid to be introspective and honest. When reflecting candidly back on his younger self, Carr says, he didn’t take game-like reps with the level of attention to detail as consistently as he should have.
“I would just tell (my younger self) to care a little bit more,” Carr said. “It’s that simple. You just have to care a little bit more.”
“Be present and in the moment. Care and be present. That’s what I’m focusing on right now. Trying to be present and in the moment every chance that I get. Not thinking about the past or the future too much. Just stay present.”
Mindfulness is still a learning process for Carr. He doesn’t normally meditate in a traditional sense. Rather he “meditates on football,” as he calls it, which consists of watching film all the way through without letting himself get distracted by his phone or his surroundings. He tries to be aware of his thoughts. He also wears a necklace with the picture of a blue buddha, which he rarely takes off. If it pops out during games, he tucks it back in, which acts as a reminder to stay centered.
“Stay in the present moment,” Carr says. “Soak it all in.”
It manifests in maturity too. When meeting with reporters throughout the season, Carr always opens by asking how everyone is doing. When the availability ends, he tells everyone to have a great day, followed by a few fist bumps. After Indiana’s game win over Idaho, Carr’s first career 100-yard rushing game, he gave some of his gear to a young fan in the stands.
“I just love the kids,” Carr said. “I was a kid one day, who looked up to the people that are in the position that we are right now. It’s only good to give back.”
On the field, Carr has been a constant in a revolving door of players in the backfield this season. At running back, Sampson James and Tim Baldwin Jr. both entered the transfer portal. David Ellis underwent ankle surgery, leaving Carr as the only scholarship back to handle a majority of the carries. Carr also played alongside quarterbacks Michael Penix Jr. and Jack Tuttle for a handful of games before both suffered injuries. Now, he’s helping guide freshman quarterback Donaven McCulley, who was thrown into the starting role against Maryland.
Carr has done everything he can to be a steady influence. He offers encouragement like “we got this” and “let’s do this” to McCulley. He cracks inside jokes and daps him up. At practice, Carr takes mental reps when he’s resting. With walk-on running backs Chris Childers and Davion Ervin-Poindexter, Carr has emphasized the importance of practicing hard. A couple of weeks ago, Childers asked Carr about how he makes guys miss in space. Carr answered with some moves that Childers had never heard before. The result? Both have notched runs of more than 25 yards this season.
“No matter what the situation is, he’s always encouraging,” wide receiver Ty Fryfogle said of Carr. “We could be down (by) whatever and he’s encouraging. We could be up (by) whatever and he’s encouraging. No matter the situation, he’s always encouraging and uplifting guys. That’s what I love about him.”
In eight games this season, Carr has rushed for six touchdowns and 588 yards, including three 100-plus yard games. Behind an inconsistent offensive line, there have been times where Carr was bottled up, like his season-low 13-yard performance against Ohio State. But he bounced back a week later against Maryland, where he burst through the line for a 66-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
After gaining some critical distance from this transitional period in his life, Carr was recently asked about what he said back in the summer.
What have you learned about yourself?
“I think I’ve learned that I’m a leader now. I’ve really taken that step to really becoming a leader and taking all of those responsibilities that come with it. Not taking shortcuts, not making excuses. When you make excuses everybody else is going to make excuses.”
“I just look out for everybody like they’re my brother. There’s more to life than football and if you have these traits during this time while playing football, you’re going to take it over to life.”
After a few more minutes of talking to a small group of reporters, Carr slid out from behind the podium in IU’s media room.
“I appreciate you guys,” he said. “Great questions. For real.”
Then, one final message before he went on his way.
“Ya’ll have a good day.”