NFL Wide Receiver Rae Carruth, the Women Who Loved Him, And the One He Wanted Dead
One by one, day by day, they’d glide to the witness stand, this procession of improbable women, a spangled harem of them, drifting into the courtroom and out again, leaving the scent of their perfume and the shadow of their glitter and the echo of their cool. Week in, week out, they never stopped coming.
That was the extraordinary thing. How many there were. The final count stopped short of thirty—that was the number of photographs of women Rae was said to keep in a box at home—but there were more than enough of them to make each and every morning worth my springing out of bed for, worth walking down to the courthouse for, worth getting frisked at the doorway for: in the hope that a new one might illuminate the somber courtroom with its smoked-glass view of the jailhouse across the street.
And sure enough, in the middle of a gray day of testimony filled with the babble of a psychologist or the grunt of a jail guard or the platitudes of a coach, out of the blue Rae’s attorney would suddenly say, “The defense calls Dawnyle Willard,” and next to me the TV guy would arch an eyebrow at the local columnist—who’s this one? what’s the angle? lover? friend? cleaned his apartment? helped him jump bail?—and they’d both shrug, because no one had heard of Dawnyle Willard.
Then everyone would turn to the back of the courtroom to get a look at the newest entrant, because we just knew she was going to be beautiful. And honestly, she just about always was.
Dawnyle certainly was. Stately, slim, a dancer. Former girlfriend, now confidante. Wept on the stand, at the pure goodness of the man.
Amber was cool, slim, and fiery and a favorite among those of us who spoke of such things during breaks in the action, although Starlita was easily the most exotic; she looked like a Mexican princess dropped into a southern murder trial. Michelle was the pretty little girl next door. Monique was innocently cute. Trisha, Rae’s current squeeze, was … well, a tad young looking. But she was pretty enough for you to understand why Rae would nod at her each day when, sandwiched by grim bailiffs, he left the courtroom—nodding as if to say, Hey, babe, don’t worry: you’re the one now. And I swear, she believed it.
Sometimes, though, Rae nodded at the woman in the front pew. She was there every day. By some measures, she was the most handsome of all: high forehead, piercing eyes, coiffed and jewelried to the highest. Some newcomers to the courtroom thought she was another female friend. But this was Rae’s mother, Theodry Carruth, anchoring the Cult of Rae from the center of the home-team bench.
Really, there was no other way to think of them—other than as a cult—at least not after the mother of one of Rae’s former girlfriends took the stand near the end of the trial, and the mother was gorgeous. Not only was she beautiful, but get this: after her daughter testified against Rae, the mother testified glowingly for Rae.
And then, as she left the stand, she looked right at Rae—a man facing the death penalty for taking out a hit on a pregnant woman—looked right into his eyes and, all sweet and wet, mouthed the words I love you.
As the weeks passed and the women came and went, I would look over at Rae and stare at his profile, which never changed, because Rae never changed expressions, even during the closing argument, when the lead prosecutor played the 911 tape of Cherica Adams’s moans: sounds from beyond the grave, all sputtering utterances, atonal syllables so skin-crawling that throughout the courtroom shoulders heaved in sobs. But Rae’s face flinched not at all. Animated and emotional and expressive as the women were—weaving and looping their tales of his goodness and his charity—Rae remained a well-tailored sphinx.
And so, day in, day out, I’d ask myself a question. Not what they all saw in him; the first look at Rae explained that: this baby face, the contours all smooth and rounded, the outward down-slant of his eyebrows giving him this puppy-dog-swatted-with-a-newspaper look. Girls loved to take care of Rae even before he became a millionaire. No, the question I kept asking myself was this: If Rae Carruth loved women so much, why did he keep threatening to have them killed? How, if he gathered women around him like a cocoon, if he thrived on them and fed on them and drew sustenance from them, could a man get to a point in his life where he routinely considered disposing of them? And how could such a man wind up finding a home—even flourishing—in the National Football League?
Well, because he really didn’t like women at all. (He liked to fuck them, and he liked their attention, and he liked the idea of them, but he didn’t like them.) And because he was accustomed to violence. And because he was making a living in a league in which a man and his basest instincts are encouraged to run wild. Well, he was until recently, anyway; Rae doesn’t play football anymore. He’s in prison up in Nash County, where he won’t have to worry about women and women won’t have to worry about him, and as his crime swiftly seeps into the background noise of the culture, we’re already starting to act as if we didn’t have to worry about Rae Carruth anymore. As if the whole episode were an aberration.
Of course, it’s anything but. Take even a cursory look at how Rae Carruth went from first-round NFL draft pick to ward of the state of North Carolina, serving a quarter century of hard time for conspiring to commit the most horrific crime in the history of professional sports, and the question is not how it could happen but when is it going to happen again.
He came from the place so many seem to come from; only the details vary from kid to kid. Rae didn’t grow up with his biological father. As a child, Rae split time among several houses, including his mother’s, set in a neighborhood of squalor and dismay on the south side of Sacramento—on an avenue where vandals routinely set cars aflame—and her sister’s place in a nicer part of town, absent the bars on the windows. Even then, even before he was showered with privilege, Theodry worried about the sharks and the vultures preying on her son, “the guppy.”
This is how she describes him. This is why she describes herself as “the piranha” when it comes to protecting her son. To know Rae Carruth and to understand the course he chose to take, to divine the nature of his particular rebellion—because isn’t that what all our adolescent contrarinesses are? rebellion against what was lacquered onto us beforehand?—you must first know Theodry Carruth. There is a hardness and a strength to her, and they seem like the same thing; she seizes the space she is in and commands it from on high.
But if one may be tempted to call Rae’s mother domineering, one ought not to, because she will not tolerate being described as overbearing, and she will tell you so. Describe her instead, she warns in a voice that brooks no argument, as simply having been raised by a Southern mother, and then say she is raising her son thusly.
Theodry Carruth’s vigilance over her only son’s upbringing paid off at least in the short run: Rae’s grades at Valley High School were solid, he stayed out of trouble, and big colleges came calling. In 1992 Rae went off to the University of Colorado. Back on the infernal block on Parker Avenue, Theodry Carruth turned one of the rooms into a miniature shrine where family and friends gathered to sit in mock stadium chairs and watch Rae’s games from Boulder. It was called the Rae of Hope room. Neighborhood kids would set it on fire a few years later.
At Colorado, Rae’s coach Bill McCartney was a demagogue. On the field, McCartney was known for teams that played hard and thuggishly. Off the field, he was known for the conversation he’d had with God. One day God told McCartney to found the Promise Keepers. Soon thereafter, at McCartney’s urgings, tens of thousands of fathers and husbands took to gathering in football stadiums across the land to beat their chests and flagellate their souls and collectively recommit to their gender. The subtext of the Promise Keepers was a patently sexist one, of course: portraying women as worthy beings but regarding them, ultimately, as secondary, as biblical chattel.
But beneath the roar of McCartney’s fire and brimstone, his daughter was getting pregnant by two different football players in four and a half years—the first, the star quarterback, wanted her to abort the fetus; the second sired his child during Rae’s freshman year. This only proved that when you climb too high in the pulpit, it’s easy to ignore the funky stuff going on under your nose. Especially if you’re a member of the sinning crowd: McCartney himself quit on his Colorado contract after Rae’s third autumn in Boulder. Broke his promise, if you will.
Rae’s college athletic achievements were legendary—in one game alone, he had seven receptions for 222 yards and three touchdowns. In 1997 he entered the hallowed fraternity of first-round draft picks under the watchful wink of the NFL. The Carolina Panthers took him as their first selection, number twenty-seven overall. Like all rookies, he would be instructed on how to behave. But like his first-round peers, he knew what had actually just happened: he’d been ushered into a land of entitlement, where the only promise he’d really be held to was the promise he’d shown thus far on the playing field.
The Panthers gave him a four-year contract worth $3.7 million and a $1.3 million signing bonus, and it wasn’t so much the amount of money that was stunning but the ease with which it came. Within days of being signed, Rae got a check for $15,000 in the mail from a trading-card company. Just for being Rae. How sweet was that?
Copyright © 2021 Peter Richmond