Michael Carter sat in the back of his father's car and put his head down, trying to focus on the moment. The 7-year-old future running back listened to the music playing in his father's car on the way to his next football game.
The music was his way of tuning out the world. Then, all of a sudden, he looked up at his father, who asked him what was wrong.
"Dad, I don't think I want to get tackled today," Michael said.
His father Tony Carter told him the answer was simple — don't get tackled. Michael nodded, put his head back down, smiled and went back to listening to the music.
Some 13 years later, Tony doesn't remember exactly what his son's stat line was. Something like 11 carries and seven touchdowns, he guesses. He does know one thing, though.
"He didn't get tackled one time," he said.
North Carolina's starting running back and kick returner was usually doing things like that. There's joy when Carter gets the ball and sees an open field, and a world of possibility is there for him. He's already rushed for over 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns in his two seasons at UNC.
Recent history hasn't been kind to the Tar Heels. The team has a combined 5-18 record over the past two years and has dealt with a lot — suspended players for the sale of team-issued shoes, dubious comments about concussions and a fight against N.C. State last season that resulted in, yup, more suspended players. Carter himself had to deal with a broken wrist last year that kept him out of the first two games of the season.
But Carter is still here, and he's happy. He's got a new coach in Mack Brown, and he's ready to get back on the field after last season's disappointment.
"We feel like we deserve more than what we've gotten," Carter said. "Our attitude is more or less, we're going to take it."
'He was like a lightbulb'
Michael Carter’s first encounter with football came before he could even walk. He was born in Japan and would watch his father play professionally in the X-League, the local American football league. His mother, Suzette Ellington, used to take him to practices in a stroller.
When the family moved to Navarre, Florida in 2001, they found themselves still immersed in football culture.
"You ever seen Friday Night Lights where everything closes?" Michael said with a smile. "It's not like that, but it's close."
Football didn't start out being everything to a young Michael. In his very first game, Carter wanted to quit before he had even started — as a five-year-old, his coach had him playing at guard. But his father made him try it, at least to find out if he liked it.
"We got beat 24-0, and I loved it," Carter said. "I enjoyed every second of the game."
At halftime he was moved to running back, discovering his future position then and there. It was also there that Carter discovered his favorite thing about football: how fun it was to run around with his friends, just like at recess.
Friends are something Michael has always had in abundance, even from his earliest days. People are drawn to the joy he carries around with him, not just when he's playing football, but off the field, too.
"He was always high energy," his brother Dwayne Carter II said. "He was like a lightbulb of atmosphere everywhere he was at."
Dwayne would know. The Carter brothers — Dwayne (25), Michael (20) and Josh (18)— are inseparable when they're home together.
"People say we were weird because most siblings fight a lot and stuff like that," Dwayne said. "We never really did that. (My brothers) have always been my best friends and all three of us have always been best friends. We talk probably from the time we wake up to the time we go to bed every day."
He's worked hard to make sure every team he's a part of feels just as close as he and his brothers do.
Energy and accidents
Michael Sandle grew up on the same street as Carter, and they even played on the same youth league team together. He, like many of Carter's current and former teammates, is quick to point out exactly what type of person he thinks his friend is.
"He was literally the perfect, ideal teammate," Sandle said. "He worked hard on his own and he loved all his teammates. He wasn't a real vocal guy, but he led by example, the things he did on the field, off the field. We all just kind of followed that."
Now a baseball player for South Alabama, Sandle played with Carter all the way through high school. He and Carter were just two of a core group of players that all lived in the same neighborhood and all played together since they were four or five years old.
Carter brought the energy, and his teammates fed off it. He's always had energy, even underneath his often quiet demeanor. He doesn't shout, but he's always smiling.
His grin can hide the occasional mischievousness.
On a particularly boring day in Navarre back in fourth grade, Carter and a friend got into a bit of a competition. With a substitute teacher, the two saw the perfect opportunity to dip into the bathroom to see who could jump off a stall to touch the ceiling.
"So I jump off the urinal, and I slip and fall," Carter said. "And the urinal breaks off the wall and there's water splashing all over. You could hear it from outside the building."
It might end in the occasional damage to property, but Carter's energy is infectious. His teammates recognize it, and it's part of why he's become such a valued leader in the locker room.
"He comes in the room and he's smiling from start to finish," teammate Myles Dorn said. "It rubs off on everybody. He walks in with a big smile, you can't sit beside him and be mad."
'You gotta know their story'
If there's one criticism Carter's college coach has for him, it's that he's not loud enough. From Brown's perspective, he needs players like Carter to make their voice heard at every opportunity.
For the junior running back, though, being a leader doesn't always mean talking.
"After a while, when you get to a place where you've had the same boss for a long time, I think their words start to lose value," Carter said. "When you're that boss – I'm not saying I'm that boss – but being in a leadership position, you gotta find different ways to talk to different people, because not everyone is the same."
Carter doesn't like telling his teammates what to do. He makes an effort, when he does speak up, to explain that anytime he might have to call out a teammate, it's because he wants them, and the entire team, to be successful.
He wouldn't feel comfortable doing that if he didn't feel close to his teammates.
"Having to call someone out, you gotta have a relationship to do that. A real one," Carter said. "You gotta know their story, how to connect to them."
Carter's had three years to connect to some of his teammates — with others, like starting true first-year quarterback Sam Howell, he's only had a few months. But he and fellow back Antonio Williams have already made their impact in that short time, showing the new QB the ropes.
"Ever since I got here they've took me under their wing, help me through stuff, gave me advice and just taught me how to be a college football player," Howell said.
As for himself, Carter is set to be the number one running back for the Tar Heels. He led the team in rushing in 2018 with 597 yards, despite missing two games at the start of the season. He only had three touchdowns last season, one from a reception, but he averaged 7.1 yards per carry last season.
Carter will have to be a star this year if North Carolina wants to be successful. Brown has spoken openly about how running back will be the deepest position for UNC — and with a talented, but unproven quarterback, the team could have to rely on the run game more often than not.
But even still, he's not worried about the pressure. After all, Carter gets to go back to doing his favorite thing this weekend.
"I get to hang out with my friends on Saturday."
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.