A lot has changed for Austin Carr since he arrived as a freshman at Northwestern University in 2012. A native of Benicia, California, the former running back left his high school as the all-time rushing and scoring leader, but came to Evanston as a walk-on, chasing a spot on Northwestern's roster far more than the team pursued him.
Carr didn't see any playing time his first two years, emerging as a wide receiver in 2014 to pick up 7 catches for 100 yards. Fast forward two years, and not only has Carr been awarded a full athletic scholarship, but he leads the Big Ten in catches (84), receiving yards (1196) and touchdowns (12) – a feat that he never expected to accomplish.
"I didn’t dream that was possible," Carr said. "I don’t think any walk-on comes into a place where he wasn’t even recruited – I mean, these guys didn’t even know about me until I got in and sent my tapes. And even the tapes, it was like, ‘Okay – he might be able to contribute one day.’ But by no means was it like, ‘Oh – he’s going to lead the Big Ten’. That’s what the guys who are heavily recruited, that’s what the 3, 4, 5-star athletes are expected to produce, so no one saw this coming."
Before the 2016 season, Carr had 23 total receptions for the Wildcats. This year, he racked up 23 catches in just the Wisconsin and MSU games combined. It's a remarkable increase by any standards, and one that Carr actually credits to his more humble beginnings.
"I’d say where opportunity meets preparation," Carr said. "Coach says that, and it’s very generic and of course it’s a tell-tale saying that people use, but I didn’t have as much opportunity in the past and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I had to get better."
"I came here, I was slow, I did not have great hands, I did not have great route technique, and I needed to learn the playbook," he added. "I needed two years just in the stable working at my craft and learning from the older guys before I could even be trusted by the coaches."
"Early on in his career I think he realized he needed to get in the weight room and get stronger, and really work diligently on his craft – running great routes, being someone the quarterbacks could trust to be where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there, and then do a really good job catching the football," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
"I haven’t seen a whole lot of drops out of Austin all year. He’s definitely a talented young man, but he’s coupled that with the work ethic, and his best football was ahead of him. Out of high school, he wasn’t recruited, he gets here, sometimes there’s a physical change in guys, and that’s what’s happened to AC."
That talent and work ethic made him a finalist for two major accolades: the Biletnikoff Award, given to the most outstanding receiver in American college football, and the Burlsworth Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top former walk-on.
"The Burlsworth is really cool because there is that kind of walk-on pride that I think guys like me walk with," Carr said, contemplating which would mean more to him. "I started with a little more of an uphill battle, and I overcame irrelevancy and maybe being athletically inferior to the guys around me. There’s pride with that, but the Biletnikoff is... I mean that’s such a big deal. That’s something that nobody around here even imagined. It would be a huge honor."
"To see the success that he’s had going from an unrecruited walk-on to now being a finalist for the Biletnikoff, I think really should be a great role model for every wide receiver, every student-athlete out there, quite frankly," Fitzgerald said. "If you dream it and you work at it, you can achieve it – and that’s Austin Carr."
But Carr is hardly defined by simply his underdog story, or even his stellar senior season. A philosophy major, Carr has also been a tour guide and admissions counselor at Northwestern and has performed in the school's Student-Athlete Talent Show each year. Back in 2013, he won it all with a rendition of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody."
With a classically trained pianist for a mother and a drummer for a father, performing has come naturally for Carr, who was a finalist in a California state poetry competition and even starred as the Beast in Benicia High's production of "Beauty and the Beast."
"It's just a great escape, just to unwind, to enjoy playing music," Carr said of his off-the-field pursuits. "I'm a songwriter kind of at heart so that kind of stuff, it just relaxes me. It's something I'd like to get better at one day, probably after football."
Though they appear quite different on the surface, Carr finds that his artistic endeavors make him a stronger football player.
"It requires creative juices, it requires kind of thinking outside the box, which any good football player will tell you you can’t beat a guy the same way twice. A good opponent is going to learn from you. You need to think of creative ways to counter punch and counter attack and be a better player. I’d like to think that kind of side of me does force me to be a more creative person in general, and that helps on the field."
With a variety of talents, Carr's future is bright and his plans are big.
"Ten years from now, I’d love to be in the NFL. Not just for a short stint – I love this game. I love teaching it to younger people, I love learning in it," he said of his long-term goals. "So let’s say NFL in ten years, and then post-NFL, I want to get better at singing and songwriting. If John Legend is watching, I’d love to learn from you, John. That would be awesome!"
While so much has changed for Carr over the course of his college career, one thing that has remained the same is his drive.
"I’m not trying to believe all the hype about me, you know what I mean? I’m not watching all these interviews and people talking about me," he said. "I might not see this for awhile because I’m trying to stay locked in on the goal. For me, it can be kind of distracting. It’s an honor, but gotta stay focused."