LINCOLN — Al Lown got a call from Joseph Carter last weekend, and he said it wasn't hard to detect the satisfaction in Carter's voice.
Carter had finished some classes and gone through summer conditioning with the Nebraska football program, and his first practice with the Huskers was so close he could taste it.
"He seems really happy at Nebraska, from the several times I've talked to him over the summer," said Lown, Carter's former coach at Silver Bluff High just outside Aiken, S.C. "He appreciates being there, I know that."
Todd Gerhart and Daimion Stafford have had similar conversations. Stafford was excited to tell his former high school coach recently that his paperwork was complete and that he would be eligible this season at NU.
"Daimion has gone through the ringer," said Gerhart, head coach at Norco (Calif.) High and father of 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart. "I don't know how much he might disclose when you talk to him about it, but he's come out on the other end, I think."
Neither Carter nor Stafford had it easy on their way to Nebraska, through challenges growing up and a stop at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Now they will continue working on their comeback stories together as newcomers to the Husker defense.
"What I'm looking forward to is the time they give back, when they come back and give a testimonial to the other guys," Chaffey coach Carl Beach said. "Hopefully they can make it (at Nebraska), come back and refer to their own experience."
Stafford, a 6-foot-1, 210- pound safety, and Carter, a 6-5, 250-pound defensive end, will sit with their new teammates Friday at fan day and then go through their first Husker practice Saturday. They were the only junior college signees in the NU recruiting class last February. As newcomers to the program, they are not available for interviews until they have played in a game.
Lown and Gerhart, however, said both had to overcome their share of hurdles and fight academic battles to reach Lincoln.
Carter was raised in rural Jackson, S.C. Lown called him "Boss Hog," and said Carter was a likable kid who always appreciated things like grabbing a meal at Lown's house.
"If he can not only do well at Nebraska but go further, it'd be a real rags-to-riches story," Lown said. "There's no doubt he comes from humble beginnings."
Because he spent a year at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College before going to Chaffey, Carter has two years to play two seasons at Nebraska. At Chaffey, Carter made 17 tackles for losses in two seasons, including 7Ĺ sacks his sophomore year.
Beach said Carter started to make progress with his focus last season as schools like NU, Arizona and Rutgers got interested.
"He started getting recruited pretty heavily," Beach said, "and realized, 'I've got to turn it up academically.'"
Beach said reaching the Division I level has been an ongoing maturation process for Stafford. Gerhart first took him into his home when Stafford transferred to Norco midway through his freshman year of high school.
"I didn't even know he was a football player; we've always just helped kids who have needed help," Gerhart said. "He needed to get his grades going and his life going. We always held our own kids to a high standard, and those expectations around the house were good for him."
At least once Stafford let Gerhart down — and found himself looking for another place to stay. But it was Gerhart and his daughters who helped Stafford focus on his studies for the latter half of his senior year at Norco to graduate.
"He had always been a hard-working kid for me," Gerhart said. "He just never had the support system."
On the field, Gerhart said Stafford could always run and hit, but is just now "getting the thick, mature body on him." Stafford made 147 tackles in two seasons and intercepted nine passes at Chaffey. He counted Southern Cal, Florida and Iowa State among his offers coming out of JC.
Although they grew up on different coasts, the bond between Carter and Stafford started at Chaffey — and Beach suspects it will only grow at Nebraska.
"I think what they probably saw in each other is that they both had superior abilities," Beach said, "and those abilities, if everything else would go OK, could get them to a higher level of football than most community college football players get to absorb."
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