LINCOLN — Cethan Carter wanted to go home.

He’d come a long way north to start a college football career, but when you’re 19 years old and New Orleans is all you know, 1,000 miles feels like a million. Lincoln feels like Greenland.

That summer, 2013, Carter had just arrived on campus when his freshman roommate, Ernest Suttles, struck a teammate over the head with a bottle, earning a one-way ticket out of town.

Carter was left by himself.

“I didn’t talk to anybody for like three weeks,” he said.

He’d made his college decision in a rush, two weeks before signing day amid a late deluge of scholarship offers. The 6-foot-4 tight end had cited Nebraska’s family atmosphere. Now he was living here and wasn’t so sure anymore. These people didn’t act like him. They didn’t talk like him.

“I wanted to leave,” Carter said. “It was so different. I wasn’t used to none of this.”

Carter stayed because of his parents — Mom and Dad didn’t let him quit. But he succeeded at Nebraska largely because of someone else, a fellow freshman who kept picking at him that summer, teasing him, unlocking him, breaking him down until lifeless scowls slowly turned into genuine grins.

Carter hasn’t granted a media request in more than a year — he’s mighty proud of this streak. It’s a bit of a joke among teammates and reporters alike. Wednesday night in Lincoln, he walked off the Memorial Stadium turf, a big brace on his elbow, and declined another round of interviews. I followed him down the tunnel.

I don’t want to talk about your injured elbow, I said. I don’t want to talk about the Buckeyes. I want to talk about Nate Gerry.

Carter gave it a long thought. He hemmed and hawed ... then he gave in.

Let’s go talk over there, he said. Where nobody will heckle him.

Unlikely best friends

Let’s be honest. Nebraska has no business winning Saturday night at Ohio State. Not on paper anyway.

Urban Meyer is 35-2 in regular-season Big Ten games. His depth chart is stuffed with four- and five-star talent. And the Horseshoe will be packed with 107,000 desperate to stay in the national title hunt. There’s a reason Ohio State is a 17-point favorite.

There’s also a reason Nebraska believes it can win: Ohio State starts one senior. The Huskers start 11. They boast the kind of experience you can’t gain in Meyer’s football factory. They’ve built the bonds that make magic possible. They’re the exception to the Buckeye rules.

“We’ve been through so much,” said Gerry, the senior safety. “I think we’ve learned so much about each other, even if we didn’t really want to. Some of the circumstances that we got put in, we kinda had to figure each other out. I just think that the bond we have is pretty crazy.”

No two Huskers came together as unpredictably as Carter and Gerry, who on paper have almost nothing in common. Carter is a receiver from the Big Easy. Gerry is a tackler from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

“He likes black people. I like white people,” Carter said, grinning. “That’s how we’re good friends.”

Truth is, Gerry did most of the work early on — “You couldn’t get a word out of Cethan.” He filled the silence. He cracked the jokes. Eventually, well, how do you explain friendship? Sometimes you just click.

“Kinda sounds like a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship honestly,” Gerry said, laughing.

Said Carter: “My freshman year, I was like, this boy a little crazy, but he’s cool so I’m gonna rock with him. And ever since then… That is my best friend.”

Sophomore year, they lived together in downtown Lincoln. Then they started rooming together on road trips.

(Carter originally roomed with Terrell Newby, but that didn’t work out — “He used to be on the phone all night with his girl at like 3 in the morning.” Carter tells that story as Newby is walking by, so he may be exaggerating.)

Gerry picked up some of Carter’s Louisiana lingo — “He started using words that I use and saying things I say,” Carter said. In the offseason, Carter accompanied Gerry to Sioux Falls, where his family treats Carter like a son, he said. Sioux Falls, it turns out, is not exactly North Bourbon Street.

“I didn’t think Lincoln had much,” Carter said, “but South Dakota ain’t got nothin’.”

Adjusting to new staff

The roadblock popped up without warning. Two days after their ninth win as sophomores, they got word Sunday morning. Their coaches were gone.

Every Husker had to adjust, but nobody underachieved quite like Gerry. New techniques confused him. Old expectations burdened him. This was a guy who started three games as a freshman; now he was giving up too many big plays to count.

Defensive coordinator Mark Banker tells a story about the 2015 spring. One day he told Gerry he should’ve made a play and the safety “almost bit my head off.”

“He said, ‘Well, I thought I was supposed to do this, how am I going to make that play?’ And I said, ‘Well, because you’re Nate Gerry.’ ”

This season, Gerry has uncluttered his mind and unharnessed his talent. He’s playing at an All-Big Ten level. Carter saw it coming in the offseason, all those mornings when they pushed each other in the weight room.

“He doesn’t even have to say anything,” Carter said. “His action impacts a lot of us. Every morning he’s got that fire. He’s a very unique person.

“Ain’t too many Nates around here.”

Not many Carters, either. The 240-pounder, who blocks like a Dodge Ram, appeared primed for a breakout season. In September, he showed a brand of versatility that gave defenses fits. But after 10 receptions in four games, Carter injured his elbow against Illinois and hasn’t played since.

Two weeks ago, Gerry told him, “You’re not gonna play against Wisconsin? This is one of the biggest games of your career.”

Carter’s response: “I wish I could go, but I can’t.”

He’s likely to go this weekend, which means Carter and Gerry will be hanging in their hotel room Friday night, talking about “dumb stuff.”

The next night, they’ll take the field for a top-10 showdown with conference title implications. They have prepared three-plus years for this month — this opportunity. Time to maximize it.

“I just know it’s my last year playing football for Nebraska and I put a lot of heart and soul into this place,” Gerry said. “The only way for me to go out and express it is on the field.”

To win, Nebraska needs all of its senior talent and experience. It also needs those bonds to make a difference on the scoreboard. Three years after Carter arrived in Lincoln, he’s “very surprised” he stuck it out. He credits the teammate who wouldn’t leave him alone that first summer.

“He made me feel like I was at home,” Carter said. “He treated me like family and made me feel comfortable. Ever since then, I opened up with a lot more people around here. (Stuff) became fun and now I love it.”

As he’s talking, another teammate walks by and interrupts. Jokingly calls big No. 11 a “sellout” for violating his no-media law. A year of principled defiance down the drain. Carter fires back in protest.

“It’s an interview about me and Nate, dog!”

Every rule needs an exception.

dirk.chatelain@owh.com, 402-649-1461, twitter.com/dirkchatelain

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Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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