John McGrath

John McGrath: UW, Lincoln High star Luther Carr was an athletic talent on par with Jim Thorpe

Had Luther Carr regarded his unpolished long-jumping ability with something more than casual interest, the Summer Olympic Games might have beckoned for him.

Had Carr accepted Branch Rickey’s offer to sign a minor-league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates, it’s conceivable the center fielder could have shared a spot in the same major league outfield as Roberto Clemente.

But Carr believed his comprehensively impressive athletic talent was best suited for the football field, where the threat of breaking away loomed every time he touched the ball.

Because a spinal injury suffered on special teams ended his pro football career almost as soon as it started, Carr had reason to spend the rest of his life mourning the potential paths of glory he didn’t take.

Instead, Carr, who died July 10 in Seattle at 76, chose to accentuate the positive: how sports enabled a kid from Tacoma’s Salishan housing project to become a nationally prominent high school athlete at Lincoln High before enrolling at the University of Washington and earning the diploma that shaped his future as a successful Seattle businessman and influential community leader.

“He was the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few,” Carr’s former Lincoln and UW teammate, Jack Walters, said Monday. “Playing with him was fun, because after I blocked for him, I got to watch him.

“I’ll never forget the first time we faced each other in junior high,” recalled Walters. “It was two-hand touch, and just as he went around end and I got close enough to touch him, he jumped up so high that his knees were above my eyes.

“He’s been my hero ever since.”

Born in Atlanta on May 17, 1936, Carr’s family moved to Tacoma when his father, Luther Sr., learned of an employment opportunity in an aluminum plant. By the age of 12, Luther Jr. was traveling with the Cheney Studs semipro baseball team.

At Lincoln, in addition to starring in baseball, Carr was an all-state football player and varsity basketball starter. Due to his baseball commitment in the spring, Carr dabbled in track and field “as a lark,” he later explained.

Some lark. He participated on the Abes’ 880-meter relay team that broke the state record two years in a row. Carr also recorded a state-record long jump mark — 23 feet, 7 inches — that wouldn’t be bettered for another 10 years.

Despite burgeoning fame that found him mulling multiple recruiting offers (a Seattle Times sportswriter referred to him as “a 185-pound hydrogen bomb”), Carr, among 13 black students at Lincoln, fit in well.

“He was part of the group, everyone liked him,” said Vic Eshpeter, who ran on the 880 relay team with Carr. “Back then, there was no discrimination. It got worse as time went on.”

Carr learned that at Washington, where his open-field elusiveness was not maximized by any of the three coaches — John Cherberg, Darrell Royal and Jim Owens — he played for between 1955 and 1958. Carr appeared in 30 games for the Huskies but started in only seven of them, finishing with 841 yards and eight touchdowns.

“They never tried to exploit my talents,” Carr told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2007. “I was aware black players were viewed differently than whites and I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t going to change the world.”

The San Francisco 49ers took Carr as the 246th overall selection of the 1959 NFL draft, and a year after he was cut, he signed with the Oakland Raiders of the fledgling AFL. A blindside collision on kickoff coverage, during the 1960 preseason finale at Buffalo, caused the spinal injury that effectively ended Carr’s status as a premier athlete.

Initial fears of the injury causing a long-term disability proved inaccurate, but there were hospital bills due, and the Raiders weren’t inclined to help out. Celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli was, however, and prevailed when the case against the Raiders went to court. Carr ended up with an $80,000 settlement.

Carr returned to Seattle to raise a family with his wife, Frances, and pursue post-football opportunities as a Central Area contractor. He joined the Rainier Club and Washington Athletic Club — neither group was integrated at the time — and presided on the boards of several civic organizations.

“I came from very poor circumstances to going to the Inaugural Ball for two U.S. presidents, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter,” Carr, oldest of nine siblings, told last year. “I’ve been married for 56 years and, man, I’ve had a wonderful life.

“If I were to write my obit,” he went on, “I’d say, ‘He had a chance to compete.’ ”

Walters, who witnessed an early chance for Carr to compete by noticing the knees of the ball carrier were elevated beyond the eye level of the tackler, recalled his athletic hero more expansively.

“Luther could have picked up a javelin, and without ever practicing the technique of throwing a javelin, he’d have set a record,” said Walters. “The name that comes to my mind is Jim Thorpe. He was that good an athlete.”

Carr is survived by his wife, three children (Brenda, Dana and Luther III) and four granddaughters.

A celebration of Carr’s life is planned for August, and figures to include some conjecture about the athletic challenges Tacoma’s version of Jim Thorpe didn’t take up. How long, for instance, might a javelin Carr released have stayed airborne?

Based the sound of Jack Walters’ voice, a first guess already has been submitted.