Humble beginnings can be an ostracized theme in sports. Even so, not many former professional athletes who grew up in a small town dream of rekindling their high school fortune; it’s all about the professional spectacle. But Gainesville High has been the life of Cris Carpenter — past, present and future.
“I remember watching Tommy West play and I coached Micah Owings and I watched Tasha Humphrey play," Carpenter said. "I’m a part of this (Gainesville High) in more ways than one. To me that’s what Gainesville High is — You never forget the people that came before you who set the stage. I’m just honored to be a part of this school.”
Carpenter will share the stage with the aforementioned trio and fellow Gainesville High athletic legends in its inaugural athletic hall of fame during Saturday’s ceremony at Scott’s Downtown. He is one of six players given the nod, along with legendary Gainesville football coach Bobby Gruhn.
The 1956-57 Fair Street High football team, which won back-to-back state championships, will be the first team honored for its accomplishments before integration.
Carpenter traded time across Gainesville High’s athletic department with four year stints with the football, basketball and baseball team. Two state championships in basketball (1983-84), a state runner-up in football (1983) and 1984 state athlete of the year propelled Carpenter’s career and Gainesville High further into prominence.
“I was a part of the tradition of Gainesville High School,” Carpenter said. “I was never the tradition.
“I will always honor my teammates because we rode the ride together. It wasn’t just me. That’s what made Gainesville high school so good: My teammates and the coaching I got set the stage for what I did later (in life).”
A peek into Carpenter’s eventual legacy began in 1969, the year his family moved from Florida to Gainesville. His parents enrolled him into the local boys club where he invested several hours each day into future teammates. The popular after school organization became a Gainesville hub for relational cultivation, in which Carpenter learned how to truly compete.
“Gainesville was where you wanted to be,” Carpenter said. “There was no transferring in and transferring out. That’s what made this area unique. It was still small, but the guys you grew up with at the boys club became your high school teammates. That’s what made us good.”
In 1984, Carpenter absorbed the good and became elite, earning the Georgia athlete of the year title. He led the basketball team to a state championship, the football team to the state semifinals and the baseball team to a region championship run, just short of the title.
“It was one of those years when everything came together and everything worked,” Carpenter said of his senior year, a popular conversation starter for locals. “It was one of the best years of my life.”
The “four greatest years” of his life was bookended by a call from Athens. The University of Georgia respected him as a two-sport athlete, recruiting him to play football and baseball.
His successful collegiate career turned heads. The St. Louis Cardinals selected the pitcher with a three-pitch (fastball, slider and forkball) arsenal in the first round of the 1987 Major League Baseball draft.
“Somebody asked me a while back what it’s like to pitch in the big leagues,” Carpenter said. “It’s stressful, terrifying, wonderful, exhilarating, satisfying, all of that stuff rolled into one every time you went out. It was the culmination of all the things I started at the boys club when I was 8 years old.”
He spent eight years in the majors with stops in St. Louis, Miami, Texas and Milwaukee.
Few professional athletes know how to proceed in life once their career is over. Very few are content knowing that their level of play is no longer enough.
“It was fulfilling to understand that I couldn’t pitch at that level anymore, and it was time to retire,” Carpenter said. “I looked forward to my next journey in life.”
Carpenter returned to Gainesville, earned his college degree at Piedmont College and continued where he left off as an 18-year-old.
“I knew when I left (the majors) — because of Bobby Gruhn and Jerry Davis, I wanted to be just like them, I wanted to be a high school coach. And I was.”
He became the quarterbacks and pitching coach (when the Red Elephants won three state baseball championships) for his alma mater, and now teaches world history part-time.
A loyal representative of Gainesville.
The rolling hills and hidden fishing holes of Gainesville never left the heart of Carpenter. His life has led him on a journey of possibilities many people are not granted. He didn’t necessarily choose each destination but reached an agreement at each stop — a business transaction, as he calls it.
He chose Gainesville, where he will forever choose the Red Elephants.
“My life’s been journeys all over the place and they’ve all been good,” Carpenter said. “Who gets to play pro baseball and come back to coach at their high school? I was like a pig in slob and still am.
“Gainesville High has supplied me with everything I needed to get where I wanted to go.”