Gophers Trill Carter’s growth spurt helps himself and young children he inspires

He was born DeAngelo Carter, then switched his last name to Griffin before going back to his given surname. Now he’s changed it again to Trill Carter. The many names of the Gophers’ starting defensive tackle show how the 21-year-old rural southern Georgia native has been trying to figure out who he wants to become.

When he came to Minnesota in 2019, Carter said, he was “small-minded to the culture” instilled by head coach P.J. Fleck. Now, the third-year player embraces it —and brings it with him back home to Leesburg, Ga., and his volunteer outings at the Nokomis South Montessori School in St. Paul.

The young children at Nokomis have found the 6-foot-2, 300-pound man to be a lovable teddy bear, eager to read them stories, participate in learning activities and just be silly while doing the “Chicken Dance.” They have stuck calling him “DeAngelo,” whether it’s when they sent him videos wishing him happy birthday in October, get well messages after an injury in early November or just saying thanks for visiting their school, where kids held up sign reading, “Nokomis (hearts) DeAngelo.”

Carter began visiting the elementary school to fulfill class credits but now volunteers. What started pre-pandemic continued on video during quarantine and has restarted in-person this year. A youth studies major who is academic all-Big Ten, Carter has visited the school more than 30 times over two years, Nokomis teacher Don Pollard estimated.

Carter’s volunteer efforts at the school inspired the Gophers nominate him for the 2021 AllState AFCA Good Works Team, which honors college football players fulfilling commitments to community service.

“I just know that he has touched lives of kids that probably don’t have a father figure in their life, so it’s good to have somebody else come out and somebody else besides seeing me every day that is a male of color,” said Pollard, who was a Minnesota linebacker in the mid-1980s. “It’s seeing what they can do with him being a positive role model and giving them encouragement.”

Gophers defensive tackle Trill Carter, right, works with students in kindergarten teacher Kristie Zellmer’s class at Nokomis South Montessori School in St. Paul in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Trill Carter)

Carter’s work on the football field has also been positive this season. He has 20 total tackles, four for lost yards, one sack and two pass breakups in 10 games. He will be counted on again when Minnesota (7-4, 5-3 Big Ten) plays No. 14 Wisconsin (8-3, 6-2) in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe at 3 p.m. Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium.

Carter grew up in the small town of Leesburg and his time in school was not as heartwarming as his visits to Nokomis.

“I was always getting in trouble,” he said. “I was very disrespectful to my parents, to my mom, to my teachers, to my coaches and stuff. I was looking up to my brothers and cousins and they played sports but they was also in the streets. … I just be getting into fights and stuff. I started doing the things they were doing.”

Carter’s biological father wasn’t a steady influence in his life, but he had taken on his dad’s last name at the time he committed to Minnesota. Carter’s older brother had the nickname “Trill” and DeAngelo was known as “Little Trill.”

DeAngelo’s mother, Sabrina Carter, and stepfather Freddie Buford, Jr., also called him “Trill,” but Carter said he won’t officially change his first name because he “doesn’t want to take that from” his mom.

Carter transferred to Crisp County High School as a senior and helped win a state championship with four sacks and a forced fumble in the title game. He was named the game’s MVP — a rarity at any level for a D-lineman. The three-star recruit came to Minnesota in 2019, but had a rude awakening.

“I was coming out of high school with a big head and stuff like that,” Carter said. “I thought I would come in and play early. When I first got here and was on scout team, I was mad for a little bit.”

He slowly started maturing — a process that must continue, coaches said — and was named defensive scout team player of the year that fall. He played in one game in 2019 and made a tackle. In 2020, he had 16 tackles, 1½ sacks and an interception in seven games.

When Carter returns to Georgia, he gravitates to his nieces and nephews, some of whom lived with him in their small home in Leesburg.

“They are my biggest people in my life,” Carter said. “… They just be like, ‘I want to work at Wal-Mart when I get older. I want to work at fast-food (restaurant).’ I just be telling them, ‘That shouldn’t be your goal, you feel me? You are young. We are expecting the heights.’ ”

Fleck also is raising the bar on Carter.

“He’s grown up an awful lot,” the Gophers head coach said. “He’s become an unbelievable young man. He’s always loved kids. He’s always loved being around kids, and I think that is part of his maturity level. … As you see it, there is still this kid inside him that loves to give back to kids. He is so good around children.”

Gophers defensive line coach Chad Wilt has a photo of Carter in his office at the Larson Football Performance Center. It was taken during one of the football program’s youth initiatives last summer.

“All these big players are standing around and they are smiling, but there is one person in that photo that is sitting with a kid on his lap,” Wilt said. “He has the biggest smile; I’m not talking about the kid. It was Trill. He was the one that was down on their level.”

Fellow U defense tackle Nyles Pinckney is finishing up his sixth season in college football and has a lot of wisdom to share. While Carter would have been resistant to coaching points from a veteran, even one that won national championship at Clemson, Carter is now listening.

Pinckney and Carter are roommates at the team hotel on the nights before games, and Carter has rubbed off on Pinckey, too.

“He’s just a big kid,” Pinckney said. “He loves to smile and joke around. … We sit by each other in meetings. I’ve just seen Trill grow and I’ve been able to help him when he’s been asking me for help as an older guy. I’ve also been learning from Trill and just enjoying the game again and having fun. He’s trying to bring the kid out of me.”

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