Holding his daughter in his arms means more to Carson Strong than gripping a football with his right hand. The 2018 Will C. Wood High graduate’s football career will only last so long, even if he makes it to the NFL one day, but he will Zephyr’s father forever.
Zephyr was in her father’s arms April 30 after Strong threw his first USFL touchdown pass for the Michigan Panthers in a 28-13 loss to the New Jersey Generals. His daughter will not remember the special moment, but Strong will never forget it despite the loss.
“It was her first game and my first touchdown,” said Strong, who had Zephyr and his girlfriend Isabella Cibulsky staying with him in Detroit at the time. “It was great to see here and I got her down on the field. There are things more important than football.”
His life will no longer be defined by his success in football. Strong has enjoyed more than his fair share, becoming the first University of Nevada player to be named Offensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West Conference in 2020. The quarterback appreciated the award so much that he won it again in 2021.
Strong’s three seasons of directing the Wolf Pack offense were nothing short of sensational. He passed for 9,368 yards and 74 touchdowns – 4,135 of those yards and 36 of those touchdowns came in 2021. Those numbers prompted the junior to forgo his final year of eligibility at Nevada and declare for the NFL Draft. He had every reason to believe he would be picked with some folks predicting as early as the second round.
Seven rounds came and went without his name being called. That a quarterback was the 262nd and last player selected – Brock Purdy by the 49ers – only added insult to Strong’s injury. And it was likely an injury that convinced NFL teams to pass on Strong.
His right knee is the cause for concern. Strong did not play football or basketball as a senior at Wood after having surgery to repair damaged bone and cartilage in his knee. Nevada honored its commitment to Strong after being the only Division I program to offer him a scholarship, but the large brace he wore on his right knee was not for show.
Strong did not do himself any favors at the 2002 NFL Combine by deciding not to run the 40-yard dash, do any agility drills or lift weights. He feared his knee would not take that much pounding with NFL coaches and general managers evaluating his every move. It did not matter because Strong “got a poor medical grade from most every team.”
The Eagles gambled on Strong by signing him after the draft with a guarantee of $320,000. Strong threw just four passes in four preseason games, however, but at least he could say he earned $80,000 per attempt. The Cardinals signed Strong to their practice squad in December only to send him packing after a week when he failed a physical.
Playing in the XFL would have been an option if not for his guaranteed contract with the Eagles. Strong would have had to repay the Eagles for every dollar he earned in the XFL, so he would have essentially been risking his knee for nothing. The NFL kicked off its new league year on March 15, so Strong no longer has to repay the Eagles.
His USFL contract runs through 2024, but another season of playing behind San Jose State product Josh Love will not do Strong any good. He needs to play in order to prove his knee is safe and sound. Nothing is wrong with his right arm, which he showed off April 27-29 at the 2023 NFL Combine by throwing passes to prospects in assorted drills.
Strong’s volunteer work caught the eye of the Commanders, who invited him for a workout. “They liked me out of college,” Strong said of the Commanders, who sent Strong home before putting him through the paces because their “doctor didn’t pass my knee.”
Cashing his reality check has made it easier for Strong to deal with each dose of disappointment. He has had to accept that he is a second-string quarterback in the USFL with a bum knee. Strong has had to accept that no matter how far he can throw a football, the NFL may never be within his reach. He has had to come to peace with that.
“I’m just playing football at this point. I’m not worried about getting picked up (by an NFL team),” the 23-year-old Strong said candidly. “I’m not guaranteed to pass a physical. They know there’s something going on (in the knee) for sure. I have a few limitations.”
Zephyr spells relief for her father when his knee is throbbing and he is not playing as much as he would like. That was never more evident than when Strong smiled as he held his daughter after the Panthers lost to the Generals on April 30. Strong outplayed Love, who completed 15 of 31 passes for 101 yards. Strong was 4-of-9 for 66 yards, including a 28-yard strike to wide receiver Trey Quinn for the Panthers’ only touchdown.
“It was a pretty special moment for sure,” said Strong, who aspires to be a Division I college coach once his playing days have come to an end. He is already learning how to coach a family with his girlfriend. Zephyr will always be the couple’s No. 1 draft pick.