FOXBOROUGH - Patriots defensive end Andre Carter, dressed in black, quietly enters the movie theater lobby and sits behind a baby grand piano.
The day after he set the franchise record for sacks in a game (4 1/2) in a 37-16 rout of the Jets, Carter stretches his long, bony fingers, four of which have been dislocated during his 11-year NFL career. After a false start, he bangs out a soulful version of Miles Davis’s classic composition, “So What?,’’ without the benefit of sheet music.
Nobody in the Showcase Cinema de Lux at Patriot Place recognizes the talk of the town. Carter is not nearly as well-known as nose tackle Vince Wilfork and his wife, Bianca, who are at the theater taking in a matinee of “Jack and Jill’’ on an off day.
“I’m into jazz,’’ says Carter, 32. “I love Miles Davis.’’
The Patriots’ signing of Carter didn’t receive the same fanfare as the arrivals of Chad Ochocinco or Carter’s former Redskins teammate, Albert Haynesworth, but it has proven significant. Carter is tied for fourth in the NFL with nine sacks and has a total of 38 tackles. He never takes a play off.
As for his career day at MetLife Stadium, he says, “I’m still on Cloud 9,’’ before quickly giving credit to his teammates for pressuring Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
“It was special because we put together four quarters. We just played hard, we played fast.’’
The 6-foot-4-inch, 255-pound Colorado native has been playing piano a decade longer than he has played football. His mother encouraged him to take piano lessons when he was 5 years old.
“My mom made sure I practiced so that I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself when the piano teacher came on Saturday,’’ he says. “I loved it and I got good at it.’’
Asked the difference between a pianist and a defensive lineman, Carter, whose second selection for the cinema crowd is Bruce Hornsby’s “[That’s Just] The Way It Is,’’ says both require good hands.
“Piano is more at peace, D-lineman is more violent,’’ he says. “If you don’t have good hands, you won’t get to the quarterback.’’
His father, Ruben Carter, was a defensive lineman for the fabled Orange Crush Bronco teams from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s. He wanted a kinder, gentler life for Andre.
“My dad didn’t want me to play football because it was a violent sport,’’ he says. “He wanted me to play tennis or basketball.
“I remember him coming home hurt. My mom wanted me to be a model. She’d say, ‘Look at your figure, you’ve got a nice figure.’ But that ain’t going to happen, mom.’’
Carter was in the locker room and on the field as a kid, but he was quiet, almost too shy to shake John Elway’s hand.
But in 10th grade, he finally signed up for his high school football team.
“My dad said, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure? OK then, I’m going to get you right,’ ’’ says Carter. “Got some weights into the backyard and started pumping iron.’’
He also got his love for music from his father.
“My dad played guitar,’’ says Carter. “He could also jam. We listened to Quincy Jones, Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Harry Belafonte.
“It was good music. I love Frank Sinatra, Elton John, especially on the piano.’’
Years ago, he bought a baby grand at a liquidation sale for his Southern California home.
“Music soothes the soul, it really does,’’ he insists. “It defines emotion. You’ve got your songs when you’re angry. You’ve got your songs when you’re happy. You’ve got your songs when you’re sad.’’
A call from Belichick
A first-round draft pick out of California in 2001 (No. 7 overall), Carter played for the San Francisco 49ers before signing a six-year, $30 million contract with the Redskins in 2006. His 2009 season was a sad song. His production tumbled because the Redskins changed to a 3-4 defense, which required Carter to play outside linebacker. He hated being out of the three-point stance.
“It definitely humbled me,’’ he says. “It definitely taught me more about myself, not just as a football player, but also as a man and as a father and husband.
“It was a tough pill to swallow and it was a pretty big pill, but I did it with class. I kept to myself, took the high road, did due diligence even though the position wasn’t for me.’’
He says he got his release by “mutual agreement.’’
With an NFL lockout looming, he thought his career might be over.
“We were praying hard,’’ he says. “We were prepared to walk away if I didn’t get picked up. I just didn’t want to finish like that.’’
But then he received a call from Bill Belichick.
“I was blunt, he was blunt,’’ Carter says.
Belichick said he was looking for veteran leadership, a man who could play the run and the pass, a two-dimensional player.
“I said, ‘Give me a plane ticket and let’s talk about it,’ ’’ said Carter. “And from then on I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. ’’
This season, he has not missed a single practice, which earned him a special parking spot at Gillette Stadium. And in breaks from drills, he engages teammates in hand agility exercises, which helps him shed offensive linemen.
Carter says he enjoys New England but rarely goes out, preferring to stay home with his family.
He enjoys a good game of chess or just playing with his 4-year-old son, Quincy, or stepdaughter Aysha, 17.
Despite his love of music, you won’t see him on the field wearing headphones during warmups, like many of his teammates.
“I used to listen to rap,’’ he says. “Pumped-up stuff, but you know what? For me, as you get older, you don’t need it.’’
Now, he meditates pregame.
He says he’d consider pursuing a musical career after his playing days, or maybe even become an analyst.
Asked about Haynesworth, who recently was cut by the Patriots, then picked up by Tampa Bay, Carter shrugged.
“In football, as in life, it’s a gamble,’’ he says. “You win some, you lose some.
“Did he try? I couldn’t really evaluate him. Only he knows. There were times when he was effective and there were times when he didn’t play - he was hurt and the next guy steps up.
“Whatever he does from this point on is on him. Great talent, big size, very explosive. Is he misunderstood? Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t even understand him.’’
Carter ignores criticism of the Patriots defense, which is ranked last in the NFL, especially the inexperienced secondary. And for the first time in his career, he’s more vocal with teammates.
“I have all the trust in them,’’ he says. “We’ve had a lot of changes in the back end because a lot of guys have been banged up. I told everybody: ‘Come to work.’
“They’re accountable. They study, study, study. Then if you play 100 miles per hour, when we look at the film, I won’t be mad at you. We have the mentality that if one guy messes up, we all messed up.’’
Asked if Belichick yells, Carter smiles.
“I think all coaches yell,’’ he says. “He’s a coach.
“From the outside looking in, he’s a mystery man, but at the end of the day, he’s a coach who loves the game of football. He takes pride in his players, pride in his game, and constantly tries to push us to a higher level. Nobody knows the X’s and O’s better than him.’’
As for his future, Carter knows a musical career is a long shot.
“If I practice long enough and hard enough, I might come out with an album like [former Saints tackle] Kyle Turley or [former Yankees center fielder] Bernie Williams,’’ he says.
“You wish you could play this game forever, it’s such a great game. I’ll play till God says, ‘OK, son, get that Clydesdale and ride off into the sunset.’ ’’