Several years removed from his football days in South Jersey and at Lafayette College, Ed Carter rolls his wheelchair toward his pets' cage, opens the door, and plops one of his two ferrets atop his lap, gently nuzzling and kissing the one he calls Slinky.

"These guys," he said, nodding at the cage that sits in a dining room that was converted into his bedroom, "have helped me get through a lot."

For Carter, 30, a man who barely escaped death four years ago, this holiday season is special.

He has recovered from a deep depression after being forced into a wheelchair because of a tattoo infection in 2008. Carter has returned to college, has rejoined the work force as a substitute teacher and a part-time disc jockey, and has a new lease on life because he received a handicap-equipped car donated by the foundation that bears the name of his former Eastern High teammate, Adam Taliaferro.

Thanks to the car, Carter doesn't have to roll his wheelchair five miles to the High Speed Line, as he had been doing, to get transportation to his martial-arts classes in Philadelphia.

"My attitude is all about gratefulness," Carter said during a recent afternoon at his parents' home in Voorhees. "When you have that attitude, it feels like it opens you up so much more - and not only to your potential, but you pull out that potential in everybody else around you."

It wasn't always like that.

Carter said he went through almost four years of an off-and-on internal battle "where you had no peace from it. That lack of peace gives you a sense that I'd rather be dead because I have no rest right now," he recalled.

Carter, a deeply philosophical person who reads instead of watching TV, no longer feels sorry about his condition. He credits support from family and friends, and "starting to have a more active lifestyle" for his turnaround.

"I'll still have a down day, but I'm starting to learn the power of attitude," he said. "It's really as easy as flicking a switch. The stream of thoughts that originate from waking up and looking at your wheelchair and saying, 'Oh, man, I wish I could just get up on my feet and run to my car and hit the gym or something like that.' . . . But I have the power to calm everything down. Over time, it's a cultivating process of learning how to have a good frame of mind."

In the late 1990s, Carter and Taliaferro were a dynamic backfield at Eastern in Voorhees.

"Eddie," said Larry Ginsburg, his high school coach, "was the kind of kid who, whatever you asked him to do, he did it."

Used primarily as a fullback, Carter ran with authority when called upon in his team's wishbone attack. But his main job was opening holes for Taliaferro, who led South Jersey in scoring as a junior and senior.

Both players ended up in wheelchairs.

Taliaferro broke his neck making a tackle while playing for Penn State in 2000. He made a remarkable recovery from paralysis and is now highly successful in the business world.

Carter is striving for similar results.

His journey is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.

In 2008, after an argument at home, he loaded a duffel bag and mountain bike into his car and set the GPS on "Las Vegas," determined to start a new adventure.

Glamorous, it wasn't. After arriving in Sin City by himself, he lived out of his Nissan for a while before landing jobs at a Target and at a fitness center.

Carter eventually moved into a home owned by his kickboxing instructor, known as Master Toddy.

The instructor "saw a lot of potential in me, I guess, because of my athletic ability and previous martial-arts training," Carter said. "He asked me to promise I'd stay out there for two years and that he would make me a kickboxing champion. I said, 'Sure.' I had no plans for my future. I was kind of free-spirited at the time."

Carter eventually grew homesick, however, and decided to return to South Jersey. Before he did, he wanted to get a tattoo on his back of a particular dragon - familiar to those in the martial-arts world - to commemorate his master's belief in him.

It would remind him of the promise he made to his instructor, Carter figured, and would one day spur him to return to Vegas and work toward becoming a kickboxing champion.

As it turned out, the tattoo was life-changing for a different reason.

Tattoo gone bad

Carter had the tattoo done at the home of the uncle of a cashier he met at a McDonald's.

"I figured I would get a better deal because it wasn't being done at a shop," he said. "I got it done over a two-day period and then headed home on a Saturday" in July 2008.

On the four-day drive back to Voorhees, Carter took breaks at bus stop restrooms "to take care of the tattoo and wash it and clean it. I did the best I could."

He didn't think much about the tattoo until he got out of the shower one day and noticed an ingrown hair coming out of it on his back.

"I brought back some nature souvenirs from Las Vegas," he said. "I had a couple barbs of cactus sitting on the counter, so I pricked my back with it to try to get the ingrown hair out."

A few days later, a quarter-size boil appeared atop the tattoo.

"Maybe there was some kind of strange bacteria on the cactus barb. Who knows? Or it could have been the lack of sterilization at the guy's house who did the tattoo," he said. "It was kind of nasty-looking and had white stuff on the surface."

A lump started to form underneath it.

"When I had my T-shirt on, it looked like a tennis ball was sticking out; that's how swollen it got," Carter said. "I felt like I was getting the flu - nauseous, tired, and wasn't able to eat - and I had a slight fever."

Three trips to a hospital emergency ward followed. One doctor told him he probably had a MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infection and tried to treat it.

Carter soon regressed.

"My arms and legs started to tingle and become very weak. I couldn't stand very long," he said.

He literally crawled to his father's car to be taken back to the hospital.

On Sept. 6, 2008, about seven weeks after he had the tattoo done, Carter had emergency surgery at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. Neurologist Alan Turtz removed fluid associated with a spinal-cord abscess.

"The MRSA went from the surface of my skin into my blood and became septic," Carter said. "That's what caused the fluids to collect along my spinal cord and caused paralysis."

According to Turtz, the tattoo had become infected with an extremely aggressive strain of MRSA, and pus got into the bony spiny canal and damaged Carter's spinal cord. That is why he is unable to walk.

Turtz said Carter "came close to dying" from the infection, which was headed toward his brain before surgery. "The germs were in his blood."

Carter has regained strength and feeling in his arms and hands. He also has "feeling all the way down to my feet" and is hopeful of walking one day.

"I can now feel the pressure of my muscles sensing ground pressure or weight-bearing pressure when my left leg goes to the ground. That's a positive," he said. "That tells me if I can feel that in my leg, my brain can also start to associate voluntary motor movement. As with any spinal-cord injury, it's a long healing time because you're dealing with nerves."

Because of the spinal-cord damage and because so much time has elapsed, Turtz said, there is only a "very small chance" Carter will walk again.

But never say never, he added.

All told, Carter has had five surgeries, including one for a hole in his tailbone from bedsores that were "down to my bone" and a colostomy. He spent four months at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia and five weeks at a nursing home, where, Carter says, he went through some painful days. His ferrets, Baby and Slinky, were by his side.

Starting to get answers

Carter last talked to Taliaferro - who is on Penn State's board of trustees - at the Adam Taliaferro All-Star Football Classic at Rowan University in June. After earning a law degree and work as an attorney, Taliaferro is a health care alliance liaison for Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Carter said that he has been "inspired and impressed by what Adam has done with himself" and that because of that, he considers his predicament "almost like a blessing. I feel what happened to Adam was almost like a blessing, too. I just remember what he was like in high school, but I feel he has a very inner, driving power to him now. You can see it just by interacting with him, and I see a lot of that also in myself.

"So the nature of this happening to both of us and coming from the athletic careers that we had and knowing each other since we were young - both of our dads coached us on the same [peewee] team - it's kind of interesting."

Getting the car was a godsend, said Carter's parents. Kevin DiPatri, a Taliaferro Foundation board member, helped Carter purchase the car - a 2010 Hyundai Accent coupe - with a $15,000 donation.

"I told Kevin, 'You re-gifted his legs and his independence,' " said Aida, Ed's mother. "And it was a gift for me and my health and well-being because he helped my son."

With transportation, "he might be able to get to his therapy or the gym on a regular basis, and it might go a long way to helping him walk again," said Ed Carter Sr., who built a ramp in the garage that enables his son to steer his wheelchair into the house.

Carter, thanks to his new vehicle, was able to start being a substitute teacher at his alma mater last month.

"It was a very accomplished feeling to drive there by myself," said Carter, adding he has been aided by talks with Eastern administrators Pam Bolden and Patty Breunich.

This fall, Carter, who was an honors student at Eastern, took educational psychology classes at Camden County College and said he had "a new appreciation for learning."

Returning to school, being a substitute teacher, and having a vehicle have Carter excited about life.

"I've had four years of putting the big question - Why? Why? - out in the universe, and I feel like I'm just starting to get answers," Carter said. "I'm able to apply what I've learned from this experience into my life, which gives me a whole new set of capabilities and ways of expressing myself and living my life in a way that makes me feel full."

What were the answers?

"I was living my life very fast before this . . . making choices without thinking about them. Engaging in activities that aren't necessarily character-builders, like delving into drugs and going to bars and living very promiscuously," he said. "It's made me look at the importance of how you use your body and your mind, day in and day out. Are you progressing yourself with what you do? Are you helping progress others with what you do?

"My dad said, 'It's almost like God put you in this position to slow you down.' "

Now that he is driving again, Carter is pondering going back to Lafayette, in Easton, Pa., and completing the three courses he needs for a business degree.

Carter spent four years as a backup two-way back at Lafayette - his senior season was shortened by a back injury - and fell just short of graduating. He then worked several jobs before heading to Vegas.

"If there's anything I've learned, it's making well-informed decisions and being patient for the right opportunities to come, and knowing how to identify those opportunities," he said.

He is considering being a guidance counselor, a social worker, or a teacher because "I feel I'm able to give something back" to people "from the experience I have. But I know I have to complete my degree. That's a chapter in my life that's not done yet."

This will be a very happy Christmas for Carter and his family - his parents and his brother, Brandon, 28.

"I wanted to start progressing my life and participating in the world again," Carter said. "You get this mentality like, 'I'm disabled. I'm handicapped and can't be normal.' But you can. You just have to adapt.

"You have to improvise and adapt and learn how to use your body and your mind in new ways."

Contact Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @BroadStBull.