One of the most prolific pass catching running backs in NFL history, Centers topped 100 receptions in 1995 and had 99 receptions in 1996. He owns the NFL record for most passes caught by a running back during a career. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1995, 1996, and 2001.
Centers was born in Tyler, Texas and grew up in nearby Longview. He began playing little league football for the Bramlette Bears as a running back and quarterback during his elementary school years and went on to play in middle school for the Forest Park Eagles and high school for the Longview Lobos until his junior year. He played on both sides of the ball as a defensive back and runnningback and wide receiver. Centers did not play football at all his junior year of high school. After his family moved to nearby Tatum, where his mother was an educator, Centers decided to play football again after being urged to do so by his older brother. After a solid season in Tatum, he earned a scholarship to nearby Stephen F. Austin State University. He was also recruited by Baylor, Texas Tech, and several junior colleges. His brother, Donnie, played for the University of Arkansas and coach Lou Holtz as a wide receiver.
After being recruited as a running back, wide receiver, and a defensive back, Centers originally began his career at Stephen F. Austin University, a Division I-AA school, as a wide receiver. As a freshman, he broke his pinky finger on his left hand and was then assigned to play scout team runningback and special teams. In his sophomore season against the Nevada Reno Wolfpack, an injury to the team's starting runningback allowed Centers a chance to play. In the win, Centers rushed 9 times for 96 yards and finished the season with 100 plus rushing yards in each of the remaining 6 games. He also led the Lumberjacks in receptions, rushing yards and yards from scrimmage his junior and senior years at SFA. Centers was a two-time all-Southland Conference pick and set a school record for rushing yards in his senior season. In 1989, with Centers as their starting running back, the SFA Lumberjacks advanced to the NCAA division I-AA national championship game where they lost by 3 points to Georgia Southern in Statesboro, Georgia, finishing with record of 13-2.
After graduating from Stephen F. Austin State University, Centers was drafted by the Phoenix Cardinals in the fifth round of the 1990 NFL Draft. He saw limited playing time in his first two seasons, as head coach Joe Bugel had doubts on his ability to carry the ball and thought of him as a third-down running back. According to his coaches, Centers particularly needed work on his pass protection skills and he spent an entire off-season mastering the capability. His playing time started to increase and by 1992, Centers rushed for 139 yards and caught 50 passes for 417 yards. On October 4, 1992, Centers scored the winning touchdown against the Washington Redskins with less than a minute remaining to break an 11-game Cardinals losing streak. The game-winning touchdown was the first of Centers' NFL career.
The role of the fullback as a ball carrier was starting to diminish as the NFL game evolved during the 1990s. Yet, Centers's offensive numbers only increased as the years went by, especially his receptions and his leadership ability. He caught 66 passes in his fourth NFL season. In 1994, Bugel was fired and replaced by Buddy Ryan. Ryan allowed Centers more opportunity to run with the ball, carrying the ball a career-high 115 times while catching 77 receptions. In 1995, Centers had one of the greatest seasons ever of any fullback, recording 101 receptions for 962 yards. He became the first runningback to record 100 receptions. He held the record for most receptions by a running back with 101 until this record was broken by Matt Forte in 2014 with 102. He also rushed for 254 yards, scored four touchdowns, and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time. Unfortunately, his team was not successful despite his contributions; they finished the 1995 season with a 4-12 record and Ryan was fired at the end of the year and replaced by Vince Tobin.
In 1996, Centers recorded 99 receptions for 766 yards and seven touchdowns, while also gaining a career-high 425 yards on 116 carries, and he scored two touchdowns on the ground. He was selected to the Pro Bowl for the second year in a row, but once again his team had a disappointing season, finishing with a 7-9 record. Centers became a free agent after the season. Both the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants were interested in his services, but ultimately he signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract to stay with the Cardinals after switching agents, becoming the fifth highest paid running back in the league. After previously leading the team in receptions the last four seasons, the Cardinals started to try Centers in different offensive formations at wide receiver. Centers continued to be a major contributor to the Cardinals, recording 123 receptions and 386 rushing yards over the next two seasons. In his final year with Arizona (1998), the team recorded a 9-7 record and made the playoffs as a wild card. The Cardinals made it all the way to the divisional playoffs before being eliminated in a 41-21 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Centers finished his Cardinals career as the team's all-time leading pass catcher.
Citing durability and salary cap concerns, the Cardinals released Centers on June 19, 1999. At the time of his release, Centers was considered "the heart and soul" of the Cardinals offense. He signed with the Washington Redskins and quickly became a team leader, recording 69 receptions in his first season with the team. During a crucial game against the 49ers, Centers caught a 33-yard touchdown pass in overtime, which made the Redskins the NFC Eastern division champs for the first time since 1991 and gave the team a playoff berth. The Redskins finished the regular season with a 10-6 record but were eliminated in the divisional playoffs by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 14-13. The following year, he caught 81 passes for 600 yards, rushed for 103 yards, and used his blocking to help running back Stephen Davis achieve star numbers, 1,318 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He passed Keith Byars for most receptions by a running back. However, the Redskins recorded only an 8-8 record that year and did not make the playoffs.
In 2001, Centers signed with the Buffalo Bills and made it to his third Pro Bowl appearance, catching 80 passes, this time for a total of 620 yards, with 160 yards rushing and four touchdowns. In the fourth quarter of a 23-20 loss against the Seattle Seahawks, he surpassed Ronnie Harmon's record for most receiving yards by a NFL running back with a two-yard reception. He also surpassed Hall of Famers Charlie Joiner and Michael Irvin to reach the top ten in all-time receptions by a player.
After spending another year with Buffalo, Centers joined the Patriots in 2003. By this time, 35-year-old Centers' role as a receiver (along with ball carrier) had diminished. He was released after the sixth game of the season due to a knee injury, before re-signing with the Patriots in December. He recorded 19 receptions for 106 yards and rushed for 82 yards. Still, his blocking contributions as part of the Patriots offense allowed him to earn a Super Bowl ring; New England finished the season with a 14-2 record and went on to defeat the Carolina Panthers 32-29 in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Centers retired from professional football before the beginning of the 2004 season.
In his 14 NFL seasons, Centers rushed for 2,188 yards, caught 827 passes for 6,797 yards, returned five punts for 30 yards, returned 33 kickoffs for 617 yards and scored 42 touchdowns (14 rushing/28 receiving).
Centers's 827 receptions are currently the most by any running back and the most by any non-wide receiver in NFL history, until tight end Tony Gonzalez surpassed this mark in 2008. He caught passes in 128 consecutive games, at one point the third longest streak in the NFL. When Centers retired, he was 7th in passes caught in league history. Because NFL fullbacks are now almost exclusively used as blockers, Centers is widely recognized as one of the greatest pass receiving fullbacks ever.