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July 23, 2008
Against All Odds
Another 90-degree summer afternoon has baked Tennessee's Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, turning the Volunteers' training compound into a 120,000 square-foot sauna.
Impervious -- or oblivious -- to the oppressive heat, Arian Foster gathered pass after pass after pass zipped from 10 yards away by a perfect quarterback. It seemed the electronic Juggs machine would tire or exhaust its energy before the relentless Foster, who outlasted all of his teammates and coaches.
"C'mon, Slade! Pick it up, Slade!" Foster bellowed to UT secondary coach Larry Slade, who ran sprints along the synthetic green grass.
Perhaps feeling the effects from hoisting weights and foisting naysayers, Foster half-sits, half-leans atop a rolled-up rubber mat. The fifth and final season of Foster's enigmatic career in Knoxville taunts the talented tailback from scarcely more than five weeks away.
He could be in an NFL camp right now. He could be at another school. He could be without football for the first time since he first played the sport at age 7. He could be any number of places, but he's at Tennessee. And he's the Vols' starting tailback. Take that.
"There was plenty of times I thought about leaving, but I wouldn't have went back home because my mom (Bernadette) wouldn't have let me stay with her," Foster says of thoughts that prevailed during his redshirt 2004 campaign. "So, I probably would've ended up doing some stuff I shouldn't have been doing. I'm glad that I stayed. I wasn't going to class, I was acting up, doing stuff I shouldn't have been doing.
"But it's all part of the maturing process. You come to college to grow up and be a man, and I feel like I've done that here. It could always be better, but this isn't a bad one. A quiet one. Not a bad one."
Introspective, if not misunderstood, Foster quietly -- think awkward silence of a Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers phone call -- has positioned himself to break one of Tennessee's most revered records. Barring injury, Foster will shatter the career rushing mark set by Travis Henry eight years ago. Foster has 2,394 yards entering his final season, 684 behind Henry's total of 3,078.
"To say that you're going to be the all-time leading rusher in Tennessee history, that's quite a feat considering all the great backs that we've had come through here," said UT coach Phillip Fulmer who has seen nine of his ballcarriers drafted since 1993. "Hopefully he'll stay healthy, work really hard and get that done and achieve the goals that he's stayed to do."
Foster chooses to not completely reveal those goals. But they are grander than last season's 1,500-yard aspirations and documented in the same way as ever -- chronicled at the behest of his father, Carl.
"I've got all my goals written down," says Foster, who shared his top priority of an undefeated season. "My father told me when I was little, write down everything you want to do in life and it shall be."
Nothing has been as simple as putting pen to paper for Foster.
"Against All Odds"
"I kind of just take it as it comes," Foster says. "I'm not too worried about what other people think. I know I can play this game at a very high level when given the opportunity, because I'm just a competitor, period. It's just quiet. I'm not going to lie, it does get to me every now and then.
"But I think as a football player, everybody needs to find their fuel for motivation. Everybody needs to find that. When I first got here, it was my family. Trying to work to provide them with something. It's always something, and it feels good sometimes to say, 'I told you so.' I wasn't even supposed to make it to college, truthfully. I made it up out of where I was from, went to San Diego. I wasn't supposed to do some of the things I did, and even still, I'm hungry. People still look at me that way, and I still want more."
Midway through high school, Foster's family went through a difficult separation. He chose to deal with the situation in a manner he now has openly admitted wasn't very productive.
"I was on the brink of being ineligible," says Foster, whose 12 touchdowns last season were the most by a Vol in more than a decade. "And that's one of the times in my life where I was like, 'Forget this. There's easy money out there.'"
Easy money on the streets?
"Yeah, yeah it was natural," he says, matter-of-factly. "Forget this. I don't like school. School ain't for me. But my family kept me on the right path. I thank God for them a lot. My family has some tough souls, man. Some real tough souls."
Bernadette Foster recalled a pair of seminal moments in her son's development as a football player, events that shaped the man he has become.
"If you'll notice on one of his many tattoos, it says 'Against All Odds,'" she said. "That's kind of been the story of his life with regards to football, and life too. He's always been the kid nobody really believed in or was sold on."
In his first two years of high school, Foster didn't play on the offensive side of the ball.
"I had a high school coach tell me one time, 'Arian's not running back material,'" said Bernadette Foster, who because of this has had ample opportunity to develop a veneer against hurtful comments. "It was like nobody would really give him a chance and nobody really believed in him. All of us in his family knew what he could do."
Even so, the Fosters needed Arian to get that chance. There wasn't a huge demand for linebackers who carried the ball, and that's where Foster was lined up the first half of his junior season. Then, opportunity presented itself on a kickoff return at San Diego's Mission Bay High School.
"The first time they put him on special teams, I think he received a kickoff and ran it back for a touchdown," Bernadette Foster said. "He maybe did that two of first five possessions he ever had in San Diego. Then the coach said, 'Maybe I need to get the ball into his hands a little more.'"
All of these obstacles helped Foster's mother understand the root of her son's back-against-the-wall demeanor.
"Coaches, I think, believe in him. Fans don't really rally behind him like some of other players," she said. "He's always having to prove himself before people know what he can accomplish. The tattoo is something he really felt like he's had to deal with, he's had to prove people wrong. There's nothing wrong with that at all. It's just a harder road to go."
Almost reflexively, subconsciously, Arian Foster rubs the intricate tattoo stenciled across his left biceps.
"I don't know what it is about people that don't like me," says Foster, twinges of anger, bewilderment and pain evident in his voice. "Everywhere I go, there's just this aura around me like, 'Yeah, I think he's good, but he's just not that good.' I think it's funny. I grew up, I was just doing some bad things, which is why I moved to San Diego in the first place. So to make it up out of that, I feel blessed for that because I don't know where I could be."
Relocating to San Diego from New Mexico wasn't easy for any of the Fosters. But the need for a male influence was obvious to Foster's mother, who made the painful decision to send both her sons -- Arian and older brother Abdul -- to live with their father. Foster has credited the entire family's influence in his ability to avoid trouble.
"My father, my mother and my family helped me up out of that," says Foster, his family a perpetual source of inspiration. "Coming to high school in San Diego, I was the new guy and nobody knew who I was. Even then it was like, 'Yeah, he's good, but there's just something about him.' Maybe ya'll can tell me what it is about me, because I ain't figured it out. That's why I got this tattoo, 'Against All Odds.'"
Persistence isn't a quantifiable measurement, a crutch for talent evaluators who immerse themselves in 40-yard dashes, shuttle runs and bench presses. It's the invisible tattoo that pierces much deeper than the green ink adorning his body in homage to King Tut, his family and being "Self Made."
"I kind of walk around with chips on my shoulders and wear them as badges," he says.
Football has taught Foster much about life, but it has not defined him.
More than a player
A year ago former Vols quarterback Erik Ainge marveled at the songwriting ability of Foster, who also has penned poetry and tormented reporters with a penchant for "Word-of-the-day" interviews. Occasionally, additional layers peeled away expose much more about the thoughtful Foster.
"I think that because his dad was a football player, he equates a lot of the lessons that you learn in football to lessons you learn in life," said Bernadette Foster. "I wouldn't consider Arian defined by football but I think he equates the two as parallel because there are things you learn in football that also define you in life. Persistence, hard work, being diligent.
"The thing I really like about Arian is that there are many things he is interested in and good at outside of football. Football is definitely very much a part of him, but he has other aspirations in life."
And while Mom hasn't embraced rap music, she has been moved by her son's open expression.
"Mostly when he writes songs about particular people and how he feels about the world, those are the ones I like best because they actually portray how he feels and show a glimpse of who he is," she said. "When I read the lyrics, the songs I generally like are ones that are really expressive and are his views of the world."
That, Foster explained, was where football intertwined with life.
"Football just defines you as a person. When it's the tough times, you dig deep, and are you going to quit or push yourself beyond what even you thought you could do?" he asks. "Not just on the field but off the field during workouts or whatever. It instills discipline in you, and it reflects, really, your life and how you live. If something happens and you have a family to feed and lost a job, are you going to quit, or are you going to grind out?"
Added Fulmer, "Arian has grown as a man and certainly grown as a football player."
Foster could have opted to continue his growth this season in the NFL.
Making the grade
The ninth-best rushing season in Tennessee history, 1,193 yards in 2007, had not prompted Foster to think seriously about the NFL. But on a whim, he listened to teammates and sought the experts' opinions on his draft status.
"I think (Jerod) Mayo and Anthony Parker came up to me and said, 'Go put your grade in, man. See what you got.' I was expecting like fourth or fifth, and it came back with a second," Foster said. "I remember I was back home, and I just dropped the phone. The guy from the NFL told me, and I just dropped the phone and was like, 'Oh my God.' I believe if I would have known beforehand, like mid-season, I would have started preparing myself physically and mentally for entering the draft, and I probably would have went."
Fulmer thought he would need a new quarterback, tailback and offensive coordinator.
"I think it surprised him. It surprised us a little bit," said Fulmer, who acknowledged he thought Foster had played his last game in the Vols' Outback Bowl win. "He's probably more than under-appreciated by just the fans sometimes. But I think it also woke him up that, 'Hey, I can do some special things here at Tennessee.'"
What Foster would not do, despite his promising appraisal, was enter the draft without having delved completely into the process, both mentally and physically.
"I just wasn't prepared, and I wasn't going to put myself in a position to not excel and succeed," Foster explains. "It just took me by surprise, and it was still tempting. I know I could've done good in the combine, because I'm not going to let any person on this earth outwork me. So I know I still would've been successful, but I just want to go into a situation like that with the right mind frame.
"I don't want to cheat myself, and I figure, it's not a bad decision coming back to Tennessee. It's a great place here. Great fans. Family atmosphere. I was about to break the record. Why not?"
Indeed, lauded for his development into a complete back who elicited praise from Fulmer as a great runner, blocker, catcher and even ball-faker, Foster's legacy has been tethered to the all-time rushing record.
Assault on history
Foster plowed the foundation for a run at Tennessee history with an 879-yard debut campaign in 2005 that featured an improbable five-consecutive 100-yard performances. Big deal, according to Foster.
"I had a good year my freshman year, but under the circumstances, I didn't," he says. "We weren't winning. So nobody's going to recognize anybody who's not winning. People love winners, period. I believe if maybe I'd have done the same things in a winning season, there would have been a lot more notoriety."
If and when Foster surpasses 3,078 career rushing yards, it will comprise the ultimate painting of his career.
"It means a lot to me, but I think it means a lot more for what I stand for," says Foster, who talks of the record only when someone else picks the conversation. "Because in the back of my mind, and I believe every athlete should have this in the back of their mind, they believe they're great. If you don't think it, you're not going to be it, period. I'm not talking about great by any other standards or measures, but as a football player, I think I'm a good football player. But I think, If I break that record, I think it's going to mean more for what I stood for here. Relentless."
Arian Foster has been a second-team Freshman All-America pick, second-team All-SEC pick last year and league coaches tabbed him as first-team All-SEC once this season crept closer. He has been embraced with all the warmth of a cactus on a nude beach.
Amidst talk of legacy and lore and acceptance and understanding, Bernadette Foster has developed a theory of her son's reluctant embrace.
"I've actually pondered that myself for a really long time," she said. "At first it was hurtful, then frustrating and now I just kind of understand over years while Arian's been at Tennessee, the biggest thing is people just don't really appreciate what he's accomplished or is on the verge of accomplishing. He goes about it in very workmanlike way. He's just consistent, persistent and he's good at what he does. He's good just across the board. All things he does are good. I've told people I think I'll change Arian's middle name to but. Arian's good but, Arian's going to get the record but.
"Everybody likes ESPN highlights, they want that one guy on the team that really is going to make people go, 'Wow. He's the face of Tennessee.' The fact is, Arian's just not that guy. He's accepted it. We've accepted it."
If he passes Henry, James "Little Man" Stewart, Johnnie Jones, Jamal Lewis, Cedric Houston and Jay Graham won't Foster then be uplifted as one of Tennessee's all-time best?
"Maybe so. Maybe not. It's not my call," Foster says. "Everybody would like to be remembered. I was in Ohio for a banquet, the Columbus Touchdown Club, and I'll never forget this: They were doing an honorary look back at the past Ohio State teams, and they had one I think that was a national championship team. They had about 10 guys speak, and the last guy to speak didn't say much, but it was real emotional, and he just looked at the crowd and said, 'You know what? It's nice to be remembered.'
"It was kind of emotional for me, and I thought about that the rest of the night. That right there sums up a football player's heart. That's engraved in my heart because that's true. Everybody just wants to be remembered."
Either way, Foster has the self-assurance that he's comfortable with whatever legacy he has carved in Tennessee's annals.
"For the people that know me, that actually know me, they know I'm a strong-willed person, I've got a good heart, and I'm a team player. And I'm going to give everything that I've got for 60 minutes," says Foster, a pensive look creasing his face. "For the people that don't know me, if by now I haven't proven that I can play this game, that I'm about that 'T' on my helmet and about my teammates that signed with me and that I take them as my brothers, if they don't know that by now about me and they're still questioning me, I don't care what my legacy is, honestly.
"People come and go through here, and people are easily forgotten. What I try to do is have fun while I'm here and you try to leave your stamp, your footprints on this earth. But if people don't respect what you do, there's nothing you can do about it. I'm just going to put my head down and work how I know how to work, and wherever the chips fall, they fall."
Perhaps the chips are again lined in Foster's path, and that's OK. He's made a habit of succeeding against all odds.