Poetry in motion. It’s a term rarely used to describe NFL running backs. But in the case of Arian Foster, it suits him to a tee. A philosopher and wordsmith who also happened to win the NFL rushing title in 2010, he has been opening eyes and raising heartbeats since elementary school. Undrafted and misunderstood coming off an up-and-down college career, Arian spent a year on the bench before transforming the Houston Texans’ offense into a dangerous, multi-dimensional attack. Now it’s time to author the second verse of one of football’s most poetic rises to fame. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Arian Foster was born on August 24, 1986 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His name is a shortened version of Aquarian, which means holder of knowledge. His father Carl was a receiver for the University of New Mexico, and his mother Bernadette worked for the school in administration. They had a second boy, Abdul, a few years later. Both kids were bright, imaginative, independent and athletic. Arian composed poetry as a boy and had a deep fascination with foreign cultures.

Arian played youth football starting at the age of 7. Carl, who tried and failed to make the Denver Broncos in the late 1980s, was against the idea. It was Arian’s mom who paved his way to the gridiron. A seminal moment in his childhood came soon after, when his teacher asked what he wanted to do for a living. Arian answered that he wanted to be a star in the NFL. The teacher laughed and asked what else he wanted to do. That moment continues to motivate him.  

Arian enrolled at Valley High School, where the football coach broke the bad news to him: he wasn’t big enough to be a varsity halfback. On top of this revelation was more bad news: his parents were getting divorced.

Two years later, Arian decided he would live with his father in the Pacific Beach neighborhood of San Diego. He transferred to Mission Bay High School. After a growth spurt, he made the football team as a linebacker and running back. Carl agreed to train his son, sending him on two-mile beach runs, up and down the dunes, to improve his agility and explosiveness.

Arian first got on the scouting radar at the end of his junior season, in a state playoff game loss. Several college recruiters were in the stands evaluating St. Augustine quarterback Richard Kovalcheck (who eventually played for Arizona and Vanderbilt). Arian had some impressive runs in the contest—including a 76-yarder called back because of a clipping penalty—and finished with well over 200 yards.

Finally, in Arian’s senior year, he was given a chance to run the football full-time for the Buccaneers. He racked up more than 2,500 all-purpose yards and caught the eye of more big-time college recruiters, including coaches Trooper Traylor and Randy Sanders of Tennessee. He accepted a scholarship from the Vols with the understanding that he would be red-shirted for the 2004 season, and then slotted behind Gerald Riggs Jr. on the depth chart.

Arian spent his first year at Tennessee absorbing the offense and broadening his horizons in the classroom. He became an avid reader and writer of poetry and an accomplished philosophy major. 

In 2005, after an injury to Riggs, coach Phil Fulmer inserted Arian into the starting lineup. He responded with 879 rushing yards in 183 attempts. His best game was a 223-yard outburst against Vanderbilt.

The 2006 season was a disappointment by comparison. Arian was injured most of the year and gained only 322 yards. In the Outback Bowl against Penn State, he took a hit from Dan Conner and fumbled in the red zone with the score tied 10–10 in the fourth quarter. Tony Davis scooped up the football and ran 88 yards for the winning touchdown.

ON THE RISE 

The 2007 season was a healthy and relatively happy one for Arian. He led the Vols with 1,193 yards and scored 14 touchdowns. His 39 catches demonstrated his soft hands and versatility—and put him on the radar of almost every NFL team. Arian was tempted to leave school early and enter the draft, but Fulmer talked him out of it.

More injuries slowed Arian’s senior season in 2008. So did Fulmer’s rotating system of running backs. In just 131 carries, Arian gained 570 yards. The Tennessee coaching staff had become a revolving door. Arian was angry, but decided to keep his mouth shut. He was portrayed by some writers as being sullen and selfish. What they failed to notice was that, with three offensive coordinators, Arian had fully digested three completely different offensive philosophies. Not only was he a dedicated team player, he was smart enough to learn a playbook cover-to-cover.


 

 

 


Richard Kovalcheck, Vanderbilt SID

     
 

Despite his decreasing role at Tennessee, Arian had another chance to make a good impression on pro scouts when he was invited to play in the Senior Bowl, but. Unfortunately, he pulled a hamstring in the final practice before the game. The injury prevented Arian from attending the NFL combines, causing virtually every team to take his name of their depth charts. Indeed, the 2009 NFL draft came and went without anyone calling Arian’s name.

After the draft, Arian’s girlfriend starting scanning NFL rosters to see who had a need at running back. The Texans were an obvious choice. Turns out that Houston was looking at Arian, too. He got an invitation to training camp, and although he was cut before the season, the Texans re-signed him the next day to the practice squad. He was then promoted to the active roster in November after starter Steve Slaton suffered a neck injury.

Arian saw limited action the rest of the way. But when hescored a touchdown in Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins, Houston coach Gary Kubiak rewarded him with a start in the final week, against the Patriots. Arian tore through the New England defense for 119 yards on 20 carries and found the end zone twice. More important than his touchdown runs was the forward progress he was making off the field. Arian learned what it meant to play football for a living, and how to fit his off-beat personality into the dressing room without rubbing his teammates the wrong way.

MAKING HIS MARK

Heading into 2010, the Texans once again penciled Slaton into the lineup as their featured back. But during training camp, Arian turned more than one head with his speed and slashing running style. As Houston prepared for its Week 1 tilt against Indianapolis, Kubiak installed Arian as the team’s starting halfback. The Colts were unprepared for him. He ran for team-record 231 yards and scored three times in a 34-24 shocker. The victory snapped Houston’s six-game losing streak to the Colts, who had won 15 of the previous 16 meetings between the two clubs.


Arian Foster, 2009 Upper Deck
     
 

His confidence rising, Arian only got better. In Week 4, he broke a 14–14 tie with the Oakland Raiders on a 74-yard touchdown run to set another team record. At this point the Texans were 3–1 and thinking about a Wild Card berth or even a division title in the AFC South.

Alas, it was not to be. After splitting the next two games and sitting out a bye week, Houston lost eight of its next nine games to ruin a promising season. Five of those losses were by a touchdown or less. Arian played well in most games, scoring touchdowns and picking up tough yards. However the Texans often found themselves forced to pass in the final quarter (or sooner), negating a lot of potential touches for the second-year back. Even so, as the season wound down, Arian found himself neck-and-neck with Jamaal Charles of the Kanss Ciry Chiefs for the NFL rushing lead.

In Houston’s 16th game, a 34–17 victory over the division-rival Jacksonville Jaguars, Arian scored the team’s final touchdown of the season on a 35-yard run. This was a long enough gain to pass Charles, who had finished playing earlier in the day. Arian ended up with 1,616 yards on 327 carries, and added another 604 yards on 66 receptions.

To say he defied all expectations would be an understatement. Arian went from an unknown to the Pro Bowl in a matter of months. Only the luckiest fantasy football owners benefitted from his ascension from obscurity.

In terms of future expectations, even the most ardent Texan fans didn’t think Arian could reproduce his breakout season. He seemed to confirm that view with a preseason injury in 2011. Houston, meanwhile, looked to be improved, perhaps reaching double-digits in wins and making the playoffs.

To achieve this level of success will require the Texans to spread the ball around, which could mean fewer touches for their featured back. With receiver Andre Johnson on the outside, Houston will continue to balance its offense between the run and pass. That strategy is a perfect fit for quarterback Matt Schaub, a gifted passer who reads defenses well.

But that doesn’t mean Arian will fade into oblivion. Few backs in the NFL possess his combination of explosiveness, creativity and smarts. For a player who has weathered his fair share of injuries and disappointment, it’s poetic justice that he has finally found his niche on the football field.

ARIAN THE PLAYER


Arian Foster, autographed photo
     
 

Arian does not have blazing speed; he often is caught from behind when he breaks into the open. He succeeds because he is a good downhill runner who bounces off contact and can cut back effectively thanks to superb vision and an explosive first step. Size-wise, he is too big and strong to bring down with an arm-tackle.

What separates Arian from similar runners may be the little things he does on and off the field. He is decent pass-catcher but also a smart blocker who is great at picking up the blitz. He reads the field well regardless of his role in a play. This is because he studies the playbook, learning how he fits into it. Arian also studies film of enemy defenses, learning the tendencies of tacklers.

In the button-down world of the NFL, Arian is seen as a maverick of sorts. That's usually the label pinned on any player who displays real personality off the field. But Arian works hard to fit in with his teammates, and his on-field production ensures that he is accepted in the locker room.


Arian Foster, autographed photo
     

 

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