It's Saturday night in New York City, and Arian Foster is standing near a police van. Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan echoes with the sounds of peaceful protest—a woman seeking an end to corporate tax loopholes, a man proposing an organic revolution and, tonight, during the Texans' bye week, a running back asking pointed questions.
Foster walks past a metal barricade, wades into the humanity that is Occupy Wall Street and introduces himself. "Do you have any animosity toward me because of my salary?" Foster asks a small group. He is making $525,000 this season.
"No," someone answers. "A man like yourself who has achieved the American dream, we're actually proud of. It's big banking and the people who were born into money and control it that we're against."
Foster spends an hour moving among the protesters before blending back into the busy Manhattan landscape. Later he is asked if he agrees that he embodies the American dream. He is a middle-class kid from Albuquerque who rose from obscurity to stardom in the NFL, once an undrafted free agent, now carrying his team toward its first playoff berth against the headwinds of injury.
"The American dream was the white picket fence, the 2.5 kids and a dog," Foster says. "That was the 1950s. I don't think that's the America we live in anymore. The America now is, you shouldn't be hesitant to lend a helping hand to someone who needs it. Lean on your brother."
The Texans have spent two years leaning on Foster, who majored in philosophy at Tennessee, writes poetry on his rooftop, tweets prolifically about life beyond football and takes a bow after touchdowns, his Namaste to those watching. Following Sunday's 20--13 victory in Jacksonville, in which Houston most likely lost backup quarterback Matt Leinart for the season after placing starter Matt Schaub on injured reserve earlier in the week, the Texans will be relying on Foster even more.
If ever there was a year in which Houston was primed to assume control of the AFC South, 2011 would be it. Peyton Manning's absence in Indianapolis left a vacuum at the top of the division, and the Texans eagerly swept in, even with All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson missing six games and pass rush star Mario Williams gone for the year after tearing a pectoral muscle in mid-October. But on Nov. 13, Schaub suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot in a 37--9 victory over Tampa Bay, and on Sunday in Jacksonville, backup Leinart, making his first start in two years, broke his collarbone when he was taken to the turf by Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey. By the middle of the second quarter Houston was down to its third-stringer, rookie T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, with emergency QB Owen Daniels, the starting tight end, taking warmup snaps on the sideline. (Former Jets QB Kellen Clemens, signed on Nov. 23, was not active for the game.)
Houston is a team built to run behind an athletic zone-blocking alignment, but Schaub's skill on play-action was the Texans' pocket ace. With the passing threat diminished on Sunday, the Jaguars loaded up to stop Foster, holding him to a season-low 3.0 yards per carry and recovering one of his two fumbles. It could be a blueprint for opponents the rest of the season.
Foster was unhappy with his performance, dressing slowly in the visitors' locker room, staring through a pained expression. Since dropping two passes in a loss to Baltimore on Oct. 16, he has stayed late after practice every day, catching footballs from a JUGS machine. He is likely to find proper penance for the fumbles too—push-ups by the fence ringing the practice field or more reps with ball flying into his mitts. "That's not me," he says of letting the football hit the ground. (Indeed, he fumbled just three times in 2010 and hadn't done so at all this season until Sunday.) "You won't see that again."
Though he scored a touchdown and broke a 43-yard run, with left guard Wade Smith pulling across the line to lead the way, Foster and the Texans did not celebrate Sunday as much as exhale. At 8--3 they're two games up in the AFC South and are positioned as the conference's top seed. They are looking ahead to their final five games—hosting the Falcons, Panthers and Titans, on the road at Cincinnati and Indianapolis—and beyond, without a seasoned quarterback. "It's not going to be anything different," left tackle Duane Brown said. "It starts with the run, and it starts with us up front."
Foster said one thing had to be different.
"We have to up our play," he said.
That the 6'1", 229-pound Foster has come to represent the Texans' spirit and grit could not have been foreseen during his rookie season in '09, when he languished on the practice squad "getting beat, getting yelled at and getting screamed at," in the words of running backs coach Chick Harris. "There were growing pains."
The unsteady climb mirrored Foster's youth. He grew up in Albuquerque but moved to San Diego during high school to live with his father, Carl, following his parents' divorce. "He asked me, 'Dad, will you train me?' and I said on one condition: You do everything I say," says Carl, a former wide receiver at New Mexico. At dawn before school or at dusk following high school practices, Foster and his father would go to San Diego's Pacific Beach and run the dunes.
"There is something very calming about being out on the beach early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and being there with your son," Carl says. "When you put in that kind of time and effort, there is a spiritual aspect that has to take place inside of you as an athlete. I watched him grow in his demeanor and responsibility. He had an attitude that he wasn't going to quit."
Says Arian, "I still remember my dad saying, 'If you want to be great, you have to do things when nobody's looking.' I carry that to this day."
Foster says he could have embraced that mantra better at Tennessee, where he followed a 1,193-yard junior season with 570 yards as a senior, a fact relating both to injury and to a diminished role in the offense. "The only regret I have about college is not taking care of my body the way I did [in high school] and the way I do now," Foster says. "If you watch my college film and you watch my film now, I'm a totally different player."
Despite his son's unfulfilling senior season, Carl threw Foster a draft party in Phoenix, where Carl had moved, believing his son had done enough to get selected. "I was managing some hotels, and all of the families flew in and we had this big shebang," Carl says. "I had golf passes. We had tickets for Diamondbacks games. We had a great weekend, and the draft was to be the ending to a great weekend." Arian's name was never called. Says Carl, "It was kind of a nightmare."
Harris, the running backs coach, laughs when he reflects on Foster's journey from obscurity on the practice squad to the NFL's leading rusher in 2010 and great hope of fantasy football players everywhere (a status that, judging from his tweets, Foster himself wouldn't mind relinquishing). While Harris treasures Foster's skill set—the vision, the ability to burst through a hole, drop his hips and change direction—the coach knows there are many layers to his feature back. "He's always searching for other things, looking into various angles and philosophical beliefs," Harris says. "He's the first guy to raise his hand to ask why, and if it doesn't make sense to him, I'm the first one to hear about it."
Says veteran receiver Derrick Mason, "Arian's one of those eclectic guys that you can go to and have a good conversation without having to talk about sports."
Some teammates still bring up Foster's first training camp, when he was called in front of the team for the rookie show. "He came in and did this hip-hop rhyme, talking about different players on the team," Brown says. "He got a standing ovation. He's a poet."
Carl elaborates, "In a nutshell, the Fosters—we don't think inside the box."
Which is why Foster was energized by his first visit to Manhattan and deeply affected by the people he encountered. Besides his time at Occupy Wall Street, he videotaped break-dancers on a subway platform, peeked through the windows at Sylvia's soul food restaurant in Harlem ("It was packed," he says) and watched a religious discussion unfold on the street.
"One guy was sitting there talking about the Bible, the next guy was sitting there talking about the Koran," Foster says. "I grew up in Albuquerque, but I felt like New York was home. It's always been part of my personality to be able to mingle with whoever. I can hang out with gang members or talk to a congressman and be just as eloquent, because I can identify with the human cause. At the end of the day, no matter who you are, everybody just wants to smile."
So New York City calls to Arian Foster, and he vows to return. There will be time for that. Right now it's Houston that needs him most.
SCHAUB'S SKILL ON PLAY-ACTION WAS HOUSTON'S POCKET ACE. WITH THAT THREAT DIMINISHED, OPPONENTS WILL LOAD UP TO STOP FOSTER.
"HE'S ALWAYS SEARCHING," HARRIS SAYS OF FOSTER, "ALWAYS THE FIRST GUY TO RAISE HIS HAND AND ASK WHY."
Photograph by BILL FRAKES
OVER THE TOP Foster went airborne for a touchdown in the victory at Jacksonville, which kept his club in position for the division title and the top seed in the AFC.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (BENCH)
IDLE ARMS Leinart (in sling) and Schaub looked on as 2011 fifth-rounder Yates—the eighth rookie quarterback to see action in the NFL this season—steered the Texans to a tenuous win over the Jaguars.
BILL FRAKES (YATES)
[See caption above]