Commentary

Believe it or not

When it comes to Arian's Foster's life, good luck separating fact from fiction

Updated: March 1, 2011, 12:56 PM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the March 7, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Arian Foster just wants to get back to the main course.

On a January evening in Houston, a few days before his first Pro Bowl, the Texans running back pulls his chair closer to his private table at Del Frisco's steak house. On the plate in front of him is a $90 porterhouse that's roughly the size of a tennis racket, prompting Foster to wonder aloud, as he searches for his steak knife, "How big was the cow, man?" But his attempts to dig in are thwarted, time and again, by inquiries from the writer next to him about his journey from undrafted rookie free agent in 2009 to rushing champ in 2010.

Foster finally exhales, puts down his knife and grabs his iPhone. A philosophy major at Tennessee, he frequently taps bits of wisdom, poetry and lyrics into his phone, including the lines he thinks best sum up his current path. "The rain is unbiased," says the 24-year-old Foster, reading from the screen. "And the recipient of this downfall has the option to either accept this or yell at the clouds his whole life."

Foster sets the phone down and continues: "I'm a firm believer in Karma. I believe life always works itself out in funny, mysterious, unbelievable ways."

He should know. Foster's life journey -- from prep upstart to supposed college basket case to Pro Bowler -- is full of so many bizarre twists that it defies belief. Read his story and see for yourself. For each of 11 ­different unusual moments in his life, we present his true history and a fake alternate path. Your challenge is to separate fact from fiction.

Born Aug. 24, 1986, Foster was given his ­unusual name by his father, Carl, a hotel manager and a former wide receiver at New Mexico. The name comes from ...

A) The Egyptian bishop Arius, a heretic from the fourth century.

B) The 11th sign of the Zodiac, Aquarius, the ­water bearer and holder of knowledge.

Arian grew up with his dad and mom, Bernadette, in Albuquerque, N.M., where elementary school teachers noticed the boy's curious intellect and stubborn independence. During a discussion on what students wanted to be when they grew up, Foster's teacher told him to pick an alternative to his answer of "NFL player." He waited a bit, shot his hand up in the air and responded ...

A) "Okay. I'll be anything in the world -- besides a teacher."

B) "Why didn't you tell the kid who wants to be a doctor that he needs to find a Plan B?"

After his parents' divorce, in 2000, Foster moved to Pacific Beach, Calif., to live with his dad for the final two years of high school. His football team at Mission Bay HS was loaded at running back, so coaches initially put Foster at linebacker. The few times he carried the ball as a junior, he averaged 9.2 yards a pop. That stoked his appetite for more, so every day during the summer before his senior year, he ...

A) Surfed for two hours with a football tucked under one arm.

B) Ran two miles up and down the sand dunes.

Foster's unorthodox training paid off. As a senior running back, he led the county with 2,500 all-purpose yards, then hitched his wagon to coach Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee. In Knoxville, he steadily climbed the Vols' depth chart, while studying everything from Buddhism to poetry. Once, after Foster submitted a collection of his poems for review, his professor responded ...

A) "These are very good. By the way, do you have any tickets for the Bama game?"

B) "You are very talented at this and should look into getting this published."

Foster gained 1,193 yards as a junior, but his production dropped sharply the next season, to 570 yards, when he was slowed by injuries and a logjam at his position. He also got tagged with a rep for putting the ball on the ground. Truth was, he fumbled only five times in 650 carries as a Vol, but each proved costly, such as the one in the 2007 Outback Bowl loss to Penn State that was returned for a touchdown. Foster's struggles alienated him from the coaching staff and fans. Trying to break the tension, he told reporters one day that he'd conduct his interview ...

A) While imitating Al Pacino's Tony Montana character from Scarface. Then he pulled out a "grenade launcher" that was actually a rolled-up game program.

B) In an imaginary pterodactyl language. Then he made prehistoric squawking noises.

Foster's antics quickly found their way onto the blogosphere, opening him to ridicule. Between his quirky behavior, questions about durability and dependability and a 4.7 forty time at pro day, where he was limited by a hamstring pull, Foster's pro stock plummeted. Undeterred, his family gathered to watch the NFL draft in an Albuquerque hotel. As the rounds passed without Arian's name being called, Carl pulled his son aside and shared a long-held secret: Bitter about what he considered the "politics of the game," he walked away from his own shot at an NFL career after training camp with the Broncos and ...

A) Played several seasons for the Toronto Argonauts under the alias Terry Greer.

B) Regretted it every single day of his life.

The draft ended. Foster had been snubbed. After asking for a moment alone, he ...

A) Stood in front of a mirror over the suite's fireplace and vowed, through his tears, to make good on his childhood dream.

B) Spent several minutes "rearranging the furniture in the room," then proclaimed, "Time to go to work."

Soon after the draft, Foster's phone started ringing with inquiries from the Saints, Giants, Jets and Buccaneers. But after thinking it through, he signed with the Texans, for two main reasons: They were offering a two-year deal, and they had the weakest depth chart according to ...

A) A trio of NFL scouts whom Arian's dad cold-called on the phone.

B) Internet research conducted by Arian's girlfriend.

By late December 2009, with the Texans backfield plagued by injuries and, of all things, fumbleitis, Foster had moved from the practice squad to the starting lineup. As it turned out, his decisive, one-cut style was a perfect fit for the team's zone-blocking scheme. In the middle of a tense playoff race, Foster ran for 216 yards and three touchdowns in Houston's final two games. The Texans won both to finish 9-7 but lost out to the Ravens and Jets for a wild-card spot.

[+] EnlargeFoster
Brett Davis/US PresswireFoster's path to success seems almost fictional.

Foster sensed that the stars were finally lining up for him. But when he took off his shirt one day after the season and looked at his slightly doughy, 6'1", 230-pound frame, he knew he had to take his training up a notch. As he explains it, "I didn't want to be one of those guys who are 70, 80, 90 years old, looking in the mirror wondering, Did you do what you wanted with this life or did life do what it wanted to you? He called his older brother Abdul, a personal trainer who ran track at Florida A&M and now owns Elite Life Training in Houston. Together, they studied tape of the explosive-but-fluid running styles and mechanics of ...

A) Hall of Fame running backs Gale Sayers and Lenny Moore, as well as recent Pro Bowlers Priest Holmes and Chris Johnson.

B) Olympic sprinters such as Michael Johnson, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt.

The brothers then attempted to reproduce that "long-speed" running style during a grueling off-season program that began at 5:30 a.m. and regularly included as many as five workouts a day. Once again, Arian's training paid off. He exploded out of the gate in 2010 against the Colts, becoming the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 230 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener. He never let up from there, becoming just the third player in NFL history to gain 1,600 rushing yards and 600 receiving yards in the same season. When asked to name his favorite moment from 2010, Foster brings up ...

A) The finale in Jacksonville when, trailing Kansas City's Jamaal Charles for the rushing title by 32 yards, he ran for 56 yards on his first touch. After Foster's final carry that day, he jogged to the sideline and, as he imagined his place in the record books next to Walter Payton, Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, his eyes began to well with tears.

B) The Week 14 Monday night game vs. Baltimore, when he rushed for 100 yards on the Ravens defense. It took him until the third quarter to work up the nerve to say a word to Ray Lewis. But when he did, to Foster's surprise, the legendary linebacker turned around, grabbed his helmet and said, "I love the way you play this game, son!"

And that brings us back to dinner at Del ­Frisco's, where the deeper meaning of his newfound fame begins to register with Foster. "It all gets harder now, I guess," he says, perusing dessert options. "When no one knew who I was, it was easier to sneak by. Now that I have a name, I have to work that much harder. I'm not really anywhere yet. I'm just the flavor of the week. I might seem like a person more comfortable reading poetry under an oak tree, but I'm competitive. I want to be the best."

With that ...

A) Foster exhales and pushes himself away from the table. Before seeing the final tally, he pulls five crisp $100 bills from his wallet and lays them next to the untouched crème brûlée. It seems like an extravagant gesture for someone earning a league-minimum $310,000. But Foster is anticipating a new contract offer from the Texans any day now, something similar to the $33 million deal the Chiefs gave Charles in December. "Money can't make me happy," he says. "But money gives you a certain kind of freedom, and freedom is what makes me happy."

Foster puts on his suede jacket and walks out into the cold night air. The valet staff has his new, black Escalade Hybrid in the VIP spot, four feet from the front door. As Foster climbs inside his SUV, a young, attractive woman blurts out, "Wow, you are so damn good-looking, Arian."

Foster laughs and lifts a hand off the steering wheel to wave. Then he punches the gas, and the Caddy roars off into traffic.

B) Foster eats only half his steak before quietly asking the waiter for a doggy bag. He's already thinking about his off-season training, but $45 worth of meat is too much to throw away, especially for a guy who's still working under the original $310,000 salary he signed as a rookie.

Foster pulls on his khaki jacket, bums the $6 for the valet from one of his dinner companions, then stands and waits in line for his car in the cold night air. His dingy, gray 2008 Dodge Charger appears. As Foster climbs inside it, a young, attractive woman blurts out, "Wow, you are so damn good-looking, Adrian."

Foster chuckles at being called Adrian, then waves good-bye, rolling out into the street, where his car disappears into traffic.

What was Foster's true path in life? Follow option "B" type every step of the way.