HOUSTON -- Arian Foster strolled into a spacious room beneath Reliant Stadium last Thursday and gasped at the sight before him.
Numerous Houston Texans employees roamed around long tables filled with endless paraphernalia: gleaming helmets, freshly pressed jerseys, assorted hats and countless photos. Foster had been told that key players would need to sign many of those items to help the team's marketing department.
What he didn't expect was a task that might leave his hands cramped and throbbing.
"I didn't know I had to sign this much," he said while picking up a marker.
That would be about as close as Foster would come to complaining before starting what would be an hour-long process. He knew full well that it was an honor to be signing autographs alongside stars like Pro Bowl wide receiver
Andre Johnson. At this time last year, few people in the Texans' organization would have bugged Foster for one signature. Now he can't show up for a home game without finding a smattering of his No. 23 jerseys scattered among the crowd.
Moments like that autograph signing remind Foster how far he's come on a road few NFL players would want to travel. They indicate that all the hardships he's suffered --- along with all the doubts he's had to overcome -- were all prelude to a bigger, more rewarding picture, one that has turned him into one of the league's most buzz-worthy backs.
"I've always believed in myself because I don't like people telling me what I can't do," Foster said. "Unfortunately, that's been happening throughout my entire life. And I've always tried my best to not listen to that stuff."
That attitude has turned Foster, 24, into the first breakout star of this young season. Even after the New York Giants held him to 25 rushing yards in a 34-10 loss in Week 5, he leads the league with 564 yards (to go along with four rushing touchdowns and a 5.8 yards-per-carry average). Foster's presence also has added another dimension to a Texans offense that already featured an explosive passing attack.
Thanks to Foster's effectiveness, Houston's receivers are facing a lot more single coverage these days while quarterback Matt Schaub is convincing more defenders with his play-action fakes.
On top of all that, the 6-foot-1, 227-pound Foster brings a noticeable nastiness to a backfield that had rarely displayed that quality.
"What I like most about Arian is that he runs with an edge," Schaub said. "He has a real chip on his shoulder and he brings that aggressiveness to the field. It's like he's trying to prove something with every step."
Added New York Giants safety Deon Grant: "The guy has great vision and a knack for getting through holes. But the one thing about him is that he definitely runs hard."
Risk and reward
Foster's tenacity has plenty to do with how he came into the league. Nobody selected the former University of Tennessee star in the 2009 draft, and he spent the first half of last season on the Texans' practice squad. But that edge also comes from his independent nature and undeniably free-spirited approach to the world.
This is a man who writes poetry, studies eastern cultures and celebrates touchdowns by bowing to the crowd with clenched hands -- it's a Hindu greeting he says means "I see the God in you." Foster is also so naturally outspoken that he once upset a grade school teacher by defiantly proclaiming that Santa Claus didn't exist (that move also didn't endear Foster's parents to that particular instructor).
During training camp this summer, Foster spent parts of his spare time reading "Think and Grow Rich," a book of money-making secrets written by Napoleon Hill. His favorite chapter involved a mute who eventually gained wealth by manufacturing hearing aids.
"That whole chapter is about desire," Foster said. "This guy was deaf and he still did what he wanted to do. I loved that because [the author] is talking about a mindset. It's all about how you can do anything if you set your mind to it."
That cerebral nature has helped Foster understand the bigger picture in the Texans' offense, as he has proved to be a skilled pass-protector and receiver out of the backfield. But Foster isn't so smart that he can't use a little discipline from time to time.
Although neither the Texans nor Foster publicly acknowledged the reason for the punishment, published reports later claimed Foster had missed one meeting and shown up late for another. When asked about the incident, Foster said, "I didn't do what I needed to do off the field. I messed up. I apologized. And it won't happen again, even if I have to be here two hours earlier than I need to be."
That Oakland game also revealed plenty about Foster's competitive fire. After finally entering the contest with less than seven minutes left in the first half, he dashed to a 74-yard touchdown run on his second play from scrimmage. He eventually finished with 131 yards on 16 carries and added a 10-yard touchdown catch.
"I think it bothered him when he was sitting on the sidelines and watching those other guys having success," Texans running backs coach Chick Harris said. "He was probably thinking to himself, 'I might not be playing for a while.'"
If there is one possibility that would strike fear in Foster, it's that somehow he might lose another chance to play consistently. His career has been filled with so many struggles that it's amazing he didn't lose his love of the game years ago.
Even Foster's father, Carl, wasn't crazy about his youngest son playing football. Carl had been a star wide receiver at New Mexico but quit football after the Denver Broncos cut him following his first pro training camp in 1982. He knew Arian would face plenty of politics in the sport.
What Carl understood was that the game could be ruthless and unforgiving. When he walked away, he had seen too many talented players who weren't given a chance to excel and even more who couldn't function once their careers ended. Carl didn't want Arian to end up that way, mainly because he and his former wife, Bernadette Sizemore, wanted all three of their children to approach life fearlessly.
"We always told our kids that, regardless of what happens, brighter days lie ahead," Carl said. "So be bold, put your feet down and move forward."
Arian Foster would need to apply those lessons more than he ever imagined. They were vital to him when he was a sophomore at Valley High in Albuquerque, N.M., where coaches told him he wasn't good enough to play running back. They were equally important at Tennessee, where he went from running for 1,193 yards as a junior to riding the bench as a senior.
For every coach who believed in Foster -- men like Desi Herrera at San Diego's Mission Bay High, where Foster spent his final two prep years, and former Tennessee assistant coach Trooper Taylor, who recruited him to Knoxville -- there were too many others who seemed disinterested in how the kid's career progressed.
At Tennessee, 'weeded out of the rotation'
For example, when Foster thought about leaving Tennessee for an NFL bid after his stellar junior season, Carl said former Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer promised Arian that he'd receive 25 to 30 carries a game if he stayed.
But after coming into his senior year needing just 685 yards to become the school's all-time leading rusher, Foster wound up with just 570 because of injuries and a limited role in the offense of new coordinator Dave Clawson.
"I thought I was going to be the go-to guy," said Foster, who received a second-round grade from the NFL's draft evaluators after his junior season.
"But I barely got the ball after my first two games. And after that, I was slowly weeded out of the rotation. I felt like I couldn't say anything because Coach Fulmer's job was in jeopardy and I'd end up looking like I was selfish."
Fulmer couldn't be reached for comment.
The emotional toll of that season eventually wore on Foster. His parents noticed a once vibrant, gregarious kid turning more reclusive. He confided mainly in his family, and when he did, his voice sounded subdued. At one point, during a conversation with his mother, he acknowledged that he understood his father's fears about the game.
"I can understand why Dad quit," Foster told his mom that day.
Foster also didn't endear himself to the local Tennessee media with his actions as a reserve.
One day he was joking in a position meeting and squawking like a strange bird. It was a routine that made his teammates laugh but then Foster was later asked to do an interview with reporters in the locker room. When he privately suggested that he'd only honor the request if questions were posed in "Pterodactyl" language, the story went national. Not only was the kid not on the field, some thought, but he also had some weirdness to him to boot.
Foster felt even worse once he started preparing for the draft. First, he pulled a hamstring at the Senior Bowl. That injury later prevented him from running at the NFL combine, and he ran a pedestrian 4.7-second 40-yard dash at his pro day.
To make matters worse, Foster was hearing rumors about his attitude.
"When I was at the combine, I'd have general managers and coaches asking me questions like, 'What would your coaches say about you?'" he said.
"I thought I was saying the right things, and then I started hearing that I was considered arrogant and lazy. I was telling these people one thing, and they probably figured I was lying."
After that, I decided that if I only got three plays a game, I was going to make them the best plays ever.
”-- Texans RB Arian Foster, on advice given by Vikings RB coach Eric Bieniemy, regarding Foster worrying about playing time
While those questions about Foster's work ethic weren't valid -- "I can remember him running every day after practice and always trying to get better at something," said Kansas City Chiefs rookie safety and former Tennessee star Eric Berry -- they certainly affected his status in the 2009 draft. When the second day of that event arrived, Foster tried easing his nerves by playing golf with Carl, his older brother Abdul and a friend. By the ninth hole, he was constantly checking his cell phone, and he grew more despondent as the afternoon passed. By the end of the sixth round, Foster had returned home and given up hope.
The only uplifting moment of that day came when teams started calling to sign Foster as a free agent. He spoke to the Jets, Saints, Buccaneers and Texans, and his girlfriend, Romina Reinhart, tried to keep him focused.
Every time a new team called, she would ask, "Who is that?" before racing to the computer to assess its depth chart.
Foster ultimately chose the Texans because he figured he might have a good shot at complementing the smaller Slaton, who was coming off a 1,282-yard rookie season.
'In my mind, I was going to take this job'
That goal seemed more real after Foster started pushing through the frustrations of being a practice squad player. He was watching a Bears-Vikings game last fall when he noticed an announcer referring to a player who had just been activated from a practice squad for that contest. Upon hearing that news, Foster turned to Reinhart on the couch and smiled. She nodded back to indicate he could have such a fate.
After the Texans activated Foster and put him on special teams, Foster thought back to a conversation he'd had with Minnesota Vikings running backs coach Eric Bieniemy prior to a preseason game. Bieniemy once had tried recruiting Foster to UCLA, so he wanted to know how the rookie was doing.
When Foster said he was discouraged by his lack of opportunities, Bieniemy told him to stay strong.
"He said I could only worry about the things I could control," Foster said. "After that, I decided that if I only got three plays a game, I was going to make them the best plays ever."
Foster did more than that. He made such an impact on special teams that one former college teammate, St. Louis guard Eric Young, told him the Rams' coaches had been raving about his efforts prior to a late-season Houston win.
Foster also had impressed the Texans' coaches enough that they gave him a shot in the backfield toward the end of the season. Foster capitalized on that as well, gaining 216 yards and three touchdowns in games against Miami and New England.
Just as importantly, Foster didn't lose any momentum heading into his offseason. He improved his speed and quickness in the offseason while working out with Abdul, who ran track at Florida A&M and works as a personal trainer. Foster also became a constant face at Texans headquarters, where he often spent hours studying pass-protection schemes with Schaub.
By the time training camp arrived, it was apparent Foster wasn't deterred by Houston's decision to use a second-round pick on Auburn running back Ben Tate in this year's draft. (Tate is out for the season because of an ankle injury.)
As Foster said, "I've always felt like competition makes you better, and in my mind, I was going to take this job."
"You could see during [organized team activities] that he had the qualities you like for a back in this zone-blocking system," Texans offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said. "He had that one-cut-and-go ability but he also had the strength to break arm tackles. Once we got into training camp, those qualities really stood out."
The Texans actually didn't expect to run Foster as much as they did in their season-opening win over Indianapolis -- in which he gained a team-record 231 yards and scored three touchdowns -- but he gave them no options.
He was utilizing an offensive line that has done a tremendous job for most of the season, especially when it comes to cutting down defenders on the back side to create cut-back lanes. He's also more aware of how precious his opportunity is. The last thing Foster wanted was to be a forgettable flash in the pan.
His coaches say that won't happen if he continues to follow their guidance.
"Arian has had some things happen early in his career that wouldn't allow him to prosper," Harris said. "A lot of that had to do with structure. But we've told him point blank where he is [as a player] and where he's going. You can see he has the talent. Now he just needs to be consistent."
There also have been some rumblings in Houston about how a kid who has endured so much will now handle success.
Foster laughs at the idea that he isn't ready to deal with prosperity.
As Sizemore said, "This is the first time in a long time that Arian is really enjoying playing football again. I can see the difference in him on and off the field."
"Whenever I've had the opportunity to play, I've always wound up playing at a high level," he said. "And that's really all I'm trying to do now."
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.