You're not the boss of me

ESPN The Mag: Arian Foster (2:17)

ESPN The Magazine talks to Arian Foster on the set of his Fantasy Football Issue cover shoot. (2:17)

ARIAN FOSTER DOESN'T hate your fantasy football team. He won't hate you if you draft him or even if you bet against him, and if you ask him about this "fantasy stuff," as he calls it, he will tell you that even though he makes fun of it -- fantasy football, after all, is fantasy -- he's actually kind of indifferent about the whole thing. "Either you play or you don't; it doesn't bother me either way," he says. "But people think it does." And that bothers him. "People take it so seriously, but it's not even a tangible thing! It's all just silly, man. Fantasy football isn't real."

Foster, whose first name comes from Aquarian, the astrological water bearer whose moniker means "the holder of knowledge," is extremely real. And he makes a point of it, this realness, he wants you to know. Desperately. He is 25 years old -- a fantastically fortunate and rich 25-year-old, granted, one whose prodigious talents as a running back just netted him a five-year, $43.5 million contract (he'll see about $18 million this year) with the Houston Texans. But he's also just three years out of college, still a kid who favors the standard young-male-athlete uniform of T-shirt and baggy shorts unless he absolutely has to wear actual clothes, and he's still just trying to do what's expected of him while striving to keep his dignity and individuality intact. "I don't mind being entertainment," he says. "What bothers me is when people dehumanize their entertainers. And that's what people don't get."

Foster then sighs deeply and launches into a lengthy explanation of the "fantasy thing," which will be a continuing theme of the day. "I got a really bad rap after I pulled my hamstring last year during the preseason. People were like, 'Oh man, I've got to change my roster around!' " he says, alluding to what would become a war of words with bloggers and fantasy owners. "What's hard to grasp unless you know someone involved in the entertainment industry" -- because that's what the NFL is, it's entertainment, he reminds me pointedly -- "is that when a player goes down for injury, something on his body is hurt. I know that's part of the game and what we signed up for, but to dehumanize us like that is kind of odd to me. I mean, I was going into a contract year, and this season could either make or break me. I'm coming out of a year when I led the league in rushing, and I came back and worked for league minimum." In his case, it was $525,000, which he notes is still a lot. "But say you get hurt and that's your last paycheck from the NFL. That's not going to last you long. After taxes it's only around $350,000, which you might be able to stretch out over a few years, but that's if you're great with it.

"So all these thoughts are going through my head, because that's the stuff that runs through your head if you're battling an injury. Even though it's a hamstring, hamstring injuries can linger, and in my eyes I was still fighting for a job, still fighting for respect. So when people are writing a whole bunch of things on Twitter like, 'Damn, you ruined my fantasy,' or 'Are you going to be okay for my fantasy team?'... I mean, fine, but how could that be the first thing that pops into your head? To a kid," he adds. "And that's all we are. Who has it all figured out when they're 24 or 25 years old?"

All of this is said in a long, relatively stream-of-consciousness breath in the living room of Foster's sweet four-bedroom rented house ("I'm still not sure where I want to live for the rest of my life") in a nice, but not too nice, section of Houston, where we have met on a scorching hot day in June without publicists, managers, agents or other handlers. This lack of professional overseers is refreshing, and it's partially a trust thing -- "They know I know how to handle myself" -- as well as a familiarity thing: I know Foster, having spent the better part of the fall of 2006 reporting on his University of Tennessee football team. Back then, he was a 20-year-old kid who'd turned his dorm room into a rap studio and kept a plastic Uzi-style pellet gun at the ready to engage in epic battles with his buddies. Today, he's got a wife and a 3-year-old daughter and many other trappings of adulthood, though he's still intent on creating a music studio in his house.

Right now, there are boxes everywhere. Foster and his wife, Romina, moved in two weeks ago, and he's sitting on a large gray-and-white suede sectional couch, drinking a bottle of water and fiddling with the remote for the new flat-screen the cable guy has just finished wiring for probably every station imaginable. As for other material accoutrements, there are none, really. In the driveway is a 3-year-old white Ford Midas truck, a freebie Foster received from an endorsement deal. Hiding in the garage is an even older and more nondescript car that Foster bought during his time on the Texans' practice squad. And that's it: no Benz, no Bentley, nothing flashy, nothing tricked out.

A massively ripped, impressively tattooed kid, Foster is wholly bling-free. "It's not me," he says. "I don't need more cars. I don't need fancy rims. I don't need a chain. I don't need earrings." He did have a pair of QZs in college, but once he became a pro, he got rid of them. "I didn't need them anymore," he says, and ponders this for a moment.

He looks at the TV. Foster can talk about virtually anything and does. But then, hold on. What is he watching? He has no idea. In his last apartment, a loft he and Romina lived in until a water heater broke above them and mold started to spread in the walls, he knew which channels were which. He could find all of his shows. But now he's got some new service and -- he checks the program guide -- he's watching Living Single, a '90s sitcom starring Queen Latifah. "I don't even know what's what anymore," he says. And for a moment, Foster looks just a tiny bit perturbed. Then the moment passes. "Whatever," he shrugs.

He's Zen. Trying to be, anyway. There's a gigantic portrait of Buddha in his dining room, waiting to be hung. Foster has become famous for his signature bow, the yogic Namaste he performs in tribute to the football gods every time he scores. He studied Buddhism for a while. He studies a lot of things, actually -- religion, science, "anything that's intriguing, really" -- and right now, Foster is conducting an independent study of quantum physics. "It's a theory that kind of says each atom is conscious -- every single atom is conscious. Think about that. That's crazy!" he says. "If you pick up a grain of salt and zoom in 1,000 times, it's doing things inside that it wants to. And it chooses. And when you look at it on a global or universal scale, to me it suggests that it's all interconnected, that we're all kind of on the same plane as energy." He stops, embarrassed to be so unabashedly dorking out over physics. But who cares? "Written in ourselves is a blueprint defined in an answer," he says. "Any answer you want."

BY NOW, THREE years into his professional career, people have heard the line about Arian Foster: He's a phenomenon, a 6'1", 229-pound tank of a running back who went undrafted only to walk on as a free agent with the Texans in 2009. After languishing for a few months on the practice squad, he was called up for special-teams duty and wound up rushing for more than 100 yards in his first career start. The next season, he led the NFL in rushing with 1,616 yards, earning him comparisons to O.J. Simpson and Barry Sanders.

Foster is also, as he frequently has been called, an anomaly -- at least in the realm of pro football. He writes poetry. He raps. He majored in philosophy. He's a vegan. He's the Kanye West of the NFL, tweeting obsessively about everything from celebrity ("I don't understand being starstruck as an adult ... we should get that we're no different") to why he flies coach ("I'm cheap") to Twitter itself ("Digital ambrosia").

And he doesn't hold back, which hasn't always worked out so well. Last summer, Foster tweeted an MRI of his injured hamstring and then insulted fantasy football fans who complained he'd ruined their season, calling them "sick." This provoked the kind of fan vitriol you might expect: "100% of your fantasy owners regret picking you," tweeted @schmohawk05. Another said he hoped Foster was seriously injured as punishment for his ingratitude: "Jackass ... without FF you would be cleaning toilets." And the sports media took their shots at Foster. "Hey Arian, whatever reason makes people cheer for you should be plenty, big fella," wrote a columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "And the millions of folks who follow fantasy football have helped the NFL grow into the most popular sport in the country. Bad hamstring or no, why don't you stop talking for a while, huh, Champ?"

There's no doubt fantasy football has added a new dimension and tremendous value to an already lucrative game. But it has also reduced professional athletes -- even more than they were before -- to statistics, or as Foster puts it, "chips." And Foster, while accepting that he may be a commodity, doesn't want to be treated like a commodity. "People like to categorize: 'That football player is a football player, he plays football,' you know?" he says. "He's supposed to come out of college, be drafted, play from this time to this time, retire, and then do events and sign autographs and be a legend of the game."

Or there are other options: that he winds up in jail, like Michael Vick, or blows his fortune. "You're supposed to spend all your money in the clubs, buy jewelry, have a big house, five cars," Foster says. "There are all these stereotypes that come with it, man. And I don't want to be a part of it. I'm not a part of it." He says this emphatically. "I think people put me there, and that annoys me, because every day I have to fight those stereotypes. Every single day."

And this is why, when you sit down with Foster, you might start off talking about fantasy football, but soon enough you'll move on to
the phantasmagorical coolness of subatomic particles, or the pros and cons of veganism, or the cliché, as Foster sees it, of thanking God after a victory. "If he helped you win, that means he helped the other team lose. That doesn't make any sense to me," he says.

Then, he might segue -- because, why not? -- to the Koran (Foster was raised Muslim, though he now eschews all organized religion), followed by some ruminations on xenophobia, racism and what really makes him emotional: knowing that if he does the right thing with his money, his daughter, Zeniah, will never have to struggle a day in her life.

Foster eventually will circle back to this "fantasy stuff," but he'll pointedly challenge the idea that his come-from-behind, improbable-yet-fantastic rise was a "dream come true," which, quite simply, it wasn't. "You see my house, but you didn't see the 5 a.m. runs and the lifts, and you didn't see that every single day I was doing something to get better. This is just what happens when you work hard," he says. "I didn't come into the league as a first-round draft pick; I didn't get millions of dollars before I ever picked up a football. Everything I've earned in this league I've earned in this league. And I wish there was some way to express that because it didn't just happen. It's not a fantasy. I bled for this."

WHEN FOSTER BROODS, which like all deep thinkers he does quite regularly, he retreats to his "man-cave-in-the-making," a den just off the entrance hall that Foster promises will soon contain all sorts of cool toys: his music studio, a huge TV, minifridge and Xbox/PlayStation. But right now, there's an iMac sitting on a desk, a Nerf basketball hoop on one wall and two huge glass cases containing commemorative footballs and Texans helmets on the far walls. The cases are by far the most ostentatious items in the room, but Foster pretends they're invisible. "I didn't even want that up there, but Romina made me," he says, embarrassed.

Arian and Romina, a German-born singer, have been together since Foster's senior year of college, when they met in Atlanta through friends. They carried out most of their early courtship on Skype: he in Knoxville, and then Houston; she in Stuttgart. She was his third real girlfriend, and he "wasn't really into the marriage thing," he says, except he pretty much had to do it because "she saved me," he says. "She's a pure, clean spirit, and I'm the opposite, man. There are some things in life you don't deserve."

Romina, by the way, says much the same about Arian. A petite, attractive woman in white shorts and a black tank top, she has just arrived home with Zeniah, a gorgeous little girl with long honey-brown hair, who's toting a Hula-Hoop about 30 times her size. Mother and daughter pause at the doorway of the man cave, Zeniah boasting proudly about her new toy, which she tries to show off to Daddy, but fails miserably. Wiggle as she might, the hoop falls repeatedly to the floor. Hearing Arian dis his football accolades, Romina smiles serenely and shoots a look that says, Please don't listen to my husband; you can't make him do anything.

Maybe. On the other hand, there is a rather large throw pillow on the floor embossed with a butterfly. That's his wife too, Foster notes with mock dismay. "I don't know what she's doing. I put up my hoop and she was like, 'You're ruining the wall for your pictures and awards!' I don't want that s-- there." Foster is funny about awards. He's funny about football in general, actually, which might seem weird given that he has never wanted to do anything other than play in the NFL. But myriad roadblocks have stood in his way.

Foster is the youngest son of an African-American father and a Mexican-American mother who were intent on teaching their three children "how to think, not what to think," as Arian puts it. He grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., acutely aware of the politics of football, thanks to his father, Carl Foster, a former wide receiver for the University of New Mexico. "One of the things we taught our children was how to discern," Carl says. "When Arian said he wanted to play football, we never lied to him. We told him football was a tough sport, and moreover, that it was a mindset on the field and off."

Arian walked onto his first football field at the age of 7. Almost immediately, his Pop Warner coaches were designing offensive routes for him. By the time he was 10, he was garnering comparisons to Emmitt Smith. Yet he was discouraged by teachers who thought his NFL ambitions were unrealistic, and he had to fight for recognition at his Albuquerque high school, where his coaches, Foster says, eager to please the booster parents of wealthier or more politically connected kids, favored other players and told him he "wasn't running back material," despite his natural talents.

After his parents divorced in 2000, Arian and his older brother, Abdul, went to live with their father in San Diego, where Foster became the lead rusher at San Diego's Mission Bay High. He was ranked as a three-star recruit nonetheless, and though he received scholarship offers from Oregon, West Virginia, North Carolina and Oregon State, he was slow for an SEC running back -- he ran a 4.5 in the 40 -- and was mostly ignored by the ubercompetitive conference.

The exception was Tennessee, whose coaches discovered Foster almost by accident during his junior year while recruiting players on an opposing team. "He wasn't a high-profile player, but I watched 10 of his games in high school and I never saw a guy make a tackle on him," said former UT assistant Trooper Taylor, now an assistant head coach at Auburn. Arian got the attention of head coach Phillip Fulmer only after assistant Randy Sanders stood on a table and screamed Foster's name to persuade Fulmer to watch his tape.

Finally, they offered Foster a scholarship, but he was the lowest-ranked running back in their recruiting class. "I remember talking about it with him," former Vols receiver Jayson Swain recalls. "I'd say, 'Keep working; the cream rises to the top.' "

Few college athletes had the highs and lows that Arian Foster experienced during his four years at Tennessee. In a manner that his NFL career would later mirror, he seemed to come out of nowhere: an unheralded redshirt freshman who was given a break in the sixth game of the Volunteers' dismal 2005 season and became the team's lone bright spot, rushing for 879 yards -- the fifth-best rookie campaign in Tennessee history. By season's end, the 6'1", 220-pound Foster was dubbed an "all-purpose threat" by his coaches and named to the freshman All-America and All-SEC teams. By the summer of 2006, he was being touted by everyone from Playboy to the Sporting News and photographed for myriad football publications, including one that put Foster on the cover alongside the Vols' most prominent NFL prospect, defensive lineman Justin Harrell, who later became the 16th pick in the 2007 draft.

It was heady stuff, and when I first met Foster after an indoor practice that July, he was walking with a bit of a swagger. Dressed in a cut-off black T-shirt that displayed his impressively cut and tattooed arms, he exuded confidence and extended his hand. "I'm Arian Foster," he said, without being prompted. Then he grinned with the charisma of a boy who knew his destiny.

But inside, Foster was wracked with a specific kind of insecurity. "This is how I look at it," he told me one day. "If I wasn't the starting running back at the University of Tennessee, somebody else would be the starting running back at the University of Tennessee. We're pieces of meat. You're not just a kid; you're an investment. So I'm not a name; I'm just like a spot -- a position that can be filled like that. And as soon as you're out of the game, you're out of the game."

Like fantasy football (but interestingly, not wholly like the NFL itself, where pros have ample opportunity to market themselves through endorsement deals that brand them as individuals), college players struggle under the onus of being faceless stats-making cogs -- unpaid ones at that. "These schools gobble you up and spit you out," says Swain, now a sports radio broadcaster in Knoxville. "And some people might develop relationships along the way that will help them after football, but most don't. There are a lot of guys I played with who are still looking for a career; a lot are simply looking for ways to function after football." The smarter ones, he says, understood their role as an "asset" to the larger program and made the most of that opportunity. "Players understand that, hey, you only get one shot at this. Most of these guys wouldn't have even gone to college if it weren't for football. Now you're at Tennessee, and if you do well, you will have the opportunity to play professional football and change your family's life."

Foster, whose parents struggled to support three kids and had at times been unable to even afford gas for their car, fully understood the chance he'd been given. And he attacked his goal with single-minded focus, pushing himself through punishing workouts and rehabilitative routines often late into the night. "The coaches had no idea what went on behind the scenes," says Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo, who played with Foster at Tennessee. "There were nights that Arian would rehab for an entire day just to play a game on Saturday. I'm talking 24 hours -- he'd sleep in the training room, or you'd go into his room at 11:30 at night and he'd be icing his knee. That's the kind of dedication he had."

He also had confidence. "He knew he was going to be an NFL player," Swain says. "And any chance he got, he'd sign his autograph. Didn't matter where he was." Yet all of this worked against Foster as he struggled with injuries and mistakes. Though an All-SEC player his junior year who set an all-time record for Tennessee rushing, he became known for fumbling at the worst times, including in the previous season's Outback Bowl against Penn State. Foster coughed the ball up with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to cost Tennessee the game. From then on, though he actually had just five fumbles in his college career, he lived with the perpetual hurt visited upon him by the Tennessee media and Vols fans who lit up the school message boards with snarky, if not out-and-out brutal, commentary. "Those fans were crazy," Foster says, shooting the Nerf basketball. Thwup. "I was arguing with someone on Twitter again recently because of that Outback Bowl, and some dude called me Fumbles, telling me I'd never be good." He scowls in a way that you know it still kills him. "Grown-ass men still mad that an 18- or 19-year-old fumbled in a game. But whatever, man," he grumbles. "I can't blame them; everyone's got to have a passion. I just hate that I have to be a part of it -- that memory."

He shoots a few baskets. Thwup. Thwup. Thwup. It's always been hard, staying true to himself while also trying to stay true to what the coaches and fans expect of him. He's tried, from time to time, to keep his mouth shut, but he's never been able to help being, well, Arian Foster. In college, he questioned virtually everything, from why he was playing for the "pride of Tennessee" when he knew almost nothing about the state, to why Alabama, rather than, say, Mississippi, was a key rival, to -- most crucially -- his coaches' decisions, which earned him ample time on the bench, even as lesser backs made costly mistakes. "Maybe it was that West Coast thing," says his mother, Bernadette Sizemore. "Arian was raised to be respectful, but he was also given free will to think, to challenge, to question. Folks down South had a hard time with that."

Adds his good friend Mayo: "He rubbed some people the wrong way, but his teammates all understood. He loves to argue. Loves it. You say Kobe's the best player in the NBA, he'll go straight to LeBron. Not because he thinks he's the best, but because he loves to argue. And he'd argue about it for a week. It's like he can't help it. If Arian wasn't playing football, he'd be a lawyer."

All of this -- the contrarian attitude, the single-mindedness, the individualism -- was really what made Foster an anomaly. Then there was the media, which seized upon his quirks as well as his mistakes. "Arian was one of the most misunderstood athletes I ever covered," says Dave Hooker, a former sports reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel who now covers recruiting for ESPN. "He played during a time when Tennessee's football team often struggled, and I think he caught an unfair amount of flak. As many times as he touched the ball, the turnovers were very small, proportionately."

The scrutiny only intensified after Foster put off the NFL draft, where he was a projected second-round pick in 2008, to return to
Tennessee for his senior year. "He assumed he'd be the man," says Mayo, who was the 10th overall pick in 2008. Instead, it was a bust of a season that would result in Fulmer's losing his job and Foster's being relegated to sharing the running back slot with several others. Crushed, the perennial star of both pre- and postgame news conferences stopped talking. One afternoon, cornered in the training room by a particularly aggressive reporter, he said he would do interviews only as a pterodactyl.

It was a joke -- kind of like his posting the MRI of his hamstring on Twitter -- but the media and the fans didn't look at it that way. Foster was having a terrible season, making "costly fumbles" as Fulmer would later say in interviews in which he almost seemed to blame Foster for the team's (and his own) demise. "The fans and media were absolutely relentless about his fumbles, about the decline of the program and his part in that," says Sizemore, who took part in the fan-board frenzy, posting as "fostermom" in defense of her son and his teammates. "By the time he was done, he just felt unappreciated, misunderstood, misused and just absolutely done with everything related to Tennessee, Knoxville, the Volunteers, Phillip Fulmer... all of it. Done."

And yet, "Arian is someone who, when you criticize him, he's not going to forget. He's going to use it as fuel," Swain says. "And that's exactly what he did. He probably had some issue with some people in the support staff, and it hurt him in the draft because those are the people the scouts talk to. But Arian excels when he is overlooked. And when he finally got his deal, no one deserved it more. He's a little different, but he's done everything the right way."

COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS strewn with the carcasses of players like Arian Foster; kids who maybe said too much too often, or those who dared to behave like 20- or 21-year-olds, only to get punished for it. Few get a chance to enjoy a true redemption story, which is what Foster has managed to pull off since he was passed over in the 2009 draft, only to go on to become a two-time Pro Bowler in just three years. "A legend," Volunteers fans now post on their message boards. "I always loved Arian Foster."

It's something Foster would no doubt have a comment about, but he's long stopped reading those message boards. And he's also decided to stop reacting to posts on Twitter. What's the point? "Even though I'm not putting out negative energy, by intellectually sparring with negative people, I'm bringing that negative energy to me. Know what I'm saying?"

Best to stay positive. "There's nothing you can do to change someone else's opinion -- it's someone's opinion," he continues. And he has bigger concerns anyway. "They're looking to cut me right now."


"It's a business," he says. "They're gonna put the best player on the field. And that's one thing I respect about this league: No matter how much money they pay you, you've got to earn your keep every single day. And if after a while it's hurting the organization, they'll sit you down." Which is Foster's way of saying he still takes nothing for granted.

And so, Foster is done talking about football -- for now. He has to focus on a far more important project. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he is trying to figure out how to set up the giant white headset for his Xbox 360. And he can't do it. "Oh s --. I f-- up the whole thing," he says. "This is difficult. There are all these wires." He scowls miserably at the headset. "It's all set up. It should work, but I just don't know where some of the stuff goes."

For the next few minutes, Foster focuses intently on this Xbox situation with the same level, I can only assume, that he applied to daily workouts with his brother, who trained Arian prior to his breakout 2010 season, and applies to all of his reading, to his tweeting and a zillion other things, which is to say: total focus. And then, one by one, he calmly connects the wires -- and the thing works. "Deductive reasoning," he says. "That's what's up."

Now he can play with people online. "There's like a network," he explains to me, an Xbox novice. "People are so racist on there; you wouldn't believe the kind of s-- they say. But whatever," he shrugs, "I've stopped trying to figure them out -- doesn't hurt me none, just people hiding behind their screen names."

Kind of like the Twitterati owners hiding behind theirs. Except would the people on his Xbox forum realize they were playing against Arian Foster?

"Probably not."

"That's pretty cool."

Foster grins. "It is," he says.

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