The winding road to Bama

AUBURN, Ala. -- There were times when Reuben Foster wanted to lash out, to speak up and try to set the record straight. His name has been torn down through the past two years, and he has felt helpless to stop it. Every ignorant, angry, bigoted insult imaginable has been thrown his way, and when he's not being guarded, he'll tell you how much it hurt.

"They're talking like I'm a thug," he said, "and they don't even know me."

They said he'll end up in jail because everyone with a tattoo is destined for a criminal record. They said he's fake because every teenager is certain of what he or she wants. They said he's dumb because every athlete is at his or her most eloquent in front of a television camera.

The same people who wished him luck one minute wished him harm the next.

"They told me, 'I hope you tear your ACL,' " Foster said. "It's crazy how people think and what they'd wish upon you."

There have been plenty of in-state battles for football prospects before, but few have left as much scorched earth as the tug-of-war between Alabama and Auburn for Foster, the Class of 2013's top-rated inside linebacker in the ESPN 150. When he committed to Alabama in 2011, half the state loved him. When he flipped to Auburn a year later, the other half rejoiced. When he ended up signing with the Crimson Tide in February, no one knew what to think.

Hell hath no fury like a fan scorned.

"It got to the point where I didn't know who to trust," Foster said. "I didn't want to deal with it anymore. I got to the point where I wanted to give up football. But I knew if I gave up football it would be an even bigger story."

Instead of throwing in the towel, he internalized his feelings. He learned that what he says has little to do with what connects with people. He learned he can't please everyone, and even now that doesn't sit well with him. He'd rather sink under the wave of criticism than become more depressed by trying to fight against it.

"As soon as I signed the [letter of intent], it all broke loose," he said. "I didn't want to come out of the house. I didn't want to do anything."

From his mother's couch in Auburn, he's eager to send a message to those who don't understand what he went through or what he was trying to do when he made his decision about college. And rather than telling them to just get over it already, he feels the need to apologize.

"I didn't mean for all this to happen," he said. "I'm sorry to the Auburn fans, to the Georgia fans who I got their hopes up. I tried to make everyone happy. I hope they forgive me. To the Alabama fans, I'm going to try my best to come in and please all of them."

But trying to please everyone is a fool's errand, an impractical task in a sport where popularity is more often polarizing than it is galvanizing. And when it comes to recruiting, a lot of somebodies are left feeling disappointed.

Foster's future coaches at Alabama understood that. Tide coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have known Foster for years, and they knew that he didn't set out to make enemies -- it just happened. The staff easily could have walked away from Foster after he flipped to Auburn last summer, but they kept the relationship alive.

"Me and Coach Smart have been close since [I was in] ninth grade," Foster said. "When I committed to Auburn, he was hurt because he thought we had a bond and I wouldn't do that to him. But he understood at the same time. We stayed in touch and he told me if I'd stayed with Auburn he would have wished me luck."

The support paid off when Auburn coach Gene Chizik and his entire coaching staff were let go after a 3-9 season in 2012. Foster reopened his recruitment, and Alabama was one of the first schools to walk into Auburn High coach Tim Carter's office to ask after his star player.

"Soon as he opened it back up Coach Smart came in here full force," Carter said. "He saw his opportunity to get back in on Reuben and did."

Foster chose to commit to Alabama two days before national signing day. Still, Auburn kept a scholarship open for him in hopes of another change of heart, according to Carter. When Foster showed up to his signing ceremony in a Nick Saban costume, replete with his patented straw hat and sleeveless windbreaker, the outcome was obvious. Foster signed with the Tide and finally ended his recruitment.

Hours later, Saban defended his newest star linebacker during a news conference.

"We really think Reuben's a good person and Reuben has a good heart," Saban said. "He's certainly a good football player, but I think that he really felt bad in some ways; maybe by the way he handled his recruiting. I also think that all the media attention sometimes can affect these guys in maybe not the most positive way. But at the same time I think that Reuben would like to please everyone. And I think that he learned in this process that that's very, very difficult -- and probably impossible."

Foster is still the center of attention in Auburn, but since signing day it hasn't been the same.

"It calmed down a lot," he said. "It gets crazy sometimes when I'm walking and people yell out, 'War Eagle!' I just say, 'Roll Tide!' I don't let none of it get to me. I just need to worry about me and my future."

Maybe Foster's new tattoos will keep the Auburn shout-outs to a minimum. He recently had a script "A" drawn on his left hand and he plans to get a larger Alabama tattoo on his biceps soon. When the two schools meet in November, he'll be an Iron Bowl poster unto himself, an Auburn tattoo on one arm and an Alabama tattoo on the other.

"Man, the Iron Bowl is going to be crazy," he said. "Anytime I make a tackle or step on the field or even get near something it's going to be 'Boo!' I tell myself if I hear that it won't do anything to me. I'll laugh. You boo me, I'll give you something to boo about."

In fact, Foster's body art might be the hardest part for fans to swallow. Shortly after committing to the Tigers, he got a stylized tattoo of Auburn's logo on the underside of his left forearm. And contrary to what some might have expected after signing with Alabama, it's not going away.

The tattoo has come to symbolize something more meaningful than football: family. Foster's cousin, former Auburn fullback Ladarious Phillips, was shot and killed a month after Foster flipped his commitment from the Tide to the Tigers. The two lived near one another in Roanoke, Ala., before Foster moved to Georgia and then Auburn. They dreamed of playing together.

"I can remember like yesterday we lived by each other before we even thought about playing football," Foster said. "We're family. I'd borrow his Auburn shorts -- I'm wearing them now."

When Phillips was gone and the Auburn staff was fired, Foster's recruitment became what he called a business decision. He has a future and a 4-year-old daughter to worry about. People can think what they want about the tattoos and what came before them, but he's ready to turn the page and take the next step to a career in the NFL.

Foster said he's looking forward to a fresh start and the opportunity to feel like an underdog again, his history as a blue-chip prospect sure to go by the wayside the minute he steps foot on campus. In the locker room, it won't matter.

On May 20, Foster will graduate and with a passing grade in his Spanish class; he'll be fully qualified to participate in practice, he said.

"I feel so comfortable right now, man," he said. "I don't have to worry about reporters, no more visits. I'm going to college. All I have to worry about is grades. I'm relaxed."

For the first time in a long time, Foster can be a kid again. Rather than dreading decisions about his future, he can look back on the journey without regrets.

"I grew up on down the line of recruiting," he said. "Coach Saban had a big part of that, realizing it was a business decision. I learned a lot. I didn't expect it would get this wild. People tell me to enjoy it while you can, don't pick your schools now. I wanted to take it all in, and then it gets to you so fast.

"They tell you. They warn you. But at the same time you don't believe them."

He ignored the warning signs, and he wants everyone to know why. He wants them to know that Reuben Foster isn't what they think he is.

"Some people think I'm humble, a great kid, a loving father," he said. "At the same time people think I'm stuck up, I'm a brat, I'm a thug because I have a tattoo. They think I'm an idiot.

"But I'm just going to let everyone think that and go on with my future."