The Confession of Arian Foster

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's August 18 College Football Preview Issue. Subscribe today!

LIFE'S BIGGEST QUESTIONS are leading me through a narrow street in a stately Houston neighborhood, where haunting piles of home furnishings-cabinets, carpet, curtains-lie on the north side of the street in mud-streaked abandon. Meanwhile, the south side, unharmed by the torrential rain, looks as if it took up arms and ravaged the other. The difference is so stark, so precise, that some might be tempted to invoke divine intervention.

And if a just God intervened to spare the folks on the south side, why would he beget fires-of-hell vengeance upon those who happened to purchase a home on the other side of the street, where the floodwaters flowed over the curb, across the lawns and through living rooms and kitchens?

And is it blasphemy to even ask?

In a room toward the back of a home on the dry side of the street, Arian Foster ponders such questions. Given the reason I'm here, he laughs at the notion of celestial involvement in the water's path. Where some might see the hand of God, Foster sees physics and engineering, the slope of the road and the elevation of the homes in relation to a swollen runoff canal that bisects an arterial a few hundred yards away.

Science and faith. They've brought us to this place, where Foster is ready to tell the story he's been leading toward for as long as he can remember.

THE HOUSE IS a churn of activity. Arian's mother, Bernadette, and sister, Christina, are cooking what they proudly call "authentic New Mexican food." His older brother, Abdul, is splayed out on a room-sized sectional, watching basketball and fielding requests from the five little kids -- three of them Arian's -- who are bouncing from the living room to the large playhouse, complete with slide, in the front room. I tell Abdul why I'm here and he says, "My brother -- the anti-Tebow," with a comic eye roll.

Arian Foster, 28, has spent his entire public football career -- in college at Tennessee, in the NFL with the Texans -- in the Bible Belt. Playing in the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion, in which God and country are both industry and packaging, in which the pregame flyover blends with the postgame prayer, Foster does not believe in God.

"Everybody always says the same thing: You have to have faith," he says. "That's my whole thing: Faith isn't enough for me. For people who are struggling with that, they're nervous about telling their families or afraid of the backlash ... man, don't be afraid to be you. I was, for years."

He has tossed out sly hints in the past, just enough to give himself wink-and-a-nod deniability, but he recently decided to become a public face of the nonreligious. Moved by the testimonials of celebrity atheists like comedian Bill Maher and magicians Penn and Teller, Foster has joined a national campaign by the nonprofit group Openly Secular, which plans to use his story to increase awareness and acceptance of nonbelievers, especially in sports. The organization initially approached ESPN about Foster's willingness to share his story, but ESPN subsequently dealt directly with Foster, and Openly Secular had no involvement.

It's difficult to imagine that any current or former teammate of Foster's will be surprised to learn that he does not believe in God. He openly discusses religion in the locker room, and opposing players often introduce themselves by saying, "I hear you're different." And yet he's spent six years in the NFL shielding his nonbelief from the public out of fear of being misinterpreted or -- even worse -- mislabeled. "This is unprecedented," says Todd Stiefel, chair of Openly Secular. "He is the first active professional athlete, let alone star, to ever stand up in support of gaining respect for secular Americans."

The language of the unburdening, of the coming-out, is telling. The politicization of religion, and the religionization of politics, has created a feeling of marginalization among those who don't believe. Religion has become so entwined with the culture of sports that it has become its own language. Open Christianity is a subtext that draws players toward one another, even if they've never met, as if a single shared belief grants membership to the club.

Foster, who has run for more than 6,000 yards and been named to the Pro Bowl four times, understands the sensitivity of the topic and how telling his story might be perceived negatively within the conservative, image-obsessed league. "They're going to stay away from anything taboo, which makes sense," Foster says of the NFL. 
He also acknowledges the possibility of backlash in heavily evangelical Houston, home of Joel Osteen and the city that helped put the mega in megachurch. "You don't want to ruin endorsements," he says. "People might say, 'I don't want an atheist representing my team.' Now, though, I'm established in this league, and as I'm digging deeper into myself and my truth, just being me is more important than being sexy to Pepsi or whoever. After a while, what's an extra dollar compared to the freedom of being you? That's the choice I made."

Foster, who suffered a serious groin injury in the Texans' first padded practice of training camp that is expected to keep him out for at least two months, was raised Muslim in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Prayed five times a day, facing east," Foster says. His father, Carl -- "a free thinker, very intelligent, knows the Bible front and back," Arian says -- pushed him to ask questions and challenge convention.

It's a unique relationship. When high school coaches in Albuquerque wanted to move Arian from running back to defensive end for his junior year, Carl Foster wouldn't hear of it. A former college wide receiver, already disenchanted by what he felt was the mishandling of Abdul's football career, Carl arranged with his boss to reduce the travel for his job in the hospitality industry so he could move to San Diego with Arian for his final two years of high school. Carl and Bernadette were divorced, and Arian was using drugs and doing so poorly in school that he was unable to play basketball in his sophomore year. "I needed to get out of there," Arian says. "Not a good scene." Carl enrolled Arian in San Diego's Mission Bay High School and rented what he calls "a one-room shack" four blocks from the beach for $1,200 a month. Father and son awoke most mornings before 5 and headed for the beach, where Arian would train in the sand under his father's tutelage. "I lived literally four feet from my son for two years," Carl says. "He slept on one side of the room and I slept on the other."

Arian felt he was living a lie every time he knelt to pray. His prayers carried intensity only when he faced turmoil. If you can just get me out of this jam. It was meaningless and dishonest; he didn't believe there was anything or anyone out there capable of helping him. He read the Bible and the Quran in search of evidence that would override his skepticism. The concept of an omnipotent being nagged at him. Why is this relationship so one-sided? Why would a loving God create evil? Why would he allow eternal damnation? Foster felt like "a contestant in his game show."

During his time in San Diego, elbow to elbow in that room with his father, he inched closer to releasing his secret. Discussion followed discussion, and still Arian could not be convinced. There was backlash to consider then too: Carl Foster might have been an open-minded, well-read man, but religion was important to him. Finally, toward the end of his junior year, Arian summoned the courage to tell his father he did not believe -- only to see his father nod knowingly and say, "Go find your truth."

"It was a proud day," Carl says. "We raised our kids to be free thinkers. We wanted them to be their own people."

Arian thought college should be an adventure that demands adaptability and invites discomfort. He verbally committed to Oregon during a 2,000-yard senior season before changing his mind and choosing Tennessee, partly because he kept hearing local coaches say he'd never be an SEC-level running back. ("My rebellious ass," he says.) Foster says he believes he was the only member of the team who did not identify as either Christian or Catholic, which made him a source of speculation and misconception. His views, and his eagerness to share them, engendered an emotion that angled toward fear. He says his contrarian side sought out religious arguments with fundamentalist teammates, who would often attempt to dismiss the discussion 
by insisting, "Well, you must believe in something." He pressed, telling them no, he believed in nothing, not Allah or God or the divinity of Christ. He wielded his defiance like a sword, reveling in the discomfort it generated. If he alienated teammates with his willingness to be different, all the better. His verbal ferocity was all rawness and sharp edges, and it allowed people to project upon him their worst fears.

"I get the devil-worship thing a lot. They'll ask me, 'You worship the devil?'" he says. "'No, bro, I don't believe there's a God, why would I believe there's a devil?' There's a lot of ignorance about nonbelief. I don't mean a negative connotation of ignorance. I just mean a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge, lack of exposure to people like me."

That might be the case in locker rooms in Knoxville and Houston, but a recent study from the Pew Research Center indicates a gradual shift in religious identification. The number of Americans who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion (including those who identify as agnostic or atheist) has jumped more than 
6 percentage points (16.1 to 22.8) in the past seven years. Still, just 3.1 percent of Americans identify as atheist specifically, and according to a 2012 Gallup poll, only 54 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist for president, a lower mark than for a Muslim (58 percent), a gay or lesbian candidate (68 percent) or a Mormon (80 percent).

"If a loving, kind Christian, Muslim or Jewish person can't accept a different vantage point, there's just nothing I can do about it," Foster says. "I have no ill will toward religion or religious people. I have no quarrels. Believe what you 
want to believe."

With that, he displays his talent as a master of the eloquent shrug and leans back in an office chair in a back bedroom that he's turned into a recording and writing studio. The house, a rental, is modest for a man working on a five-year, $43.5 million contract. There's a Range Rover in the driveway but no fleet. "I don't want or need much," he says. "Just something fairly safe for the kids to grow up around, and that's about it, really. The rest is luxury, fluff. I've saved about 80 percent of what I've made, and I will continue that. I won't have to work when I'm done -- live off the interest, put my kids through college, let them have the money when I'm in a box and call it a day, man."

He plays the keyboard in this room, writes music and poetry. Saved inside the Mac on the desk are a few latent screenplays. "I have to write for my sanity," he says.

His 6-year-old daughter, Zeniah, knocks and enters. Dinner is finished, and she wants to know if it's OK for her to eat the ice cream her grandmother has promised. As she skips away, free to indulge, Foster mentions -- his voice betraying an I know, I know tone -- that Zeniah just finished kindergarten at a Catholic elementary school.

"Every once in a while she'll mention Jesus or God," he says. "One time she likened God and Jesus to Zeus and Hercules. She did it on her own. She said something along the lines of, 'They're the same. They're both stories.' I thought it was brilliant on her part to be able to distinguish it."

Religion may be football's sole concession to humility, perhaps the only gesture that suggests the game itself is not its own denomination. Nowhere is the looming proximity of Christianity more pronounced than in the SEC, where, in the time of Tim Tebow, a man named Chad Gibbs was inspired to write a book -- God and Football -- telling of his travels to every SEC school to decipher how like-minded Christians navigate the cliff walk between rooting for Florida and maintaining their devotion to Christ. These religious currents aren't confined to football, of course: Big league baseball teams routinely hold "faith and family" days; players appear at postgame celebrations to give their testimonials, and Christian rock bands perform well into the night. In football, though, public displays of faith can be viewed as a necessary accessory for such a dangerous and violent sport.

Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, who describes himself as "cheerfully agnostic," says, "It's an implied social construct that of course you're going to say the Lord's Prayer before the game with your team -- why wouldn't you? And of course there's going to be a military flyover -- why wouldn't there be? These aren't requirements, but they're assumed requirements. Religion plays a big role in the NFL, but I think it's a structural role. It's like white-male privilege; it's hard to see the role it plays if your entire life has been lived within that structure. If you're a religious guy in the NFL, you don't see the problem. You're the one in it. You have chapel or Mass on Sunday before the game. You have Bible study during the week. It's built into the structure."

So what does football look and sound like to the nonbeliever? Foster sits at his locker before every game, facing the wall, the music in his headphones internalizing his preparation. At some point before the Texans come together to take the field, he can feel the men behind him congregating to form a circle. There is no tap on the shoulder or invitation to join. Through the headphones he can hear the low murmur of a teammate asking Jesus to keep them safe from harm, and afterward the collective hum of the group reciting the Lord's Prayer. Before the game, he nods along to the ubiquitous God-bless-yous that register as white noise to everyone but him, and afterward he hears the postgame shoutouts to God, a standard reflex in most interviews with the triumphant.

But if God is helping you win, Foster wonders, isn't he by definition ensuring that the other guy loses? As is the case with Foster's street, the water must choose a side. "If there is a God and he's watching football, there are so many other things he could be doing," he says. "There are hungry children and diseases and famine and so much important stuff going on in the world, and he's really blessed your team? It's just weird to me."

The separation of church and football -- not to mention church and public education -- blurred at Tennessee, Foster says. Coaches, led by head coach Phil Fulmer, scheduled trips to Sunday church services as team-building exercises. Foster asked to be excused. He was denied. (The school confirmed that these team-building exercises to churches took place.) Word spread: Foster was arrogant, selfish, difficult to coach. "They just thought I was being a rebel and didn't want to participate in the team activities," Foster says.

"I was like, 'No, that's not it. Church doesn't do anything for me. I'm not a Christian.' I said, 'We can do other team-bonding activities and I'll gladly go, but this doesn't do anything for me.'

"So I went, probably five times. I don't want to bring race into it, but we never went to any predominantly black churches. We went to a lot of those upper-middle-class white churches, which I always found interesting because the majority of the team was black, so I thought the majority of the team would relate to a black church. I would rather go to a black church, honestly, because the music is better to me. If the majority of your team is black, why wouldn't they try to make them as comfortable as possible? But I guess when you're dealing with religion, color shouldn't matter."

JUSTIN FORSETT NOTICED the tattoo first. coexist, written in religious symbols, running across Foster's right forearm.

The son of a preacher, Forsett had one thought: OK, this guy's different.

It was training camp 2012, Forsett's only season with the Texans, and the combination of Foster's reputation for aloofness and his body art made Forsett decide to keep his distance. "I knew where he was coming from," Forsett says. And then one day Foster asked him a question -- Forsett chooses not to elaborate on the details, only to say it was nothing outrageous -- and Forsett said, "I try to stay away from that because of my faith."

Foster's interest was piqued. They began to discuss religion, and morals, and whether one can exist without the other. Every day, it seemed, Foster presented Forsett with a different question, a new challenge. In Forsett, Foster found a friendly adversary, someone who wouldn't cower, who could back his beliefs with both Bible verses and actions. They discussed their reverse-image lives, how one of them had grown up in the West and gone to college as a nonbeliever in the Bible Belt, while the other was a devout Christian who grew up in Texas and went to college in Berkeley. Each had felt marginalized. Each was extremely accustomed to defending his beliefs to hostile questioners.

"Arian is going to voice his thoughts whether you want them or not, or whether you ask for them or not," says Forsett, now with the Ravens. "He'll make a statement. 
You can choose to respond or you can let him speak. He's very smart, very witty. If you're not confident in what you believe, and if you don't know what you believe, you'll get caught up and probably look silly. Most guys want to let Arian be Arian. They might get embarrassed, and that's why they don't engage."

There is an edge to Foster and a predator's sense of weakness. Letting Arian be Arian is a euphemistic way of saying he can be cutting and abrasive, eager to display his intelligence like plumage. Perhaps because of Forsett's refusal to back down, a friendship sprouted. The two running backs communicate almost daily, and when Forsett ends a conversation or text exchange with "I'll pray for you" -- as he often does -- Foster responds with "And I'll think for you." When Forsett tweets out, "The [Bible] verse for tonight is ...," as he does every night, Foster has been known to tease him by replying, "When are you gonna give us your least favorite verse, though?"

"Arian pushes me to be a better man and a better man of faith," Forsett says. "He's going to ask questions, tough questions, and I take that as a challenge. I have to be prepared to give a response at any given moment. If I don't have a response, he's going to push me to go get it."

Says Foster: "Here's what I respect about him: Justin was never like, 'Hey, man, you're going to go to hell.' He was like, 'This is what I believe is the right way, and I'll pray for you.' I never feel arrogance or judgment. He never acted like he had something I don't have. He said, 'I would love for you to experience this,' which is more divine than anything I've ever come across."

Forsett laughs at the irony. A man with no faith poking and prodding the faithful to come to a better understanding of their beliefs, and a devout man displaying tolerance that helps his friend become less contrary, less argumentative, less intent on embarrassing those who have difficulty defending themselves. Truth 
be told, Foster would demand answers from teammates and classmates at Tennessee whenever they reflexively employed their version of Christianity to defend their social or political positions. He'd listen impatiently and fire Bible verses back at them like throwing knives, anything to show he knew more about their religion than they did.

"I used to try to argue people down and show them the fallacies in their own religion," Foster says. "That used to be a big deal to me, but now that doesn't serve my ethos at all."

I'VE MADE TWO trips to Foster's water-sodden neighborhood to talk about his decision to come forward and speak on behalf of those who don't believe in God. We talk about the risk inherent in that decision and the journey that made him willing to take it. We talk about nonliteral interpretations of the Bible and his belief that "if you look at the teachings of Jesus and understand the man and character that he is, that's a good dude. I've got no problem with Jesus." I ask him if it would be harder to be a nonbeliever or a Muslim in the NFL. "Probably one and the same," he says. "Islam is so associated with terrorism in our country."

He tells the story of his mother, who was raised Catholic, briefly converted to Islam and is now agnostic. "She has internal struggles," Foster says. "Right now she feels like, 'What if I'm wrong?'" Foster assures her by saying, "We've been to the moon, and there's no heaven up there. We've dug in the dirt, there's no devil down there. It's OK to think what you think." They discuss adopting the principles of the gospels without accepting Christ's divinity.

Talk to Foster for any length of time and one truth becomes evident: His eagerness to become a public spokesman for nonbelievers might be the least surprising part about him. Over the past two years, he's gone through "some things," as he puts it, and the re-examination of his life led him to this point, where no one is left to merely suspect where he stands on religion or virtually anything else. Always outspoken -- Foster has admitted to taking impermissible benefits at Tennessee -- his public unburdening seems to have unleashed a newfound freedom.

The only topic off-limits, it seems, is one he is legally prohibited from discussing. Foster was the subject of a nasty and public paternity lawsuit in 2014; a 20-year-old college student named Brittany Norwood reportedly reached a sealed out-of-court settlement after claiming Foster, married at the time, was the father of her then-unborn son. Norwood took her charges to the Houston media, including allegations that Arian and Abdul pushed her to have an abortion. (In July, Foster's wife filed for divorce, declining to make the reasons public other than to say, "After much thought and soul-searching, I have made the difficult decision to end our marriage.") The suit came just four months after Foster wrote a widely praised -- and public -- letter for Zeniah that included the line, "Let her know that she must hold every man accountable for who they are and how they act towards her."

The man so willing to hold his teammates accountable for their contradictions found himself defending his own.

FOSTER WAS IN the Texans' training room after an offseason workout when two of his teammates began a conversation about immigration.

"We should close off the border with Mexico," one of them said.

The other agreed.

Foster, whose mother is Mexican-American, interrupted.

"Aren't you guys Christian?" he asked.

They both said they were.

"Didn't Jesus say love thy neighbor? And is Mexico not our neighbor?"

They began to argue, telling him he was missing the point, that this wasn't about religion.

"I'm not saying that to throw it in your face," Foster said. "I'm not religious, but I agree with a lot of the core tenets Jesus held."

Let Arian be Arian.

Sometimes it's just easier that way.

Back at his house, telling the story, he shrugs again. Foster stops short of calling himself an atheist, not because he isn't -- his language is the language of the atheist -- but because someday he might not be. "I have an open mind," he says. "I'm not a picket-sign atheist. I just want to be a happy human being and continue to learn." He also has a visceral dislike of labels. (On June 28 he tweeted, "hop in the uber and the driver immediately turns it to the rap station. he's absolutely correct, but don't judge me, yo.") "If I tell you I'm a Republican, your mind immediately starts telling you all the things I must believe," he says. "Same with the word 'atheist,' and I don't like people making assumptions about me. Neil deGrasse Tyson said any time you attach yourself to a group or an '-ist,' you get all the stereotypical baggage with it. I'm not going to picket the White House lawn to get atheists a voice in Congress. But I have questions and concerns on our origins as human beings, and the best way to go about that is through science.

"There's no dogma in science itself. Scientists? Yeah, any human can have an ego, but if you take the human beings out of it, there's no ego in science itself. It's built on 'prove me wrong.' But religion can be like, 'We're right, and if you're not in the boat, you're going to hell.'"

There are fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist atheists. Richard Dawkins, a British scientist and the author of The God Delusion, is an atheist provocateur, espousing the belief that religion impedes the progress of civilized society. Foster has read him extensively, but -- as part of his new ethos -- he rejects what he calls Dawkins' militant approach. Foster understands the value of religion as refuge, as a means of accepting what the mind can't comprehend. He describes the New Testament 
as "an awesome story." His message in the Openly Secular interviews is one of acceptance and understanding, not condescension and disparagement. "I feel you can't be judgmental and aggressive," Foster tells me. "The more empathy you have toward people and their belief system, the more productive the relationship will be. I get it. I understand why people believe."

Everyone in this business reaches a point where all the branding efforts and PR staffs and media-relations managers turn the simple act of having a conversation with an athlete into a different version of the same endless Kabuki. What's the story about? How long do you need? Can you mention his charity? PR people sit in on interviews, time them, cut them off. The process is as spontaneous as a stump speech. In a weird reversal, Foster's business manager called after I'd spent hours with his client. Humble Lukanga says he wants to prepare for the aftershocks, not prevent the quake. But what repercussions does he fear? Pickets at the stadium? A band of Joel Osteen disciples gathering at Foster's home to explain how the dry side of the street was God's subtle way of leading Arian toward the prosperity gospel? Lukanga can't say. "Arian has always been a rebel at heart," he says. "He's never been worried about backlash." The inference is clear: Somebody has to be. To Foster, though, the act of getting his story out there -- and the freedom it creates -- is a form of immunity.

Foster is in football but not of it, an outsider on the inside. He routinely finds himself standing on the sideline or in the huddle, looking up at the stands of a sold-out stadium and thinking, "Man, all these people are really here to watch us play a game."

"It's so weird, so weird," he says. "I take my job seriously, I really do, and I work my ass off for it. But sometimes I'll be in meetings and the coach will be up there all stressing out. 'Rarr-rarr-rarr.' Veins popping out. I'll be thinking, 'This is just a game.' In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter that much. It really doesn't, man, but you can't admit that -- or else."

IS THIS CASUAL rebellion? Does he provoke for a greater good or simply his own amusement? Is he somehow the conscience of a generation of athletes, the only one willing to say the things the ominous Sword of Pepsi has made virtually extinct? Or is he speaking to an entirely different audience, a counterculture that appreciates a man who stands on the sideline and sees the NFL's embrace of the military-industrial complex as "the commercialization of everything -- just symbolism, man, and it gets people pumped 
up and feeling good and takes everything to an extreme"?

Sometimes it's hard to tell.

"It's sexy to be a professional athlete, right?" he asks. "So the guy who's bagging your groceries is on Twitter talking s--- about you. 'You suck.' 'You're trash.' He doesn't think to himself, 'He's not just a football player, like I'm not just a grocery bagger.'

"If you ask him, he'd say, 'No, man, I'm not just a grocery bagger. I'm way more than that. I have all these thoughts and beliefs. I have aspirations.' It's the same way I feel. I'm not just a football player. There's a lot more to me."

"And if you were to lash out and call that person just a grocery bagger ..." I say.

"Then I'd be arrogant, an a--hole, a prick," he says.

Foster smiles and says, "Yo, check this out." He holds his right arm up to show the word self, then holds up the left to show made. "Self-made," he says, drawing it out. "Look, I believe my hard work did get me here, but as a 28-year-old adult, I understand you had to have a lot of help, and you had to have a lot of luck. A lot of things factor into it, but I got that when I was an arrogant little kid."

He's got another one: against all odds. It's like a greatest-hits album of an 18-year-old's tattoo choices. He laughs at this one too. "When I was growing up, I felt like I was always against all odds," he says. "Then as an adult, I realized there were a lot of obstacles, Arian, but you caused a lot of them."

His next tattoo will depict a mummified American flag. "She's just hurting," he says. "America's hurting."

The words hang. The rain has stopped. I head out, past the cabinets and carpet and curtains. Two hours later, a racist with a gun will be welcomed into a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and an hour later, a gun will be pulled. Dylann Roof now stands charged with killing nine of the worshippers. The question will be asked: "How could God allow such a thing?" And God's mysterious ways will once again be invoked. The congregants of the church will draw strength from their faith and express their truth through words of forgiveness for the shooter. At the time the murders occur, Foster will be in an auditorium in Houston, listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson give a lecture on the cosmos, an entirely different set of mysteries, equally unknowable.