Arian Foster leaves the NFL as an outsider, and his own man

Timing of Foster's retirement typical for his personality (0:46)

Ashley Fox reacts to Dolphins RB Arian Foster's retirement and what his legacy will be as a player. (0:46)

The most surprising facet of Arian Foster's career is not that he retired at 30, or that he chose to do it in the middle of the NFL season. The most surprising facet of Arian Foster's career was that he chose to play football in the first place.

Here was a man apart. He would sit and watch the profanity-laced diatribes from his coaches while wondering how it was possible to care that much about a silly game. He would go to mandated Sunday church services with the Tennessee football team and wonder not only why, but why he and his mostly African-American teammates were always taken to a white church, with its dirge-like singing and cast of characters that looked and acted like one big SEC booster club.

Arian Foster was an outsider in the ultimate insider's game. There were times he seemed not only outside but above the game, a perception he did nothing to discourage, and a perception teammates and bosses sometimes found a bit too precious. He was someone they couldn't predict or control, and there was something vaguely intimidating, even menacing, about that. He looked sideways at football's conservative, corporate culture wars and asked -- peacefully and respectfully -- why he and people like him weren't always treated peaceably and respectfully. He could make you uncomfortable and enjoy watching the discomfort.

Just a hunch, but his mentality -- one that made him turn everything around in his head, again and again, before it caught just the right light -- made it easier for him to walk away rather than continue to chase something that had already passed him by. His self-awareness got him in the end.

In the summer of 2015, I spent several hours over the course of two days interviewing Foster about science and life and the difficulty of being a non-religious person in a highly religious line of work. He refused to call himself an atheist, believing the word would invite people to label and dismiss him without giving him the benefit of his intellectual journey. He also felt the term had a certain finality to it, and he was willing to concede that he could someday change his mind.

"If I tell you I'm a Republican, your mind immediately starts telling you all the things I must believe," he said. "Same with the word 'atheist.'"

Foster's passion for science -- "there's no ego in science," he says -- led him to become friends with Neil deGrasse Tyson. His curiosity led him to read both the Bible and the Koran. He often defused, or simply ended, locker room debates with his Christian teammates by citing Bible verses they had never read.

The culture of the game amused him; this is a sport that actively pursues a vaunted place in Americana. It wants to be bigger than it is, bigger than your everyday diversion, and it fills itself with religion and patriotism until its distended belly achieves the goal. The fact that it succeeded spectacularly was not something Foster found particularly exemplary.

He was wary of the game's business side, knowing that his spot on a team and in the limelight would last only until someone younger and cheaper came along. And yet the game still managed to get inside him, no matter how hard he tried to hold it at arm's length. His eloquent retirement statement touched on the interior conflict most players feel but few can articulate. "The game has been everything to me," he wrote. "My therapy, my joy, my solace and my enemy."

Foster reminded me of a character named Gary Harkness from Don Delillo's novel "End Zone." Harkness lined up at fullback at a fictional Texas college and pondered nuclear catastrophe while his teammates worried about third-and-3. "Faceless gladiators have shuffled in and out of this arena for decades," Foster wrote in his statement, "and I'm proud to have taken part in that legacy."

Foster told me he would stand on the sideline before games -- back before he joined Colin Kaepernick in kneeling for the national anthem -- and watch the pageantry and the flyover and the burgeoning rage from the fans in the stands. His mind would drift and he would think, "This is just a game. In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter that much." He thought about that for a second and said, "But you can't admit that -- or else."

The joke there is obvious: Foster was admitting it. But he was admitting it and still running for more than 6,500 yards in an injury-shortened career. In a way, his entire career was part-admission, part-affirmation: You could be an outsider, a guy who thought his own thoughts and fought to forcibly place the game within its proper context, and still put together a memorable career on the field. As legacies go, it's not a bad one to leave behind.