The father, once a football man, believed in the power of the stars and the sky. This is still the age of Aquarius, he told the mother when their second son was about to be born. The name Arian spoke to him. He looked it up. It meant water-bearer, holder of knowledge.
Carl Foster was glad. His child would have a name of great importance. "It will guide him through life," he said.
Then Arian Foster(notes) grew up to write poetry and make music, putting them together in a form of spoken-word melody he hates to call rap because, as he says, "It sounds too clichéd." He went to college at Tennessee and studied philosophy. He asked questions. He challenged. He was, at 24, everything his parents hoped he could become.
All of this was taken into consideration from different cities this week in the hours after Foster ran through the Colts for 231 yards and three touchdowns as the Houston Texans' top running back. An unknown to most of the country, Foster was suddenly leading all the sports highlight shows following the Texans' victory. Everyone was talking about how the team had given him the game ball and how he had immediately taken it and handed it to the offensive linemen who opened the holes for him.
Suddenly the child raised to be so many things was a football star.
Over the phone from her office at the University of New Mexico where she works as an administrative assistant for African American student services, his mother, Bernadette Sizemore, laughs.
"Surreal," she says. "I have a hard time wrapping my head around it."
They never envisioned their three children as sports stars. There was so much they wanted for them, so many things in the world, places to see, books to read. Sports were a diversion. A fun experience, but never was it to be the center of their lives.
"I started to see how star players were treated; his father and I didn't like that," says Sizemore, whose oldest son, Abdul, went on to run track for Florida A&M. "We wanted to make sure he didn’t get a big head. I really don’t like it when athletes have only sports in their life. We wanted him to like other things. That’s the focus we gave all our children growing up."
She laughs again.
"Now he dances to the beat of a different drum," she says.
Football had been Carl Foster's life. Back in the late 1970s, it took him from Carson, Calif., to the University of New Mexico, where he was a wide receiver, and eventually to the training camp of the Denver Broncos, who promptly cut him at summer's end of 1982. So unlike most fathers, he understood the bitterness of the game, the full commitment it demands, the way it swallows everything else in life. And the last thing he wanted was for his two sons to play.
"I played the game for a long time, I love the game and I grew up in the game," Carl Foster says from his home in Arizona. "There were a lot of things that I saw in the game that were extremely challenging to a young man. I didn't want them to get hooked on the game and then after the game have nothing.
"I just wanted them to know there was life after football."
Here is the son they raised:
On Tuesday he sat on a conference call organized by the Texans. He was asked the traditional question normally directed to a young football player trying to make it in the NFL: Is he comfortable in the professional game now? And he gave the traditional answer that, yes, he was. Then he said:
"I think that stems from just knowing the game of football. I like to think of myself as a cerebral player […] anytime I learn an offense."
He said he had three offensive coordinators in college, and he took something from each of them.
"I like to learn the 'why' I was doing what I was doing instead of being a drone out there," said Foster, who went undrafted in '09 following his senior season despite a junior year in which he rushed for 1,193 yards in 2007.
Once he understood the process of the offense he said the game became easier. And once the game seemed easier, he could translate that experience to the NFL.
He did not say this arrogantly, but rather in a matter-of-fact tone – just as he meant no harm in declaring that when he was considering offers from the Texans, Saints, Jets, Giants and Buccaneers in 2009, he decided Houston offered the best chance to win a spot after his girlfriend, Romina, looked up each team's roster and read the name of the running backs.
Nor was he trying to insult when he said that moving to San Diego in high school to live with his father after his parents' divorce was the best thing that could have happened, because it removed him from the malaise of his home town of Albuquerque.
"The vision [in Albuquerque] isn't very high," he said. "People over there don't expect a lot from other people. It's kind of a cesspool of mediocrity. I hate to say that but it really is. It has so much talent over there, but I don't see a lot of people pushing it over there."
They are simply observations, answers to explain his life, and yet because football is a regimented game and players who speak their minds are often punished in some form for their candor, he will probably be judged for these things. Just as Sizemore says her son tried to honor the request of the coaches at Tennessee in declining interviews at a testy time in the program's demise. Only instead of saying it wasn't the right time or place, he told the reporter he would do the interview in "pterodactyl" and followed his words with prehistoric screeches.
In the end he was exactly what he had been raised to become: someone who saw the world just a little bit unlike everyone else.
• Ranked 30th in the league in rushing with 92.2 yards per game. Only the Chargers and Colts fared worse.
• Eleven fumbles ranked third among AFC teams. Steve Slaton led the Texans with seven.
• Had a 100-yard rusher in only two games last season: Ryan Moates' 126-yard effort in Week 8 and Foster's 119-yard outing in Week 17.
The irony in the way they raised their children is that Carl and Bernadette ultimately became so involved in their sons' football. While Carl hated the idea of football consuming his kids' lives, he also found himself powerless to stop their will. "I didn't have it in me to do that," he says. He vowed to not be the stage father coaching his kids at youth football games.
And yet he kept getting pulled back in. Sometimes at the request of coaches who wanted the advice of someone who had played the game. Sometimes when coaches simply didn't understand the player they had. He still is amazed that the high school coaches in Albuquerque told Arian he did not have the skills to play offense and insisted on moving him to linebacker.
It wasn't long after that he and Bernadette divorced and Carl moved to California to run hotels when Arian joined him, transferred to Mission Bay High School in San Diego and was switched to running back after the coaches there saw the ease with which he sliced through tacklers when returning kicks.
Yet it was Bernadette who became Arian's most public defender. She did this during his college years, when desperate to read anything about her son, she stumbled upon the Tennessee fan message boards. She was startled by the fury of the posters, the way they judged the players and coaches without understanding what was really happening in their lives.
She took the message board moniker "Fostermom" and wrote impassioned explanations. She talked about the sacrifices players make, the challenges they have to keep up with class work, and she told them how hard it was to play college football at a place as big and important as Tennessee.
And like any outspoken message-board poster, she felt the fire of the hostile response.
"At first I would get my feelings hurt," she says. "But then I realized it's just a human emotion."
She shot back at the critics. There were spats. When Arian fumbled she snapped at his detractors. When he made pterodactyl sounds to the reporters she tried to explain. Even when she might have been frustrated with things the coaches did, she tried hard not to criticize. She worried it would hurt Arian. But she also says this wasn't about Arian; she did it for herself, for the fans, for anyone who wanted to love a college football team.
"There's a definite feeling of ownership when you become involved in a program," she says. "I didn't donate dollars to buy season tickets, but I did donate my son. I think that was a significant contribution."
But she also wonders if this hurt Arian. She remembers walking up to then-Vols coach Phil Fulmer and having him grunt, "I hear you are on the Internet." She couldn't tell whether he was angry.
Fulmer asks her what Arian thinks of her postings.
"Oh, I'm sure he hates it," she says. "He told me, 'Everywhere I go, everyone asks me about you.' "
She doesn't know if her messages on the boards damaged Arian at the end of his career at Tennessee, when he went from a player who could have left school after his junior year to someone who tumbled his last season, though it seemed a series of calamities conspired to damage him at that time. He had leg injuries that cost him one game. The team was on its third offensive coordinator, Dave Clawson, was reliant on a number of running backs, and it was obvious that Fulmer was out as coach at year's end.
Carl Foster watched sadly as Arian stumbled through his senior year, a one-time rising star suddenly hampered by injuries and a growing reputation &ndash with his strange name, his major in philosophy and mother posting on the Internet – as more trouble than he was worth.
"They made him out to be this rogue character," Carl says of the reports he read in the weeks before the draft. "That wasn't him."
Further hurting Foster's stock was his inability to participate during the Senior Bowl or NFL scouting combine, and his bad outing during Tennessee's pro day. So when the draft came and went without his name being called, Arian thought he was done with football. His parents kept telling him he had so much else he could rely upon, and he did love music. Carl marvels at his son's creativity and the power of Romina. He is amazed such a booming voice could come from such a small woman.
But Arian wanted football, and after he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Texans last year, he was determined to give the game one final, desperate chance.
"I remember hearing a quote from [actor] Will Smith where he said: 'I don't spend energy on B that's from Plan A,' " Arian says. "I don't want to say that I put all my eggs in the same basket but, you know, I kind of did. I think with anybody with any success in life, it's usually all or nothing."
Yet even he couldn't have imagined Sunday's game against the Colts. Who could?
"Hurdles define men in life," he says of his past. "It was a hurdle but I'm putting it in the past."
Now he has his own child, a girl, just over a year old, with Romina. They called her Zeniah and gave her the middle name "Egypt" because Arian has become obsessed with its culture. And maybe like his parents before him, he can see how a name can define a child, giving her too the stars and the sky.
- Arian Foster