For the first two years of his career, former Steelers running back Barry Foster was known for one thing: Treating a short kickoff as if it were a punt and allowing the 49ers to recover it deep in Pittsburgh territory in a game at Candlestick Park in Week 7 of the 1990 season.
Foster, a fifth round pick out of Arkansas in the 1990 NFL Draft who was primarily used as a return man on kickoffs during his rookie year, didn’t record a single stat in the game at San Francisco that day (he wasn’t even charged with a fumble on the kickoff, beings that he never touched the ball).
Trapped behind fullback Merrill Hoge and halfback Tim Worley, the seventh overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, Foster gained just 691 yards on 132 carries during his first two years in the NFL.
However, while Foster may have been an afterthought to the average fan, believe it or not, he had a supporter and nurturer in the form of future Hall of Fame head coach Chuck Noll, who was in the twilight of his career.
As Foster told 93.7 The Fan in a radio interview two summers ago, Noll lifted the young running back up even when the assistant coaches were getting frustrated over his mistakes:
“I just remember Chuck said, ‘Hey, back off, he’s a young kid, he made a mistake, he’s doing some good things but just back off of him,'” Foster said. “I always respected that about him. He just kind of made me feel a little bit better that, even though I am making mistakes, that he supported me.”
Perhaps Noll, who won four Super Bowls in the 1970s and helped draft and develop nine players who would also wind-up in Canton one day, saw something in Foster that others did not.
When Noll retired after the 1991 season, Bill Cowher came in and reinvigorated the Steelers franchise with his infectious personality.
Along with the renewed energy was a simplified offensive approach behind new offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt that featured a power running game.
Opportunity came for Foster in 1992 thanks in-part to the year-long drug suspension of Worley, and the third-year back took the ball and ran into the Steelers’ record books.
As the Steelers surged to an 11-5 record and won the AFC Central Division title behind their first-year coach, Foster shattered Franco Harris’s single-season rushing mark with 1,690 yards. Foster also tied Eric Dickerson for the NFL record for most 100-yard games in a season with 12.
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Naturally, Foster was voted to his first Pro Bowl and quickly became one of the most valuable members of the offense and the team.
Even though he managed to earn Pro Bowl honors for a second time in 1993, Foster only played in nine games due to injury and managed just 711 yards. The following season, as Pittsburgh had its first legitimate Super Bowl team since the late-’70s, finishing with a 12-4 mark and capturing its second division title in three years, Foster was again plagued by injuries and gained just 851 yards.
Thanks to those injuries, his contract and the rise of rookie running back Bam Morris, the 1994 season would be Foster’s last in Pittsburgh. In-fact, Foster’s last significant moment in a Steelers uniform was of him as the target of a Neil O’Donnell fourth down pass that linebacker Dennis Gibson knocked away in the end zone in the final minute of a 17-13 upset loss to the Chargers in the AFC Championship Game at old Three Rivers Stadium.
Turns out, that play would also be Foster’s final one in the NFL.
Prior to the ’95 campaign, Foster was traded to the Panthers but was cut in training camp after failing a physical, according to his Wikipedia Page.
Foster quickly retired but made a brief comeback and signed with the Bengals, who were injury-depleted at the running back position. However, after just one workout, Foster felt like a “60-year-old running back” and quickly retired for good at the age of 26.
During his five seasons with the Steelers, Foster rushed for 3,943 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Imagine how Steelers history might be different today, had Foster managed to stay healthy and productive for many years after his magnificent ’92 campaign.
Perhaps it would have been Foster who finished as the Steelers second all-time leading rusher, instead of Jerome Bettis, who Pittsburgh traded for in 1996.
We’ll never know, but for as good and productive as Bettis was during his 10 years with the Steelers, he couldn’t break Foster’s single-season rushing record that he set in ’92.
Barry Foster may have had a career that ended before it really got rolling, but he still managed to find a place atop the Steelers record books.