TEMPE, Ariz. — With a few different twists and turns, Arizona State freshman running back D.J. Foster might have lined up on the other side last Saturday in Berkeley, sporting the navy blue and gold of University of California.
Or he might have not lined up at all.
More than once ready to quit football altogether, Foster navigated a long, trying road to end up at ASU. There he is already thriving more than anyone could have predicted, the local product who passed over more prestigious offers and stability to stay close to home and make his family proud.
“In the back of my head the whole time, I just wanted to stay home,” Foster said. “I just wanted to stay here really bad, and I kept on thinking through the whole process, ‘Do I really want to leave?’ “
Obviously, he did not. Now, five games into his college career, he leads the Sun Devils with 208 rushing yards and ranks third with 14 receptions for 226 yards.
In the three years of heartbreak and triumph that preceded his arrival at ASU, Foster acquired a perspective rare among one so young.
“I love football and I know it can do a lot for my future and my family, but I could throw away football if I had to,” Foster said. “It’s just a game at the end of the day.”
FROM CERTAINTY TO DOUBT
On the first day of spring practice at Scottsdale Saguaro High School three years ago, then-coach John Sanders, who is now ASU’s coordinator of football operations, pulled Foster aside. Sanders told Foster he had received his first scholarship offer, from ASU, and to call then-coach Dennis Erickson later in the day.
Foster chatted with Erickson and could immediately picture himself playing at ASU.
After that first offer, about 20 more followed from the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan, Nebraska and most of the Pac-12 Conference. But ASU always remained at the forefront. He made his official visit for ASU’s fourth game of last season, a 43-22 win over USC, the Sun Devils’ first over the Trojans since 1999.
“From then on I was ready (to commit to ASU),” Foster said. “After that game I talked to my parents and I was just like, ‘I really want to do this.’ “
Six weeks later ASU traveled to Los Angeles with a 6-2 record, needing only a win over UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 South division and a trip to the Conference Championship. Foster had all but verbalized his commitment to ASU, and then began the Sun Devils’ tailspin, a four-game losing streak that put Erickson’s job in jeopardy.
“I think if they won that game (against UCLA), or Washington State or any of those games, I would have been in a different position,” Foster said. “If I knew for sure that staff was going to be here, I definitely would have committed, because I was ready to get the process over with.
“Every week I was ready to say something, and then they lost, they lost, they lost. It started opening my view up to other schools.”
The downward spiral cost Erickson his job, along with offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, with whom Foster had built a strong relationship.
“It was tough because he had a relationship with Dennis and his staff,” Sanders said. “They offered him when he was 15, so they had been recruiting him for years.”
Suddenly what had seemed so certain was in doubt.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” Foster said. “Not knowing who was coming in and everything, it just felt like everything I had been told in the recruiting process was just out the window, and I kind of had to start over.”
Growing up, sports were everything to Foster. With his father Darryl’s encouragement, football, baseball and basketball, were the center of his universe.
“I’m very athletic and sports-oriented so I kind of threw everything at him at a young age and let him see what he gravitated toward,” Darryl Foster said.
Foster’s future in football was starting to take shape as his sophomore season at Saguaro approached. Then, two weeks before the season began, tragedy struck.
Foster’s older sister Jennifer, 19, had died of an accidental drug overdose. Foster didn’t play in Saguaro’s first preseason scrimmage as a tribute to her and dedicated every game of the season to her by writing her name on his wristbands.
“He sat out the first preseason game of his varsity career just to show his sister he could do it, that there was more to life than just sports,” Darryl Foster said. “His sister always told him there’s more to life than just sports. I don’t think it really resonated in him too much until after her passing.”
Looking back now, Foster is not sure how he got through the pain of losing his sister.
“I don’t know how I didn’t quit,” he said. “There were many days I was just about to quit football and say ‘I’m done.’ I just never did.
“I didn’t quit because every time I feel like I want to quit, she won’t let me quit.”
But at the same time, the tragedy altered Foster’s perspective. From cherishing family to developing non-sports interests, he took a new approach to life.
“It’s just such a little portion of my life and where it belongs in my heart,” he said. “Once that happened, I just realized it’s not that important to me.”
His newfound perspective helped him think more completely about his future.
Foster wanted to share football with his family, believing it would be less meaningful if they couldn’t be there to see it. He also felt, Darryl Foster said, there was unfinished business at ASU, where his sister was enrolled at the time of her death.
Those feelings kept ASU ahead of the rest during Foster’s recruiting process, but Erickson’s firing complicated matters.
READY TO DECIDE
As ASU determined Erickson’s replacement, Foster kept tabs closely through sources he knew from his recruitment. At the same time, he took the opportunity to examine other possibilities.
With one official visit left, Foster visited USC. There was a lot to like. His close friend Cyrus Hobbi, a former Saguaro offensive lineman, played there, and the program was positioned to contend for a national championship.
Foster says it was his favorite visit, but he did not like the school’s professional approach to football.
“They treated football like it was life or death, and that’s just not me,” Foster said. “I’m not that type of person. I feel like football is just a little part of life.”
Cal was always near the top of Foster’s list. He has aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents in the Bay Area and knew playing in front of them would be special. He formed a strong relationship with Ron Gould, Cal’s run game coordinator. He also knew Cal had a history of producing running backs that went on to success in the NFL.
At one point, Foster felt “100 percent set” on California and told his family in the Bay Area he would be playing there.
Then ASU named Todd Graham head coach, and Graham hit the ground running. Foster admits he knew nothing about Graham’s coaching history but started asking around. It wasn’t long before Graham and offensive coordinator Mike Norvell paid Foster a visit.
“We heard a lot about him, heard about the type of person he was,” Norvell said. “But all you had to was walk down the hallways of Saguaro High School and watch people’s faces when you talked about him.”
Foster recalls that his first conversation with Graham and Norvell barely involved football. Graham focused on his faith, beliefs and emphasis on character. That made a strong impression on Foster, as did Norvell’s case for how Foster would fit the offense versus ASU’s previous offense.
But the recruiting process was far from over. Mazzone and former ASU receivers coach Steve Broussard had taken jobs at UCLA and tried to get Foster to follow.
The recruiting process, now in its third year, began to frustrate Foster, impairing his ability to focus on academics. National Signing Day was less than a month away, and Foster was ready to decide.
A MESSAGE FROM HOME
True to his dedication to family and community, Foster chose to play in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl at Chase Field over other national showcases.
“He wanted to share that with his Saguaro teammates,” Sanders said.
Foster got the chance to do that, and in the process met a few other local standouts, Chandler Hamilton defensive lineman Jaxon Hood and Peoria Centennial safety Zach Hoffpauir. The trio stayed in touch and at one point made a tentative agreement to play at ASU together.
Despite the agreement, Foster was still uncertain. But he was even more ready to end the process, so he schedule a news conference to announce his decision at Saguaro on Jan. 27, the birthday of both his father and late sister.
Foster admits now there were times only a few days before the press conference he believed he would choose Cal.
The night before Foster was to announce his decision, he went to bed leaning toward ASU but still not certain what he would say at the podium the next day. He did not sleep much that night, but less because of his impending decision and more because of the emotions that come with his sister’s birthday each year.
Foster woke up in the morning to a slew of text messages — support from friends and family, last words of persuasion from coaches. But the one that captured his attention was from his father. It contained a picture of Foster’s sister with their father, who was wearing an ASU shirt. The photo confirmed his decision.
“In the back of my head I was like ‘OK, I really do think I want to stay home. I can’t see myself just leaving my family.’ … When I saw that picture it kind of just reassured me it was OK to make that decision.”
Though Hoffpauir ended up choosing Stanford instead, Hood picked ASU as well, committing on signing day.
“He obviously could have gone anywhere,” Hood said. “But he wanted to be a hometown hero, and I kind of just followed with him, and it’s working out great.”
Hood has started each of ASU’s games this year at nose tackle. He and Foster formed a strong bond over the summer and are now roommates on campus.
“We’re like Timon and Pumba,” Hood said, laughing at his own reference to the animal duo from The Lion King. “We’re always hanging out, and he’s obviously Timon, little light-skinned meerkat. We’re definitely pretty close friends.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
When Foster’s National Letter of Intent rolled through the fax machine at ASU’s athletics offices Feb. 1, Graham and Norvell were elated. Convincing Foster to commit to a program in transition was a huge victory from a football standpoint and for future recruiting. Even more, it was seen as a key addition on the character front.
“What made D.J. such a key for us is not what you see on the football field,” Norvell said. “It’s the type of person he is — the leadership, the work ethic — that’s what we want this football team to be all about. The fact that he’s a great football player also helps.
“When you get to keep one of the state’s best, one of the nation’s best right here at home it’s monumental for your program.”
Foster admits to some initial misgivings when newly hired ASU running backs coach Chris Thomsen accepted an offensive line position at Texas Tech on the same day that he signed his letter of intent.
“I didn’t really know how to take that,” Foster said. “I didn’t know if I was being lied to the whole time. I was kind of upset and frustrated. I just felt like I kind of got cheated.”
Those concerns were soon eased when former Memphis head coach Larry Porter was hired as Thomsen’s replacement and quickly made a positive impression with Foster.
All the pieces were finally in place for Foster’s next chapter at ASU. Foster moved into his residence hall with Hood shortly after graduating. He began lifting weights daily as part of ASU’s summer strength and conditioning program, but the new reality truly hit him when he got his playbook.
“I didn’t understand half of it,” Foster said. “It was a foreign language to me. I didn’t really understand stuff like pass protecting. In high school you catch the ball and go run, so it was definitely confusing.”
He eventually figured out the playbook, with some help from senior running back Cameron Marshall, and adjusted to the training-camp nerves and the fast tempo of practice, until it was time for the season opener vs. Northern Arizona.
Game day, from the bus ride to the stadium, to the Devil Walk, to seeing his pads laid out in the locker room, brought a new round of chills and anxiety. None of it compared, though, to Foster’s first sprint out of Tillman Tunnel when the Sun Devils took the field.
“I just saw my future, my next chapter,” Foster said. “It was like this is what I’ve worked for, running out of this tunnel and everything I’ve gone through that almost held me back from coming here. I just realized all that work was starting to pay off.”
Ahead of ASU’s game with Cal last weekend, Foster considered what it would have felt like if he had committed to the Golden Bears. He would have stood across the field from friends — six other Saguaro graduates play for the Sun Devils — his old coach Sanders and the team he grew up knowing.
Foster believes if he had picked Cal, he might have lost his passion for football. Without his immediate family there to share it, it would not have meant as much. Foster’s parents and extended family were there to see the game at Memorial Stadium. Foster accounted for 75 yards — 12 rushing, 63 receiving — as the Sun Devils won 27-17 in Berkeley for the first time in 1997. The family member who motivates Foster most was there only in spirit.
Foster said not a day passes that he doesn’t think about his late sister. He has a portrait of her tattooed on his chest and plans on getting another to denote her role as his guardian angel.
“She’s my motivation,” Foster said. “Her and my family are the reason why I keep playing. There are so many times when I want to stop and just quit and just be done with it, but I can’t.”
Already off to a fast start for the Sun Devils, Foster’s impact seems certain to grow. As he gets bigger, he’ll likely see more runs up the middle, and as he improves his ability to read defenses, he’ll likely get even more touches downfield.
“He’s just now starting to scratch the surface of where he can be,” Norvell said. “I think he’s got unbelievable talent and he’s going to get better and better as the season goes on and his career goes on.”
Foster has also impressed with his toughness, taking big hits with ease.
“On the field he’s so intense, he runs pretty nasty,” Hood said. “He’s a tough little kid.”
On the day he committed to ASU, Foster finished his press conference by saying, “Let’s go get a Rose Bowl.” He meant it.
More than any football accomplishment, Foster said he wants to make his family and his state proud. He wants to show other Arizona football players what ASU has to offer and that it’s OK to stay home.
Sanders, who sees Foster daily, said in more than 30 years of coaching he has never known a player so talented as Foster that also possessed such rare perspective.
“Football is great for him, and he’s great for football, but at the end of the day he could live without football,” Sanders said. “I’ve coached kids that could not live without football, their whole world revolves around football … D.J. is not like that at all.
“Make no mistake, D.J. loves football, but he loves life a whole lot more.”