(Eds: Clarifies context for Irsay quote )By MICHAEL MAROTAP Sports Writer
Kurt Warner understood what made the Greatest Show on Turf work.
It wasn’t his strong, accurate arm or those speedy receivers who stretched defenses to the limit. No, the Rams’ secret weapon was Marshall Faulk’s uncanny mind.
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”He was designing plays and coming up with thoughts that would make our team better, not just make him better,” Warner said of the newest Rams inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
”Mike Martz allowed all of us to have some input in what was happening, and Marshall always had ideas about how certain things could be better, how to run routes, how to do this or that. You never knew where it came from, but I knew he was a big part of helping develop that offense.”
Faulk always saw things differently — on and off the field.
He left the tough streets of New Orleans’ ninth ward for the sunny skies of San Diego because he was determined to play running back in college. Still, he never forgot about his roots in the impoverished Desire housing project where he grew up.
And while others touted his incredible skills, Faulk never thought the NFL was a real possibility until his freshman season at San Diego State. Even the thought of becoming a part of football’s greatest shrine was, well, incomprehensible.
That’s how Faulk viewed football, as a small part of life.
”There is a celebration aspect to it,” he said of Saturday’s induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio. ”But going in is really more of an acknowledgment that kids in poverty, in their situations, can get out of it, and it doesn’t always come from sports.”
Football was Faulk’s escape, but it was the lessons he learned in New Orleans that propelled him to stardom.
He believed in himself. He wanted to prove the doubters wrong. He had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, learning the high school playbook through every position on the field.
So when the big schools questioned whether the kid from George Washington Carver High School could play running back in college, Faulk followed his heart to the one the school that would give him a chance. It didn’t take long to prove himself.
In his second college game, Faulk ran for a mind-blowing 386 yards and seven touchdowns against the University of Pacific. He finished his freshman season with 1,429 yards, 21 touchdowns and an average of 7.1 yards per carry. He was ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
It was no fluke. As a sophomore, Faulk produced 1,758 yards from scrimmage, 15 total touchdowns and was the Heisman runner-up. A year later, he ran for 1,530 yards and 21 TDs and caught 47 passes. He finished with 2,174 yards from scrimmage that season and was fourth in the Heisman voting.
By then, Faulk realized he would earn millions in the NFL. He also started contemplating the bigger picture, like how he wanted to play in the NFL and how he would be perceived in the real world.
Current Colts owner Jim Irsay loved what he saw in Faulk, who changed the game with his nifty cuts, sheer quickness and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
”He was such a smart football player,” said Irsay, who insists he will always consider Faulk a Colt even though he’s more widely associated with the Rams. ”We really looked at him as a coach on the field. He knows the game so well, it’s incredible.”
Indianapolis liked Faulk so much it used the No. 2 overall pick on Faulk, who brought immediate star power to a team in need of a new image. But it was his brain that allowed him to excel.
He won the 1994 Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, topped 1,000 yards four times, made three Pro Bowls and led the Colts to back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in nearly two decade. Then, in 1998, he started mentoring another New Orleans native, rookie quarterback Peyton Manning.
Pairing the mind of Marshall with the mind of Manning seemed like a perfect match.
Though Faulk played pranks on the rookie, they were all business when it mattered. Faulk said he taught Manning how to deal with the media, how to adapt to the NFL game and, together, they read defenses. In fact, Faulk lined up deeper in the backfield just to see the defenses better.
”Marshall’s ability to read defenses was as good as any quarterback,” Manning said. ”He was a tremendous presence for me, and I always will be grateful to him for helping me that year. I loved watching him play, and it is only right that he is taking his place in Canton among the greatest players who have played the game. There will never be another like him.”
But after that one season with Manning and a second straight 3-13 record, a frustrated Faulk worried the Colts’ rebuilding project didn’t include him.
When he asked for a new contract, with two years still left on his rookie deal, the Colts refused and traded him to the Rams. Bill Polian still calls it one of the toughest decisions he’s ever made.
At first, his new Rams teammates weren’t sure what Faulk would bring to the team.
”I think originally before we even knew much of Marshall, I think everybody got the take that he wasn’t really happy in Indy and wasn’t getting the ball enough. So that was our initial response, `We’ve got this superstar, how do we keep him happy?”’ Warner said. ”It didn’t take long to realize whatever happened in Indianapolis stayed in Indianapolis because he was the ultimate team player. All he wanted was our team to be good.”
While teammates were busy trying to keep Faulk happy, the coaching staff devised a whole new way to play the game that suited Faulk’s dual-threat abilities perfectly.
Martz, the offensive coordinator, told Faulk they didn’t want to wear him down with 300 carries a year. So the Rams were going to create mismatches with Faulk in the passing game and let him use his running skills to break free.
When defenses tried to adapt, Faulk simply adjusted on the fly.
The results were incredible: An NFL record three straight seasons with 500-plus points, two Super Bowl appearances in three seasons and an improbable Super Bowl title in Faulk’s first season in St. Louis. Warner won the league’s MVP award twice during that stretch. Faulk won it once.
But the team MVP all three years was Faulk in a landslide.
”Guys would change their defense completely to deal with Marshall, and, obviously, he was able to take advantage of that,” said Martz, now the offensive coordinator for the Bears. ”Once you found out what the matchups were, you could make an adjustment on the sideline with Marshall and he could take care of that immediately. In fact, he’d come to the sideline and understand it and say, `Hey, here’s what they’re doing. How about this?’ Pretty unusual.”
Off the field, Faulk became more than just a football icon in St. Louis.
He was a fan favorite with a special affinity for the city and area. He’s donated more than $500,000 to help St. Louis’ youth programs, still has a home in the city and says he’s still a Rams fan. Faulk’s newest effort is assisting with an animal rescue and disaster relief effort to help the tornado victims from Joplin, Mo.
”It’s really his kind heart and his desire to give back,” said Arthur Benjamin, a philanthropist and founder of American Dog Rescue. ”I think it’s just incredible when someone takes their wealth and puts it into a foundation and tries to raise money for others.”
That’s the passion that drives Faulk now.
His charitable foundation is supportive of the Ninth Ward Field of Dreams project in his hometown and the Aztec Club in San Diego. And though his incredible stats — 12,279 yards rushing, 19,154 total yards and 136 career touchdowns — will define his professional life, Faulk insists it was never about the numbers or even the Hall of Fame.
He just wanted to be an example for everyone else.
”The hall is not a goal. Winning a Super bowl, being successful, being able to take care of your family, those are the things you look at,” Faulk said. ”Look, there’s no fast track, no easy track, especially from where I came from. You try to take the most of it and learn from it and hope others learn from it. That’s what it is about.”