Compared to Gale Sayers, Roger Craig and Thurman Thomas coming out of San Diego State University, Marshall William Faulk would live up to the hype by becoming the most versatile running back in National Football League history.
Born on Feb. 26, 1973 in New Orleans, La., Faulk, the youngest of six boys, was raised in the Desire Housing Projects, one of the most crime-ravaged, oppressed projects in the United States.
Nevertheless, while many of his childhood friends fell into crime and drugs, with some dying early violent deaths, Faulk turned to football at the age of seven while his mother worked odd jobs to support her sons.
"My mom didn't have a profession,” Faulk told Sports Illustrated. “Her profession was her kids."
Although he ran into some trouble as a youth, getting kicked out of three elementary schools, Faulk was increasingly drawn to football, which became a passion by the time he entered George Washington Carver High School.
After lettering in track and excelling on the football field, especially at the running back and defensive back positions, Faulk received a plethora of college scholarship offers, with most recruiters expressing a desire for him to play defensive back.
However, Faulk preferred to play on the offensive side of the ball. So when San Diego State emerged as the only school to offer him a running back position, Faulk couldn’t resist the opportunity.
In only the second game of his collegiate career, Faulk racked up 386 rushing yards on 37 carries and scored seven touchdowns, serving as the prelude to one of the most prolific freshman seasons in NCAA history.
Faulk would complete his freshman campaign with 1,429 yards rushing and 23 total touchdowns (21 rushing). His exploits would earn him a spot on the Associated Press All-American Team—just the third freshman to receive the honor—and the second highest finish for a freshman in Heisman Trophy voting annals.
His stellar sophomore and junior years, seasons in which he finished second and fourth in the Heisman Trophy vote respectively, were sufficient motivation for Faulk to forgo his final year of eligibility and declare for the 1994 NFL Draft, where he was selected with the second overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts.
Faulk’s impact on the Colts, and the NFL, was immediate, becoming the first player in league history to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award and the Pro Bowl’s Most Valuable Player Award in the same season.
In his second season with Indianapolis, Faulk rushed for 1,078 yards and scored 14 total touchdowns on his way to helping the Colts come within one game of going to the Super Bowl and playing in his second consecutive Pro Bowl.
Although injuries would result in a sub-par 1996 season, Faulk would rush for over 1,000 yards in each of the next two seasons, including 1,319 rushing yards, 86 receptions for 906 yards, and 2,227 total yards from scrimmage in 1998, the first of a record four consecutive 2,000-plus total-yard seasons.
Strained relations with head coach Jim Mora would result in a trade to the St. Louis Rams in 1999, where Faulk’s talents would be fully showcased in a Rams’ spread offense formation that came to be known as “The Greatest Show on Turf.”
Similar to his rookie season in Indianapolis, Faulk’s addition paid instant dividends for the Rams as he became only the second player in NFL history (after Roger Craig) to have 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in a season. In addition, Faulk set a league record with 2,429 total yards from scrimmage, which has since been broken by Chris Johnson.
The 1999 season would also see St. Louis defeat the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV after finishing last in the NFC West the previous season.
The following year would be Faulk’s best one as a professional, as he won the NFL MVP Award and the Offensive Player of the Year Award while becoming the first running back in league history to lead his team in receptions five separate seasons (three in Indianapolis and twice in St. Louis).
The Rams returned to the Super Bowl in the 2001 season, though they would lose to the New England Patriots in what would be the climax of Faulk’s career.
After rushing for a career-high 1,382 yards, catching 83 passes for 765 yards, totaling 2,147 yards from scrimmage and scoring 21 touchdowns, Faulk won the Offensive Player of the Year Award for the third consecutive season.
Injuries and age would catch up with Faulk as 2001 was the last of his 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and though he remained the Rams' lead running back in successive years, Faulk was well past his prime, despite remaining a respected and effective player.
Faulk would announce his retirement from football on March 26, 2007, ranking 10th in rushing yards (12,279), first in receiving yards (6,875), third in yards from scrimmage (19,154), second in receptions (767) and second in receiving touchdowns (36) among running backs.
To further add credibility to his legacy, Faulk is also one of three players (Marcus Allen, Tiki Barber) to amass 10,000 rushing yards and 5,000 receiving yards in a career, as well as the only one to have 12,000 yards rushing and 6,000 yards receiving.
On Feb. 5, 2011, Faulk was elected into the NFL Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
"To talk about the great backs and not include him is a mistake," Dick Vermeil, former coach of the Rams, told Sports Illustrated. "I've been around some great players, and he's better—he’s an elite player."