Always Overlooked, Justin Forsett Finally Breaks Through at Highest Level

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistDecember 11, 2014

Nick Wass/AP Images

Rejection. Dejection. Despair.

That's how the story of Baltimore Ravens running back Justin Forsett begins, with a high school senior retreating to the basement of his home in Arlington, Texas, to have a good cry alone.

He had just learned that Notre Dame didn't want him after all. The player and his family had been under the impression that the university offered him a scholarship when its running backs coach visited his high school. Then, one week before signing day, Forsett was preparing to travel to the school's campus when he was told the Irish would be signing two bigger running backs, not him. There was no scholarship offer.

And there were no others, either. Despite scoring 63 touchdowns and rushing for 4,925 yards in his last two years of high school, playing on two state championship teams at Grace Prep and winning the MVP award in the Texas All-Star Game, Forsett had not a single suitor.

And so he cried. Loudly. On and on through the night.

Finally, he stopped. He opened his Bible, which he carried with him to school every day, to a random page. Before him was Proverbs 3:5-6. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.

"I took it as He was speaking to me," Forsett said. "Don't worry about the circumstance—just trust Me and it will be all right."

His high school coach sent highlight tapes to colleges around the country. Still, no interest. Forsett kept thinking back to Proverbs.

Finally, more than a month after signing day, Forsett caught the attention of Cal coach Jeff Tedford. It had become apparent that Bears running back Brandon Sanders would be a medical redshirt, which meant Tedford had a scholarship for a running back. He looked at the highlight tape on his desk. The running back on his video screen, he thought, was too good to be true. Something had to be wrong for him to be available.

After a thorough investigation, Cal offered Forsett a scholarship.

The path to Berkeley was difficult. But it was a journey of self-discovery. And it was preparing Forsett for something bigger. 

At the 2008 scouting combine, Forsett measured 5'8" and 194 pounds. His vertical jump was 26.5 inches, which was 6.5 inches short of the mark registered by Darren McFadden, who would be the first running back chosen in the April draft that year. Forsett would be the 25th running back selected, by the Seattle Seahawks on the seventh round. He thought he might be picked in the third round, but when he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash at his pro day, his appeal to NFL teams waned. Small and slow, scouts like to say, is a bad combination.

It mattered not that Forsett had run for the third-most yards in Cal history, or that he was all-conference. The best he could be, according to NFL groupthink, was a third-down back and special teams contributor.

BERKELEY, CA - NOVEMBER 10:  Justin Forsett #20 of the California Golden Bears runs for a touchdown in the first quarter against the USC Trojans during an NCAA football game at Memorial Stadium November 10, 2007 in Berkeley, California.  (Photo by Jed Jac
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Justin Forsett college stats

"I felt like people looked at my size and placed me in a box," he said. "They couldn't look past my height and weight to see what I could do on the field if I got a chance."

Once he was padded up in training camp, Forsett impressed Seahawks general manager Tim Ruskell and head coach Mike Holmgren. He made the team but not the Week 1 active roster. After the first game, the Seahawks needed a roster spot. They liked Forsett but thought he would not make the active roster in the foreseeable future, so they waived him with the idea of signing him to the practice squad, Ruskell said. Then the Indianapolis Colts claimed him on waivers. He packed his bags and headed east.

It was a disappointing way for Forsett's career to begin, but he was learning about NFL biases. And it was preparing him for something bigger.

When Forsett's name crossed the waiver wire, Colts personnel men looked back at his first two preseason games. Forsett had rushed for 194 yards in games against the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. There was something there, so they claimed him with the idea he could return kicks. For three weeks, he was their return man.

During this period, Forsett listened to and watched Colts coach Tony Dungy intently. He admired his transparency, his sincerity and his accessibility. He was inspired by Dungy's simple leadership, and he wanted to be a leader like him.

Forsett left an impression on Dungy as well. "He was a very hard worker and very determined young man," Dungy said. "Great attitude and a quick learner. I thought he would do well if he got an opportunity to play."

Less than a month into Forsett's tenure in Indianapolis, the Colts had cornerback problems, and they had to create a roster spot to sign veteran corner Keiwan Ratliff. Like the Seahawks before them, they thought they would sign Forsett to their practice squad. But it was the Seahawks practice squad Forsett decided to join.

Through all of this, Forsett's mother Abbie was being treated for cancer and was given one year to live (she is in good health today). He was concerned mostly with being an emotional and financial support to his family. His first month of regular-season play was unsettling, but he was learning about selflessness. And it was preparing him for something bigger.

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Running back Justin Forsett #20 of the Seattle Seahawks rushes against Paris Lenon #51 of the Arizona Cardinals at CenturyLink Field on September 25, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

With the Seahawks, Forsett lasted for the better part of four years, but his role changed as he played for three head coaches and four offensive coordinators. In 2009, he was at his peak of value, sharing backfield time with Julius Jones and serving as a return man. It was that year when it became apparent to him that he was big enough to play—and succeed—in the NFL.

Confidence was overtaking doubt in the young runner.

"I figured out lack of height has been an advantage," Forsett said. "This game is about leverage. Low pad wins. Especially on pass protection, I'm able to get under these guys. It made sustaining blocks a little easier. I'm already down there."

The following offseason, new coach Pete Carroll acquired swifter Leon Washington, who would handle returns. And in October, the Seahawks traded for Marshawn Lynch, the big, physical type of back Carroll prefers.

Forsett was an ideal personal complement to Lynch because they were friends. Forsett had backed up Lynch at Cal, and Lynch stood up at Forsett's wedding. Forsett, level-headed and grounded, was just what the volatile Lynch needed to transition to a new team. At the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Forsett and Lynch were the odd couple.

Lynch would rarely come off the field, though, and Forsett's offensive touches were limited. Some players drift in similar situations. Forsett, conversely, learned he had to prepare just as diligently as if he were expected to carry 25 times every Sunday. His perseverance became a defining characteristic.

Through it all, Forsett thought the Seahawks would sign him to an extension before his contract expired in 2012. It didn't happen. But he was becoming more worldly in his understanding of the ways of the NFL. And the experience was preparing him for something bigger.

After becoming a free agent in March 2012, Forsett was expecting to visit multiple teams. Perhaps be whisked off on a private jet. Maybe be wined and dined. He thought he would choose between the best offers. It didn't quite play out that way.

The initial days of free agency passed with no offers. The second wave came and went. Weeks turned into months, and Forsett's phone would not ring no matter how long he stared at it.

He was working out at Cal and staying at a Holiday Inn near the campus. Sleep was hard to come by. Especially one night.

"I was tossing and turning, wondering what the future would hold, stressing out over what would happen," he said. "Then, in the middle of the night, I found peace. Being able to pray gave me a sense of peace and trust. Something good will happen."

Something good turned out to be a call from the Houston Texans. Forsett signed a one-year deal with them in June. That season, he had the best average per carry on the team.

Forsett fit well in Gary Kubiak's scheme, better than he had fit in any other. He thought he could really take off in it.

Dave Einsel/Associated Press

"Coach Kubiak likes to use versatility," Forsett said. "You have to be a complete back in his offense, and that suits me well because I'm able to do all the things that are asked. I'm a decisive runner. In this offense, you have to be decisive. There isn't much dancing going on in the backfield. You have to be able to stick your foot in the ground and go downhill. That's what I'm all about."

Fit aside, there really was no future for Forsett in Houston because the team already had Pro Bowler Arian Foster and second-round draft pick Ben Tate. So when the season ended, the Texans made no effort to bring him back. That was OK, because the time with Kubiak was preparing him for something bigger.

In 2013, for the first time in his NFL career, Forsett got a contract worth more than the NFL minimum salary: $900,000. And for the first time in his career, he received a signing bonus: $200,000, from the Jacksonville Jaguars on a two-year deal. He was reunited with Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, familiar faces from the Seattle days. So he went to camp in Jacksonville confident that his team was somewhat committed to him for the first time in his career.

In training camp and preseason, he couldn't show how valuable he could be because of a turf toe injury. He was ready to go at the start of the regular season, but it was too late to establish himself in a vital role. He would lead the team in prayer before games, and then take a seat on the bench.

"I ended up fourth on the depth chart," he said. "At times, I would go to work and feel I wasn't wanted. I had good relationships, especially with Coach Bradley. But I felt people really didn't value my skills. It was tough because I thought I could help the team. For whatever reason, I didn't get the chance."

Forsett was a healthy scratch for two games in the middle of the season. Again, he turned to prayer.

"I was like, 'OK, God, I don't know why this is happening, but it's happening for a reason. Maybe it's not for football.' Looking back now, I was able to impact a lot of people's lives down there even through my frustration. When they saw me go through some hurt and still have strength and peace, it was an encouragement to some guys down there. I thank God for that time in my life. I can now give encouragement to others on how to overcome something like that after having gone through it. It made me a better man."

When the Jaguars called on Forsett again in a late-November game, he sustained a stress fracture. His season would end after six carries.

Forsett's release in March did not cause so much as a ripple publicly, but it hit him like a tidal wave.

Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

"Probably the darkest moment of my career," he said.

Through the adversity, Forsett was growing stronger. And his days with the Jaguars were preparing him for something bigger.

Whatever happened next, Forsett was going to be at peace with it. Another shot would be great. If not, life beyond football intrigued him. He thought about trying to work for an NFL team in player relations, going into the ministry and a nine-to-five existence in the real world. Software? Real estate? Hedge funds? Surely there was something out there for him.

NFL teams were lukewarm on Forsett. His agent, Doug Hendrickson, heard from just one general manager, Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome. The Ravens were looking for affordable depth at the running back position, because their star running back, Ray Rice, had been indicted for third-degree aggravated assault after a February incident in which he had punched his fiancee (now wife). At the time, no one had an inkling Rice would be lost for more than four games.

Newsome thought Forsett could give the Ravens depth as a third running back, but he wasn't so impressed with him to be dissuaded from adding competition in the fourth round of the draft.

"I don't want to take credit for Justin," Newsome said. "To be quite honest, it was Gary prompting me to take a look at him."

Kubiak became the Ravens offensive coordinator in January after being fired by the Texans. In March, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh asked Kubiak about Forsett.

"He's a good player," Kubiak told him. "He's good on special teams. And he's a tough kid who will give you everything he has, a worker."

The Ravens' decision-makers trusted their new offensive coordinator's ability to evaluate players, so they offered Forsett a one-year deal for the NFL minimum of $730,000.

Forsett was thrilled to play in Kubiak's scheme again. As fate would have it, Rice never would see the field for the Ravens. Bernard Pierce, the player expected to be Rice's replacement, fizzled after starting the first two games. And Forsett stood out quickly, in part because he knew the offense from his days in Houston and in part because, for his whole career, he had been preparing for an opportunity that never came. Damn if he was going to let this one slip away.

"Before you knew it, he went from being a part-time player to full-time," Kubiak said. "He's the one who made it full-time by playing so well and holding up. The harder things get, he seems to get better."

Heading into the final three weeks of the season, Forsett has run for more yards than any player in the league except DeMarco Murray and Le'Veon Bell. His 5.6 average per carry is best among NFL starting running backs. The back who was too slow leads the NFL in runs of 20 yards or more with 14. He has been the AFC Offensive Player of the Week twice and earned Newsome's deep respect.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 07:  Running back Justin Forsett #29 of the Baltimore Ravens runs for fourth quarter yardage against the Miami Dolphins during a game at Sun Life Stadium on December 7, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Ravens defeated the D
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Justin Forsett NFL stats
2008Colts, Seahawks000.00

"He has unbelievable vision," Newsome said. "He has acceleration through the hole. He has the ability to make you miss or run through an arm tackle. He has been excellent in pass protection and a good outlet for the quarterback."

Hendrickson said he has spoken with four or five general managers who told him they have changed their perceptions of Forsett. Now, Forsett would like to help Rice change how he is perceived.

Forsett and Rice text and talk frequently and have gotten together once recently.

"I want him to know if there is anything my wife and I can do, we're here," he said. "I told him, 'I know you know what you did was wrong, but I want to be there to help you be the man you want to become.' I want to be a sounding board for him. He has been receptive. And I'm pretty sure the bond between us will continue way beyond football."

Rice probably couldn't have a better person to talk to. Forsett has spoken about relationships and led workshops in the yearly Pro Athletes Outreach Increase Conference, a Christian-based retreat for NFL players and their spouses. He also has written about the importance of being a good husband.

Forsett didn't just replace Rice on the field. Rice was an important part of what connected the Ravens and made them a team. Removing him disrupted chemistry. Forsett's presence has corrected the PH imbalance in the Ravens locker room, diminishing the acidity.

It is evident when the Ravens gather in a circle and the small man who has been tapped on the shoulder by Harbaugh speaks. His teammates all look up to him, at least in the figurative sense. There is no side conversation on the fringes of the gathering.

"He's all man, and he has a strong message about what it is to be a Raven," Kubiak said. "When he steps up to say something, the guys all know they can believe it because of the way he carries himself."

Forsett works to build relationships with teammates. He asks if there is anything he can do for them. He wants to know what he can pray about that would help them. Forsett has helped bring along younger players. And he has helped bring along his position coach. Kubiak said Forsett has been a big help in the transition from college to pro for first-year running backs coach Thomas Hammock.

Everyone you talk to about Forsett will give you the same quote: "I'm so happy for him." From the ashes of a story no one could feel good about rose a story that everyone can feel good about.

As he prepares to face his old Jaguars teammates Sunday, Forsett is a leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Year. But he really didn't "come back" as much as he overcame. Forsett needed to experience each disappointment and setback in order to become so valuable to the Ravens.

He needed to learn the importance of keeping the faith, as he did during his recruiting process as a high school senior. He had to realize, as he did during his introduction to the NFL, that nothing would come easy. During his short time in Indianapolis, he had to figure out he could help a team in the locker room as well as on the field. He had to come to understand, as he did in Seattle, that he could not always control his opportunities but could control his commitment. He had to see that the right scheme could bring out the best in him, as it did in Houston. He had to experience mining strength from adversity, as he did in Jacksonville.

This is where the Justin Forsett story leads, to this improbable intersection of opportunity and preparedness. Standing here, it somehow makes perfect sense that he is accomplishing what only he thought was possible.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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