TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was the blur that took getting used to.
When Reuben Foster arrived at the University of Alabama, his teammates already had a good idea about how hard he could hit and his potential. Some even knew about his tragic background and toughness, while everyone would quickly learn about his outgoing personality.
The blur, though, was different. It's what they often saw just before the player being chased was annihilated. That’s not an exaggeration, as you’ll often see Foster's teammates with the body language of, “Yep, No. 10 beat me to it again,” while the ball-carrier has the look of “Where did that come from?”
“Oh yeah. I look forward to those moments,” Foster said. “Like, my heart starts racing.”
So did the idea of adding to the Crimson Tide’s legacy at linebacker, which was a huge reason he said yes to playing at Alabama.
Since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, you’re talking Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest and Reggie Ragland. All were named All-Americans, and all won at least one national championship.
In the broader sense, you also have Derrick Thomas, Cornelius Bennett, Lee Roy Jordan and Woodrow Lowe, who are all in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Foster fits in nicely with those groups, and not just because he's on the verge of being a unanimous All-American selection with an impressive ring collection. When being recruited, he sort of envisioned himself as becoming Alabama’s version of Ray Lewis or another McClain (“He was a great linebacker,” he said).
He eventually got a better idea.
“Be myself, really,” Foster said. “Make my own brand.”
He’s done that while developing into one of the best college football linebackers anyone has ever seen and becoming the heart of the nation's top-ranked defense.
On a team of self-described "savages," he hits the hardest. Surrounded by elite pass-rushers, Foster is often the most relentless. Throw in his strong work ethic and you might have the most feared defensive player in college football this season, and among the most respected.
A journey like no other
Foster’s atypical past is well-documented, including how at 18 months old he was being held by his mother when his father shot her. She survived, and he was wounded in the back. After being on the run for 16 years, his father Danny was captured in Florida in 2013.
The linebacker is also known for his eye-raising Auburn tattoo. He still gets some grief over it from fans, but the ink was there before he got to Tuscaloosa.
Foster hails from the backyard of the Crimson Tide's biggest rival. As a senior, he played at Auburn High School after transferring from Troup County across the state border in Georgia. He and his cousin, Ladarious Phillips, used to talk about someday playing together for the Tigers. The fullback fulfilled his part of the dream but died after being shot at an off-campus apartment in June 2012.
Instead of removing the tattoo, Foster turned it into a permanent tribute, adding Phillips’ name in addition to a shadowy figure walking up a staircase that extends to his shoulder.
“I don’t really speak about it,” Foster said, feeling that he’s told the story enough.
But his recruitment still remains a hot topic in the state, especially since many Auburn fans felt Foster was the key to narrowing the growing gap with the in-state powerhouse. They could stomach seeing such a prized prospect going to Georgia, but not Alabama.
Trying to make everyone happy, Foster flipped his commitment more than once.
“Everybody was trying to pull him left and right; everybody wanted to be his friend all of a sudden,” Ragland said. “It was very tough on him.”
Ragland was just beginning to get to know him at that point. Being from a different part of the state— Madison, just west of Huntsville—he didn’t start following Foster’s career until he could no longer ignore the hype.
When Ragland first saw Foster’s highlight tape, his reaction was: “Damn! Who is this kid? I have to meet him.”
It was the player who he would soon start calling “Little Brother.” He still does.
“Loving, caring, funny dude,” Ragland said. “I’d do anything for him.
“Whatever he does, I always have his back.”
From tough times to toughness
Like every scholarship football player, Foster was determined to make his mark with the Crimson Tide, but like so many other newcomers, he grew frustrated when the game that had been so easy to play suddenly was not.
Reckless abandon is a good description of his freshman season, and last year former defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said Foster as a newbie “kind of ran around and made plays.”
He was being kind. Foster was a bit of a danger to himself.
While he had no problem making bone-crunching hits, there was real concern Foster could hurt himself because of the way he would lower his head before plowing into an opponent at full speed, which made him susceptible to a serious neck or head injury. He even knocked himself out a couple of times.
“He works hard and he only knows one speed,” said Dr. Charles Flowers, the former Troup County coach who still regularly talks to his former player (and still has Foster’s high school helmet and defensive MVP award from the 2013 Under Armour All-America Game).
“Unfortunately, it’s sometimes to his demise.”
But Flowers also used words like “exceptional,” “dedicated” and “loyal,” to describe Foster and, like many others, believed that with hard work, coaching and some maturity his former star player would begin to fulfill his enormous potential.
“He’s a better young man than he is a football player,” said Flowers, who credits Foster’s mother for a lot of that.
Other people helped as well, even on the Alabama campus. They include the black, Christian-based fraternity he joined, Omega Psi Phi—called the “Que Dogs.”
“It really helped me lock in,” said Foster, who added that he's extremely proud of the degree he just completed. "I’ve matured a lot. I’m not young and wild. I just slowed down and got my life together."
Ragland also took him under his wing along with some other teammates, and Foster naturally developed some close relationships with his coaches.
“Reuben will always hold a special place in my heart with all he’s been through as a child and the recruiting process,” Smart said during the lead-up to last year’s national championship game.
“When you have a guy who’s really talented and he’s coachable, it’s kind of why we do this as coaches because you get to enjoy being around a kid who’s grown up a lot in the last three years. So I’ve enjoyed coaching him.”
With each year, things clicked more for Foster, and the results were apparent on the field. The one play Crimson Tide fans still talk about from his sophomore season was when he drilled LSU’s Leonard Fournette on a kick return as time expired, giving Alabama a big momentum boost heading into overtime.
At the next SEC media day, Fournette called it "the biggest hit I've ever taken.”
Now it’s just one of many jaw-dropping plays that Foster has made over his career. Another was his hit on Chad Kelly this season, which was so nasty that senior linebacker Ryan Anderson said he was scared for the Ole Miss quarterback.
A couple of weeks later, Foster revealed that he had given himself a black eye on the play, which caused a number of reporters to do a double-take.
- Reporter: “You got a black eye from hitting him?"
- Foster: “Yeah."
- Reporter: “You hit him hard enough that YOU got a black eye?”
- Foster: “Yeah. He was hard to hit."
- Reporter: “Is that normal?"
- Foster: “I don’t know, but he’s a tough guy.”
A more recent example of Foster’s toughness came during the Chattanooga game on Nov. 19, when he was playing with a fracture in his right finger/hand and painfully aggravated it in the first quarter. With the Iron Bowl next up on the schedule, he could have called it a night, but instead he had the medical staff put a protective club on it.
His first play back, early in the second quarter, Foster made a tackle for a three-yard loss.
“I figured he’d be back in the game,” sophomore cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “If Reuben isn’t ever on the field, he must be really, really hurt. That guy is tough as bricks.”
A legacy finally being defined
It was only natural that Foster took Ragland’s spot as a team leader, which at Alabama means getting everyone lined up correctly and making necessary adjustments before each snap. But he also had more of an upside than his mentor.
During a time when the spread has never been more popular, Foster is a unique defender who can do everything, from attacking the run to dropping back into pass coverage. He would have thrived during any football era, but now he might be the prototypical linebacker.
“Reuben plays well whether we're playing against a direct-run team or a spread team,” Saban said. “I think that there were guys in the past who would play better against direct-run teams and struggle a little more when you got to the spread-type teams because you have to play more effectively in space. Reuben just happens to be a guy that can do both of those things very well.
“C.J. Mosley was the same kind of player here. Does that mean that he’s a more effective guy? Maybe more all-around, more versatile would be a better way to say it. But he's certainly done a really good job for us all year long in both scenarios of whatever we’ve played.”
Actually, Foster was so outstanding that he was in some ways overlooked because of his consistent play and the quality of his teammates.
Defensive end Jonathan Allen was hailed as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate and won the program’s first Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski awards as the nation’s best defensive player (Foster was a finalist for the latter). The pass-rushing ability of Anderson and Tim Williams got a lot of attention week in, week out, while defensive backs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Eddie Jackson kept scoring touchdowns.
The Reuben Missile Crisis? He just kept going to sideline to sideline, chasing down everyone and doing all that he could to shut down the opposition. Like having a team-high 11 tackles at LSU when Fournette managed just 35 rushing yards on 17 carries.
“Even when he makes tremendous plays, makes a tackle behind the line of scrimmage or makes a tackle for a one-yard gain when for most people it would have been for six or seven, people take it for granted he’ll make the play because he’s always in position,” Flowers said. “He has a great knack for the football and is a great, instinctual player.”
Through 13 games this season, Foster has collected a team-high 94 tackles, including 12.0 for loss and four sacks. He’s one of the few Crimson Tide starters who haven’t scored a defensive touchdown, but he nearly never missed a tackle, which helped make him an elite prospect for the National Football League.
Pro Football Focus called Foster the “best, most complete linebacker in the nation,” and he’s the consensus choice to be the first linebacker selected in the 2017 draft. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has him fifth overall on his latest Big Board and the second pick by the San Francisco 49ers in his Dec. 9 two-round mock draft.
“He’s going to have a long career,” Ragland said.
Yet it wasn't until the weekend of the SEC Championship Game that college football seemed to recognize just how good of a player Foster had consistently become. After making 11 tackles during the 54-16 victory against Florida, he was named the game MVP even though Fitzpatrick had returned another interception for a touchdown and two other players reached the end zone twice (Joshua Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough).
Humbled, he could barely let out a “Roll Tide” after being given the trophy on stage and then spoke about how much he loved his teammates.
The next day, Foster was named both a team co-captain and the Crimson Tide’s team MVP, honors decided by the players instead of the coaching staff, at the annual team banquet. If that wasn’t enough, Dick Butkus surprised him with the trophy bearing his name for national linebacker of the year.
He’s the third Alabama player to win it during the Saban era (McClain in 2009 and Mosley in 2013) and fourth overall (Thomas in 1988).
“It’s an honor to know that my name is going to be mentioned along with the greatness of Alabama, the dynasty, and I’m part of that dynasty,” Foster said.
“It’s amazing that I’ll be remembered.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.