I'll admit it. I like Arian Foster. I've liked him since he came to Tennessee. That wasn't always the popular stance, but it was mine.
Foster came to Knoxville as an unheralded three-star recruit out of San Diego. He would get his chance to shine midway through his redshirt freshman year when incumbent starter Gerald Riggs Jr. went down with a severe ankle injury. And Foster impressed immediately. His running talent was clear from the beginning, and he ran up over 150 yards in his first start. But what impressed me more was that when the rest of the team gave up on the season, Foster didn't. By November of 2005, the fans had pretty much all given up on the season, and their performance on the field suggested that the team wasn't far behind. But Arian Foster didn't quit. When the rest of the Vols were going through the motions in an embarrassing loss to Vanderbilt, Foster racked up 268 total yards and scored two touchdowns. He gave us a bright spot in an otherwise horrible season, and I was a fan.
But beyond his work on the field, I was a fan because of Foster off the field. I'm a Ph.D. student in Philosophy. Arian Foster is the only Tennessee player I can remember who majored in Philosophy, and he's certainly one of the few major college athletes who gave off the impression that he was genuinely interested in learning for learning's sake. It's so easy for an SEC player to view classes as a necessary evil on the way to the NFL, but--while I don't know him personally--I'm honestly convinced that Foster didn't.
During his last three years, despite running for almost 1,200 yards and being part of an SEC East champion squad in 2007, Foster was an easy target for critics because (A) he fumbled and (B) he seriously disappointed as a senior. There were certainly legitimate reasons to jump off the bandwagon (and I won't blame anyone who was at the 2007 Outback Bowl for ignoring this article entirely), but, as often happens, the hate got completely out of hand.
I have talked to otherwise reasonable people who blame Foster for losing the 2005 South Carolina game. Generally, when a player personally accounts for 55% of a team's total yards, scores a touchdown, and fumbles once--in the first half of a game his team led both at the time and a halftime--I'd say the appropriate blame lies elsewhere. What's more, I've talked to otherwise reasonable people who blame Foster for losing the 2005 Alabama game. The ESPN recap reads as follows:
Arian Foster caught a swing pass and headed toward the end zone. Alabama's Roman Harper jarred the ball loose near the goal line and it bounced out of the end zone with 5:08 left, giving the Tide (7-0, 5-0) the ball and stopping Tennessee's hopes of breaking the tie.
This is truly the greatest testament of the Fumbling Foster Mythos, as it has even fooled ESPN. It was Cory Anderson that caught that pass and lost that ball, not Arian Foster, no matter what say the memories of the fans and the sportswriters. Were there real fumbles to complain about? Of course. I only recall one lost in the 4th quarter, but it's not like there's ever a good time for fumbles. And was Foster really disappointing in his senior season? Absolutely. In the year he was supposed to lead, he had one of the worst years of his career, and the offense had one of the worst years in school history. And it's obvious from his transformation to one of the best backs in the NFL (with the smoothest cuts I've seen in quite a long time) that we never saw his best work at Tennessee.
But while some may see a lazy player who cost his team, I saw a talented player who worked harder than anyone as a freshman and then got sucked in by the negative culture surrounding Phil Fulmer's last few years--not to mention the other sucking that happened in that last year (aside: this is one of the more interesting instances of Will's favorite game: How Much Can We Blame on Dave Clawson?). I saw a student who genuinely cared about more than just football and money and women, and had a pretty good sense of humor to boot. (Yeah, I thought the Pterodactyl thing was hilarious (this might be where I disclose that Foster is less than a year older than me and we were both seniors in college in 2008-09)).
It can be easy to get caught up in piling on the players that disappoint on the field. I know I do. And I'm certainly not saying that fans should accept mediocrity. If you aren't good enough to play for Tennessee, you shouldn't play. If you show up out of shape, you sit until you're back in shape. This isn't about loosening the standards. It's about how sometimes there's a player that reminds you that these are real people, often not that different from us, who are out there under the lights every Saturday. A player who does enough to make you want to step into a group gaping at the negatives and say "but look at all these positives he gave us." For me, even throughout his struggles with fumbles, conditioning, and coaching, that player was Arian Foster. Who is yours?