Editor's note:* *This feature was intially published in *Texans Gameday on Sunday, Nov. 2.*
Arian Foster sits and waits for the "ding" that signals his food is ready. He likes to cook different meals in his toaster oven, plugged into the back of his locker. Usually, it's a tray with oatmeal and cherries.
"Takes less than 10 minutes," he says when I ask about the cooking time for oats.
The media wait around for another player to interview during the 45-minute window of open locker room time allotted. Meanwhile, the three-time Pro Bowl running back sits by idly, checking his phone.
There is an unspoken agreement between the media and the star running back. Foster answers questions but only on a need-to-know basis. Generally, he's agreeable. Some days, he asks more questions about the questions than he actually answers.
During a season in which he's posted four-consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, seven rushing touchdowns, and two receiving scores, he's content to let his play do all the talking.
In his locker sits an autographed picture from one of his favorite NFL stars, Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell. To the right is a medium-sized box with the University of Tennessee logo on the outside. It's filled with gear from his alma mater. Underneath are multiple pairs of shoes with logos covered up and the backs cut out. He doesn't receive endorsements so he doesn't give any brand unintentional publicity.
Foster makes statements like these without saying a word.
On July 30, 2014, Foster answered 11 different questions with the same answer, "I'm just trying to be the best teammate I can be." In a one-on-one interview just across the hallway in the radio studio, I ask him about that now famous media session, a post-practice Q-and-A that made national news.
"You said nothing," I point out.
"I did though," he says.
Maybe he's right. He made a statement then too. He didn't want to talk about his back injury or how he was feeling or when he expected to return. And when Foster doesn't want to answer, he doesn't. It's that simple.
Responding on the field
Foster, now a six-year veteran, may find questions tiresome but he's answered his critics with a fire that many didn't expect.
"From the first day I started working with him I'd tell you, this guy, he's just such a talented guy in a lot of different areas," head coach Bill O'Brien said. "He's obviously a really good runner. He's got great vision, great balance, body control. He's big, so he's a strong runner. He's able to run through arm tackles. He's really good in the passing game. He's got good hands. He's got really good instincts against the different coverages that he sees and he's a good pass protector."
While O'Brien isn't surprised by Foster's monster season, neither is Foster.
"Am I surprised by this season? No, I'm never surprised," Fosters says. "I'd say I have pretty high expectations. When healthy, I feel like I can compete with the best of the best in this league."
Foster currently leads the AFC in rushing yards (766) and touchdowns (7) and is ranked in the top five among all NFL players with 932 yards from scrimmage.
It's no small feat, considering he didn't play in a Week 3 loss against the New York Giants. It's easy to see Foster dart in and out of traffic on the field, finding holes where there seem to be none, and forget that he made his return after a season-ending back injury last year.
I want to know if Foster ever doubted what his return to football would be like in those days of rehab.
"No, I didn't but the doubters doubt, the players play," Foster says. "That's how the cookie crumbles."
He looks noticeably bored with questions about his surgery.
I switch gears, making a mental note to revisit the topic.
The more he can do
We talk about all the things O'Brien says Foster does well. Known for being a solid pass blocker, Foster talks about how he discovered it was a valuable weapon in his arsenal. It was the one skill that took him the longest to master and yet separated him from all the other three-down backs trying to get into the game.
Foster weighed in just around 250 pounds during his freshman year at college, nearly 25 pounds heavier than he is today. Self-described as "super fat," Foster lost some of his speediness with the extra weight. He figured out that if he could pass block, he wouldn't lose any playing time.
"I had to find a way to impress the coaches to stay on the field to make them want to play me," Foster said. "I was always good at running the ball, but I didn't have that breakaway speed. I just learned how to pass block. Once you learn how to pass block and really take it to heart and take pride in it, then they'll keep you on the field. That was my way of staying on the field because I feel like running backs at that time were a little faster than me and they could break away."
Speed is no longer an issue for Foster who trained in the offseason with his brother Abdul and seven-time Pro Bowler Andre Johnson. The two former track stars like to run together to keep up their conditioning for football season. Foster and I discuss offseason training and the best friend that doesn't even know he's his best friend, Johnson.
It's a running (no pun intended) joke that they have. Foster even once laid out a path of several fresh towels to line Johnson's walk to his locker before he addressed the media. Johnson chuckled and kicked them aside.
When I bring up the mock adoration, Foster shows a playful, competitive side.
"Who's faster?" I ask.
"That's me," Foster replies. "Sorry, Dre."
"Who has better hands?"
"That's him, obviously," Foster says. "But I'm not way far down, you feel me?"
We come to a mutual agreement that Johnson and Foster rank 1A and 1B, respectively, in catching skills. Foster currently has 24 receptions for 166 yards receiving and a pair of receiving touchdowns. He's not so generous when it comes to running, ranking Johnson at 1F. There's no respect lost though as Foster refers to Johnson as "one of the GOATs (Greatest Of All Time)" as a sign of respect for his "best friend."
Being the best teammate he can be
Foster's relationships with his teammates, not so ironically, do reflect that he's a good teammate. All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown talks about Foster's bond with the offensive linemen on his Texans Radio show. Foster often encourages them during the game and in the huddle and is appreciative of the heavy lifting they do in order for Foster to succeed, according to Brown.
"I AM a good teammate," Foster says. "You got to have a good relationship. They're the ones doing all the dirty work and then you get all the prestige and credit for it. A couple guys have been in there since my inception in the NFL so I got a lot of love for them. I always try to take care of them, big 'em up."
Now heading into Week 9, Foster is still somewhat reserved with the media but obliges. Somewhere along the way of our lengthy interview, he lets down his guard. He's still the same Arian that intrigued fans with his yoga and poetry-writing. I learn that Foster, who admits "the pen" was his first love, jots poems down every day and continues to feed his creative side. He tells me he's fascinated by Egyptian history and has taken up piano lessons recently.
Our conversation takes many detours, from urban slang to my taste in music to the inner workings of his pysche. It's clear he's still a natural conversationalist. He's funny, witty, and engaged, but mostly when the topics are fresh and unexpected to him.
So once I decided to throw the football questions aside, the conversation flowed. Twenty-one minutes later, the more interesting story was in all the other stuff Foster wanted to talk about. And so we did.
After all, his play on the field speaks for itself.
Arian Foster – By the Numbers
• Foster leads the AFC in yards rushing (766), carries (146), and rushing touchdowns (7) this season, averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
• Foster has rushed for more than 100 yards in six of the seven games he's started this season and for the 31st time in his career.
• Since 2010, Foster leads the NFL with 30 100-yard rushing games.
• Foster tied a career high with three touchdowns (two rushing and one receiving) in Week 8 at Tennessee.
• Foster ranks third in the AFC and fifth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 932 through eight games.
• Since 2010, Foster leads the NFL with 21 games where he has at least 150 yards from scrimmage.