As far as Arian Foster is concerned, the NFL adage that a running back can’t play past age 30 is, in not so many words, bullshit. Exhibit A that he presents is Curtis Martin, who in 2004 led the league in rushing at the age of 31. Exhibit B is to be a grown-up and think for yourself.
“They throw those stats at you just because they look sexy when you’re trying to fit an agenda,” Foster says of the common perception that running backs are done by age 30. “As soon as you get into the NFL they’re always going to tell you what you can’t do. One of them is being a 30-year-old running back. There’s always outliers. I believe myself to be an outlier.”
Of course, that thought process exists for a reason. The human body can take only so much of the repetitive, gradual destruction that comes with the collisions, twists, awkward bends, kicks, and jarring blows — to the body, to say nothing of the brain — that come with ramming yourself into a brick wall of defensive linemen 20-30 times a week, year after year. Injuries are par for the course, and Foster, who will be 29 when the 2015 season kicks off, is no exception; he has battled hamstring, knee, and back injuries in recent years. And while many ball carriers have hung up their cleats, against their will, far shy of 30, Foster dismisses the notion that a running back can’t thrive in his chosen profession after an arbitrary milestone.
It might be tempting to dismiss Foster’s flippant attitude in the face of history and statistics, but he has a history of exceeding expectations. Undrafted out of the University of Tennessee, the two-time All-Pro has gone on to a prolific career as the lynchpin of a potent Houston Texans attack since 2010, establishing himself as one of the premier running backs in the league, an annual fantasy stud, and one of the best undrafted RBs in league history.
Foster credits his success, in part, to an intense focus on fitness and nutrition that may not always fall in line with what the team program dictates.
“Over the years I’ve kind of weeded out what I know really doesn’t do anything for me as far as training is concerned,” he says. “You’ll deal with trainers or you’ll deal with weight coaches and there’s a lot of fluff and kind of a one-size-fits-all mentality. As you’re going through your career, you kind of just figure out what works for you really well and what doesn’t, so I just stick to the things that have benefitted me.”
Foster is unafraid of tinkering — to levels some might think extreme — to maximize his body’s performance: He went vegan for eight months in 2012, including the bulk of that year’s regular season; he brought animal proteins back into his diet that December. More recently, he worked with a nutritionist to develop a diet geared specifically to his metabolism and body type. That means lots of butternut squash, lamb, and beloved breakfasts of oatmeal, fresh fruit, and chia seeds.
It’s all part of a think-for-yourself attitude that he is unafraid to put out there. It’s why he infamously upbraided the Houston media last summer by answering every question after one practice with various iterations of the response that he was “just trying to be a good teammate.” (This type of interview is now more commonly associated with the notorious, media-averse Marshawn Lynch, who did this for most of the 2014 season). Of course, some pundits stamped their feet in response. But that was the point.
“I think it’s funny that that got so much attention and people were upset about it, because we get asked the same stuff every single day,” Foster says. “I was just trying to hold them accountable for asking good questions, and they got upset at me.”
He carries that rut-busting attitude to his personal life and his approach to parenting. In 2013 he penned a short list of lessons he plans to teach his daughter that went viral for its thoughtfulness, reaching levels of compassion and feminism not typically associated with the NFL. He is adamant about the importance of good parenting and raising children to think for themselves — which begins, of course, with parents thinking for themselves.
“Don’t try to force-feed anything that you strongly believe in just because you feel like its right,” he says. “Kind of guide them, give them a basic foundation…and then let them decide, man. You don’t want a whole bunch of clones of you running around.”
If it sounds like Arian Foster thinks about a lot of things beyond the football field, you’re right. He badly wants to transmit everything he has learned about good health and nutrition to poor families and children, and doing that may be a part of his future plans.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, are you going to invest in your health now or invest in it later with medication that you’re going to have to take from all the junk we’re putting in our bodies?’,” adds Foster, who works with Health Warrior to promote diets rich in super foods. “We can’t really hide from it anymore, there’s so much science behind it, and evidence behind the fact that what we put in our bodies are major causes for a lot of the diseases that we’re developing.” But first, while it’s still here, there’s more football to be played.
“Right now I feel like the most important thing to do is stay focused on this because you can only be an athlete for so long,” he says. And then what? What exactly will Arian Foster be doing when his 31st and 32nd birthdays roll around? He doesn’t know, but he’s not worried about what you’ll think about it.
“I try not to focus too much on what people tell me I’m not going to do, but where I see myself in three or four years — is happy,” he says. “So that’s my goal, whatever I’m doing and whoever I’m doing it with I plan to be happy.”