How to Foster a Role Model

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D.J. Foster prior to his final home game as a Sun Devil (AP Photo/Matt York) D.J. Foster prior to his final home game as a Sun Devil (AP Photo/Matt York)

by Nate McWhortor

An ode to DJ Foster: the most important player ever in Sun Devil Football history

On Saturday, I watched another senior class of Sun Devils take Frank Kush Field for the final time.

I’ve always found Senior Day celebrations and ceremonies rather bittersweet. No matter the year, it’s a day full of reflection and excitement. While four different seniors scored touchdowns on Saturday (Devin Lucien, Mike Bercovici, D.J. Foster, and Lloyd Carrington) there was one touchdown that stuck out to me: a fourth quarter, anxiety-quelling, lead-extending, nerve-calming run by D.J. Foster. That kind of play is what has made Foster one of the most important players in Sun Devil history.

Having four seniors score touchdowns on Senior Day is a remarkable and memorable thing, but the most important and symbolic score had to be Foster’s. While Lucien was the player of the game and played the best game of his college career, this was his first (and last) Territorial Cup and season as a Sun Devil. Bercovici’s punch-in was a welcome sight and a great way to send out a senior whose dedication to the program is very well documented. Carrington’s pick-six was a fitting way to cap off a season by the most underrated player in a defense that asks him to do so much. But Foster’s touchdown run to put the Sun Devils back up by two scores was the most appropriate thing I’ve ever seen on a football field.

Sun Devil football has a long and proud tradition full of wonderful people and athletes. If I were to give you a short list of the most important people in the history of the program I would list Kush, Pat Tillman and Foster (it’s too early to list Todd Graham). This is a trio that has galvanized the Sun Devil Nation. These three men have seen the dark times and brought the Sun Devils out of that darkness. Kush built the program—and maybe even more importantly played a major role in making the school a University. Tillman was the unequivocal leader who played a vital role in one of the most remarkable seasons in Tempe, and will always be a symbol of inspiration. Foster saw a program in complete upheaval and brought tranquility and easiness.

Let’s rewind the clock almost four years to Dec. 14, 2011—the day Todd Graham was announced as the head football coach at Arizona State. After weeks of rumors and turmoil both in the searching process but also within the athletic department, the brass landed CTG and brought him to Tempe. Amidst the well documented criticism that Graham endured immediately following his hiring, his very first call was to a high school senior in Scottsdale.

Bringing in Foster was (and still is) Graham’s biggest victory. It calmed down a riled up fan base, made good on the promise to recruiting the best homegrown talent, and gave Graham a top-level prospect that would do more for the success of his program than anything else. Stop and think about how different Graham’s tenure would be without Foster.

There will always be a crapshoot element to recruiting, no matter how much analysis, film, and star systems tell us otherwise. Just getting Foster to Tempe wasn’t going to be enough. Graham needed him to play as a true freshman. Most players transitioning from high school to college benefit from a redshirt season or a season as a backup, but D.J. needed to play. The crown jewel of Graham’s initial needed to be on the field making a difference.

Luckily for Foster, the offseason focus was on the three-way quarterback battle that was eventually won by the little-known quiet kid from Eagle, Idaho. Probably even luckier for Foster was the fact that Taylor Kelly actually won that battle. Graham preached consistency, ball control, and stability, and that’s what Kelly and Foster both provided. Neither Kelly nor Foster were going to make headlines with their mouths or off-field antics, which was exactly what a program in such a volatile state needed. On the field the two of them played off each other well and put up very impressive numbers for three years.

I could give you a litany of stats that would tell you how great Foster has been but his importance to the history of Sun Devil football is more symbolic than analytic. There is one stat, however, that has impressed me: D.J. Foster has a reception in every game (51) he’s played. Not only did Foster play right away as a freshman, but he played consistent, reliable football for four years.

If you’re an observer of the college football internet-sphere you probably saw Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliot complaining about the play calling and not getting touches. All I could think about when I watched that was how lucky Mike Norvell is to have a player in Foster, a player who has switched from running back to wide receiver and back more times than I can remember. A player who is willing to pound the rock inside the tackles, turn his back to receive a screen and make a third down catch over the middle while being blown up all in the same game. In today’s age, the most remarkable thing is he’s never said one word about it. We’ve never once heard him complain about his ever-shifting role, any lack of touches or any turmoil the offense may be going through. For four years he’s kept his head down and done his job.

While the likes of Will Sutton, Bercovici and Jordan Simone have dominated the camera time and the spotlight, the one guy who makes the biggest difference makes the least amount of noise. Ask anyone in the press box who the most respectful and likeable college athlete they’ve ever covered is and they will probably tell you it’s D.J. Foster. I’m not saying he doesn't gets attention—he’s had a lot of it during his career—but it’s always understated. Last season ESPN College GameDay ran a piece on Foster and how the loss of his sister motivates him. Newspapers and websites have done stories on Foster, yet whenever people talk Sun Devil Football he’s hardly ever the first name to come up.

Come April, you will most likely not see Foster’s name on any big boards, or hear talk of him being a difference maker on Sundays. He will probably get a shot with an NFL team in some capacity but he’s not going to grab headlines like Terrell Suggs, Damarious Randall or Brock Osweiler have. Is there a chance that had Foster played a consistent position at ASU he would be in some of these talks? Maybe. But he won’t tell you that. He bought in to what Graham was selling. More importantly: he got others to buy what Graham was selling. The attitude of Foster and the success of Graham go hand-in-hand.

What was meant to be a dream senior season for Foster has turned out to be…not that. The All-American quarterback didn’t really pan out, the offense struggled, the fans booed and most of the talk all season was “where is D.J.?”. But once again, you won’t hear a word about it from him. He’ll just keep answering when his number is called, and in his final game in Sun Devil Stadium it was called.

After taking a commanding halftime lead, the Sun Devil offense was once again sputtering in the second half. The defense had just given up a 95-yard touchdown pass and the Devils' three-touchdown lead had evaporated to a one-score advantage in the fourth quarter. With the fate of the season on the line the Sun Devils did what they had done so many times before: find D.J. With Demario Richard hurt, Norvell put his most reliable player in the backfield and used him to run the ball. Later in the drive, Bercovici would find Foster for key receptions and first downs. The drive culminated with D.J. finding paydirt one last time in Tempe—as a running back. The two-yard touchdown carry wasn’t going to make the highlight reels but it was the most important touchdown of the season.

Naturally, Foster’s game-saving touchdown run was upstaged by two interceptions for touchdowns. After doing a (admittedly) quick Google image search I can only find one picture of Foster hoisting the Territorial Cup. Ask fans who the hero of the game is and you’ll probably get a lot of Bercovici, Lucien, Antonio Longino, Kareem Orr and Carrington. Years from now, folks will remember the two pick-sixes, the fake endo touchdown pass or one of several bruising runs by "DeBallaggio", but I doubt you’ll hear “D.J. Foster’s two-yard run to put us back up two scores”.

I guess it’s just the most D.J. Foster thing I can think of. While everyone else grabs headlines and the spotlight, Foster quietly does his job and keeps things moving.

While the early returns of recruiting season are coming back positively on the home front you can also chalk that up as part of the Foster effect. If ASU continues to land the biggest recruits in the state and develop them you can give all your thanks to Foster for staying home. All Graham has to do is show any parent the type of person D.J. Foster is and what he’s accomplished and you’ll see the big time letters of intent come rolling in. That's another testament to the humble influence of this young man.

It’s quite simple: without D.J. Foster this program would not be what it is right now. So as we watch the Sun Devils play their final two games, take the time to appreciate No. 8 and all he has done. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for this young man and who he will become. He will always have a special place in Sun Devil history books, even if it’s not the cover. 

Copyright 2015 KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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