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Arizona State's D.J. Foster stars at, but won't define himself by football

As D.J. Foster steps into the spotlight as Arizona State's marquee back, he wants football to be his passion but not his identity. It's a mindset shaped by the legacy of his sister, Jennifer.

D.J. Foster’s roommates are, naturally, two of his best friends in the world. He would like to also emphasize that they are liars. Contrary to what they report, there are no scented candles involved in the Epsom salt bath routine Arizona State’s do-everything tailback started this season.

Well, maybe there was the one candle that one time. But there aren’t multiple candles, and Foster’s process requires nothing more than a trip to Target to buy the salt, followed by filling a tub with water, emptying the bag and sliding in.

For one of the nation’s ascendant offensive stars, this bath routine is a means to enhance both his preparation for football and his recovery from its rigors. Before a game, it allows Foster to visualize the many responsibilities the Sun Devils heap upon him to keep defenses off-kilter. After a game, he hops in to to soothe his aching joints and muscles. In either case, he is all to himself. He is at peace. Or he would be, if only his roommates permitted it.

“They’re jealous,” Foster says. “They ask me to borrow some salt every day. They’re just hating. They want some, too.”

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After spending two years primarily as a slot receiver, the 5-foot-11, 205-pound junior assumed principal tailback duties this fall and has produced 170 rushing yards per game, bettering the per-night averages of more luminous names like Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley. Eleven receptions in three games bring Foster’s total touches to 65 and his all-purpose yards to 649, leaving him just one yard shy of averaging a first down every time he touches the ball; among top running backs, only Gurley can claim similar production per touch, and he has a 100-yard kickoff return boosting his numbers.

“He’s the best football player I’ve ever coached,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham says of Foster.

He owes that to balance, in every sense: Foster has mastered two positions and the ability to keep defenses off-keel, and he also has the capacity to treat football as his passion but not his identity.

​“It’s not that I don’t take it seriously,” Foster says, as a showdown with No. 11 UCLA looms Thursday night. “Football is definitely a huge part of my life. It’s just that I don’t feel it’s the only thing that defines me. I don’t like people to just define me as a football player. There are a lot of other things about me that I love -- my family, being a good friend, being a good person in the community. Football is definitely a very serious thing in my life. It’s my job. It’s what I love to do.”

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This seems like a distinction without a difference until you trace back to Aug. 20, 2009, the day Jennifer Foster died. She was 19, three years older than her little brother. She was effervescent, the one who drew people together to sing and dance. D.J. was shy, but Jennifer was his best friend, a spirit twin. When he laughed, and no one else knew why, Jennifer knew. When they argued, D.J. says, “you would want to leave the room.” D.J. would regularly wave off ordering at restaurants, claiming he wasn’t hungry, and then he’d start picking at Jennifer’s food when the plates arrived, incensing her every time.

They were inseparable, their father says. When Jennifer died of an accidental prescription drug overdose, D.J. was lost. Soon after he realized his sister left directions behind. “One of the things Jennifer said to him back before she passed was, ‘There’s a lot more to life than just sports,’” says Daryll Foster, Jennifer and D.J.’s dad.

There’s a portrait of Jennifer tattooed on D.J.’s chest, with the words “Sweet Dreams” etched beneath it. It’s the context of his life contained in one pectoral muscle: Losing Jennifer made Foster reprioritize what was most important, but football was no casualty. He pursued what he wanted, only according to terms set by the one person he cared about most in the world.

“She’s the reason I wake up every day and bring the passion that I do to everything in my life,” Foster says.

The sport offered Foster an outlet into which he could channel his emotion and anger. That was enough to get by at first. But just getting by wouldn’t be enough forever, not even as Foster developed into a top 100 prospect sought by programs from coast to coast. At some point he’d have to give to football what he took from it to get the most out of it. That point seemingly arrived last winter.


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​Ability was never an issue. After starter Marion Grice was injured in a November win over UCLA last year, Foster became the lead back for the final three games of the season. He posted a 124-yard day against Arizona, accounted for 7.8 yards per carry and two touchdowns in a blowout loss to Stanford and then racked up 132 yards in a Holiday Bowl defeat against Texas Tech. Production just didn’t necessarily translate into comprehension, given his wide range of responsibilities.

“Besides the quarterback, he’s probably second mentally with what he has to know,” running backs coach Bo Graham says. “We line him up everywhere, so he has quite a bit on his table. This year, it’s been the first time where that hasn’t gotten to him. He’s comfortable with the moving around and all the different plays. Now he’s talking in more detail about the protections, the different things we ask him to do.”

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Wednesday practice is third-down day for the Sun Devils offense. This includes planning blitz pick-up, for which Bo Graham cut up film. By the time the running backs meet, Foster had watched the film and compiled a list of fine-tuned questions. You think this guy is a “green dog”? On this push call, am I working right or left? “He’ll surprise me sometimes, with things I have to go over,” Bo Graham says.

It wasn’t the only offseason mental adjustment. Foster’s emergency reintroduction to running back last fall reminded him of the physical toll the position exacts. “That first game, when Marion got injured, it felt like it’s been years since I had that many carries,” Foster says. “Once you get popped a few times by an inside linebacker, your mindset starts going, ‘OK, this is it, this is time to run the ball, run with some power.’ You’re not necessarily as finesse as you would be in the slot. It’s time to run the ball and do the dirty work.”

To gird his body for that, Foster added 10 pounds of lean muscle mass. He also built his endurance through grinds like Arizona State’s agility circuit -- seven or eight seconds of activity followed by 15 to 20 seconds of rest, repeated to replicate the pace of football action. “The more weight you put on, the harder it is to tempo,” Bo Graham says. “He found his balance.” As a result, Foster found himself primed to be a contentious runner. During preseason camp, Foster broke through the first level of defense and came upon his roommate, Jordan Simone, in the secondary. Simone planned to tag off on his buddy. Foster had less compromising intentions.

“We knocked heads and I was like, Whoa,” Simone says. “He just brought it. I was like, 'All right, that’s what it feels like.'”

Foster’s new diligence about physical recovery followed. Hence the salt baths, the ice tub visits, the pair of dumbbells he keeps in his bedroom for muscle maintenance, the… pedicures? “He’s got my rookies, my freshmen, going to get their toes done or something,” Bo Graham says. “I’m serious. I saw something on their Instagram a couple weeks ago and I started giving them a hard time. They said, ‘We have to take care of our feet, coach.’”

“He's got skin like a baby,” says quarterback Mike Bercovici, another roommate who is now the starter while Taylor Kelly misses time with a right foot injury. “I've never see someone who rushes the ball times 25 or 30 times a week and still has baby skin.”

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Foster’s father, who at almost 54 years old still plays baseball in an over-35 league, badgered his son about being responsible with his body. The message at last sunk in.

“I’m not the biggest running back in the world,” Foster says. “I do have to do a lot of extra stuff to make sure my body is refurbished week in and week out.”

It has put Foster in the best spot of his football career, which requires him to be mindful of perspective and the advice of his late sister. So he was the guy Bo Graham could hear through his headset as the Sun Devils crushed Weber State and New Mexico in the first two weeks of the season, whistling and coaching the younger running backs once his work was done. He was the guy who cleaned the apartment kitchen on Saturday while his roommates watched their brand-new television. When Simone offered help, Foster told his roommate to just relax on the couch.

He’s the star who absorbs his roommates’ clowning -- Simone once said Foster had five coloring books that he stayed up all night coloring -- while running on higher ground.

“I wish I could give you some stories about Jordan and Mike,” Foster says, “but I’m a better friend than that.”

Arizona State enters its defining stretch Thursday, with three straight games against teams currently in the top 25: Home against UCLA, at USC on Oct. 4, home against Stanford on Oct. 18. The Sun Devils likely have to survive the first two without Kelly, who threw for six touchdowns in the first two-plus games before his injury and was a second-team All-Pac-12 passer last year. If they do, it almost certainly will be due to Foster, who may barrel into Heisman Trophy consideration in the process.

He may take this all in stride, but Foster evidently takes it serious enough. In practice Monday, Foster ran a seven-cut -- a corner route -- and the ball was slightly overthrown. He dove after it. The coaching staff, meanwhile, lost it. The fear of injury had them spooked. They told Foster that they appreciated the effort and they knew he’d make the catch in a game. They also said maybe he ought to pull back a little bit on a practice incompletion no one would remember.

Foster took that in, then offered his counterargument. There’s only one way I can go, he told them, in no uncertain terms.