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Reuben Foster, Inside and Outside the Lines

His immense talent—the best linebacker of the Saban era at Alabama—is offset by a litany of off-the-field questions, underlined by his infamous dismissal from the combine two weeks ago. Now the question: Where and when will Foster come off the board on draft night?

Ask former Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster to get up from the interviewee’s seat and explain a blitz on the whiteboard, and you might be unimpressed. Ask him to explain what happened at the hospital in Indianapolis, and you might leave unsatisfied. Ask him about his support network of friends and family, and you might feel unsure.

But if you ask him about Ball, that stuff between the white lines, you just might fall in love.

“There’s that moment,” Foster says though a smile, “when you first hit somebody and you get chills. You hear the crowd say Ooooh. And before that, when you put on your suit and you transform and you become a dog; you’re a beast. Just seeing all the other guys become a dog with you. No stress.”

Foster can’t wait to get back in that moment and move beyond what has been an emotionally taxing pre-draft process. His childhood dream of performing at the NFL scouting combine was derailed by offseason rotator cuff surgery, and his brief stay in Indianapolis, for medical evaluations and interviews with NFL teams, was cut short when he engaged in a heated argument with a hospital employee while waiting in the long line for medical tests at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital.

Two weeks ago, Alabama invited teams to come a day early to its pro day to interview Foster, who was thoroughly prepped and equally contrite.

“The main point I want to get across is that I’m sorry, because it was a dream experience for me to be there at the combine,” Foster says. “And it hurts not to be there, even with me not touching him and just arguing with him. There are plenty of opportunities to let someone take you down. At the end of the day it didn’t do nothing but hurt me. It was a learning experience, a small stepping stone.”

Teams had plenty of other questions for Foster and his coaches and associates: What was the story behind that triple shooting in April at an Auburn nightclub where Foster had been partying? What kind of impact will Foster’s family and friends have on his career once the checks start rolling in? And just how did Foster become the defensive signal caller at Alabama if he’s uncomfortable drawing plays on the board?

He is considered a high-first round talent, one of the best linebackers to come out in years and the most highly regarded to emerge from Tuscaloosa during the Saban era. Yet, at least one NFL team with a selection in the top 15 had already removed Foster from consideration before the incident at the combine.

“He already had immaturity, issues with life skills. This is the same guy,” said an evaluator for the team after Foster was sent home from Indianapolis. “We’re not in the market.”

It’s enough to make you want to put on a suit and transform into someone else, somewhere simpler. “I can’t wait for this all to be over,” Foster says, “so I can settle down and just play football.”

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The angst that has come with the uncertain period between Foster’s final game as a collegian and draft day is a familiar feeling. An Auburn, Ala., native, he had transferred to Auburn High for his senior year and proceeded to flip-flop on college commitments—Alabama to Auburn back to Alabama—during his recruitment. In February 2013, four days after he officially committed to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, Foster’s estranged father was arrested in Miami after 16 years as a fugitive. Danny Foster’s alleged crime? In February 1996, he shot ex-girlfriend Inita Berry Paige and their 19-month-old son, Reuben. Mother and son survived. The elder Foster was indicted by a grand jury that year before he fled to California. When he was arrested and extradited to Randolph County, he managed to escape from county jail that December.

According to police records, Foster used the blade of a hacksaw to breach his cell window. Bizarrely, he left a note for the warden, reading: “Hi there. You didn’t think I’ll ever be out again. I’m sorry but didn’t I tell you that when I get ready to GO, I would let you know and now you know. Thanks, Danny.”

In the months following his 2013 apprehension, Foster’s father started a Twitter account managed by a relative and tried to reach out to his children, including Reuben, who engaged in a back and forth with his Danny long enough to forgive him. Since then, Reuben says he’s had little contact with his father, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison with a earliest release date of July 17, 2035.

“I don’t have no relationship with him,” Reuben says. “He tried to get back in my life when he got caught. I told him I forgave him, and he wrote back saying how sorry he was. Teams have asked about that. But they don’t have to worry because he’s locked up.”

The summer following Danny’s final arrest, Saban welcomed Reuben Foster, the heralded 240-pound, five-star linebacker who was still reeling from the episode. “It was extremely emotional and a very personal thing, and an experience he grew from,” Saban told The MMQB.

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Mentored by senior team captain C.J. Mosley, now of the Baltimore Ravens, as a freshman, Foster progressed to become a hard-hitting, on-field leader for the Tide. He played in a reserve role as a freshman and sophomore. Over his final two seasons, he notched 188 tackles, 21 for loss, with six sacks, becoming Saban’s defensive play-caller as Alabama went 28-2.

Then the draft process began, and the sort of scrutiny Saban warns players about came down on Foster. Saban has pushed back, publicly and privately, against those who have questioned Foster’s maturity, saying last week that teams would find a good teammate in Foster, if not a “candy striper.”

“I don’t think he’s immature at all,” Saban says. “I think he’s an outgoing personality. You might even say when he’s cutting up with his teammates he’s a little silly, but that should not be mistaken for immaturity. He graduated here. We never had a problem with him. He’s easy to talk to and reason with. And he’s not immature at all when it comes to competitive character, getting ready to prepare and play in a game.”

Saban says he hopes Foster’s agent, Malki Kawa, provides a comprehensive support network like the one Foster built at Alabama in order to ease his transition into professional life. Adds Saban: “I think it’s important that he has people around him who will provide him good direction, have good experience and the ability to anticipate what’s happening, so you don’t get these emotional responses to things that are insignificant.”

The major concern with Foster for NFL teams, beyond the off-field questions, is his ability to absorb a playbook. Foster has struggled in interviews with teams who ask him to draw concepts with X’s and O’s. “I’ve been working to get better,” Foster says. “Other people learn different, other people have ADHD, or have a learning disorder. X’s and O’s on boards is hard to do for me. I second-guess myself.”

He performs best when watching film and learning on the field, Saban says. “If you put on the film he’ll be able to tell you chapter and verse because that’s how he learned it.”

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Foster became one of the best linebackers ever at Alabama.

Foster became one of the best linebackers ever at Alabama.

“He was always a kinesthetic learner,” says George Brewer, a former assistant at Troup County High in LaGrange, Ga., where Foster attended until transferring to Auburn High for his senior year. Brewer ran the in-school suspension program at the school and would host Foster while he crammed to catch up with his varsity teammates as a freshman. By the fourth week of the season he was starting at middle linebacker and making defensive checks on a team with multiple blue-chip recruits.

“They said, He’s a freshman, he won’t be able to get it,” Brewer recalls. “He’d [visit Brewer during in-school suspension] and come learn the calls and the reads. Extremely talented; this kid dunked in seventh grade. He was ahead of his age in terms of maturity on the field. Tough? He broke his hand in practice and they put a cast on it, and he never missed a practice. I had some older guys who were the big dogs, but they all respected Reuben because he didn’t take crap from nobody.”

Reuben considered Brewer and Troup County head coach Charles Flowers something like father figures, staying at Brewer’s home “from time to time,” Brewer says, and occasionally working at a sports bar Brewer owned in Atlanta. When Flowers was fired from the school for allegedly recruiting and paying a player, Foster transferred back to Auburn.

That’s when the frenzy surrounding the talented linebacker kicked into high gear. Recruiting gurus Ellis Johnson and Kirby Smart, of Auburn and Alabama, respectively, went to war for the services of the No. 1 player in the state and the No. 1-rated inside linebacker in the country, according to Foster fanned the flames by getting an Auburn tattoo during his verbal commitment to the school before changing his mind. Meanwhile, local police prowled Auburn High games with an eye out for Danny Foster, guessing he might reemerge amidst his son’s rise to fame.

Recruiting ended when Foster committed to Tuscaloosa with his young daughter in tow, wearing a Saban-themed outfit complete with vest and straw hat. The drama subsided until last April. Foster, at that point a star for the Tide, found himself in a nightclub where his friend, Recco Cobb, 43, was among three people shot to death. A relative of Cobb’s, Tarabien Latrent Cobb, 33, was arrested and charged with murder. Police said Foster was present, but not involved.

“Wrong place at the wrong time,” Foster says of the shooting. “You have to be cautious with what you do and what you say. Seeing that changed my mindset. You never know what somebody’s going through. Don’t talk down to nobody. That’s what it came down to. Talking down to somebody—disrespect.”

Saban gave Foster the same talk he has with all his NFL-bound players. The one about accountability, owning up to your mistakes, and limiting the “buts.”

“The things Reuben has dealt with, these are the kinds of things I never had to deal with growing up,” Saban says. “But it’s the kind of thing a lot of these guys have to overcome to fit in the world everyone expects them to fit in, and I think Reuben has made a lot of progress in that regard.

“When they write up your scouting report, they say ‘and’ when they’re talking about all the good things, and they say ‘but’ when they get to the bad. As soon as you enter the draft, everybody is looking for reasons not to draft you.”

Foster provided one more “but” at the combine. He has five more weeks to win back teams around the NFL, then it’s back to ball.

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