NASHVILLE – On the outside of each of his new light-blue cleats Wednesday, D’Onta Foreman featured images of his children – four-year old daughter Nike on the left shoe, two-year old son Master on the right.
The Tennessee Titans running back also carries the image of a third child – gone five years now -- in his heart.
On the football field, Foreman has become a central figure in the Titans’ offense as it seeks to stay afloat during Derrick Henry’s extended absence. The 2017 third-round pick of the Houston Texans has resuscitated a career that had threatened to fizzle out early, averaging 13 carries and 53 yards over the past four games. He totaled career-bests of 19 carries and 109 yards against a stiff New England defense in Week 12.
“I feel like I’m getting back to how I used to feel, but that was a long time ago,” Foreman said. “I’m definitely getting back comfortable. It’s been fun, man. I’ve been enjoying it.”
The same appears to be true for Foreman off the field, after some challenging years spent in Texas, where he was an All-American for the Longhorns and spent his first two NFL seasons with Houston.
In September of Foreman’s third and final season at the University of Texas, his girlfriend gave birth to a boy the couple named D’Onta Jr. But the child was born prematurely and died just seven weeks later due to an intestinal infection.
On the very day D’Onta Jr. passed, Foreman ran for a career-high 341 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Texas Tech, saying after the game he did it for his son, leaving everything on the field for him. He ran 323 times for 2,028 yards that season at Texas and won the Doak Walker Award as the country’s top running back.
“To lose my firstborn was tough,” Foreman said. “He was named after me and everything. That was definitely tough. It’s still tough today because I still have moments and days where I think about him, and just wish he was here and a part of our family.”
It looked as if Foreman had hit the professional jackpot when he was drafted by Houston, which is just over an hour away from his birthplace, Texas City, Texas.
But the hometown hero story never really materialized.
In July of 2017, just a few months after he was drafted, Foreman was arrested and charged with a couple of misdemeanors – marijuana possession and the unlawful carrying of a weapon. He eventually pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct, a lesser charge, and paid a $500 fine. The other charges were dismissed, and his lawyer said at the time that a friend of Foreman’s claimed ownership of the marijuana.
Then came the injuries.
Foreman saw some success as a rookie in Houston, carrying 78 times for 327 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games. But he suffered a torn Achilles late in the year, an injury that not only sidelined him the rest of 2017 but for nearly all of 2018 as well.
The Texans cut Foreman during training camp in 2019, with the Houston Chronicle reporting the decision was made because of Foreman’s poor work habits. Indianapolis picked up Foreman the next day, but he went on injured reserve with a torn bicep two weeks later and sat out the entire 2019 season.
“I’ve battled with a lot of stuff on and off the field, and that’s also what helped me mature a lot, just take different steps and different approaches to how I approach things,” Foreman said. “I feel like that was years ago. I’ve been in a situation now where I’m pretty healthy and just want to continue to be as healthy as I can be, and also play my style of football.”
Foreman caught on with the Titans last year, earning a promotion from the team’s practice squad and making an impression as Henry’s back-up, carrying 22 times for 95 yards and scoring his first touchdown since 2018.
Franchise officials clearly liked what they saw because they dialed Foreman’s number once again this season following Henry’s injury. He’s carried the bulk of the workload over the past two weeks, running 32 times for 156 yards (4.9-yard average) and a touchdown.
“It was kind of surprising,” Foreman said of his return to Tennessee. “Honestly, once you’re at home for so long, you just never know where a call will come from. But when I got the call, I was excited, very excited.
“I knew that maybe I would have an opportunity to come here and do something. I’ve been granted an opportunity. Thank God for the opportunity, thank the organization for the opportunity and like I said, I just want to capitalize on the opportunity.”
Perhaps the only downside of Foreman’s new job is that it keeps him away from his family, which includes the two young children.
That’s why he now has their smiling faces and their names on his cleats. His daughter’s name, by the way, isn’t as much related to the shoe company as it is to Greek mythology. Nike was considered the goddess of victory. It was also another way of paying homage to his firstborn son.
“It was a sign of victory for my daughter and my family,” Foreman said, “just having a healthy child and being able to see her grow.”
If it sounds as if Foreman may have done some maturing over the years, he certainly won’t deny it. It’s hardly rare, after all, for a person to change in nearly half a decade after college.
“I’ve definitely grown,” Foreman said. “I definitely feel like I’ve matured a lot, learned a lot of stuff on the field and off the field. I’m glad to be here. I’m excited for everything that is in front of me.”
He still, however, looks to the past at times and seeks inspiration from an infant whose life ended all too quickly.
“He’s still with us -- I know he is,” Foreman said of D’Onta Jr. “He’s still proud of me, still looking at me.
“So, I just try to make him as proud as I can, every time I step on the field. And even when I’m off the field, just the way I raise my other kids. Hopefully he sees that I’m a good parent.”