The big easy? Try the Big Eyesore. The few tourists who stray into Marshall Faulk's New Orleans neighborhood all want to know the same thing: Mow the hell do I get back to the freeway?
Looking for French Quarter architecture? Sorry. The upper ninth ward is block upon block of two-story, multifamily, redbrick rectangles, many of them abandoned. The ratio of apartments with glass in their windows to those without is roughly one to one. "They used to put aluminum over the busted windows," says Faulk. "But the crack heads would steal it and sell it for scrap." The development is named—with presumably unintended irony—the Desire Project.
Faulk recently drove a visitor through Desire, providing a running commentary as he went: "See that store? One night a guy pulled a gun on me in the parking lot. See that guy? He's a drug dealer." There is no contempt in Faulk's voice. He is not one to pass judgment.
"When I was growing up here, we'd be hanging on a corner and the police would roll around," he says. "They probably just wanted to talk to us, but to make it fun, we'd run." Often the police gave chase. Some aspiring football players attend summer camp. Others play Pop Warner. The adolescent Faulk prepared for his career by outrunning the Crescent City's finest. Whatever works for you.
Clearly it worked for Faulk. As a true freshman at San Diego State last season, Faulk, 18, became the first freshman ever to lead the nation in both rushing (158.8 yards per game) and scoring (15.6 points) average. On Sept. 14, coming off the bench in the Aztecs' second game of the season, against Pacific, he ran for an NCAA single-game-record 386 yards in slightly more than three quarters. (That mark stood for nine weeks, until Kansas senior Tony Sands gained 396 yards against Missouri. Sands needed 58 carries to get his yards, Faulk 37.) In all, Faulk either broke or tied 13 NCAA rushing and scoring records despite missing 3½ games with broken ribs.
But for Faulk, who is the first member of his family to attend college and who plans to major in public administration, gaudy football stats were not enough; he finished his freshman year with a 3.1 grade point average. Faulk and his five older brothers were raised by their mother, Cecile, who worked countless jobs to feed and clothe them. Says Wayne Reese, Faulk's football coach at Carver High in New Orleans, "Basically, Marshall raised himself."
Given that, it is difficult to say which of Faulk's feats, the athletic or the academic, are the more remarkable. While growing up, he ran with bad crowds. He saw the inside of squad cars. Says Reese, not altogether disapprovingly, "Marshall's got some thug in him." To which Faulk might respond, How else can a guy who is 5'10" and 185 pounds score 23 touchdowns in college? "When it's fourth-and-two," he says, "it helps if you have an evil side. On fourth-and-two, I'm Freddy Krueger."
But it is not Faulk's mean streak that grabs one's attention when he runs; it is that burst—closing speed, college coaches call it—that prompted a lot of big-time schools to recruit Faulk as a defensive back. It is that burst that enables Faulk to extricate himself when all seems lost. But when there is nowhere to run, Faulk gleefully attacks his tacklers, as if to make amends for his slight stature.
In the fourth grade Faulk was expelled from an elementary school for punching a girl who had accused him—falsely, he says—of cheating. In the ninth grade Faulk was asked to leave the track team because he was not bearing down in practices. Suddenly he faced a critical juncture. He had nothing to keep him off the streets after school. "I wasn't doing anything," he says, "which is something bad to be doing in this neighborhood."
There were several extralegal forays about which "I'm afraid I can't tell you," Faulk says. "I finally realized it wasn't for me. I decided I'd rather be doing something than nothing, even if that something was something I'd rather not be doing."
Like having to obey some guy with a whistle. Reese is a former Tennessee State halfback with a mantelpiece for a set of shoulders. He has been a coach and a physical-education teacher since 1969, and he knows precisely when he will retire. "The moment I am no longer in control," he says, "I quit."
Reese isn't going anywhere soon. It is a measure of the respect he earns that on a spring morning his players are in the gym at seven o'clock sharp. For 45 minutes they silently run through plays. "Fundamentals" is what Reese calls these early-morning sessions. While their primary purpose is to teach players the basics of football, these dawn assemblies also satisfy a more elemental requirement for Carver's students. The workouts allow them to fill their bellies. When practice is finished, they can enjoy a state-provided breakfast of grits, sausage, biscuits, juice and milk. "The average household income around here is $7,000 a year," says Reese. "If some of these kids didn't eat breakfast at school, they just wouldn't get breakfast."
Into this structured environment wandered Faulk. It saved him. "After two practices a day, all you wanted to do when you got home was sleep," says Faulk.
"Exactly!" says Reese.
Reese told Faulk—as he told all his players who wanted to go on to college—what he would have to do, what courses he would need to take, what grades he would have to pull. Most college coaches (notably those at Miami, Nebraska and LSU) looked at Faulk and saw a corner-back. He has 4.3 speed in the 40, and in his senior year at Carver, where he played both ways, he intercepted 11 passes, six of which he ran back for touchdowns. Yet Faulk insisted on playing tailback. Nebraska coach Tom Osborne charmed everyone at Carver, including Faulk. But when Faulk visited the Lincoln campus, he was shown video of defensive backs. Scratch Nebraska.
"You want to play running back?" asked Curtis Johnson, a hip young recruiter from San Diego State. No problem. Faulk signed with the Aztecs and was one of eight tailbacks in San Diego State's camp last August, penciled in at fifth string. By the time the season started he was on the second team. Back in New Orleans, Reese was getting weekly updates. "He'd call collect every Wednesday night," says Reese. " 'Coach! I'm fifth string! Coach, I'm fourth string! Coach, I'm second string!' "
To Faulk it was only a matter of time before he would start. He was not impressed by the No. 1 tailback, T.C. Wright, about whom he told Reese, "He can't outrun me, he doesn't have that many moves, he can't outcatch me."
Faulk's assessment was brash but accurate. Though reluctant to start a freshman, Aztec coach Al Luginbill bumped Faulk to the top of the depth chart after only four games. He had no choice. Faulk was minding his business on the sideline during the first period of the game against Pacific when Wright broke a 12-yard run. As he was being tackled, he took a helmet hard in the thigh. He limped for the rest of the series. Faulk jogged onto the field for San Diego State's next series and proceeded to amass 129 yards and score two touchdowns—before the half ended. Opportunity had knocked, and Faulk tore the door off the hinges. On his last carry of the game he broke former Indiana tailback Anthony Thompson's two-year-old single-game rushing record of 377 yards. And he did it with a flourish: a 25-yard touchdown gallop, his seventh TD of the day.
At two the next morning Reese was awakened by a phone call. Would he accept a collect call from Marshall? Before he had a chance to say yes, Faulk commenced yelling hysterically. "I kept asking him, 'Marshall, are you all right? Has something happened? What's wrong?' " says Reese. "It didn't sink in, what he'd done, until after he hung up."
When the San Diego media came calling later that morning, Faulk was blasè about his historic performance. "I'm not going to let it sink in too much," he told the San Diego Tribune. "It's only the second game of the year." That must have been Luginbill's sentiment as well: He didn't get around to starting Faulk until San Diego State's fifth game.
The Aztecs had a fine 1991 season, going 8-4-1 and finishing second to BYU in the Western Athletic Conference. San Diego State finished its regular season against Miami, with its ferocious defense. The Aztecs lost 39-12, but Faulk lighted up the Hurricanes for 154 yards, the most any back had gained against Miami since 1987. "And most of those yards he got by himself," says Johnson.
In December, Faulk became only the third freshman ever selected for the AP All-America team. The other two were also running backs, fellows named Dorsett and Walker. One would assume that Faulk might be feeling the pressure to make the huge leap after this season from San Diego State to the NFL. His mother is ill, and Faulk admits that he is eager to make her life easier. But Reese, for one, continues to fret about Faulk and about temptation. "I've lost a lot of good ones," he says, and perhaps that is why he is opposed to Faulk's leaving college early. "I tell him the average life span of an NFL running back is only a few years," he says. "I tell him, 'Marshall, you're not a great big guy. Get your degree.' "
The guided tour over, Faulk pulls up in front of his old high school. It is a sorry sight. The grounds are choked with litter. Graffiti abounds. Benches are missing planks. For the first time Faulk sounds bitter. "They're building new schools east of here and west of here," he says. "But why spend money here? Why do anything in the ghetto? If things work out for me, I will become a supporter of Carver. I will improve these facilities. You come from this type of environment, you can't help but think how much nicer things could be."
Then Faulk gives voice to a singular-ly unthuggish thought: "Giving what you wish you had is even better than getting."