Star of Stars Marshall Faulk is the best player in the game, but the Rams' running back didn't truly shine until he had his great awakening

September 02, 2001

Marshall Faulk is not a rocket scientist, but sometimes he tries
to think like one, and on occasion the St. Louis Rams' luminous
running back has been known to contemplate celestial conundrums
rather than chill like a typical pro football star. Yet it
wasn't long ago that Faulk's idea of the big picture was a
close-up image of himself. To appreciate his personal expansion,
and how he emerged from the ashes of his snuffed stardom to
become the best player in his sport, you have to go back to a
chilly Monday afternoon on the last day of November 1998, when
Faulk sat in a small, nondescript office at the Indianapolis
Colts' training facility and discovered the largest truth of his
professional life.

In a meeting room minutes earlier Faulk and his teammates had
watched videotape of their 38-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens the
previous afternoon. Deep into a miserable season, the Colts had
been given a chance to salvage some dignity in the city the
franchise had abandoned 14 years earlier, and much of the footage
played out like a Faulk highlight reel. In the first quarter
alone he silenced a bitter Baltimore crowd by scoring on a
34-yard reception and a 68-yard run to stake Indianapolis to a
17-3 lead. With 1:13 left Faulk had a career-best 192 rushing
yards and seven catches for 75 more, yet his team now trailed by
seven points. On second-and-one from the Ravens' 24, Colts rookie
quarterback Peyton Manning threw high to Faulk in the flat. The
ball slipped through Faulk's hands, caromed off his helmet and
was intercepted. Game over.

Watching the play on tape, Faulk braced himself for a scolding.
Not only did he feel he should have caught the pass, but he also
knew he had run a poor route, breaking it off four yards past the
line of scrimmage rather than the designed six. Sure enough,
coach Jim Mora paused the tape to point out Faulk's error,
growling, "Marshall, we've got to have you run the f------- route
the way you're supposed to." For a moment a feeling of defiance
washed over the running back.

Faulk was a player who had been known to snipe back at critical
coaches, but following Mora's rebuke, he merely slumped in his
seat. The pressure began to build in his head, and he felt a deep
sense of embarrassment and remorse. By the time he entered the
office of running backs coach Gene Huey, Faulk understood the
scope of his mistake. After eight years of carrying himself like
a star--the first three as a record-setting runner at San Diego
State, the next five in Indianapolis--he felt like the smallest
dust particle in the cosmos.

For several minutes Faulk sat in Huey's office and cried like a
guest on Oprah. "I was crushed," he recalls. "I mean, crushed. I
knew that what Coach Mora had said was right, that I had let my
teammates down, and I knew I never wanted to experience that
feeling again. In the past, I would have responded, 'Look at the
stats--what more could I have done?' This time I knew it wasn't
about that. My neglect had affected the team's ability to win. It
had probably happened before, but this was the first time I felt
accountable. It was the first time I really cared."

Huey told Faulk not to despair, that his ability to bounce back
from such distress would make him a better player and person.
Faulk's resolve would be tested less than three weeks later, when
on the night before a game against the Seahawks in Seattle, Mora
accused him of arriving late for a team meeting and benched him
for the start of the game. The next spring he was traded to the
Rams, a franchise that had been the most feeble in the NFL in the
'90s and had a reputation as dubious as his. Players, coaches and
staffers in St. Louis had heard the whispers--Faulk was a cancer
at worst, a moody, me-first prima donna at best--and steeled
themselves for the drama that was sure to unfold.

What St. Louis got instead was perhaps the smartest, most
talented and least selfish running back in the game. In two
seasons with the Rams the 28-year-old Faulk has won a Super Bowl
ring, the NFL MVP award and the respect of his teammates. In '99
he became only the second player in league history to gain 1,000
yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same year, joining
former San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig. Faulk also
set an NFL record with 2,429 yards from scrimmage and helped St.
Louis live out a worst-to-first fantasy. Last season, despite
missing two games with a right knee injury, he scored an
NFL-record 26 touchdowns and was voted the league's MVP.

Dick Vermeil, who was the St. Louis coach in '99, believes Faulk
belongs in the company of Jim Brown, Walter Payton, O.J. Simpson,
Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Red Grange and anyone else whose
name comes up when the best runners of all time are discussed.
"To talk about the great backs and not include him is a mistake,"
says Vermeil, who now coaches the Kansas City Chiefs. "I've been
around some great players, and he's better--he's an elite player."

Rams coach Mike Martz, who replaced Vermeil after the '99 season,
has constructed one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history
around Faulk, whom Martz regards as not only a great player but
also a "very good friend" and a leader in whom he has "complete
trust." That faith extends to the sideline during a game, when
Faulk will suggest adjustments, and to the locker room, where
Faulk is sensitive to intrasquad issues. "He has brought things
to my attention that I wasn't aware of, and he's honest with me,"
says Martz, who last year had to deal with tension between
offensive and defensive players. "His perspective is so mature,
and it's amazing how dead-on his opinions have been."

It would be one thing if Faulk had merely transformed himself
into an agreeable coach's pet, but Martz's Faulkophilia is the
norm in St. Louis. Echoing the words of more than a dozen current
or former Rams players interviewed for this story, quarterback
Kurt Warner says Faulk is "a guy who's on top of everything in
his life, someone I would feel comfortable going into business
with or taking advice from. I had heard all the rumors about how
he was standoffish or hard to get along with, or worse. All I can
say is that he was the complete opposite when he came to the
Rams. We're grateful to have him."

Faulk, too, is thankful for his good fortune. He is exactly where
he wants to be, though it often seems as if he had to travel
light years to get there.

Who needs a reporter when you've got Kevin Nardone? He's a
likable 13-year-old from Coral Springs, Fla., who is attending
the Offense-Defense Football Camp in nearby Davie. Faulk, who
spends much of his off-season in Fort Lauderdale, is a guest
counselor, and wherever he goes on this June afternoon, Kevin
follows, peppering the running back with questions about his
career, his outlook on life, even his insecurities. Faulk and his
poker-faced stare, says Chiefs defensive back Jason Belser, his
friend and former Colts teammate, "could intimidate a Secret
Service agent." But not Kevin. He asks 20 questions and gets
maybe 35 words in response, total, until Faulk asks, "Who are
you, [the kid in] Almost Famous?"

That Kevin breaks through is not surprising. As unapproachable as
he can seem to adults, Faulk, who survived a trouble-prone
adolescence while growing up in New Orleans's scary Desire Street
housing project, extends himself to children. He speaks with
purpose about his foundation, which targets inner-city kids and
offers them incentives for educational and community achievement.
Faulk, who has never been married, has three sons, and while he
says he provides for them financially and is involved in their
lives, he refuses to otherwise talk about them. ("It's none of
anybody's business," he says. "I don't want my kids to have any
additional pressures because of their dad.")

Kevin's persistence seems to resonate with the ever-curious
Faulk, who, during a minicamp in June 2000, engaged in an
unlikely exchange with a NASA consultant who had addressed the
team at Martz's invitation. The speech was about the concept of
max Q, the point at which the pressure created by a spacecraft's
velocity and the surrounding air density is the greatest. If a
vessel can withstand this strain while zooming away from Earth,
it will go into orbit; if not, it can be blown to pieces. The
message ran along these lines: If everybody is operating at an
optimal level at the same time, the team can accomplish great
things. After the speech Faulk approached the NASA rep to talk
about more technical issues. "If it takes all these circumstances
to get a rocket to the moon," Faulk said, "then tell me this:
Without the benefit of launching from the Earth's atmosphere, how
in the hell do you get back?"

So, yes, Faulk can appreciate a boy's curiosity, and when it
comes time to give Kevin's group on-field instruction, he pulls
the lanky defensive end aside. "You ask a lot of questions,"
Faulk says. "I'll bet your coaches don't like that." Kevin nods
as Faulk continues. "Coaches don't want you to think at this
level, because it slows you down," he tells Kevin. "But as you
get older, you'll find that you need to ask a lot of questions to
grow as a player."

Kevin, however, is more interested in understanding Faulk's
feelings, and he touches a nerve when he asks, "What was it like
getting traded?" Faulk appears to ignore the question, turning to
watch an 11-on-11 drill. "Did you feel abandoned by the Colts?"
Kevin asks.

Ten seconds pass before Faulk answers. "You know what it was
like?" he says. "It was like getting adopted." The word hangs
there, and this rich and famous athlete appears to have the boy's
sympathy. Then Faulk finishes: "By millionaires." He wasn't just
trying to get a laugh. As far as he had come in the maturing
process when the Rams acquired him two days before the 1999 draft
for second- and fifth-round picks, Faulk did not fully embrace
the concept of putting the team first until he landed with St.
Louis, a team whose leadership structure he respected.

Thrust into the spotlight since the day in September 1991, when,
as a San Diego State freshman, he came off the bench to run for
386 yards, an NCAA record at the time, and score seven touchdowns
against Pacific, Faulk was weary of fame by the time the Colts
made him the second choice in the '94 draft. He was an instant
success in the NFL as well, rushing for 1,282 yards to win
Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and being named MVP of the
Pro Bowl after running for a record 180 yards. (Faulk arrived 10
minutes before kickoff, after wrecking his rented sports car on a
rain-slick street and hitching a ride to Aloha Stadium.) Then his
fortunes started to change. He ran for 1,078 yards and earned
another Pro Bowl berth in '95, yet he missed all but one play of
Indianapolis's stirring postseason run to the AFC Championship
Game, with a strained left knee.

The next season, in week 2, Faulk broke his right big toe, which
swelled considerably. He sat out three of the next five games,
wore a size 11 1/2 shoe on his right foot (as opposed to the 10
1/2 on his left) and gained only 587 yards that year. Doctors
advised him to stay off the foot during the off-season, but even
after the rest, Faulk says the toe continued to nag him through
the first half of the '97 season. Although he gained 1,054 yards
that year, he wasn't the same back.

With his physical gifts diminished, Faulk had to rely on finesse
and guile. "I learned how to play the game a different way, to
think my way around the field," he says. "Then, once I was
healthy, I was reading plays so much quicker than before yet
moving at my previous speed, and it felt like I had an unfair
advantage." Faulk pressed his advantage throughout '98,
accounting for 43.5% of the offense (1,319 yards rushing plus 908
yards on 86 receptions), the highest percentage for any player in
the league.

However, the climate surrounding the team had changed, beginning
in December 1997 with the hiring of president Bill Polian and,
three weeks later, Mora. With the first pick in the 1998 draft,
the Colts took Manning, gave him a six-year, $47.8 million
contract and started shaping the offense around him. Polian also
brought in a pair of high-priced cornerbacks, free agent Jeff
Burris (five years, $20 million) and, via trade, Tyrone Poole
(four-year extension worth up to $20 million).

With the rookie passer starting all 16 games, Indianapolis
wheezed through a 3-13 season, during which Burris and Poole were
subpar. While he was excited about the team's potential, Faulk,
in the fifth season of the seven-year, $17.2 million contract he
signed as a rookie, took the fallback stance to look out for
number 28. His agent, Rocky Arceneaux, told Polian late in the
'98 season that Faulk wouldn't return the next year without an
upgraded deal. "I didn't feel like I was underpaid," Faulk says.
"I felt like we had guys who were overpaid. When a team brings
you in, the one thing you have to do is to justify the money
they're paying you. If you don't do that, you lose credibility,
and you get the person who brought you in making excuses for
you."

Faulk became more embittered the night before the game at
Seattle, as he closed in on his 1,000-1,000 goal and a chance to
finish among the top five in the league in rushing. According to
Arceneaux, achieving the latter would have allowed Faulk to void
the final two years of his contract, making him an unrestricted
free agent. That night Faulk was sitting outside a banquet room
at the team's hotel, going over his notes while waiting for what
he thought was a special teams meeting to end in that room. He
recalls entering the meeting room at 8:28, two minutes before he
thought the full-squad meeting was to begin, only to discover
that it had already started. Mora, Faulk says, called him outside
and told him, "You're late. You're not starting tomorrow." Faulk
merely shrugged. "Just like a drill sergeant, the coach can make
his own rules," he says now.

Belser, who played for the Colts from 1992 through 2000, says he
and many of his teammates were stunned when Faulk told them what
had happened. "He wasn't late," Belser says. "A lot of guys
wanted to go to the coaches and vouch for him, but he told us,
'There's a game to be played; don't make it a problem.'"

(Polian and Mora declined to be interviewed. "The points of this
matter as portrayed to us do not square with the facts as we
remember them," Colts spokesperson Craig Kelley says. "It serves
no purpose to address these matters now. We do wish Marshall the
best.")

Held out for the first quarter of the Seattle game, an
out-of-sorts Faulk gained only 19 yards on 13 carries, caught
four passes for 16 yards and, uncharacteristically, lost a
fourth-quarter fumble that helped doom Indianapolis to defeat. In
the season finale the following week Faulk carried 18 times for
72 yards in a loss to the Carolina Panthers. He wound up sixth in
the NFL rushing rankings, 13 yards behind fifth-place Emmitt
Smith. Faulk wanted out. Polian granted Arceneaux permission to
shop for a trade, and Faulk listed his preferences. "Stay in the
AFC, play on grass, warm climate, play for a winner," Arceneaux
recalls. "I went 0 for 4."

Despite Arceneaux's efforts to land Faulk in locales such as
Baltimore and Oakland, Polian struck the deal with the Rams, who
had suffered through nine straight losing seasons, including
eight with at least 10 losses. Suffice it to say that Faulk
wasn't singing "Meet me in St. Louis" when Vermeil--not
Polian--called to break the news. "If Cincinnati hadn't been in
the AFC," Faulk says, "the Colts would've sent me there." Two
days later Indianapolis drafted his replacement, Edgerrin James.

Still without a new contract, Faulk put aside his bad feelings
once he arrived at a postdraft minicamp, listened to the
philosophy of Martz, the offensive coordinator at the time, and
saw the talent around him. If he wanted to be a team player, here
was a team and a system positioned to exploit his skills. (Four
months later, in August '99, he would sign a seven-year, $45.15
million deal.) "A lot of what we do has evolved because of who
Marshall is," Martz says. "Getting him was like taking the
handcuffs off." Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders, the
Rams' receivers coach in '99 and 2000, says Faulk "was like the
queen on the chessboard. You can do some damage with your knights
and bishops, but nobody does more damage than the queen."

Faulk has speed, quickness and uncanny vision; he is equally
effective running inside or outside; and he protects the ball
like the Iraqis shield Saddam Hussein. (Over the past two seasons
he fumbled twice in 506 carries.) Like many backs Faulk, who
averaged 85 receptions over the last three years, is dangerous
when catching the ball out of the backfield, often exploiting
matchups with linebackers and safeties. What sets him apart is
that he can also line up as an extra receiver and beat a
nickelback. "There are times when you watch the film, and it's
hard to see the [jersey] numbers," says Mora's son Jim, the
49ers' defensive coordinator. "You see a guy who releases like a
wide receiver, and you think it may be [All-Pro] Isaac Bruce.
Then you say, 'Whoa, 28--it's Marshall.'"

So Martz, a risk taker, is like an aggressive stock trader with
unlimited funds. When he uses a two-back offense, Martz often
isolates Faulk against a linebacker. When teams send in extra
defensive backs to contend with the multiple-receiver sets,
they're vulnerable to Faulk's rushes. More and more defenses are
double-teaming Faulk, which makes sense until you consider that
Bruce, Torry Holt and Az-Zahir Hakim are three of the league's
most explosive receivers, and no quarterback can hang in the
pocket and hit the open man better than Warner. It's little
wonder that St. Louis, with 526 points in '99 and 540 last year,
has produced two of the four highest-scoring seasons in NFL
history.

"Man, it should be a crime for a team to load up like that on
offense," says New York Giants inside linebacker Mike Barrow.
"You know how Lawrence Taylor changed the way offenses had to
block him in the '80s? Marshall is the offensive equivalent.
Because of him, the Tennessee Titans put in a package--and other
teams have copied it, including us--with three down linemen and
seven defensive backs."

Scheming alone, though, won't contain Faulk; just ask the New
Orleans Saints. Last December, with the Rams needing a victory to
keep their playoff hopes alive, the Saints spent most of the game
in nickel alignments. Faulk scorched them for a career-best 220
yards on 32 carries and added 41 yards on seven catches.

It gets deeper. Not only is Faulk a fearless and selfless
blocker--he chipped Titans end Jevon Kearse, permitting Warner
just enough time to complete the 73-yard touchdown pass to Bruce
that gave the Rams their 23-16 victory in Super Bowl XXXIV--but he
grasps pass-protection concepts as well as most linemen. Says
Warner, "One reason we're so good at countering the blitz is that
he understands so well where it's coming from. We've changed our
offense for Marshall because we know he'll pick up any stray
blitzer." Thus, rather than instruct receivers to switch to
shorter routes to counter a blitzer who theoretically won't get
blocked, Martz, Warner says, "will basically tell Marshall,
'You've got the Mike [middle] linebacker if he blitzes, and if he
doesn't come, you've got any secondary blitzer from the weak or
strong side.'"

Sometimes Faulk makes such adjustments on his own. Early in the
Rams' watershed victory over the 49ers in October '99, Faulk
noticed a flaw in the protection scheme as Warner bent under
center and, instead of running a pattern, picked up a blitzing
linebacker. That decision allowed Warner to throw the 13-yard
touchdown pass to Bruce that keyed a 42-20 blowout. When the two
teams met again last October, Faulk went in motion into the left
slot on a play from the 19-yard line as the Niners' defense
scrambled to adjust to the empty-backfield set. While San
Francisco defenders shouted instructions to one another, Faulk
noticed safety Lance Schulters sneaking behind an official in
preparation to blitz. Faulk changed his pattern, and St. Louis's
surprised quarterback, Trent Green, chucked a pass to his
wide-open running back in the middle of the end zone.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Faulk has an idea of what
every player's assignment is on virtually every play. He
describes this sense of what will happen and where to go as
"recognition through repetition." He has a deep-rooted
understanding of player movement from all the meetings he attends
and the film he watches, yet he rarely takes notes and spends the
last minutes before games listening on headphones to a song of
his choosing, over and over. "Once the game begins," he says, "I
play to that song in my head. I run to rhythm, and that allows my
mind to be free."

Sure, Faulk is a football star, but what he really wants to do is
play golf. His postplaying options might include business
ventures (along with a partner, he recently launched a
construction company), work as a sideline reporter or a position
in an NFL front office, but Faulk also has ambitions of reducing
his eight handicap and, at the very least, competing seriously
with the Rick Rhodens of the celebrity golf circuit. In July, for
the fourth consecutive year, Faulk competed in the mini-tour's
preeminent event, the American Century Celebrity Golf
Championship in Stateline, Nev., finishing 45th.

Mingling with the B actors, comedians and other pro athletes and
sports figures, Faulk, who took up the game five years ago, was
as charged up as a kid at a football camp. What's amusing, at
first glance, is that the 5'10", 211-pound Faulk looks more like
an amateur golfer than a pro football player. "If you put him in
a physical showdown with Tiger Woods, I might take Tiger," the
Giants' Barrow says, laughing. "Marshall's got those big hips and
small shoulders. He looks like a pear."

Hours after completing a practice round, Faulk was sitting on the
deck of a rented house just off the course. He had joined a small
gathering on the Lake Tahoe shore as a guest of Jack Irwin, a
pilot who had befriended Faulk during a Rams charter last fall.
Despite being in the middle of an otherwise unfamiliar crowd,
Faulk was at his candid best, gregarious and engaging. As
midnight approached, Faulk put forth the same question he had
posed to the NASA consultant: If leaving the Earth's atmosphere
is such a delicate proposition, how do you calibrate a
spacecraft's speed to ensure its successful takeoff from the
moon? Faulk swore to his rapt audience that the expert could not
answer his question that day.

Faulk associates the U.S.'s putting men on the moon with the plot
of the 1978 movie Capricorn One, in which three astronauts--one
played by an aspiring actor named O.J. Simpson--are ordered to
fake a moon landing for the benefit of a gullible public.
"There's no wind on the moon, right?" Faulk asked his audience.
"Then why is that flag blowing like crazy in that footage [from
the Apollo missions] you always see on TV? I'll tell you
why--because they weren't really there."

It was left to Irwin to explain how a spacecraft can leave the
moon's surface and return to the Earth's orbit. The pilot spoke
of diminished gravity and an absence of drag, then threw out
technical jargon with which Faulk was unfamiliar. "See, this is
what you've been instructed to believe," Faulk told Irwin,
smiling. "You're with them."

Faulk stood up to face the lake. A full moon glistened off its
surface; thousands of stars glimmered above. Then, without
prompting, the most accomplished football player on Earth started
laughing at his own paranoia. Other guests gradually filed back
into the house, but Faulk kept letting out intermittent chuckles,
as if he were enjoying an inside joke with a voice in his head.
He seemed oblivious, uninhibited and, most of all, happy.

It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL COVER Face It Marshall Faulk is the best player in the game COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Despite missing two games last season with a right knee injury, Faulk ran his way into the NFL record book, with 26 touchdowns, and won league MVP honors. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Faulk is one of only two players in NFL history to amass 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Faulk spends much of the off-season in South Florida, where he and some of his recruits tackled the serious business of summer football. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS He piled up the yards during his five seasons in Indianapolis, but as time wore on Faulk realized his relationship with the Colts was going nowhere. COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL O'NEILL As ambitious about golf as he is about football, Faulk, an eight-handicapper, aims to compete with the best players on the celebrity golf circuit.

Faulk is "like the queen on the chessboard," says Saunders.
"Nobody does more damage than the queen."

Barrow says Faulk can affect an opponent's strategy the way
Lawrence Taylor did in the '80s.

As unapproachable as he seems to adults, Faulk, who had a
trouble-prone adolescence, extends himself to children.

"If Cincinnati hadn't been in the AFC," Faulk says of the
lowly Bengals, "the Colts would have sent me there."

Faulk is exactly where he wants to be, though it often seems as
if he had to travel light years to get there.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)