Reuben Droughns stared at the gun barrel pointed at him and heard the cop yell, "Freeze!" But he couldn't stop squirming. He was 15, a stocky kid crammed into the cluttered backseat of a stolen sedan as his older brother Robert and a friend fled the scene. The trio had been joyriding around their Anaheim neighborhood when a squad car chased them down, but Reuben couldn't escape because his door had jammed. He kept fidgeting. And the officer kept pointing the pistol and shouting. Freeze! Freeze! Seconds later, two shots rang through the chilly night air. ¬∂ Reuben wailed as he glanced at his right leg but quickly realized that the bullets had pierced a laundry bag next to him. It was the most frightening moment of his young life. That is, until his mother, Crystal Harris, charged into the juvenile holding area the following morning. She glared at Reuben and Robert before removing her coat and beating the boys.
This is an article from the Nov. 29, 2004 issue
The message Reuben gleaned from his wild night was this: He could do better. His three older brothers had experienced troubled childhoods, but Reuben had a different vibe. He wrote poetry and was a starter as a sophomore on the varsity football team, and when he carried the pigskin, nobody could stop him. He had a chance to be something special. And eventually he was, becoming the first member of his immediate family to attend a four-year college. (He's a semester shy of getting a degree.)
On Sunday, Droughns (pronounced DRONES) showed again what a little hard work and a lot of faith can do for a man. In the Denver Broncos' 34-13 win over the New Orleans Saints, Droughns opened the scoring with a 51-yard touchdown run and finished with 166 yards on 28 carries.
When the season began the 26-year-old Droughns was the Broncos' little-known fullback, primarily a blocker who in his first four pro seasons gained all of 97 rushing yards. Now Droughns is one of the NFL's biggest surprise stories. Injuries to running backs Quentin Griffin, Garrison Hearst and Tatum Bell pressed Droughns into duty as the starter on Oct. 10, and he has responded in fine fashion. He ran for 193 yards against the Carolina Panthers, 176 against the Oakland Raiders, 110 against the Cincinnati Bengals and 120 against the Houston Texans. Despite getting only two carries in Denver's first three games, Droughns has already piled up 844 yards for the 7-3 Broncos.
The simple explanation for his success would be that he's just another back thriving in an offense that has churned out 1,000-yard rushers like Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis, a system that has had only one season without a 1,000-yard back since 1995. And in part that's true. Droughns, who had demonstrated some big-play capability returning kickoffs (25.2 yards per return), is a good fit for the system. "My success is really a combination of the offense and my talents," Droughns says. "The scheme works because they only want a guy to make one cut and get upfield, and that's what I do well. They're not looking for Barry Sanders. They only want somebody who can get the tough yards."
Droughns sharpened his vision and instincts while playing fullback, leading the running backs into the holes. He's a violent runner for a man listed at 5'11", 207 pounds, a player who competes with a visible hunger. "Droughns is physical and he's tough," says Carolina strong safety Mike Minter. "When Terrell Davis was running there [in Denver], one hit didn't take him down, and Droughns is the same way. He runs downhill."
Of course nobody saw this coming. Droughns doesn't have great speed or quickness and wasn't taken until the third round of the 2000 NFL draft. After two lackluster seasons with Detroit, he signed as a free agent with Denver but couldn't persuade the Broncos to give him a shot at running back. He would sit in meetings and talk about his talent, but his teammates merely chuckled. When he boasted about the big games he had at Oregon, Denver special teams coach Ronnie Bradford quipped that he really couldn't remember when Droughns played for the Ducks. Droughns didn't help his case in practice, either. Once, on a rare carry, he stumbled and fell just as a hole opened. "Once the coaches saw that," says Broncos safety Nick Ferguson, "I think they decided to just let Reuben block."
He did earn the coaches' respect, though, with his effort on special teams. "I realized that running backs come a dime a dozen so I had to find a way to contribute," he says. "If not, I would've been working a nine-to-five job, and I wasn't ready for that." Coach Mike Shanahan says he eventually decided to use him at fullback because "Reuben was big enough, strong enough and wanted to do it enough that we had to get him on the field."
Still looking for more carries, though, Droughns, a free agent, shopped around for another team last off-season, but those most interested in him--the Raiders, the Browns and the Texans--also saw him only as a fullback. He decided to stay in Denver after a phone conversation in March with Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Says Droughns, "I told him all I wanted was a chance to run the ball more. I didn't need 20 or 30 touches. I just wanted a couple more chances a game. He said they were making changes to the fullback position, so he possibly could get me that much."
Not that Droughns really wanted to leave Denver in the first place. He had met his fiancée, Kellie McFalls, there and had grown accustomed to the place. Stability was vital because most of his life had been about chaos. Reuben says his coaches at Anaheim High routinely offered him cash when he didn't have money to buy a meal, but that he wouldn't accept it without first promising to clean a classroom as repayment. He frequently lived with friends because at home the electricity was sometimes disconnected or police might be banging on the front door. Through it all, though, Droughns somehow remained optimistic. "He always lived for the future," says Allen Carter, who coached Droughns at Anaheim High. "His mind was always on what he could do if he ever got an opportunity."
That opportunity would come through football--Droughns found surrogate fathers and brothers in his coaches and teammates--but it wouldn't come easily. Droughns excelled as a running back at Anaheim High but poor SAT scores forced him to attend Merced (Calif.) College instead of Oregon, which had recruited him. He was so ashamed at letting down his friends that he didn't even say goodbye to most of them when he left town. A few days after his high school graduation, he tossed a dingy duffel bag into the back of an old pickup truck belonging to another Merced recruit, hopped into the passenger's seat and rumbled off to his new life.
Though he was honorable mention All-America his first season at Merced and first-team All-America his second, when he finally arrived at Oregon in 1998 he acted as if he had found heaven. He was so giddy after the team's equipment man gave him a pair of official team sweats that "you couldn't get those things off him for weeks," says former Ducks assistant Tom Osborne. Droughns was equally thrilled with being made an immediate starter. He averaged 164.8 yards in his first five games, then ran for 172 and scored a touchdown at UCLA, playing much of that game with a fractured right fibula and extensive ligament damage to his ankle. He stayed in the game only because his family was in the stands to watch him for the first time since high school.
He gained 2,058 yards in two seasons at Oregon but suffered a separated right shoulder his rookie year with Detroit and spent the 2000-01 season on injured reserve. Once Droughns signed with Denver, he only wanted to get on the field consistently. Anywhere. Wherever Droughns lined up, his attitude was simple: He was going to make a play any way possible.
Even though he's now the featured back in Denver, Droughns has shown no proclivity for the role of prima donna. He still wants to contribute on special teams. "Reuben has become another star in this system," says Broncos wideout Rod Smith, "but he also has a certain attitude and work ethic." Before Droughns's first start at tailback, against Carolina, fullback Mike Anderson urged him to stay relaxed on the field, but he didn't need any help. He felt like he was back at Oregon as he carried the ball 30 times. He had 38 attempts the following week against Oakland and even exchanged insults with Raiders defensive end Warren Sapp, calling him "washed up."
This is Droughns's time to shine. Old coaches and friends are calling to congratulate him. Fans recognize him in public. Venders peddle his number 34 jersey. But those things don't matter to him nearly as much as having the opportunity to show that he really is special. "I'm out to prove that I'm not a fluke," he says. "I want everybody to see that I can run the ball in this league for a long time."