Smallest Player Could Make Biggest Difference In New Orleans
Justin Forsett will be the smallest player at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday night.
He's used to that. "I've always been the smallest, shortest on the team since I was a kid," Forsett said yesterday.
And the more we see Justin and his offensive teammates on the field in that earsplitting, crazed environment, the better our chances of beating the Saints. Because when Joe Flacco is trying to be heard calling a play, Drew Brees, another "smallish" player who is an "elite" quarterback in the NFL, will be on the sideline watching.
Forsett is writing one of the best stories in the league this season. His 5.42 yards per carry is tops among all NFL running backs. And, only the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray, with 10 and 35, has more 20- and 10-yard runs than Justin's eight and 24 in those categories.
Amazing for a back who was described by local media as a long shot, contingency-plan-for-Ray Rice, undersized player when we signed him last April.
Justin was used to that. No matter how accomplished he was, he never received the next reward for his efforts.
Productive … And Overlooked
As a high school senior at Grace Prep outside Dallas, Forsett rushed for 2,560 yards and 38 touchdowns, leading his team to a state championship among private schools. "I attended all the football camps at Texas, Texas A&M and the big colleges in the state after my junior year so the coaches could see me in person."
It didn't work. Not one of those big-time programs offered him a scholarship. "They didn't believe I was durable enough or big enough for Division I. There was always a box somebody wanted to put me in," Forsett explained.
With help from his prep coach, Justin sent his football video to schools "up and down the west coast."
California came calling. "Cal got back to me. A scholarship opened up, and they offered it to me. They already had some success with a smaller-type back."
He arrived at Cal with another freshman running back – Marshawn Lynch. The two played some as freshmen, but mostly watched J.J. Arrington, who became a second-round choice of the Arizona Cardinals a year later.
"I got my chance when Marshawn left after our junior seasons," Forsett said. He more than took advantage of this opportunity. He made All-Pac-10 after running for 15 touchdowns and averaging 119 rushing yards per game. He didn't just pile up yards against weaker teams, he rushed for 164 yards against Southern Cal and 150 yards versus Oregon State, which at the time led the nation in rush defense.
He then confidently waited for the NFL Draft, inspired by his agent who believed Justin would be taken by the end of the third round. "It got to be around the fifth round, and I was so tired from worrying, I took a nap. In the last round (seventh), teams like Buffalo and the Vikings called to recruit me to their teams as a free agent. My dad was on the phone with the Bills when the Seahawks drafted me in the seventh."
More Disappointments And A Family Crisis
"I made the opening-day roster in Seattle," Forsett recalled. "Then they cut me to try to get me to the practice squad, but Indianapolis claimed me. Four, five weeks later, the Colts cut me."
"At that point I was like, 'Wow what's going on here? I'm a rookie, and I've been cut twice within a month.' My mom, who is doing well now, had cancer, and I had been sending money home to help with treatment and insurance. It was heart crushing."
Surprise! Seattle re-signed Justin, and he finished that season as the Seahawks' punt and kick returner. "They also had me on the kickoff coverage team, and my job was to bust the four-man wedge that is no longer allowed in the NFL. That was hard, but I was going to be the best at it – I made it important – because my mom's cancer was back, and I had to stick with this team.
Forsett lasted another three seasons (2009-2011) with the 'Hawks, starting just seven games during that span. Once again, he was playing behind Lynch. In 2012, the Texans and Head Coach Gary Kubiak came calling, and Justin signed with Houston. He played in all 16 games, but was a backup to another Pro Bowler, Arian Foster.
When the Texans didn't re-sign him, Forsett headed to Jacksonville a year ago as a backup to Maurice Jones-Drew, another Pro Bowler. Things started badly for Justin in Florida. "I developed turf toe in camp and missed all of the preseason. When I got healthier, I was at the bottom of the depth chart, and I was running [the] scout team [in practice], begging the coaches to give me another chance. It didn't come, but I worked hard trying to show them," the determined athlete told me.
When the season ended, the Jaguars released Forsett. He was out of the NFL once again.
Newsome Not Sold – Originally
"I didn't see it," Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome said on Wednesday when he was asked what he was thinking when scouting Forsett early last April. "Harbs and Gary liked him, but when I watched the tape from Jacksonville, I didn't see the same quickness Justin had shown earlier in his career. We knew he was a high-caliber guy.
"But, we were flirting with Chris Johnson at the time, and then he signed with Rex and the Jets," Newsome continued. "In the end, we trusted Gary that Justin was a good fit for the offense we were installing. Once he got here, and the OTAs started, we saw that quickness I didn't see on film. It turns out that Justin was fighting through some injuries last season, including his toe, and that was slowing him down in Jacksonville.
"We're happy we signed him. He fits what we're doing. He's quick and decisive in the hole. He's an outstanding pass protector – really good for a smaller player. And, he has brought leadership and maturity to the locker room," Newsome said.
Forsett repeated a phrase I saw him use in a recent interview: "I don't live for people's acceptance, because then you'll die from their rejection. … It was a dark point in my life when I felt rejected by Jacksonville. That's an unstable way of living. I just realized that my peace comes from my faith, and everything else I'm no longer worried about."
Forsett then talked about how "blessed I am to be in Baltimore and play for a team with a man like Coach Harbaugh, who builds a family atmosphere here where everyone is respected for who they are."
That reminded me of a training camp conversation with Harbs. As I waited to grab John for a post-practice press conference, he was talking with Forsett. When they finished, the head coach asked me: "Have you spent any time with Justin?" My sarcastic reply was: "Should I? Is he going to make the team?" John smiled, "He will, and he will help. He's a good player and maybe a better person."
We're fortunate to have Justin Forsett, who will be the smallest player on the field Monday night, and he just might play the biggest role for the Ravens.
Let's beat the Saints!
Talk with you next week,
P.S. Justin admitted he is not the best athlete in his family. "My wife [Angie] is," he said. They met at Cal, where Angie was a standout on the volleyball team. So good, in fact, she also played on the U.S. National Team. (Her father is former NBA standout Paul Pressey, currently an assistant coach for the Lakers.) "Ang" will be watching Monday's game with the couple's son, Judah, who will be two years old on New Year's Eve. Watch the attached video of Judah seeing Dad score a touchdown on TV.
P.P.S. Justin has written columns for The Sporting News. Here are links to a few of his thoughtful, well-written pieces.