By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 12:45 AM
Jim Bamburg remembers his first conversation with Ryan Torain's mother. Back then, Torain was a gangly but fast teenager at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, outside Kansas City, Kan. And Raedell Shinn was a protective mother, worried about her son's welfare.
"She asked a lot of questions," said Bamburg, the school's head football coach. "She was just worried about him getting hurt. I remember her saying she'd rather he played basketball or baseball. I told her football could be dangerous, but I thought Ryan would be okay."
Shinn was reluctant - "It's such a rough game," she still says today - but she allowed Torain to join the team. Sure enough, Torain would eventually get hurt - often, it turned out. Foot, knee, elbow, knee again. His body always recovered. His career, however, was slower to bounce back.
Torain, 24, will finally get his opportunity Sunday when the Washington Redskins face the Green Bay Packers. Torain will start in place of injured Clinton Portis. His trip to the Redskins' backfield was a long one, filled with bumps, bruises and operating tables.
If he can hold down the spot, he would not only provide a jolt for a Redskins' backfield that has lacked a consistent performer - Portis has just one 100-yard game in the Redskins' past 25 - but he also could become the latest running back that Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan has plucked from nowhere and pushed into the spotlight.
As Denver's head coach, Shanahan found Terrell Davis in the sixth round of the NFL draft. Olandis Gary was hiding in the fourth round, and Mike Anderson in the sixth. All three registered at least one 1,000-yard season for the Broncos.
The Redskins' first-year coach selected Torain in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, but Torain hasn't had a chance for even a sniff at his true potential until this month. His career to this point has been marked mostly by the injuries that have sidelined him.
Torain never started more than eight games in a season at either Butler (Kan.) Community College or Arizona State. With the Broncos, he appeared in only two games, finishing 2008 on injured reserve and then accepting an injury settlement the following year upon his release. With no teams interested in his services, he sat out 2009 and began this season on Washington's practice squad.
No one seems to question his talent. He just needs good health and an opportunity, they say. "The kid is due for some good luck," said James Christian, Torain's former running backs coach at Arizona State.Humble in every way
From locker to locker at Redskins Park, the same words keep popping up: Torain is quiet and nice and humble. "The only thing I hear from him is, 'Thanks,'" said center Casey Rabach. "'Thanks. Good job. Good blocking.'"
It makes his mother laugh. Shinn remembers Torain and his brother Chris wrestling, bouncing all over the house and sapping every ounce of her energy. She raised the two alone.
"I still talk to my father," Torain says. "But he wasn't always there. My mom, she did everything for me and my brother."
When Torain was younger, his father, Brian Torain, faced a series of legal problems: a drug possession arrest, court hearings for failure to pay child support, a bankruptcy filing and multiple evictions, according to court records.
"That was his business. I took the good out of the bad and the bad out of the good," Torain said. "My dad did what he could do, which was give me advice. I took what I got from him and made the best out of it. He's always been a great motivator, always has great energy."
Sports was an important outlet. Early in Torain's high school career, Shinn moved the family from Topeka to Shawnee. That's where Bamburg spotted Torain on the football field.
"We were doing special teams and I couldn't find anybody who wanted to return a punt," Bamburg said. "So I asked if he wanted to give it a try. He took the next five or six back without anybody even touching him."
But the school already was loaded at running back, so Torain contributed as a defensive back and didn't start in the backfield until his senior year. He rushed for more than 1,600 yards despite missing two games because of an injury. Though he caught the eyes of college recruiters, Torain lacked the core class requirements to go to a Division I school. So he headed to Butler.
"He had as good hands as any wide receiver on our team," said Troy Morrell, Butler's head coach. "He was as big as a linebacker or a safety and ran as fast as a corner. He could've been a safety - I think he'd be a doggone NFL safety if we put him there instead."
Torain had to share the backfield with Kenny Wilson, who later played for the University of Nebraska. Coaches say Torain never complained about his role in the offense, and it was always apparent that he'd be playing Division I football before long.
"He's extremely humble. That's the best way to say it," said Morrell. "Polite, good manners, just very reserved. Never flamboyant, boisterous. Not a look-at-me guy. There was just no selfishness about him. That's one of the things that makes him special."'A little bit country'
Coming from Kansas, Torain concedes he's "a little bit country," which might help explain his soft-spoken demeanor. He learned quickly that the Arizona State campus was different from Butler's.
"ASU is kind of like a party school, there's a lot of things going on," said Steve Aportela, Torain's best friend from college. "And coming from Kansas, coming from a JUCO, I think it was a big transition. But he was always real focused."
Torain took over the starting job midway through his junior year, finishing the season with 1,229 yards on 223 carries, and opened his senior campaign as one of the nation's top tailbacks. In fact, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. rated Torain as the No. 2 senior running back. Until the injury.
In five of the team's first six games, Torain topped 90 yards. But against the Washington Huskies, in the seventh game of the season, he was tackled on a routine play. Torain felt something wrong in his foot. He missed the final five games and required surgery to repair a Lisfranc injury to the joints in the middle of his foot.
Friends and coaches said they can't remember him getting down. He was still a constant presence around the team, attending games and practices.
"He was disappointed, but he stayed positive the whole time," said Christian. "He was still in meetings, still encouraging all the other guys. The thing about Ryan, he could've quit a long time ago. But he stayed hungry. He never lost his focus."Finally healthy
Still bothered by his foot, Torain didn't blow away scouts at the NFL Scouting Combine, and a running back who could have been a second-round selection fell to Shanahan in the fifth round, the draft's 148th overall pick. Though other teams had questions about Torain, Shanahan seemed to know exactly what he was getting in the 6-foot-1, 218-pound back.
"I think he's got first-round ability, I will say that," Shanahan told Denver reporters at the time.
But Torain would rarely show that ability in Denver. In his first training camp, he broke his elbow, which kept him out for three months. He returned midway through Shanahan's final season there; he played in two games. In his lone NFL start, he had 68 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries at Cleveland. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament, though, and was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list.
The following year, Torain reported to new coach Josh McDaniels' first training camp, but because of a posterior cruciate ligament sprain, he struggled to showcase himself and was released on Aug. 12, 2009.
"He had that knee issue in training camp," said Kory Lichtensteiger, the Redskins guard who was also drafted by Denver in 2008. "You could tell it was hurting him, but the guy just fought through it. He's never going to quit on you, but he didn't get a real good shot at making the team because of that."
Torain waited for his knee to heal and then waited for the phone to ring. He said he had a couple of tryouts, but his knee kept him from running full-speed.
"I wasn't worried about not getting picked up," he said. "I was worried about getting healthy."
Even though the season passed without a contract, Torain said he never doubted his future. He said someday he'll finish his final semester at Arizona State and consider a career in education, but he kept training for a football comeback. He attended Arizona State's pro day last spring, lining up alongside the school's seniors to display his talents for NFL scouts.
Finally healthy, he signed a contract with the Redskins on April 19 but entered training camp buried on the depth chart behind veterans Portis, Larry Johnson and Willie Parker. He found himself competing with undrafted rookie Keiland Williams.
Several teammates say they were surprised Torain was left on the practice squad when the Redskins cut their roster to 53. "Everyone in the offense knew what he was capable of doing," said guard Artis Hicks. But Torain didn't seem to mind.
"He called to tell me he was happy to make the practice roster," said Aportela, Torain's friend. "I told him, keep your head up, it's going to be okay. But he was happy, he was staying positive. That's just how he always is."
Said Torain: "I knew that I still had an opportunity, and I was excited that I would still be going out there, practicing with the team."
The Redskins activated Torain on Sept. 25 and he's played a prominent role in both games since, tallying 116 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. In limited action, Torain has shown flashes of potential, hinting at the possibility that he finally might be able to become the back Shanahan thought he was drafting in 2008.
"I could tell you when he was a rookie back in Denver that he has got it," Shanahan said. "He is a top back in the National Football League - there is no question about it. Now, can he stay healthy?"
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.