When Reuben Foster fell to the ground on the third play of the Washington Redskins’ first organized team activity late Monday morning, a pall hovered over the field. It’s rare for an NFL team president, head coach and defensive coordinator to all stand over a player writhing on the grass, clutching his knee. Injuries are a part of football, and when one happens at practice, everyone usually moves on, leaving the trainers to treat the hurt player.
But Foster, despite having not yet played a down for the team, was not just any other player to Washington’s executives and coaches. They had come to believe he was going to be one of the most important pieces of a defense they imagined as being among the league’s strongest. They had taken a great risk and received significant criticism by bringing him to Washington, claiming him on waivers after San Francisco released him in November following his second domestic violence arrest of the year because they thought he could be a difference-making middle linebacker.
They believed they had stolen a 25-year-old impact player at a bargain price — a player who could develop into a team leader.
But Foster’s season ended when he stepped onto the field for the first time, tearing his ACL on the third play of a noncontact 11-on-11 drill. He was placed on the injured list Wednesday, ending his season. It’s a jarring twist in the story of Washington’s most controversial player, ending — for now — what many around the team had hoped would be Foster’s reclamation.
“Yeah, we move forward,” a deflated Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said after Monday’s practice. “I think we have a history of having to do that at all positions, really.”
Gruden’s frustration was obvious this week as he seemed to struggle with the idea that Foster had been hurt on his first play as a Redskin. The frustration was clear, too, in the slumped shoulders of Bruce Allen, the team president who made the move to claim Foster when no other team did. Despite a divide within the organization about whether to take on Foster, acquiring him just three days after his second domestic violence arrest amid a wave of criticism from media, fans and victims organizations, the Redskins seemed united behind him.
Several people affiliated with the Redskins as well as others familiar with Foster’s time in San Francisco have said privately that the public portrait of Foster as potentially toxic and violent were inaccurate and that he had worked hard to fit well with both teams.
Much of this is hard to balance against the allegations of abuse that Foster’s ex-girlfriend, Elissa Ennis, made to police in California and Florida. She later told ABC News that Foster “slapped me and pushed me” in the second incident at a Tampa hotel and said that at other times he had dragged her down the stairs, pulled her hair and kicked her.
Redskins officials have said they investigated Foster before claiming him off waivers, an assertion that raised questions after Tampa police said they had not heard from Allen or anyone connected to the team about the case. And when Tampa prosecutors dropped the second charges months after the California charges also had been dropped, Allen publicly lobbied NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to remove Foster from the Commissioner Exempt List that Foster had been on since Washington claimed him.
Goodell did so just before OTAs began in April, saying he did not believe Foster had violated the league’s personal conduct policy but also fining him two game checks for this coming season for “an assessment of his adherence” to previous violations of the policy. The NFL suspended Foster for the first two games of the 2018 season following a gun charge to which he pleaded no contest and an arrest on marijuana charges in Alabama.
In his two NFL seasons, Foster had been injured several times — including a torn rotator cuff that required surgery two months before he was drafted in the first round in 2017. Ankle and rib injuries cost him six games in his rookie season and shoulder problems, slowed him last season. But his speed and strength were too intoxicating for the Redskins to pass up.
Many in the organization were relieved when Goodell reinstated Foster, believing he was about to have a fresh start. They described Foster as being close to several of the team’s players who had been teammates of his at Alabama. They said he connected well with those players and had enthusiastically embraced the team’s conditioning programs and studied hard in the defense’s meeting rooms.
One key person in the organization described Foster as “a Ray Lewis-type” — referring to similarities to the Baltimore Ravens Hall of Famer both in style of play and his leadership potential in the locker room.
The Redskins executives and coaches were familiar with Foster even before the 49ers released him. They had scouted him hard before the 2017 draft and considered choosing him until his Alabama teammate Jonathan Allen fell to the 17th pick. Alabama Coach Nick Saban had told the Redskins that Foster was the Crimson Tide’s de facto leader, the player who pushed the others to lift weights and run sprints. One person with knowledge of the situation who would not speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the situation said the 49ers believed Foster had “turned a corner” and seemed in “a good place” before the second arrest.
Foster was looking forward to finally practicing with his new team, many Redskins teammates said, which is why several around the team seemed shaken when Foster went down. Gruden’s son, Jack, a former video assistant with the team tweeted: “Such a great person, he was so fired up to be here. This one hurts. I’m disgusted.”
Said linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, a teammate and friend of Foster’s from Alabama: “That’s the beauty of life. You just never know what’s going to happen. That’s why you just try to take advantage of each day, waking up, sunny outside. That’s life. God throws things at us for a reason.”
The Redskins were being careful with how they presented Foster before he went down. They did not promote Monday’s practice as his first, and people in the organization have said little about him publicly, apparently realizing the seriousness of the allegations that led to his arrests last year. Before practice began, they were not allowing him to speak to the media — something he has not done since coming to Washington — saying they planned to do a news conference later in the spring.
Still, there seemed optimism around the team, that Foster was starting anew. Then practice started, and Foster fell to the ground, screaming in pain.
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