Image Credit: Los Angeles Times
It was not surprising to see the 49ers put forth their worst performance of the season on Sunday. Mere hours before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drubbed the 49ers 27-9, linebacker Reuben Foster had been released from the team. The 31st overall selection in the 2017 NFL draft, Foster was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence at the team hotel on Saturday night. It was his third arrest of 2018 and second for domestic violence against the same woman. Once seen as a cornerstone that the 49ers could build a defense around, Foster’s arrest and subsequent release are somehow surprising and expected at the same time. How could a player with so much talent be so careless with the multitude of chances he was given?
To understand Reuben Foster, you must understand that he grew up with a tumultuous childhood. Both he and his mother were shot by his father when he was only 18 months old. His mother survived the shooting, his father became a fugitive only to be captured in 2013. The shooting resulted in young Reuben being placed in foster care. “When you grow up under circumstances that he grew up in and don’t have parents, move from home to home, you just make the best with what you’ve got,” cornerback Richard Sherman said in a press conference about Foster’s release.
Foster focused on football and earned a scholarship to the University of Alabama. His recruiting process, however, was anything but simple. He first committed to Alabama before decommitting and deciding on Auburn University. He even went as far as to get an Auburn tattoo before then-head coach Gene Chizik was fired. On National Signing Day, Foster once again chose Alabama and took his talents to Tuscaloosa.
Before his final season for the Crimson Tide, Foster was present at a nightclub shooting that left three dead, including a close friend of his, Recco Cobb. There was no indication that Foster had any involvement and appeared to be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But to some it was a concern that Foster did not surround himself with the best people outside of the team facility. “With Reuben, it was always a lot of stuff that had to do with cousins, ladies, family and friends. When he was in the building, it was fine. When he was out of the building, there was a lot to deal with,” a former Alabama staffer said.
In 2016, Foster took home the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and seen as a surefire top-ten pick in the 2017 draft. However, following a pair of incidents at the scouting combine, many teams had taken him completely off their draft boards. Foster failed a drug test after providing a diluted sample and was later ejected from the combine altogether following an altercation with a doctor while having his shoulder examined. This prompted one scout to say, “There also are more general questions about how well Foster – like some Crimson Tide stars in the past – will adjust to life outside Alabama, where troubled players have immense resources and hand-holding to get through their lives.”
Just prior to the headlines Foster was making at the combine, Jed York and the 49ers were busy making their own. York had taken a big risk hiring first-time head coach Kyle Shanahan and first-time general manager John Lynch to twin six-year deals. Shanahan was fresh off a Super Bowl loss to the New England Patriots and Lynch had spent the previous eight seasons as a commentator for Fox Sports. Both were left with a roster devoid of talent but neither had any experience with completing a rebuild of an NFL franchise.
Heading into the 2017 draft, Lynch and Shanahan had three players at the top of their list: Myles Garrett, Solomon Thomas and the talented but troubled Foster. Garrett was taken first overall by the Cleveland Browns, leaving the 49ers on the clock. They took a gamble that Thomas would still be on the board after trading down one spot with the Chicago Bears. Chicago obliged, drafting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, leaving Thomas to be the first pick of the new regime.
Foster, however, would have to wait until much later in the night to hear his name called. Linebackers Haason Reddick, Jarrad Davis and T.J. Watt were all drafted before Foster. His tumble down the draft board was surprising to some, expected to others but, either way, had John Lynch and Co. salivating. They proceeded to flip their second-round pick and a fourth-round pick they acquired from the Bears to rival Seattle Seahawks in exchange for the 31st overall selection. Reuben Foster’s long wait was over, he had become a San Francisco 49er.
Alongside fellow first-round pick Solomon Thomas, Foster flashed his infectious smile and impressive frame to 49ers’ beat writers at the team introduction the very next day. Foster’s enthusiasm and talent lead the team to overlook the litany of red flags that caused his dramatic drop. To a downtrodden fanbase, he brought an excitement to the team that had been absent since Jim Harbaugh’s departure three years prior. He reminded fans of the glory days of Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman wreaking havoc all over the field.
On the first play of the 2017 preseason, Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford threw a swing pass to running back Dalvin Cook only to have Reuben Foster shoot in like a missile to blow the play up for a five-yard loss. It was Foster’s announcement to the 49ers and the league that his talent was unmistakable. While the beginning of his rookie campaign was marred by a high ankle sprain that limited him to only ten games, he, along with the rest of the defense, saw marked improvement after newly-acquired quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo took the reins. Foster showed exactly why he was believed to be a top-ten talent as he finished second on the team in tackles despite his limited playing time. The five-game win streak and exceptional play from both sides of the ball to finish off the 2017 season had the 49ers’ hype train rolling. They became a media darling and dark-horse favorites to compete for the next season’s playoffs.
The season was not without its incidents, though. Following a loss to the Washington Redskins, Foster and fellow linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong were held at gunpoint during an attempted robbery. Both managed to escape any harm and were not robbed of any of their belongings and this could be written off as another wrong place, wrong time scenario. However, a pattern of questionable decision making when not supervised was developing. And now the players were free to head home for the offseason, away from the team facility, away from the support system and away from the watchful eye of coaches and mentors.
On January 13, two weeks after the 49ers closed out 2017 with a win against the Los Angeles Rams, Foster was arrested for marijuana possession in his college town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His true Jekyll and Hyde nature that raised red flags for so many was beginning to rear its nasty head. A model teammate in the locker room but a person who surrounds himself with questionable friends and makes poor decisions once no longer in the team environment. Most wrote the arrest off as a boneheaded mistake, a mere blip on the proverbial radar, but to others, it was a sign of things to come. Less than a month later, the latter would prove to be in the right.
Less than a month later, Foster was once again in custody, charged with felony counts of multiple domestic violence, possession of a weapon and infliction of bodily harm. The 49ers released a statement that said, “We will continue to follow this serious matter. Reuben is aware that his place in our organization is under great scrutiny and will depend on what is learned through the legal process." Many in the media jumped to vilify Foster, calling for his immediate release and chastising the 49ers organization for drafting the troublesome player in the first place. A few, including Lynch and Shanahan, remained in Foster’s corner, urging everyone to allow the legal process to play out before rushing to judgment.
The accuser, Elissa Ennis, had been Foster’s on-again, off-again girlfriend for some time. On February 11, the date of the incident, she was living with Foster in his Los Gatos, CA home. She claimed that he had physically attacked her, leaving her with bruises and ruptured eardrum. What transpired was a convoluted web of he-said, she-said, recanted testimony and apparent video evidence of Ennis involved in a road rage incident that left her with the injuries she claimed Foster inflicted.
The 49ers were steadfast in their support of Foster, maybe none more so than new teammate Richard Sherman who was present at all of Foster’s court appearances. “Obviously he knows mistakes have happened in the past and he’s trying to move past it,” Sherman said of Foster. “And, obviously, he’s handling it the best he can, but I’m trying to do my part to just be a good teammate and be there for him anyway I can. And I think he’s going to be fine.”
The organization’s support seemed validated when on May 23, the domestic violence charges were dropped by California Superior Court Judge Nona Klippen who ruled that there was insufficient evidence for the criminal case to move forward to a jury trial. The next day, Foster reported to the team facility and, more importantly, the sphere of influence the team provided for him. “It has been made clear to Reuben that his place on this team is one that must continue to be earned,” John Lynch said following the dismissal.
While the 49ers were happy to welcome Foster back to the team, he was not out of the woods with the NFL just yet. Foster was handed a two-game suspension for the “weapons offense and a misdemeanor drug offense, both of which were resolved earlier this year.” He accepted the league’s decision and did not appeal which showed a level of maturity he had not previously displayed. “It was crazy knowing that football could be gone,” Foster said in an interview with ESPN’s Nick Wagoner. “Just being back on this field with my brothers and these coaches, it’s a blessing.” Foster’s return came with clear expectations of how he was to conduct himself moving forward and a zero-tolerance policy for any disciplinary mistakes. The team had granted him another chance to prove that he was the player they thought he could be and could leave the off-field distractions behind.
Following his suspension, Foster was “happy go-jolly” to rejoin his teammates to see meaningful game action for the first time in nine months. His play was understandably rusty during his first few games back and he did not appear to be the same game-changing talent he had been his rookie season. Shoulder and hamstring injuries had hampered his violent playstyle, at times appearing to play with only one arm when pursuing ball carriers. However, he had kept his nose clean and stayed out of any trouble.
That was, until he didn’t.
Saturday night at the team hotel, Tampa police responded to a 911 call reporting a domestic violence incident. When they arrived, they found Elissa Ennis had accused Reuben Foster of slapping a phone out of her hand, pushing her in the chest area and slapping her across the face. Foster was taken into custody for the third time in less than a year and the 49ers faced a forgone conclusion: Reuben Foster could no longer be a part of this franchise.
Before Foster was able to post the $2,000 bail, the 49ers had released him. He had violated their zero-tolerance policy, their trust and cast a shadow of doubt on the organization that had once stood behind him. Lynch and Shanahan could not grant Foster the benefit of the doubt this time. He had proven that he could not put himself in position to make the right decisions, regardless of whether the accusations are true.
“I can tell you it’s extremely disappointing for me. For Kyle (Shanahan). For ownership. For everybody in here because we care a lot about Reuben” John Lynch said in a press conference before the team’s loss to the Buccaneers. “The really sad thing is he had shown some, of late in particular, he was really taking some positive steps. And maturing in a really nice fashion.”
Regardless of Foster’s personal development in Lynch’s eyes, it was clear that he had not learned and grown from his past mistakes. Unbeknownst to the entire 49ers’ organization, police had responded to another domestic violence call at Foster’s home on October 12 shortly after 11 p.m. No arrests were made after a neighbor had alerted authorities of a loud argument, but the pattern of behavior was evident.
When asked whether the team was willing to hear Foster out before acting, Shanahan was very blunt. “Not this time. That’s what I’m trying to explain the difference. It didn’t matter by this time.” Shanahan no longer trusted Foster to make the right decisions and the team’s time to put their faith in him had ended. He made it very clear that no one player was bigger than the team and acted accordingly
This all leaves John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan with a black mark on their first draft together. The decision to trade back into the first round and draft a player with known issues will always be on their résumés. However, the pair deserve credit for adhering to their own policy and swiftly dismissing Foster from the team. Many organizations like to think they would do the right thing when presented with the difficult decision. The people in charge of the 49ers will not lose sleep at night knowing that they stood by their word and did right by the rest of the team.
The San Francisco rebuild is now missing a corner piece. Foster’s talent will always be undeniable, and he was the type of player on the field a team can build around. The stellar play of rookie LB Fred Warner will certainly soften the blow but the team lost an emotional leader and, at least for one week, it showed. The team will also be under the microscope for any players they decide to bring in moving forward. Any criminal records or personal red flags will be scrutinized more harshly than with other teams. From here on out, Lynch will certainly look to add players that “protect the team” and uphold the other tenets they have set forth.
Foster is just the latest in a long line of NFL players that have come from nothing and achieve their wildest dreams only to squander it once on top. Many times, players are unable to cope with the success and sudden influx of money like they have never seen before. Shanahan summed up the whole situation by saying, “Hopefully this is rock bottom for [Foster], and he can fix himself in all those ways and still find a way to have success in his life or hopefully another team someday.”
“Someday” came sooner than expected as Foster was claimed off waivers by the Washington Redskins yesterday. The likelihood of a suspension still looms over his head as the NFL Judiciary Committee will certainly be taking a hard look at the accusations in Tampa Bay. The Redskins, no strangers to controversy themselves, now take on the responsibility of ensuring that Foster puts his head back on straight. In a league that prides itself on doing the right thing, ultimately talent wins out and players that have it will continue to receive chances in order to help teams win. The only question that remains is, will Reuben Foster squander this chance, too?
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