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One peek and then he's gone

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 1, 2002

NEW ORLEANS -- Marshall Faulk is in your sights. He is right in front of you. Surely, you can nail him down.

He gives you a glimpse, just a glimpse, of who he is. Then he darts away. For a moment, you can see where he is, where he has been. Then he wriggles away. He gives you a leg, pulls it back. His feet stammer, his shoulders shimmy, and he is gone.

So goes the pursuit of Faulk, the most elusive target in the NFL. It does not matter if you are an opposing tackler with blood in your eyes, or a writer with ink in your pen. He will move faster than you. You will think you have him, then all you can see is his vapor trail.

[AP photo]
Rams running back Marshall Faulk carries the ball during their NFC Championship game against the Philadelphia Eagles last weekend.
Oh, he could take you for a ride. If he wished, Faulk could shiver your spine with stories of his upbringing in a nearby housing project called Desire. It was called Desire, legend says, because those who lived there could afford little else.

He could tell you about being poor. He could tell you about falling to sleep with gunshots in the distance. He could tell you about being expelled from three elementary schools. He could tell you about redbrick houses with broken windows and broken bottles strewn across the dirt.

Faulk isn't talking about any of that this week. Thrust, and he will parry. Open the door, and he will slam it shut.

"I don't remember," he says, scowling. "You can't make me remember."

Who can pin him down? He is the finest player in the NFL, the quintessential player on the league's quintessential offense. If other players can't bring him down, how on earth are you going to take him back to days he seems intent on forgetting?

He will give you a peak. One moment, he is talking about how he almost quit school as a high school sophomore, because his family needed money. Then his face hardens, and he changes the subject. One moment, he is talking about working in a local creole restaurant, and how he quit when they tried to turn him from a fry cook into a dishwasher. And then he wiggles again, and the subject is closed.

"It isn't that I'm reluctant to talk about my upbringing," Faulk says of his reluctance to talk about his upbringing. "I'm just not going to tell the story you want me to tell. My upbringing was like a million other kids. We grew up rough with nothing. You want to tell this story, but where's it going? Who's it going to help? What's the purpose in telling it?"

Perhaps there is none. And perhaps there is another kid in another projects who needs to hear about what Faulk has overcome. Yes, it is a familiar story. Yes, there is a danger that feeling warm and fuzzy about those who have gotten out can obscure how many kids don't. Yes, there are other avenues than sports.

"I understand why he doesn't want to talk about it," says Bryan Cox of the Patriots, who also grew up impoverished. "It's like talking about yourself in a demeaning way. You're remembering days when you didn't have a lot of things."

Faulk talked about working at the Superdome, where he sold popcorn so he could get inside to see the games. Someone asks if he thought he might end up doing that as a career.

"Do you mean did I think I was going to sell popcorn my entire life?" he said, incredulously.

"Uh, yeah," the inquisitor replied.

"Yes," Faulk said. "I thought I was going to sell popcorn forever."

Faulk stares at the reporter, refusing to smile, refusing to let the person see his sarcasm.

Then he closes the door.

And he is off and running.

This is what he does best. Running backs in the NFL were once measured by Emmitt Smith, and before that by Barry Sanders, and before that by Walter Payton. Always, there has been royalty at the position.

These days, the throne belongs to Faulk. Don't worry about where he has been. Worry about where he is going.

"Down for down and pound for pound, he's the best player in the league," teammate Torry Holt said.

"He's the best player I've ever played with, and the best player I've ever seen," Rams quarterback Kurt Warner said. "I can't go back to (Gale) Sayers and those guys, but by far, Marshall is the most-complete and most-talented player I've ever seen."

Faulk has speed. He is elusive. Warner compares his study of the game to that of a quarterback's. But perhaps his finest quality is this one: He has fast feet and slow eyes. In other words, he somehow seems able to study things on the move, as if everyone else is in slow motion, then make his cut.

"He runs with patience," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "He can make that little jump-cut and decide which way to go, and suddenly he has 5 or 6 yards instead of 2."

Faulk's numbers are breathtaking. This season, he rushed for 1,382 yards and caught 83 passes for another 765. And he missed two games. In his three seasons with the Rams, Faulk has rushed for 3,822 yards and caught 251 balls.

Not bad for a player acquired with a second- and a fifth-round draft pick, huh?

"What did we give for him?" Holt asks, incredulously. "A two and a five? That's hard to believe. If I'm a GM, I'm not letting him go. I only trade him if he absolutely wants to go. And even then, I'm going to have to have your No. 1 draft choices . . . forever."

If there is a key to this game, it is Faulk. The defenses that have survived the Rams offense have done so by shutting him down, by taking him away as the team's No. 1 option. If you don't stop Faulk the runner, you have to stop Faulk the receiver. If you don't stop them both, you watch him run across another goal line.

A few miles away, in a projects that is being torn down, perhaps another with nothing but desire will watch him.

Perhaps, perhaps, he will try to walk in the amazing footsteps of the league's most-evasive player.

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