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In the clear

Rams' Faulk has come a long way since his first Super Bowl, 14 years ago.

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 28, 2000


ATLANTA -- Marshall Faulk's first Super Bowl was in New Orleans, his jazzy hometown. He earned a few bucks peddling Superdome popcorn on Jan. 26, 1986, as Chicago's Bears were putting a 46-10 hurt on the New England Patriots.

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He was almost 13.

It was one of Marshall's more honorable boyhood doings. He later worked as a janitor. But mostly young Faulk functioned in the frightening shadows of French Quarter streets.

Stealing. Fighting. Hustling.

Wayne Reese, his high school football coach and mentor, says current NFL sensation Faulk spent his early teens as "a typical Ninth Ward thug."

Sunday, the erstwhile Louisiana ruffian makes it back to the Super Bowl, his demeanor having evolved with his football skills. Faulk's paydays now far removed from popcorn fortunes, with $6.5-million annual income as the NFL's best runner/catcher of footballs.

This season, Faulk rushed for 1,381 yards, a whopping 5.5 per carry for the St. Louis Rams. He had 87 receptions for another 1,048 yards. Scoring 12 touchdowns in all. Never, through all the Browns, Paytons and Sanders, has an NFL running back been such a multifaceted dynamo.

No enemy harnessed Marshall until Tampa Bay kept him under 50 yards total offense in the NFC Championship Game. "My hat's off to the Bucs," he said. "I'll just give credit, while hoping to contribute far more against Tennessee."

In his youth, Faulk had some troubling sputters. He got expelled three times from elementary school. In the midst of his Desire housing project, hardly a desirable place to live, Faulk saw friends shot and stabbed. A couple died. Many chums, even family members, went to prison. Until now, the most noted product of the Ninth Ward was singer Fats Domino.

Football became Faulk's savior.

"If you polled every NFL locker room, you would hear many similar stories," he told the New York Times. "Growing up in tough circumstances. Coming close to getting into serious trouble. Managing to escape, then creating an amazing life.

"I grew up with five older brothers. A couple of them went to jail. I watched, listened and tried to learn. Many bad things that I was curious about trying, well, it became clear where such actions could lead. I don't enjoy talking about it."

Reese is gone from Carver High in New Orleans, where he shaped Faulk as an athlete and a human being. "Marshall might well have been chewed up by the Ninth Ward, where he was raised in really tough conditions," Reese said by telephone from Lake Charles, La., where he now coaches. "Football became Marshall's great escape."

Faulk played tailback, quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back at Carver, so many positions that college scouts had difficulty focusing on his offensive possibilities. Nebraska, LSU and some other famous schools wanted Marshall, but only as a defensive back.

Faulk wanted to run. To catch. To have hands constantly on a football. One university, San Diego State, promised him a shot at tailback. Marshall became one of America's most dazzling runners. As a 1992 sophomore, he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting to University of Miami quarterback Gino Toretta.

Three times an All-American, Faulk bypassed his senior season with the Aztecs. He was an immediate NFL success with the Indianapolis Colts, running for 1,282 yards and catching 52 passes.

Faulk's numbers were imposing through five Indy years, but the Colts kept losing. After the 1998 season, when Indy went 3-13, he demanded renegotiation of a seven-year, $17.2-million contract that unquestionably had become outdated by mushrooming NFL monetary standards.

Acrimony was building. Bill Polian had become Colts president and brought a new top gun to town, quarterback Peyton Manning. An extensive Faulk holdout loomed. Polian preferred a tailback more prone to running between the tackles. Rather than fighting over money, he decided to trade Marshall in April. Polian then drafted Edgerrin James.

St. Louis got a steal, spending second- and fifth-round draft choices on Faulk. He is extremely bright, a wealthy jock now considering law school. Marshall works off-seasons at a San Diego firm. He picks up complicated offenses in a hurry, even the thick playbook of Rams coordinator Mike Martz.

"Everybody should be happy," Faulk said. "Edgerrin did well. Peyton did well. Indianapolis got better this season. I went to the Rams (where he signed a seven-year deal for $45-million), and here we are in Atlanta, playing the Super Bowl against Tennessee."

Faulk can be a squirmy interview, especially when his New Orleans childhood is brought up. "Having my private life pried into," he said, "that's difficult. I've been called moody. But as I get older, I understand better that it's all a part of the (NFL) business."

Mostly, the Faulk business is cuddling a football beneath a powerful arm, using his swifty, shifty, low-slung physique to evade tacklers. Using extraordinary vision, quickness and savvy. Remarkable stuff when you flash back, if over Marshall's objections, to the young "thug" from the Ninth Ward.

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