The big easy? Try the Big Eyesore. The few tourists who stray into Marshall Faulk's New Orleans neighborhood all want to know the same thing: Mow the hell do I get back to the freeway?
Looking for French Quarter architecture? Sorry. The upper ninth ward is block upon block of two-story, multifamily, redbrick rectangles, many of them abandoned. The ratio of apartments with glass in their windows to those without is roughly one to one. "They used to put aluminum over the busted windows," says Faulk. "But the crack heads would steal it and sell it for scrap." The development is named—with presumably unintended irony—the Desire Project.
Faulk recently drove a visitor through Desire, providing a running commentary as he went: "See that store? One night a guy pulled a gun on me in the parking lot. See that guy? He's a drug dealer." There is no contempt in Faulk's voice. He is not one to pass judgment.
"When I was growing up here, we'd be hanging on a corner and the police would roll around," he says. "They probably just wanted to talk to us, but to make it fun, we'd run." Often the police gave chase. Some aspiring football players attend summer camp. Others play Pop Warner. The adolescent Faulk prepared for his career by outrunning the Crescent City's finest. Whatever works for you.
Clearly it worked for Faulk. As a true freshman at San Diego State last season, Faulk, 18, became the first freshman ever to lead the nation in both rushing (158.8 yards per game) and scoring (15.6 points) average. On Sept. 14, coming off the bench in the Aztecs' second game of the season, against Pacific, he ran for an NCAA single-game-record 386 yards in slightly more than three quarters. (That mark stood for nine weeks, until Kansas senior Tony Sands gained 396 yards against Missouri. Sands needed 58 carries to get his yards, Faulk 37.) In all, Faulk either broke or tied 13 NCAA rushing and scoring records despite missing 3½ games with broken ribs.
But for Faulk, who is the first member of his family to attend college and who plans to major in public administration, gaudy football stats were not enough; he finished his freshman year with a 3.1 grade point average. Faulk and his five older brothers were raised by their mother, Cecile, who worked countless jobs to feed and clothe them. Says Wayne Reese, Faulk's football coach at Carver High in New Orleans, "Basically, Marshall raised himself."
Given that, it is difficult to say which of Faulk's feats, the athletic or the academic, are the more remarkable. While growing up, he ran with bad crowds. He saw the inside of squad cars. Says Reese, not altogether disapprovingly, "Marshall's got some thug in him." To which Faulk might respond, How else can a guy who is 5'10" and 185 pounds score 23 touchdowns in college? "When it's fourth-and-two," he says, "it helps if you have an evil side. On fourth-and-two, I'm Freddy Krueger."
But it is not Faulk's mean streak that grabs one's attention when he runs; it is that burst—closing speed, college coaches call it—that prompted a lot of big-time schools to recruit Faulk as a defensive back. It is that burst that enables Faulk to extricate himself when all seems lost. But when there is nowhere to run, Faulk gleefully attacks his tacklers, as if to make amends for his slight stature.
In the fourth grade Faulk was expelled from an elementary school for punching a girl who had accused him—falsely, he says—of cheating. In the ninth grade Faulk was asked to leave the track team because he was not bearing down in practices. Suddenly he faced a critical juncture. He had nothing to keep him off the streets after school. "I wasn't doing anything," he says, "which is something bad to be doing in this neighborhood."
There were several extralegal forays about which "I'm afraid I can't tell you," Faulk says. "I finally realized it wasn't for me. I decided I'd rather be doing something than nothing, even if that something was something I'd rather not be doing."