Marshall Faulk is not a rocket scientist, but sometimes he tries to think like one, and on occasion the St. Louis Rams' luminous running back has been known to contemplate celestial conundrums rather than chill like a typical pro football star. Yet it wasn't long ago that Faulk's idea of the big picture was a close-up image of himself. To appreciate his personal expansion, and how he emerged from the ashes of his snuffed stardom to become the best player in his sport, you have to go back to a chilly Monday afternoon on the last day of November 1998, when Faulk sat in a small, nondescript office at the Indianapolis Colts' training facility and discovered the largest truth of his professional life.
In a meeting room minutes earlier Faulk and his teammates had watched videotape of their 38-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens the previous afternoon. Deep into a miserable season, the Colts had been given a chance to salvage some dignity in the city the franchise had abandoned 14 years earlier, and much of the footage played out like a Faulk highlight reel. In the first quarter alone he silenced a bitter Baltimore crowd by scoring on a 34-yard reception and a 68-yard run to stake Indianapolis to a 17-3 lead. With 1:13 left Faulk had a career-best 192 rushing yards and seven catches for 75 more, yet his team now trailed by seven points. On second-and-one from the Ravens' 24, Colts rookie quarterback Peyton Manning threw high to Faulk in the flat. The ball slipped through Faulk's hands, caromed off his helmet and was intercepted. Game over.
Watching the play on tape, Faulk braced himself for a scolding. Not only did he feel he should have caught the pass, but he also knew he had run a poor route, breaking it off four yards past the line of scrimmage rather than the designed six. Sure enough, coach Jim Mora paused the tape to point out Faulk's error, growling, " Marshall, we've got to have you run the f———- route the way you're supposed to." For a moment a feeling of defiance washed over the running back.
Faulk was a player who had been known to snipe back at critical coaches, but following Mora's rebuke, he merely slumped in his seat. The pressure began to build in his head, and he felt a deep sense of embarrassment and remorse. By the time he entered the office of running backs coach Gene Huey, Faulk understood the scope of his mistake. After eight years of carrying himself like a star—the first three as a record-setting runner at San Diego State, the next five in Indianapolis—he felt like the smallest dust particle in the cosmos.
For several minutes Faulk sat in Huey's office and cried like a guest on Oprah. "I was crushed," he recalls. "I mean, crushed. I knew that what Coach Mora had said was right, that I had let my teammates down, and I knew I never wanted to experience that feeling again. In the past, I would have responded, 'Look at the stats—what more could I have done?' This time I knew it wasn't about that. My neglect had affected the team's ability to win. It had probably happened before, but this was the first time I felt accountable. It was the first time I really cared."
Huey told Faulk not to despair, that his ability to bounce back from such distress would make him a better player and person. Faulk's resolve would be tested less than three weeks later, when on the night before a game against the Seahawks in Seattle, Mora accused him of arriving late for a team meeting and benched him for the start of the game. The next spring he was traded to the Rams, a franchise that had been the most feeble in the NFL in the '90s and had a reputation as dubious as his. Players, coaches and staffers in St. Louis had heard the whispers—Faulk was a cancer at worst, a moody, me-first prima donna at best—and steeled themselves for the drama that was sure to unfold.
What St. Louis got instead was perhaps the smartest, most talented and least selfish running back in the game. In two seasons with the Rams the 28-year-old Faulk has won a Super Bowl ring, the NFL MVP award and the respect of his teammates. In '99 he became only the second player in league history to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same year, joining former San Francisco 49ers running back Roger Craig. Faulk also set an NFL record with 2,429 yards from scrimmage and helped St. Louis live out a worst-to-first fantasy. Last season, despite missing two games with a right knee injury, he scored an NFL-record 26 touchdowns and was voted the league's MVP.
Dick Vermeil, who was the St. Louis coach in '99, believes Faulk belongs in the company of Jim Brown, Walter Payton, O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Red Grange and anyone else whose name comes up when the best runners of all time are discussed. "To talk about the great backs and not include him is a mistake," says Vermeil, who now coaches the Kansas City Chiefs. "I've been around some great players, and he's better—he's an elite player."
Rams coach Mike Martz, who replaced Vermeil after the '99 season, has constructed one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history around Faulk, whom Martz regards as not only a great player but also a "very good friend" and a leader in whom he has "complete trust." That faith extends to the sideline during a game, when Faulk will suggest adjustments, and to the locker room, where Faulk is sensitive to intra-squad issues. "He has brought things to my attention that I wasn't aware of, and he's honest with me," says Martz, who last year had to deal with tension between offensive and defensive players. "His perspective is so mature, and it's amazing how dead-on his opinions have been."
It would be one thing if Faulk had merely transformed himself into an agreeable coach's pet, but Martz's Faulkophilia is the norm in St. Louis. Echoing the words of more than a dozen current or former Rams players interviewed for this story, quarterback Kurt Warner says Faulk is "a guy who's on top of everything in his life, someone I would feel comfortable going into business with or taking advice from. I had heard all the rumors about how he was standoffish or hard to get along with, or worse. All I can say is that he was the complete opposite when he came to the Rams. We're grateful to have him."