That opportunity would come through football--Droughns found surrogate fathers and brothers in his coaches and teammates--but it wouldn't come easily. Droughns excelled as a running back at Anaheim High but poor SAT scores forced him to attend Merced ( Calif.) College instead of Oregon, which had recruited him. He was so ashamed at letting down his friends that he didn't even say goodbye to most of them when he left town. A few days after his high school graduation, he tossed a dingy duffel bag into the back of an old pickup truck belonging to another Merced recruit, hopped into the passenger's seat and rumbled off to his new life.
Though he was honorable mention All-America his first season at Merced and first-team All-America his second, when he finally arrived at Oregon in 1998 he acted as if he had found heaven. He was so giddy after the team's equipment man gave him a pair of official team sweats that "you couldn't get those things off him for weeks," says former Ducks assistant Tom Osborne. Droughns was equally thrilled with being made an immediate starter. He averaged 164.8 yards in his first five games, then ran for 172 and scored a touchdown at UCLA, playing much of that game with a fractured right fibula and extensive ligament damage to his ankle. He stayed in the game only because his family was in the stands to watch him for the first time since high school.
He gained 2,058 yards in two seasons at Oregon but suffered a separated right shoulder his rookie year with Detroit and spent the 2000-01 season on injured reserve. Once Droughns signed with Denver, he only wanted to get on the field consistently. Anywhere. Wherever Droughns lined up, his attitude was simple: He was going to make a play any way possible.
Even though he's now the featured back in Denver, Droughns has shown no proclivity for the role of prima donna. He still wants to contribute on special teams. "Reuben has become another star in this system," says Broncos wideout Rod Smith, "but he also has a certain attitude and work ethic." Before Droughns's first start at tailback, against Carolina, fullback Mike Anderson urged him to stay relaxed on the field, but he didn't need any help. He felt like he was back at Oregon as he carried the ball 30 times. He had 38 attempts the following week against Oakland and even exchanged insults with Raiders defensive end Warren Sapp, calling him "washed up."
This is Droughns's time to shine. Old coaches and friends are calling to congratulate him. Fans recognize him in public. Venders peddle his number 34 jersey. But those things don't matter to him nearly as much as having the opportunity to show that he really is special. "I'm out to prove that I'm not a fluke," he says. "I want everybody to see that I can run the ball in this league for a long time."