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It's Saturday night in New York City, and Arian Foster is standing near a police van. Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan echoes with the sounds of peaceful protest—a woman seeking an end to corporate tax loopholes, a man proposing an organic revolution and, tonight, during the Texans' bye week, a running back asking pointed questions.
Foster walks past a metal barricade, wades into the humanity that is Occupy Wall Street and introduces himself. "Do you have any animosity toward me because of my salary?" Foster asks a small group. He is making $525,000 this season.
"No," someone answers. "A man like yourself who has achieved the American dream, we're actually proud of. It's big banking and the people who were born into money and control it that we're against."
Foster spends an hour moving among the protesters before blending back into the busy Manhattan landscape. Later he is asked if he agrees that he embodies the American dream. He is a middle-class kid from Albuquerque who rose from obscurity to stardom in the NFL, once an undrafted free agent, now carrying his team toward its first playoff berth against the headwinds of injury.
"The American dream was the white picket fence, the 2.5 kids and a dog," Foster says. "That was the 1950s. I don't think that's the America we live in anymore. The America now is, you shouldn't be hesitant to lend a helping hand to someone who needs it. Lean on your brother."
The Texans have spent two years leaning on Foster, who majored in philosophy at Tennessee, writes poetry on his rooftop, tweets prolifically about life beyond football and takes a bow after touchdowns, his Namaste to those watching. Following Sunday's 20--13 victory in Jacksonville, in which Houston most likely lost backup quarterback Matt Leinart for the season after placing starter Matt Schaub on injured reserve earlier in the week, the Texans will be relying on Foster even more.
If ever there was a year in which Houston was primed to assume control of the AFC South, 2011 would be it. Peyton Manning's absence in Indianapolis left a vacuum at the top of the division, and the Texans eagerly swept in, even with All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson missing six games and pass rush star Mario Williams gone for the year after tearing a pectoral muscle in mid-October. But on Nov. 13, Schaub suffered a Lisfranc injury to his left foot in a 37--9 victory over Tampa Bay, and on Sunday in Jacksonville, backup Leinart, making his first start in two years, broke his collarbone when he was taken to the turf by Jaguars defensive end Jeremy Mincey. By the middle of the second quarter Houston was down to its third-stringer, rookie T.J. Yates, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina, with emergency QB Owen Daniels, the starting tight end, taking warmup snaps on the sideline. (Former Jets QB Kellen Clemens, signed on Nov. 23, was not active for the game.)
Houston is a team built to run behind an athletic zone-blocking alignment, but Schaub's skill on play-action was the Texans' pocket ace. With the passing threat diminished on Sunday, the Jaguars loaded up to stop Foster, holding him to a season-low 3.0 yards per carry and recovering one of his two fumbles. It could be a blueprint for opponents the rest of the season.
Foster was unhappy with his performance, dressing slowly in the visitors' locker room, staring through a pained expression. Since dropping two passes in a loss to Baltimore on Oct. 16, he has stayed late after practice every day, catching footballs from a JUGS machine. He is likely to find proper penance for the fumbles too—push-ups by the fence ringing the practice field or more reps with ball flying into his mitts. "That's not me," he says of letting the football hit the ground. (Indeed, he fumbled just three times in 2010 and hadn't done so at all this season until Sunday.) "You won't see that again."
Though he scored a touchdown and broke a 43-yard run, with left guard Wade Smith pulling across the line to lead the way, Foster and the Texans did not celebrate Sunday as much as exhale. At 8--3 they're two games up in the AFC South and are positioned as the conference's top seed. They are looking ahead to their final five games—hosting the Falcons, Panthers and Titans, on the road at Cincinnati and Indianapolis—and beyond, without a seasoned quarterback. "It's not going to be anything different," left tackle Duane Brown said. "It starts with the run, and it starts with us up front."