Oct. 28, 2010
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|TV: Versus||Radio: Washington ISP Sports Network|
by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Get this: The Husky in dreadlocks, one of the most blazing linebackers in the Pac-10, the one who blows up most everything on the field, wants to put out fires off it.
"I actually want to be a firefighter," Mason Foster says, knowing he will graduate in the spring with a degree in American Ethnic Studies.
"You know, ever since you are a little kid everyone wants to be a firefighter, a police officer or whatever. I wanted to be a firefighter. And I still want to be a firefighter."
At 6-feet-2, 242 pounds, Foster is built to be a good one, either back home in Seaside, Calif., or, he says, in Seattle.
Until then, Washington will be plenty happy with Foster burning up the conference.
The senior is following in the path of good friend and 2009 Husky star Donald Butler as a hard-hitting linebacker breaking out in his final college season. Foster has spent most of this fall leading the Pac-10 by averaging about a dozen tackles per game. He's been in the top 10 nationally throughout this season.
It's actually a repeat of his sophomore season. He led the conference in tackles then, too.
Not bad for one of the lowest-rated players in the Huskies' recruiting class of 2007. Washington was the only top-division school to offer him a scholarship by the end of his senior season of high school.
"He's our best defensive player," said defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who arrived with coach Steve Sarkisian's new staff before last season. "When we first got here, we didn't know what we had in him. But what we found is he does a good job on everything. He's a first-rate football player. And he has room to grow."
And to wow.
People are still talking about the tackle Foster made on Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz in the Huskies' equally amazing, 35-34 win in double overtime two weeks ago.
Katz was running for a what appeared to be a key first down near midfield in the fourth quarter of a tie game. Foster flew at him in the open field, pulled Katz by grabbing his forearm and yanking him to the turf to force a Beavers punt in the fourth quarter.
"Ridiculous," Sarkisian said of Foster's play.
It recalled the one he made last season against Arizona, when he plucked a pass off a Wildcats receiver's foot and returned the interception for a miraculous touchdown late in Washington's improbable comeback win. People still ask Foster about that play, too.
NFLdraftscout.com and CBS Sports rate Foster as a potential second- or third-round draft choice, and the fifth-best outside linebacker heading into next spring's draft.
So maybe firefighting will have to wait some more.
"I feel like it's definitely realistic. I can see myself playing in the NFL, but I really don't like to think about it right now," Foster says. "Play as hard as I can. I feel like if I play as hard as I can and do the right thing, stuff like that will take care of itself."
It's been that way since Foster was dominating the small town of Seaside, on the Monterey Peninsula.
Foster is one of the first players since Al Avila began coaching at Seaside High School 17 years ago to play football for a school in the top Bowl Subdivision. Mana Tuivailala is a currently freshman defensive tackle at Oregon State who also played at Seaside.
But Tuivailala never played defense and quarterback there.
Foster did that, after Avila basically ordered him to become the team's starting quarterback early in his senior season.
"He had blackened eyes, a linebacker's face mask on --and he just went for it," Avila said earlier this month on the telephone from Seaside. "He was a deadly runner, and he could throw. And he was amazing on defense. He'd go over there and just light people up."
Foster grew up playing baseball, starting at age 5 when his father William, who works at the local Cal-Am Water utility company, signed him up for Seaside's T-ball league. Mason did that, did stunts on his bike with his pals, hung out at the town's Boys' and Girls' Club after school and eventually began playing football at age 9 with the Seaside Raiders youth team.
He was known as a fierce tackler through high school - until the day Avila came into the weight room early in the morning and told Foster the team needed his athleticism at quarterback.
He eventually grew to love it.
"My best friends were playing wide receiver. When they got open, I threw to them," Foster says, simply.
He had 246 total yards running and passing to lead Seaside into the small-school championship game of the California Interscholastic Federation Central Coast Section that season. Then he passed for two touchdowns and ran for a third to give Seaside the section championship.
He even caught a touchdown pass and returned two interceptions for scores that do-it-all season - while maintaining the 3.0 grade-point average his parents insisted he have in order to play.
"People always said, `How can a guy go from linebacker to quarterback and back to linebacker and play at such a high level?'" Avila said. "He never came out of the game. It's was just special.
"For him to play that position, and then be so good at quarterback, I'll tell you, man, he was special."
Foster was Monterey County's player of the year in 2006. Problem was, Monterey County is known for golfing at Pebble Beach, cruising astride the surf on 17-Mile Drive, shopping and Clint Eastwood in Carmel, and Cannery Row in Monterey.
Not for producing blue-chip football players or attracting college recruiters.
Avila said the lack of recruiting attention on Foster caused the most frustrating months of his two decades at Seaside.
"He was so under-recruited. I couldn't get anyone to look at him," Avila said. "I went down to UCLA's camp, showed them tapes and said, `This guy can play.' Even San Jose State, Division I (up the road), they weren't interested."
"Washington, they got lucky. They were the smart ones. Their coach came down and said, `This guy can play.' I said, `I know. I've been saying that for two years.'"
That coach was Tim Lappano. The Husky offensive coordinator at that time had heard from his Central California contacts about this do-it-all linebacker and quarterback in a little bayside town. So he flew down to check out Foster in 2005.
It was the first and last Division I coach Foster ever saw in high school.
"Really, the only option I had was U-Dub," Foster says while seated casually on a cushioned chair inside the Founder's Club of Hec Edmundson Pavilion. "By the time U-Dub offered me, that's when other schools started to talk to me and wanting me to come visit. I was already going to U-Dub. San Jose State offered me towards the end of my senior year, but I was loyal to U-Dub. I wanted to come here."
That was thanks to Lappano.
"Coach Lappano had recruited me from my junior year. He was always real honest with me about everything. Didn't really lie to me about anything, no matter what it was," Foster says. "That's something I can respect, definitely. I felt like they never down-talked any other schools. They always kept it real. And it was something where I really wanted to be here."
Foster says he's never regretted his choice. Not even as he and the Huskies lived through a 0-12 season in 2008.
"Nah, never. Not even '08," Foster says. "At times, you know, it was rough. But at the same time, I knew that was the decision I made. Like my dad was saying, you've got to live with the decision you made. Things will get better. `You can make it through whatever' - that's what he always told me.
"I wanted to be here. It's a great city and a great school. So I was never going to give that up, regardless of what happened in football. I was going to stay and finish my education from a big school like this."
Now, he is reveling in his choice. His Huskies are on a revival, part of which will be Foster's UW legacy. Dad and mom Margarette, an X-ray instructor at Seaside's local junior college, have been making it up to Seattle to make him his favorite homemade meal, ground beef tacos, and to see him play over weeks when there have been back-to-back home games. The latest visit was this month for the Arizona State and Oregon State games.
And Foster is on both the cusp of finishing another thunderous season as one of the top defensive players in the Pac-10, and of potentially entering the NFL through the top half of the draft.
Pretty neat stuff for the overlooked former T-ball player who used to hang out at the Boys' and Girls' Club with his pals along Monterey Bay - the place all those top football factories never bothered to check out.
"I'll tell you what," Avila, Foster's high school coach, said proudly, "they all wish they'd recruited him now."