Former NFL first-rounder Reuben Foster enjoying return to pro football in USFL

Former NFL first-rounder Reuben Foster enjoying return to pro football in USFL

May 5

The first weekend of the 2023 USFL season was extra special for Pittsburgh Maulers linebacker Reuben Foster.

Though the Maulers suffered a season-opening loss to the New Orleans Breakers, it marked a monumental personal victory for Foster, a former star at Alabama and first-round NFL Draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2017, who was playing in his first professional football game in more than four years.

Foster had not been able to play since he tore two ligaments in his knee on the first day of Washington's offseason practices in May 2019. 

"It feels great, man," Foster told FOX Sports' RJ Young in an exclusive interview on "The Number One College Football Show." "I was kind of nervous getting out there at first, but God gave me this skill set as a kid, and it feels like riding a bike. … Just to be able to go out there and hit someone that's not on my team, it feels amazing.

"I love football, man. I've been doing this since I was a kid. It's a dream, and now it's a real activity again. Most people aren't blessed to be in my position and … I'm not taking it for granted."

Playing once again in the state where he made a name for himself in college, Foster even forced a fumble with a hard hit on Breakers running back Anthony Jones. He now has 26 total tackles and an interception over the Maulers' first three games.

"Football makes me happy," Foster said. "If you're doing something that makes you happy, and it's got great benefits, why not do it? I've learned my lessons over the four years I haven't been playing. … I'm enjoying life and getting my body back right to play the sport that I love."

Foster is enjoying the chance to be a crucial part of one of the USFL's best defenses, a hard-nosed, run-stuffing unit led by head coach Ray Horton and his son, returning assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Jarren Horton.

"I'm happy to be a part of this defense, it's awesome," Foster said. "Ray Horton and Jarren Horton are great coaches. We have a great coaching staff."

He also finds a lot of similarities between the Maulers' current structure and the one he starred in under legendary Alabama head coach Nick Saban and then-Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who has since carved out his own head coaching legacy as a two-time defending national champion at Georgia.

"Guys taking care of their bodies and implementing all the things off the field that Coach Saban installed," Foster said. "Just being a hard worker and knowing that when you're hurt, you don't have to sit down, you've just got keep working and pushing through, and you'll see different results. Just trust the process, like Bama would say … that's what Coach Saban and the whole staff did well, with that whole organization, just installing that into guys."

Foster's toughness was also sharpened by who he would line up against in Alabama's practices — 2015 Heisman Trophy winner and future Tennessee Titans star running back Derrick Henry.

"We were giving each other the business," Foster said. "Derrick Henry is not a joke. He is what he is. Don't think because the big Foster — hitting, tackling machine, missile — every day at practice going against Derrick Henry was making Derrick Henry better, Derrick Henry's making me better as well. 6-foot-3, 200 and something pounds, running like a 4.3 [40-yard dash]? 4.2? Come on man, you want to hit that every day?"

Inspired by success stories like 2022 USFL MVP turned NFL All-Pro KaVontae Turpin, Foster isn't ruling out a return to pro football's highest level either.

"It's a possibility," Foster said. "I just got to keep my head down, stay focused and stay humble. … I picture myself in those shoes."

He also predicts big things ahead for the Maulers after their 1-2 start to the 2023 USFL season, for one simple reason.

"The love and the passion that other guys have got for the sport help a lot, which the Maulers have," Foster said. I know we lost two games, but we have that passion of never quitting."

The Maulers play against the defending champion Birmingham Stallions in Canton, Ohio on Sunday (6:30 p.m. ET on FS1 and the FOX Sports app).