Domonique Foxworth knows what this story will lead to. He's prepared.
Every time someone tries to write about an aspect of his life outside football, there is someone who will read the story and find it infuriating. They'll cite it as an example that he doesn't care enough about his job, because if he did, he would never stop thinking about football. During Foxworth's senior year at Maryland, he got letters from fans suggesting he spend less time reading books and more time watching game film.
"You can't read and tackle, apparently," Foxworth said.
The idea that a football player can have intellectual interests that do not detract from his athletic pursuits still seems foreign to some. Couldn't he just play video games in his downtime instead?
He could. And, in fact, he does. He and Ravens safety Ed Reed love playing "FIFA Soccer 2010" on Foxworth's Xbox in his basement home theater. But there is something else Foxworth wants to show off in his basement.
There's a framed letter from civil rights leader Malcolm X, explaining to a critic why he will not be patient when demanding equal rights for blacks. There's a signed painting of the Little Rock Nine looking terrified but also courageous, marching forward one timid step at a time in 1957, about to change history. There are framed and signed photographs of Muhammad Ali, Thurgood Marshall, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
There's the original copy of Life magazine from the week after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It was handed to him by a stranger in Denver after Foxworth gave a speech in 2005 on King's birthday, outlining what people - not just black people, but all people - could do to honor King's legacy. It inspired him to start a collection of civil rights artifacts, which he now displays in the basement of his Pikesville home.
It has become something of an addiction. Foxworth still drives the same car he bought when he signed his rookie deal, but he has spent far more on items with mostly sentimental value. In his spare time, he scours the Internet for coveted civil rights memorabilia. It is a constant reminder that this country's history, good and bad, will always be the story of Foxworth's personal history.
"When I get the opportunity, I'm not going to shy away from sharing my opinion," Foxworth, 26, said. "I never have, no matter how unpopular, because there are people who need to be spoken for who can't speak. ... I know I kind of get put in a box as 'the smart athlete' everywhere I go, but I'm nowhere near the smartest or the most well-rounded guy on the team. I just speak out about this kind of stuff."
You might be asking why you should care about this. Maybe, as a few fans commenting on The Baltimore Sun's Ravens Insider blog have pointed out, you would like to have Foxworth as a neighbor more than as a starting cornerback on your favorite football team. But as the Ravens prepare to face the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday - a game that has emerged as perhaps the most important of the season - Foxworth has become one of the most important players on the Ravens defense.
His two interceptions Sunday against the Chicago Bears earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, as well as a measure of redemption after withstanding some heavy criticism early in the season. With cornerback Lardarius Webb out with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Ravens need Foxworth to play some of the best football of his career, especially with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger coming off a game in which he passed for 503 yards.
And the reason Foxworth is capable of doing that - the reason he wasn't bothered by all the vitriol from fans who felt he wasn't living up to his four-year, $28 million contract - is that he is a man in full. Foxworth, who grew up in Randallstown and starred at the University of Maryland, is more important to the Ravens than his performance on the field. He is a steady presence and a calming influence in the locker room. There is a reason he was elected to be the youngest player ever to serve on the NFL Players Association executive committee.
Ask him whether he has learned anything about himself this season, and Foxworth smiles. "I thought I knew myself pretty well even before the season," he said.
"He's a very real, very genuine person," Ravens cornerback Chris Carr said. "And those are rare to find in any walk of life, but especially in the NFL. He's a guy who just has no agenda. It doesn't matter if you're the best player on the team, the worst player on the team, or a practice squad guy, he's going to treat you the same way. He's going to be the same way if we're winning every game or losing every game. He's very consistent that way, and that's a big sign of maturity. He cares about others, not just himself."
Foxworth will be the first to point out that he hasn't always played up to his own expectations this season, much less the expectations of Ravens fans.
"To be honest with you, it hasn't been my best," Foxworth said. "It's been a little disappointing. But as a defense, I think we're coming together at the right time. We've really put together some good defensive performances. I think we played one of the best defensive games the Colts have seen. At this point in my career, that's kind of how I measure my own performance - by how well the team is doing. I'd be lying if I said I didn't know [the criticism] was out there. But the judgment that's important to me is the way I look at myself, and what the guys around me think."
The players aren't shy about their feelings for him. Reed is a regular at Foxworth's house for film study and has become one of his friends. Carr, also a regular reader and deep thinker, is another confidant.
"He's a very intelligent person that you can talk to about a variety of topics, not just football," Carr said. "When you're well-rounded like that, you appreciate things and are able to put them into perspective. That's a sign of maturity. I think it allows him to deal with a lot of things. This year, there have been a lot of ups and downs. I think he's been able to keep life in general in perspective and stay focused."
'A broader view'
Maturity has always been one of Foxworth's biggest strengths. In college, he graduated in 3 1/2 years with a degree in American studies, and when he got to the NFL, he had little interest in the partying lifestyle some of his Denver Broncos teammates embraced. That never seemed like a wiser choice than on New Year's Eve in 2006 when, after the Broncos lost their final regular-season game and missed the playoffs, he decided to go home instead of going out with teammates to celebrate the arrival of 2007, and the birthday of Denver Nuggets player Kenyon Martin. At 4 a.m., he woke up and saw teammate Champ Bailey's name on the caller ID of his cell phone.
"I didn't want to answer it, but I thought, 'If Champ is calling at 4 a.m., he probably needs a ride,' " Foxworth said.
Bailey wasn't calling to ask for a ride. He was calling to tell him that their teammate, friend and fellow cornerback Darrent Williams, was dead. A member of a gang, who was later indicted after he signed a confession, had sprayed the players' rented limousine with bullets. One struck Williams in the neck, killing him instantly.
"Before that happened, if you mess up, you miss a tackle, or you give up a touchdown, mentally it was tough to bounce back," Foxworth said. "Now, I think I see the world in a broader view. It's helped me in all aspects of my life."
Foxworth was one of several Broncos and Nuggets players who donated money and helped build the Darrent Williams Memorial Teen Center in Denver, a place where kids could hang out and steer clear of trouble.
"I think it's something that will definitely save lives," Foxworth said. "It gives teens a place to go they otherwise wouldn't have."
'We're no different'
No matter what you think of Foxworth as a player, he's likely to be a part of the Ravens' plans for the next several years. The contract he signed includes $16.5 million in guaranteed salary.
"To me, Domonique has always been a good player," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Sometimes in the league, a guy is right there, and a receiver goes up and makes a great catch. All of a sudden, the corners are under fire. The next thing you know, a flag comes out. That happens all around the NFL. I really have a lot of confidence in [Foxworth]. Levels of maturity and character vary across the league and in our world. And to play in the secondary, you have to be confident, but you have to be a team guy. You can't point fingers when somebody is not where they're supposed to be."
Foxworth will also likely be among the players who help shape the future of the NFL through involvement with the players union. The labor agreement between owners and players expires after this season, and there are already rumblings about a lockout in 2011. Foxworth is considering whether to attend graduate school in the offseason to get a degree in business.
"I've kind of fallen in love with the leadership role of defending and representing players," Foxworth said. "There are so many great guys I respect and have learned so much from, lessons about integrity. Most of the guys [on the committee] have been in the league for eight and nine years. I'm the youngest one ever. And there is so much pressure on higher-ups in the union to make decisions - decisions that ultimately won't affect them. It would be easy for some of them to fold up so we don't have a lockout, so they can rake in as much money as possible at the end of their career. But that doesn't happen. It's inspiring to watch."
If all of this suggests to you that Foxworth could benefit by being more obsessed with football and less focused on outside interests, then he thinks that's unfortunate. He is an avid film watcher, as evidenced by his first interception against the Bears, which led to the Ravens' first touchdown. He knew where quarterback Jay Cutler liked to throw the ball out of certain formations, and when he recognized one in the first quarter, he jumped the pass route.
"It's unfortunate, but I think people think of athletes as not being real people to some extent," Foxworth said. "At times, in my experience, if you have other interests, then you're seen as being not focused enough. If you care about something else, [you] apparently don't care enough about football. We're no different from anyone else. The same way you or anyone else goes to work and does the very best job they can and then they go home and have a whole other life that's important to them, we're the same way."
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Line: Steelers by 2 1/2