He has been a second- or third-stringer – a utility guy, a backup – for virtually all his professional life.

Now Justin Forsett is a record-setting ball carrier, the lead rusher for the Baltimore Ravens as the team makes yet another legitimate bid for the Super Bowl.

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As Forsett, 29, looks toward the Ravens' big playoff game against the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, what he sees is the very picture of what eluded him during his first six years in the NFL.

Opportunity.

"I look at this game the way I've looked at this whole season—as a chance to show what I can do when there's an opening," says Forsett, a former high school track star who rushed for 1,266 yards this season, twice his previous personal best, as the Ravens claimed their sixth playoff berth in seven years.

"I've been around long enough to know that opportunity doesn't always come. I don't plan to let this one slip away."

Prior to this season, you'd have to have been a full-fledged football geek to know much about Forsett, a 5-foot-8, 197-pound bundle of positive vibes known to former coaches and teammates as a man with a fanatical work ethic, a sharp football mind and almost unlimited energy for reaching out to encourage others.

During his college years at the University of California, he played in the same backfield as two current NFL superstars, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.

He rushed for 1,546 yards and 15 touchdowns in his senior year. During his first six years in the NFL, he averaged an eye-popping 4.9 yards per carry—Lynch, a two-time All-Pro, averaged 4.3 during that period—and never lost a game to injury.

But the Seahawks, Colts and Texans all waived or otherwise let him go in those years. The bottom-feeding Jacksonville Jaguars cut him after a dismal 4-12 season in 2013.

When the Ravens signed him to a one-year deal last April 4, it was for the league minimum for six-year veterans — $730,000— and, most assumed, to add roster depth.

The team knew Ray Rice would likely be suspended for a time for the widely publicized domestic-violence incident involving his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer. Rice's backup, Bernard Pierce, had a history of injury.

Even general manager Ozzie Newsome knew very little about Forsett, according to Ravens sources. But he trusted a recommendation from Gary Kubiak, the team's new offensive coordinator, who had been Forsett's head coach with the Houston Texans in 2012.

Forsett jumped at the offer, the only one he'd received.

"I always knew I had the ability to play full-time, but the NFL being what it is, I had no idea if I would ever get another chance," he says evenly. "It was a blessing to come to Baltimore. I didn't know what would happen, but I trusted that it was for a reason."

Out of the box

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Forsett grew up in tiny Mulberry, Fla., a half-hour east of Tampa Bay, the son of a minister, Rodney Forsett, and Albertina "Abby" Forsett, the second of three boys. After the family moved to the Dallas area, he became a star high school sprinter and basketball player.

He was a pint-sized force on the football field, leading his school, Grace Preparatory Academy, to two Texas state private school titles, rushing for 63 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards.

Even then, success seemed to taunt him.

The running backs coach for football power Notre Dame came calling. The coach, Buzz Preston, visited the Forsetts in Texas and, the family says, offered a full scholarship.

A week before signing day, the school told him in a phone call they were going in a different direction. Preston (who insists he made no offer) admitted to a newspaper the Irish were "looking for taller backs."

It wouldn't be the last the last time his small size would prove a barrier.

Weeks later, Cal came through with a scholarship – Forsett's coach, ex-NFL player Mike Barber, had swung into action, sending game tapes across the country. Forsett faced another dilemma that would become a career pattern.

The starter was Lynch, a monster runner and eventual Pac-10 Offensive Player of the year. Forsett was his backup for three years. When Forsett later became a Seattle Seahawk, he had Pro Bowlers Julius Jones and Edgerrin James to contend with. As a Texan in 2012, he played second fiddle to Arian Foster.

When he did get his chances – when starters got hurt – Forsett contributed. He scored nine touchdowns, ran back kicks, proved a good blocker and more. But when the stars returned, he eventually got phased out.

"In this world—and in football—people put you in a box," he says with a shrug. "If you're small, [they] look at you and say, 'He's just a third-down back.' After you've been a backup for a while, that's what you're perceived to be. It's hard to break out of that box.

"A lot of great players never do. We'll never know the kind of careers they could have had."

Proverbial wisdom

It's not easy to make it to the NFL, let alone excel and stick around. The average career lasts three or four years.

Forsett has always had a secondary challenge: staying patient while knowing he has done everything asked of him.

It hasn't hurt that, to him, life is about more than the sport he loves.

When he was in the seventh grade, he says, he asked himself a question: Why not try embracing this God my father preaches about?

He had a scare in high school when he was diagnosed with a heart murmur. He "prayed with my whole heart" for a chance to keep playing. When he was tested again days later, the problem was gone.

When Notre Dame turned him down, Forsett says, he ran to the basement, burst into tears and opened the Bible to a random page for inspiration. His eyes fell on Proverbs 3.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding," it read, "and he will make your paths straight." Cal soon called with its offer.

"Since then, I've reminded myself that wherever I happen to be, I'm there for a reason," he says. "I may not see it at the time."

Lynch became a close friend. From Foster he learned patience, the knack for staying behind blockers, watching as a play unfolds and dashing through when holes develop.

Even Jacksonville, where a foot injury sidelined him for the for the first time ever and the team struggled on the field, was a boon. He spent off hours visiting schools, speaking in churches and praying for injured fellow players.

Forsett is married to his college sweetheart, Angela Pressey, a former all-American volleyball player at Cal and the daughter of ex-NBA star Paul Pressey. For their first anniversary, he wrote and acted in a music video starring several of his then-Seahawk teammates. The couple, who live in Owings Mills, have a two-year-old son, Judah, and another child on the way.

He reads the Bible daily and posts what he has read to his Twitter account. He also writes a blog for The Sporting News, recording his thoughts on family and faith as they relate to his game. Among other things, he has covered the good works of fellow players and the importance of fatherhood.

Being a Christian, Forsett has written, doesn't mean being soft. And yes, he believes God cares about his game—not because he favors one side or the other but because it's a human endeavor.

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"While I'm on the field, I want to be relentless," he wrote earlier this year. "I want to play at a level my competitor is unwilling to match. I want to give all I have, not for man's approval, but for a higher purpose … [Football] can be used as a vessel for his glory."

Alarming bursts

When the Seahawks let him go after the 2011 season, Forsett wasn't happy to end up in Houston, where he'd end up toiling behind Foster. "I thought, 'Why do I have to go there?'" he recalls at the Ravens' training complex in Owings Mills this week.

Two years later, the call came from Baltimore.

"I'll be honest, I'd never heard of the guy," says Kyle Juszczyk, the fullback who often can be seen out front blocking for Forsett. "But he's an incredible teammate. He acknowledges every person who helps him excel. He has no interest in glory. When I get here in the morning, he's here working hard. He's here when I leave. When a guy like that does well, everyone is happy."

In time the Ravens cut ties with Rice. Pierce did indeed go down with an injury.

By Game 3, Forsett was the starter. By Game 13, he'd surpassed 1,000 yards rushing, a milestone he celebrated by buying each starting lineman a 55-inch flat-screen TV. By season's end, he had scored 8 touchdowns — half the team's rushing scores — and averaged 5.4 yards per carry, a franchise record. He's a finalist for an award given to the NFL player whose on-field performance most exceeds the value of his contract.

Still unsigned for next year, he hopes to remain a Raven.

He's savoring the opportunity to play in Foxborough — a trip to the AFC Championship and possibly the Super Bowl at stake.

There's nothing more fun in sports, he says, than entering a hostile environment and silencing the crowd. "Of course we can do it," he says.

A win against Brady, Belichick and company is certainly more likely than the arc of No. 29's career. Forsett knows it's downright freakish to become a star in one's seventh year.

"This kind of thing is just unheard-of," he says. "It's almost like a miracle."

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