HOUSTON — Arian Foster was in his first season as a starter for Houston back in 2010 when the Ravens came to town.
When Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis grabbed the running back after a play, he didn't know what to expect. Turns out Lewis had become a fan and told Foster: "I love the way you play this game. You have a very, very bright future."
Since then, the pair have become friends, though that bond will be put aside Sunday when the Ravens and Texans meet in an AFC divisional playoff game.
Foster was floored by the comments from Lewis that day and said they really meant a lot to him.
"I was having a little success, but he didn't have to do that, but he did it and it was kind of surreal," Foster said, shaking his head. "The whole game I was kind of just like, 'Ray Lewis just said ... .'"
Lewis, in his 16th NFL season, is impressed by Foster's football skills. But said he was drawn to the 25-year-old because of a quality that can't be seen in X's and O's.
"He's driven by a different burner inside," Lewis said. "He was an undrafted guy with a lot of talent, so he is fueled by something different. Anytime you add that type of fuel with talent you get Arian Foster."
Foster went undrafted out of Tennessee in 2009 despite running for 2,964 yards in his four-year career and was picked up by the Texans as a free agent. He was released that September, but signed to the practice squad the next day and made the active roster that November after injuries to Houston's other running backs. He ran for 257 yards in six games.
Foster became Houston's starter in 2010 and his career took off. He finished with an NFL-best 1,615 yards rushing, then followed that up by running for 1,224 yards this season despite sitting out three games.
In his first career playoff game last week, Foster ran for 153 yards and two scores to help the Texans to a 31-10 win over Cincinnati.
Foster has said the struggles he had in getting his NFL career going drive him, and knowing Lewis appreciates what he went through is the best compliment he could receive.
"As a man who's played in this league, who's respected by everybody who plays this game ... for him to say that, it's vindicating for everything that I've worked for just to be respected by your peers and not only your peers, but one of the greatest defensive players to ever play the game," Foster said.
The 36-year-old Lewis and Foster talk or text often — Foster wouldn't reveal what their texts have said this week — and they met up a couple of times during the offseason. Foster enjoyed spending a couple of hours chatting with Lewis after the pair attended the ESPYs.
"Those kind of moments are just priceless to me," Foster said. "Because he's just a great human spirit and anytime that you can be around people like that that inspire you, that's what life's about, is being inspired."
Foster fits no traditional mold. He studied philosophy at Tennessee, his name means "water bearer, holder of knowledge," he's written poetry since childhood and has a fascination for foreign cultures. While his Texans teammates certainly like Foster and appreciate his skills, some of them just don't understand his personality.
When he walked over to Andre Johnson on the sideline and bowed in front of him after the receiver scored a touchdown on Saturday, Johnson told him with a smile: "Man, get out of my face." Then there was the time Foster texted Johnson pictures of him feeding ducks.
"You get a text message from your teammate and you're thinking it's something important, something they have to say and it's a picture of him feeding ducks," Johnson said, laughing. "I don't know what that was all about, but he does stuff like that. It keeps you laughing."
Lewis didn't say if he's been on the receiving end of any such shenanigans. But he saw another side of Foster and decided early on that he would make him one of the players he hopes to guide in his career.
"That's one of my next young ones, that whatever I can do for him I'm going to do for him," Lewis said. "And that's the thing that I kind of got caught with, was his humility and who he is as a young man and the thing that drives him."
Of course, Lewis won't let his personal feelings get in the way of his task on Sunday. The Ravens held Foster to 49 yards rushing in a 29-14 win in October and know containing him this week will be a key to the game.
Lewis is also concerned about fellow running back Ben Tate and knows he could factor in to Sunday's game, too.
"You can't even really say he's a number two back, you got to say that he's a 1A and 1B, because he comes in and he gives a different kind of slash than Arian does," Lewis said of Tate. "Arian is a sleek cruiser, and Ben is more of a downhill, quick burst, really get downhill and fight for some tough yards. I just think they've got two good, good, good backs."