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Starkey: Homecoming for Ramon Foster

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 11:16 p.m.
Steelers guard Ramon Foster has teamed with Willie Colon to open up holes for breakout running back Jonathan Dwyer. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Nobody knows a child like his mother. So let's give Jeanell Foster the first word on son Ramon.

Jeanell is the one who raised four children in often harsh circumstances. She is the one who moved them from the projects of Covington, Tenn., to single- and double-wide trailers in Henning, Tenn. (home of noted author Alex Haley) and finally to a duplex.

Jeanell put down roots the best she could. She worked long days as a secretary yet stayed intimately involved in her children's lives. She is the biggest reason Ramon Foster flowered.

But it was never easy.

Sometimes, Jeanell says, bills would go unpaid because her then-husband had a gambling problem. Ramon and his three siblings would return from school to a darkened home.

All of that and much more helps stoke the fire that flares inside Ramon Foster when he is challenged, as he will be Thursday night when the Steelers play the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. Jeanell will be among three carloads to make the two-hour trek from Ripley, Tenn., and she will tell you it's not just her son's background that stokes the fire.

He was born determined.

“I remember he started holding his bottle at five months, and I'm like, ‘Wow,' ” Jeanell says. “He was walking at 10 months. He doesn't give up on anything. He knows he's not perfect, but he's going to try his best to get it right.”

Foster isn't going to make anybody's All-Pro team. We know that. But you have to admire his pluck — and you have to at least acknowledge the fact the Steelers are 24-10 in his starts. The street fight against the Eagles was his kind of game. His brawling style belies an otherwise gentle demeanor.

Still, he's far from perfect, which is why the Steelers have been trying to replace him seemingly every day since Super Bowl XLV 20 months ago. Chris Scott, Tony Hills, Doug Legursky and finally David DeCastro all have been auditioned at right guard. Injury or failure doomed each one, so as we sit here today, right guard hasn't changed at all. The fighter still remains.

You'll have to excuse Foster if he didn't partake in the rejoicing over the DeCastro pick. His first thought?

“Here we go again; here's another fight,” Foster says. “Nothing against him. The guy's a great athlete.”

Nobody should be surprised if DeCastro regains the job the instant he is cleared from a preseason knee injury, but Foster has been around long enough to not take anything personally.

Strike that. He's been around long enough to take everything personally but not dwell on the hurt. Undrafted out of Tennessee, he immediately was inspired by teammates such as Chris Hoke and Brett Keisel, nobodies who made themselves into NFL somebodies by rising each day with a chip on their shoulder.

What is it Mike Tomlin likes to say? The more you can do. Foster lived that mantra from an early age, whether by cleaning out his grandfather's stables, chasing after older brother Renardo (who would also make it to the NFL) or adding place-kicking to his duties on the Ripley High football team.

Yes, he was a 300-pound kicker who booted with a flat-toed shoe and once made a 32-yard field goal. He also developed a leader's mentality. He was president of the Ripley student council and graduated from Tennessee with a sociology degree.

On the Steelers' line, everybody loves Ramon.

“He's started the last three years, man,” center Maurkice Pouncey says. “Hopefully it stays that way.”

“I really, really, really enjoy playing next to him,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert says. “He makes my job a lot easier.”

One other factor that fuels the Foster fire: his family. He and wife Kesha were married in July in Nashville and have two young sons — Ramon Jr. and Myles.

“What I do now sets me up for the rest of my life,” Foster says. “So that's my mentality: If you get me, I'm going to get you four times.”

Who knows how long this gig will last? DeCastro's getting healthier.

For now, the fighter still remains.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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