His career with the Pittsburgh Steelers — and perhaps in the NFL — was over.
“That was a thought of mine,” guard Ramon Foster said.
One year ago Sunday, on the first padded practice of training camp, Foster crumpled to the ground clutching his right knee. Three plays into the first 11-on-11 workout in pads, and Foster feared the worst.
A cart was coming to take Foster off the field. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey, among others, were standing near Foster and providing comfort. He would be heading to Pittsburgh for an MRI that he dreaded might provide the unspeakable news of a ligament tear and season-ending injury.
Foster was 32 and entering the last year of his contract with the team that signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2009.
“This is it,” Foster remembered thinking. “I have to start changing my financial plan for how I’m going to live the rest of my life. I don’t know how this is going to work out.”
How it worked out is Foster did not need surgery. He would return for the start of the regular season. He not only would play in all 16 games for just the third time in his career, he would be on the field for 100% of the offensive snaps — 1,116 in all, a career high — not missing a single down.
And, most importantly, his Steelers career would continue in the form of a two-year contract that kept Foster from testing free agency in March.
“Crazy how it worked out,” he said.
Foster is the only one of the team’s four veteran offensive linemen never to be selected to a Pro Bowl, yet he is in some sense the glue of the front five, the soul of the unit with his wide smile and gregarious nature. The second-longest tenured player on the team, Foster is serious though when it comes to football; his tenure as the team’s NFLPA representative is proof of that.
“He’s a quality veteran player, a guy who is available all the time,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s very durable, very good above the neck, a tremendous component of what we do and what we’ve done for a long time.”
In his first nine seasons with the Steelers, Foster had avoided serious injury, starting 115 games and appearing in 130 out of a possible 144.
“I commend guys that have torns ACLs, Achilles and shoulder surgeries because to make it back from something like that, you have to be strong mentally,” Foster said. “Mine was minor. The pain was crazy, but mine was minor in that there was no surgery.”
Foster, though, didn’t know that as he was being carted off the field with Roethlisberger, who had the day off, riding along with him.
Three thoughts were running through Foster’s mind.
“One, am I going to be OK,” he said. “Two, I hate to have it happen like this, in camp. It’s not even a game. Third, what’s next?”
Foster had an hour-long ride to Pittsburgh to ponder that final scenario.. He was placed in a team van and driven to the South Side for an MRI.
“I have to get something to take this pain away,” Foster remembers thinking. “Get comfortable, talk to the my wife, talk to everybody. Once the pain went away a little bit, I got my sanity back.”
The MRI provided positive news. Foster had a bone bruise and hyperextension of the knee. No surgery was necessary. He was expected to return for the season opener in Cleveland.
First, Foster needed some cooperation from Mother Nature. Tomlin planned to sit Foster if the weather in Cleveland was hot and sticky.
“Conditioning-wise, they didn’t know if I was there yet,” Foster said. “Coach T said, ‘I don’t want the strain on you in a heated stadium, dealing with the temperature and dealing with the game.”
Fortunately for Foster, the temperature at kickoff was 58 degrees and it rained intermittently.
Foster played the entire game and the ensuing 15, giving him a full 16-game slate for the first time since 2015. He committed just three penalties and allowed one sack all season.
He credits Tomlin and the training staff for helping make his durability possible.
Tomlin withheld Foster from practice one day each week, a luxury the veteran guard previously had earned but one that was paramount last season.
“That is one of the reasons for me coming back here,” Foster said. “You could go somewhere else for a couple million extra, but the sanity of them knowing you, you knowing what to expect, them knowing how to treat you is different.”
And so it is that Foster reported Thursday to his 11th training camp at Saint Vincent College. He will take the field Sunday for that first padded practice on the anniversary of his injury.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Foster said. “That kind of injury makes you go back a little bit and take a backseat to personal things. One thing you have to focus on is it can go like that.”
Foster snapped his fingers.
“Also, you realize there is life after football. I had to reshape certain finances and, day to day, how I deal with people, how people come to me for money. I zoned in on my wife and two boys.”
And as far as football is concerned …
“You realize there is an ending,” he said. “You aren’t as invincible as you thought you were. The way you have to go about working out. I focus more on my legs and running. You learn about the importance of the game, the time on the field with the guys.
“One of the worst times ever was not being on the practice field with them last year. You feel disengaged, and I’m a guy who is always there. I want to be in the show, or part of the show. You take a new appreciation for it.”