From Goshen to the NFL: Derrick Foster dreamed big and made it big

Published 3:59 pm Monday, April 17, 2023

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Growing up in Goshen, Ala., Derrick Foster dreamed big and today he’s living that dream as an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Chargers of the NFL.

Foster grew up in Goshen and was an All-County running back for the Eagles, surpassing 1,000 yards on the ground as a senior.

“That’s home for me,” Foster proudly said of Goshen. “I’m proud to be from Goshen, Ala., where I cut my teeth and grew and learned and matured throughout my life.”

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Foster said some of his favorite moments growing up were playing youth football with his neighborhood friends and family, but said that it actually took convincing from himself and some leaders in the community to get his mother to let him play football.

“My mom kept me active in a lot of things that I did in the community, whether it was church or sports or engaging in the Upward Bound Program at Troy University,” Foster said. “There are a lot of fond memories for me (in Goshen) and even getting my mom to commit to letting me play football is one of them. That was one of my first loves and I think she hoped I would choose basketball or baseball because she thought maybe football would be a little rough on me. I wasn’t really a big guy. In my mind I was bigger than I actually was physically because of my heart and my determination and willingness to work.

“It took some convincing and the leaders in the neighborhood had to convince her to allow me to play football.”

When Foster started playing football, though, it didn’t take him long to get good. He wound up earning playing time on the varsity team as just a seventh grader.

“I remember when Coach (Joe) Thornton gave me my first opportunity as a seventh grader – as small as anything out there – to go back and forth playing JV and varsity,” he recalled. “I recorded my first varsity football tackle against Clayton High School at homecoming.

“One of my best memories was – as an eighth or ninth grader – helping win the region (championship) against Straughn. He decided to call a pass play to me on the goal line to win the game and we ended up winning the region that year. Those were some of my best memories.”

Foster played college football at Southwest Baptist University. (Photo courtesy of Southwest Baptist Athletics)

His stellar high school career earned Foster a scholarship to Southwest Baptist University in Missouri. In college, the 5-foot-8-inch Foster moved to receiver and in four years, tallied 2,062 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns during his career. He became Southwest Baptist’s Swiss Army Knife, catching 93 passes for 787 yards and three touchdowns along with rushing for 85 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Foster also completed two pass attempts for 45 yards and returned 61 kickoffs for 1,145 yards.

Foster graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in sports management and had already decided he wanted to be a coach, due to the impact his coaches had on him.

“Early in my life I knew I wanted to coach, probably as I started developing as a leader in high school,” Foster said. “I was always fond of the coaches I had, even from my first very coaches in termite football all the way through college. Those guys had a lasting impression on me and I liked what they meant to me and I wanted to be that for someone else.

“That’s where it all started, all the way from elementary (school) through my college career. I was impressed with the impact those coaches had on my life and they were role models and father figures that I could look up to and talk to. I wanted to be that for someone because the game is bigger than Xs and Os, it’s about serving and helping young men. I think my coaches did that for me throughout my career.”

After graduation, Foster interviewed for a few assistant coaching jobs in the Wiregrass but ended up working on the night shift at the SMART Plant in Luverne, where both his father and older brother worked. Eventually, Foster knew he had to attempt to reach his goals, so he reached out to Valdosta State University offensive coordinator Robby Brown, who was Foster’s offensive coordinator in college. Brown was a Troy University graduate that got his coaching career started as a graduate assistant at Troy.

“I was fortunate to have the job (at SMART) but it wasn’t my passion or love,” Foster said. “I called him and told him I wanted to get into coaching and it went from there.”

Foster served as a graduate assistant at Valdosta State while he pursued a master’s degree in sports management. In 2012, Foster became a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee and then took over as running backs coach at Northwestern State in 2013. After a season coaching running backs, Foster took over as receivers coach in 2014 and served in that position until becoming run game coordinator and running backs coach at Samford in 2016.

Following a successful stint at Samford, Foster jumped to the FBS level as he joined the staff at Iowa as a running backs coach in 2018. Foster spent three years at Iowa and coached a pair of All-Conference backs, including the school’s first All-Big 10 running back in a decade. Foster also served as Iowa’s offensive recruiting coordinator during his time there.

During his career, he made some important connections along the way. At Tennessee, he served as a graduate assistant alongside a young coach by the name of Brandon Staley. Also at Tennessee at the time was defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley, who played football at Troy University. Foster and Ansley’s relationship dated even further back, though, as the two met when Foster was in high school and Ansley was still a Trojan.

In 2020, Staley was hired as the Los Angeles Rams’ defensive coordinator. At that time, Staley recommended Foster for the coveted Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship, which is designed as a tool to increase the number of full-time NFL minority coaches.

Foster is the leader of one of the best running groups in the NFL. (Photo by Mike Nowak/Los Angeles Chargers)

“I was at Iowa at the time and it was during COVID, so I wasn’t able to physically be there,” Foster recalled. “Usually coaches get to be in the training facility and be a part of it there but I had to do everything via Zoom. It was a great honor.”

In 2021, Staley was hired as the new head coach with the Los Angeles Chargers and he called on Foster to join his staff.

“He called me up and asked if I wanted to be a part of it,” Foster said. “Now, I’m here. It’s been a learning experience, a growing experience and it’s been very fun. It’s one of those experiences you dream of, growing up you watch the NFL and you want to know how it is to be there and as an assistant coach, in college, you always wonder in the back of your mind what it would be like to work with professional players.

“Now, having that opportunity here – and working with these young men – has been an outstanding opportunity for me and something I don’t take for granted.”

While playing or coaching in the NFL was always a dream, Foster admits that he never put much thought into it being a real possibility when he was growing up back in Goshen.

“I didn’t, I never really imagined that,” Foster emphasized. “I always knew I wanted to excel and get to a high level but how and when and the timeframe I had no idea. I knew I just wanted to work and keep my head down and I knew good things would come eventually.”

And good things have certainly come. After becoming the Chargers’ running backs coach, Foster helped guide a running back group that includes All-Pro back Austin Ekeler, who like Foster was, is an undersized running back that does a little bit of everything in the Chargers offense.

Since Foster took over the job as running backs coach, Eckler has amassed more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage and at least 18 total touchdowns in each of those seasons. Eckler’s 20 total touchdowns in 2021 ranked second in Charger history for a season.

Foster and the 5-foot-10-inch Ekler share a lot more similarities than just their size and playing style as do-everything backs.

Foster has been the running backs coach with the Chargers since 2021. (Photo by Mike Nowak/Los Angeles Chargers)

“I would like to take a lot of the credit (for Ekler’s success) but I definitely can’t,” Foster said with a laugh. “We do have similar backgrounds. He played at a Division II school and I played at a Division II school. He was probably slightly bigger than me coming out of college and I transitioned from running back to receiver in college, but he’s a very hard worker and I think that’s really where we connect.

“We both believe in hard work and being disciplined in what we do. He has the skillset to do it and has been fortunate enough to play for the past seven years in the NFL. I’m able to share some of my small town stories and he can share of some of his. He’s from a small town in Colorado, similar to Goshen quite frankly, and he grew up in the mountains on a farm. I grew up in rural Alabama next to chicken houses and peanut fields.”

Foster said when he was growing up former Auburn Tiger and Indianapolis Colt Mike Pelton was the only Goshen native he had ever heard of that made it to the NFL level, so he had to be self-motivated.

“When you come form a small place like Goshen you really don’t have too many examples ahead of you that made it to this level as a player or coach,” said Foster. “So, I’ve always been self-motivated and self-driven to figure out the how.

“I knew my why, I knew why I wanted to be (a coach) and knew where I wanted to go but I knew the ‘how’ was going to be the most difficult part. I was so self-willed and self-determined to make sure that I did whatever I could possible to put myself in the position to be successful.”

When asked what message Foster would have for the Goshen youth growing up that think someone from a small area like that can’t make to a level like the NFL, he simply said to never given up on that dream.

“The only thing I knew and had instilled in me was hard work,” he emphasized. “I would say to any kid is to never give up on a dream. Write them down, dream big and network with people and try to connect with people and listen more than you talk. Ask the questions you want the answers to, that’s what I did. A lot of times I would sit and listen to other people and I would take it and run with the information I was given.

“I was eager to seek the information on how to get better, not just as a player but as a person and I think that is what allowed me to get to this point. There are no limits. We had this motto (growing up) that sky is the limit and I live by that to this day and carry it with me. Sometimes we put limits on ourselves because of our circumstances but we can always outwork that and outgrow that when we decide to water and cultivate the heart and determination inside of us. Anything is possible. Dream about it, write it down, focus on it and attack the day. Day by day build your determination and will to be great at what you want to be.”

While Foster is firmly focused on his current situation he still has more dreams to chase, as well.

“As I’ve grown and matured in this profession the main goal is to be the best person I can possibly be and the best running backs coach I can possibly be for the Chargers. Be where my feet are and do an outstanding job where I’m at now,” he said. “In the big picture, I’ve always wanted to be a head coach and go the coordinator route if that’s where my path takes me. I want to have the opportunity one day to run my own program or organization at some point. That’s my long-term goal, so I can continue to impact people.”