The first time linebacker Reuben Foster stepped on the field for Washington almost wound up being the last time. After tearing multiple ligaments and suffering nerve damage in his foot, he battled thoughts of whether his career might be over.
"It still goes through my mind," Foster said Friday during his first news conference since Washington claimed him off waivers in November 2018.
But Foster has returned to the field, as Washington activated him from the physically unable to perform list on Sunday. He has gone from wondering if he'd play again to now pondering what he can contribute.
"My focus is so powerful right now. I'm not trying to fall back. I'm trying to step forward," Foster said on Zoom. "It's scary when you go back and you see everything going down, bro. It's scary, real scary."
Foster tore his left ACL and LCL on the first snap of his first organized team activity session in May 2019. It was later learned that he also lost feeling in his toes and needed the nerves to regenerate. That led to Washington being uncertain when -- and even if -- he'd be able to play again.
Even Foster had questions during his first practice this summer.
"I was focused on my leg, and I was like, 'Dang, am I the same again? Will I ever be the same? Will I ever be that type of caliber guy?'" Foster said.
Washington claimed Foster two days after the San Francisco 49ers released him following a second arrest for domestic violence against the same woman. Foster was placed on the commissioner's exempt list for the final five games. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges, as did the judge in the first case.
"I learned a lot," Foster said, "but right now I'm not even worrying about all of that. I'm keeping it in the rearview mirror. I'm looking to the future and looking on bigger things."
Foster said he wasn't focused on how others perceived him after his time in San Francisco.
"To know Reuben is to love Reuben," he said. "That's all I have to say. I love myself and always keep myself happy."
But the past two years did impact him.
"I've grown a lot. Just being humble, vulnerable, understanding for a lot of things of life," Foster said. "... It's hard to explain. I just know my drive to get back on the field was insane."
Former coach Jay Gruden had lobbied Washington to take Foster with the No. 17 pick in 2017, but it was San Francisco that drafted him at No. 31. He started 10 games at inside linebacker as injuries limited his rookie season, and he started only six games in 2019 after the 49ers moved him outside.
Washington, which sees Foster as an outside linebacker in its base 4-3 front, has been pleased with him thus far. Foster was reunited with a handful of Alabama teammates, including linebacker Ryan Anderson, who is one of his best friends.
Coach Ron Rivera wasn't with the team when Foster was claimed, but he did have a talk with him in the offseason.
"The one thing Reuben has shown since I've been here is that he is doing things the right way," Rivera said. "He is doing things the way we need him to do, and he has been excellent. He really has. He's done great things in terms of his rehab. He's done a great job in terms of working with our coaches. Here's a guy who needed a change of scenery. I think that may be one of the things that has truly benefited him."
Rivera hopes Foster can follow the path of Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, who tore his ACL and suffered nerve damage while playing in a bowl game for Notre Dame. Smith went from a possible top-5 pick to No. 34 and sat out his rookie season with Dallas.
Last year, Smith signed a six-year deal worth up to $68 million because of how well he has played since his recovery.
"That's what we're hoping for, for Reuben," Rivera said. "An opportunity to get back on the field and prove that he's back, and that he's the kind of guy we hope he can be for us. He can be a very big asset, just because of his ability to make plays, his explosiveness. When you have a guy like that, that has that kind of ability and he's back, it can be a very good thing."
Foster said that despite being unable to play for nearly two years, he never lost his appreciation for the game.
"I'm crazy for this game," Foster said. "I feel like God put me right here and dropped me like this and said, 'This is the football child.' I love this game. I'll never take it for granted for a minute."
Foster said he has tried to improve his health by changing his diet. He said he learned to cook, serving up swordfish five times a week while adding a rack of lamb or ribs every so often.
What he wants most is an injury-free season to finally show what he can do.
"I'm still a thumper. I'm still a hard hitter," Foster said. "I've just got to be confident in my play style and everything will come."