Decades ago, running backs in the National Football League were bruising players who made a living by using their physicality and evasiveness to gain yards and score points.
Such players almost exclusively stuck to running the ball on the ground at a time when the league was more “three yards and a cloud of dust” than the up-tempo game it is today.
Marshall Faulk was one of the first modern backs who was also very adept as a receiver. He was not only one of the greatest running backs ever, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was one of the league’s best offensive players period.
In the process, he would set new league records while helping to evolve the modern game and make it more entertaining.
Blossoming As A Young Athlete
Marshall William Faulk was born on February 26, 1973 to Cecile and Roosevelt Faulk in New Orleans, La.
In his early years, there was nothing to indicate that Faulk was headed for superstardom. In fact, he faced long odds simply making it out of his hometown.
At age four, his parents divorced, and he and his five older brothers would be raised by their mother in the Desire Housing Project. It was a dangerous place that suffered from poverty, gunshots, violent crime and overall bad vibes.
Faulk’s father didn’t spend much time with him when he was young, leaving his mother with a huge burden, as she worked multiple odd jobs to keep the bills paid.
As a young child, he was troubled and ended up getting kicked out of three different elementary schools. Like some of his friends at the time, he could’ve continued down a bad path that would’ve led to dealing drugs, committing other crimes and even death.
Luckily, Faulk fell in love with football at the age of seven. After playing in Little League and at his middle school, he went on to George Washington Carver High School, where he would be coached by Wayne Reese.
Reese, according to Faulk, was a huge influence on him, not only in terms of football but also in terms of succeeding in life.
“[Reese] taught me about how you have to make sacrifices to get where you want to go,” Faulk told Rob Rains in his biography. “I had to sacrifice my summers practicing for football and my springs running track.”
The coach also showed concern for Faulk and his teammates, helping to make sure nothing bad happened to them off the field.
“I was worried he and the other kids would get a stray bullet,” Reese told The New York Times. “We tell them, ‘Go home, stay there, don’t come out.’ For one hour, after practice, they would each call me and check in. We never wanted darkness to catch them.”
Because his family was poor, Faulk contemplated quitting football in order to focus on getting a job to support his siblings financially, but he persevered, and it paid off.
Faulk lettered in track, where those looking to recruit him for football could see that he possessed incredible speed. On the gridiron, he played both running back and defensive back.
He showed his dominance by putting up 1,800 yards and 32 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons combined. As a senior, he also intercepted 11 passes and turned six of them into touchdowns.
By the time he graduated from Carver High, Faulk had many offers from universities that had prominent football programs. There was only one problem, and it was a big one: those schools wanted him to play defensive back, but he much preferred to focus on being a running back.
“I didn’t love playing cornerback, so I knew I wouldn’t be as successful in that position,” Faulk told Sports Illustrated Kids. “You have to really love what you do to be a star.”
An Awesome Aztec
In the end, San Diego State University offered Faulk a scholarship to play running back. Even though it wasn’t a pigskin powerhouse, as far as Faulk was concerned, he could really shine as an athlete there.
As an Aztec, Faulk was an overnight sensation. He scored his first touchdown in his first game, and he was utterly dominant in his second game with 386 yards in just 37 carries, setting a new NCAA record.
29 years ago [Sept. 14, 1991] — Marshall Faulk goes for 386 rushing yards and 7 TD's against Pacific. It was his second collegiate game pic.twitter.com/ZKITiwKp7W
— Bate™ (@NoPlanB_) September 14, 2020
For the entire 1991 season, he put up 1,429 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, while adding two more touchdowns as a receiver. This made him the first freshman ever to lead the entire NCAA in rushing and scoring.
Everyone was already head over heels for Faulk. The Associated Press named him to the All-America team, a rare honor for a freshman.
If anyone was thinking that he may have been a one-hit-wonder, he silenced them as a sophomore by recording 1,630 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, again leading the nation despite a strained knee ligament.
His junior season was even stronger: 1,530 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. He also showed off his versatility with 644 yards and three touchdowns in the air.
Although Faulk was a superstar, he never won the Heisman. As a sophomore, he finished second to quarterback Gino Torretta, who would end up appearing in just two games as a pro player.
The conventional wisdom is that Torretta won because his Miami Hurricanes went undefeated in the regular season, while Faulk’s Aztecs only finished 5-5-1.
Still, he felt it was a slap in the face, and he decided to use it as motivation.
“Without a doubt, I won the Heisman,” Faulk said. “If you call Gino Torretta and ask him right now, he’d be willing to give it (to me). That’s all that he has to his name.
“But the way I look at it now, not winning the Heisman was probably the best thing that happened to me. It gave me that extra drive, the drive that got me through college when people didn’t think I could play running back. … It fueled the fire throughout my whole career.”
With the Aztecs hiring a new coach, and with entire defenses loading up on him, Faulk decided to skip his senior season and turn pro.
Initial Pro Success In Indianapolis
Scouts were raving about Faulk heading into the 1994 NFL Draft, especially when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.28 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine. The Indianapolis Colts took him with the second pick in the draft and signed him to a contract worth $17.2 million over seven years right away.
Faulk would prove right away that he was worth every bit of the investment his new team made in him. Simply put, he was a revelation.
The Colts had been an embarrassment for nearly two decades. They had made the playoffs only once since 1977 and consistently had one of the NFL’s worst offenses.
As a rookie, Faulk had 143 yards and three touchdowns in his NFL debut, which was a 45-21 win over the Houston Oilers.
He ran for 1,282 yards and 11 touchdowns on the season, and he added 522 yards and a touchdown in the air. He made his way straight to the Pro Bowl, where he was the first rookie to ever win the MVP of the mid-winter classic and the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in the same season.
The biggest key to Faulk’s success was his legendary speed, which he used to get past defenders and to elude them.
“What sets him apart from everybody else is that he can go from a standing start to full speed faster than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Colts coach Ted Marchibroda told Sports Illustrated. “When he runs the ball and is forced to hesitate, his next step is full speed.”
In 1995, Faulk had 1,078 yards and touchdowns on the ground and three more touchdowns in the air. The Colts went from poor to average offensively, almost single-handedly because of Faulk, and won nine games, making the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
A toe injury kept him out of action past the wild card round, but the Colts still somehow made it to the AFC Championship Game by edging past the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional round. A Hail Mary pass by quarterback Jim Harbaugh was a bit off target, and Indianapolis lost by just four points to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Faulk missed three games in the 1996 season with a dislocated toe, and his numbers were significantly lower than in his first two years. The Colts again finished 9-7 and lost again to Pittsburgh, this time in the wild card round of the playoffs.
Faulk returned to full health in the 1997 campaign and started to produce again with 1,054 yards and seven touchdowns. But it would be a rough one for Indianapolis.
Team owner Robert Irsay died in January ’97, and Harbaugh, who turned 34 in December, was starting to show his age. The team won just three games, prompting management to make some changes.
1998 was heralded as the start of a new era for the Colts. They had the good fortune of getting the top pick in the draft, which they used on QB Peyton Manning, while Jim Mora, who had led the New Orleans Saints, was hired as their new head coach.
It was that year in which Faulk went from good to great. He posted 1,319 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns, and thanks in part to Manning’s immense talent, he also had 908 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns.
In total, Faulk had 2,227 yards from scrimmage in ’98, which led the NFL, and his 86 receptions ranked fourth, resulting in his third trip to the Pro Bowl.
The Colts again had a paltry 3-13 record, and Faulk was unhappy. He wanted a new contract, and he ended up missing practices, making team president Bill Polian feel like he was a toxic influence for its young core.
Showtime In St. Louis
The Colts ended up trading Faulk to the St. Louis Rams for second-and fifth-round draft picks in the upcoming draft. St. Louis instantly gave him a seven-year, $45 million contract, and big things were expected from him.
The 1990s had been a dismal decade for the Rams. They had recently moved to Missouri from Los Angeles, yet they had failed to make the playoffs since the 1989 season.
Looking to shake things up, the team had hired Mike Martz, who was previously its quarterbacks and wide receivers coach, to be its offensive coordinator under head coach Dick Vermeil.
Martz decided to employ a souped-up offense that would employ five receivers and utilize the running back as a passing threat. It was based on the “Air Coryell” offense, which was used by Don Coryell when he coached the high-scoring, Dan Fouts-led San Diego Chargers of the early 1980s.
In a preseason contest, the Rams were dealt a huge blow when starting QB Trent Green injured his ACL and would be forced to miss the entire season. Vermeil was literally in tears, as he would have to turn the offense over to an unproven 28-year-old named Kurt Warner.
Warner went undrafted in 1994 and had played just one NFL game to that point. He had spent a few seasons in the Arena Football League and spent an additional season in NFL Europe, a short-lived international version of the NFL.
With their first-string QB out, most expected it to be yet another pathetic year for the Rams. In fact, ESPN Magazine picked them to end up with the worst record in pro football.
Instead, they would become perhaps the greatest Cinderella story in league history, and Faulk played a central role.
Warner instantly emerged as an elite quarterback, and Faulk was his biggest beneficiary. He would have a beastly season, hoarding up 1,381 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, plus 1,048 yards and five touchdowns in the air.
He was a weapon the likes of which football hadn’t really seen before. He became just the second player ever to have 1,000 yards both receiving and rushing in the same season, and his total of 2,429 yards from scrimmage was a new NFL record.
Marshall Faulk's touchdown run in 1999 vs the Browns. One of the coolest runs you will ever see. pic.twitter.com/WPSPdcw9dX
— St Louis Rams History (@STLRamsHistory) January 8, 2022
Warner tore it up under center with one of the best seasons in recent memory, winning league MVP honors, while Faulk took home Pro Bowl, First-Team All-Pro and NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors.
The Rams went 13-3 and were the hottest thing in all of sports. The NFL had never seen a team that was as talented, skilled and explosive as them, and perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers of the mid-1980s were the only other major sports team that could rival the 1999 Rams in terms of offensive dominance and overall success.
They were so great and entertaining that they would earn the nickname “The Greatest Show on Turf.” With receivers Isaac Bruce, who reached the Pro Bowl that year, Ricky Proehl, Az-Zahir Hakim and Torry Holt, trying to contain the Rams was like trying to stay dry during a Category 5 hurricane.
St. Louis opened the playoffs with a 49-37 runaway win over the Minnesota Vikings to advance to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 10 years.
Vikings on deck for a big NFC showdown!
One of the most underrated plays right here from the 1999 playoff bout with the two clubs. Marshall Faulk shows just how lethal he could be at his peak. The best weapon the NFL has ever seen. pic.twitter.com/4XUFOmZGnn
— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) December 24, 2021
It would be a classic tug of war between the Rams, who were bursting at the seams with offense, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were their polar opposites in style of play. While the Rams were sleek, fast and ultra-potent, the Bucs were a team that wanted to take the air out of the ball and force opponents to grind out every single yard.
The Bucs established the tempo they wanted in the NFC Championship, but despite a poor game from Faulk (he had just 44 rushing yards and five receiving yards with no touchdowns), the Rams somehow squeaked by with an 11-6 win.
Super Bowl XXXIV would pit St. Louis against the Tennessee Titans, another team that wanted to run the ball more than it passed it and was adept at shutting down their opponent’s running game.
Faulk had trouble against the Titans on the ground, as he managed just 17 rushing yards on 10 attempts. But he was very effective as a receiver, as he riddled Tennessee with 90 yards on just five receptions.
After the Rams took a 16-0 lead, the Titans came all the way back to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. Warner found Bruce for a touchdown with less than two minutes left to put St. Louis ahead again, but with seconds left, the Titans had the ball on the Rams’ 10-yard line.
Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair found wideout Kevin Dyson, who was tackled by Rams linebacker Mike Jones at about the two-yard line. Dyson stretched out his arm in an attempt to get the football to cross the plane of the goal line, but it came up just short.
The defensive play that simply became known as “The Tackle” sealed a 23-16 victory for St. Louis, giving it the world championship. Faulk had gone from the inner city to the top of the sports world at the ripe age of 26.
If the sports world thought Faulk had been dominant in ’99, it would be even more amazed in 2000, as he took things to an even higher level.
He had 1,359 rushing yards and a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns, to go along with 830 yards and eight touchdowns as a receiver. His 26 total touchdowns more than doubled his output from the previous season and set a new NFL record
Faulk’s prolific season helped him earn the league MVP and NFL Offensive Player of the Year award.
The Rams started 2000 by winning its first six games and seven of its first eight. But Warner suffered a broken hand and missed several games, causing the team to stumble and finish 10-6.
St. Louis’ defense, which had been the secret to its success in ’99, was now porous, and the team was upended in the wild card round of the playoffs by the New Orleans Saints.
The Rams bounced back strong in 2001, and Faulk continued to embarrass opposing teams, putting up 1,382 yards and a dozen touchdowns on the ground and 765 yards and nine touchdowns as a receiver. It was the fourth season in a row he had at least 2,000 all-purpose yards.
For the third straight year, he was named to the All-Pro First-Team, and for the second straight year, he was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Warner played a full, healthy season and looked to be the same player he was in ’99, and with the Rams’ defense strong again, they won 14 games, the most in the league that year. The Greatest Show on Turf was back, and it looked like the team was on its way to another world title.
The Rams blasted the Green Bay Packers in the opening round of the playoffs, and with the help of Faulk’s 159 rushing yards and two touchdowns, they got past the Philadelphia Eagles to advance to the Super Bowl again.
This time, St. Louis would face off against the New England Patriots and a young QB named Tom Brady. The big game would be held in Faulk’s hometown of New Orleans, giving it even more meaning to him.
“Regardless of what the downside is,” Faulk told the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, “to get the opportunity to play where I’ve played high school football games, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Brady was not exactly the legendary quarterback he would eventually become, and most figured the Rams were a lock to win their second championship in three years, as they were favored by 14 points over New England.
St. Louis struggled through the first three quarters, as the Pats forged a 17-3 lead. Faulk did his job with 76 rushing yards and 54 receiving yards, and the Rams managed to tie the game on a touchdown from Ricky Proehl with 90 seconds left.
This time, however, there wouldn’t be a triumphant finish for Faulk’s boys. Pats kicker Adam Vinatieri hit a 48-yard field goal as time ran out, giving them the world championship and their own version of the Cinderella-type season St. Louis had enjoyed two years ago.
The Show Winds Down
The magic carpet ride would end for the Rams starting in 2002. Warner’s play greatly declined, and he would start to rack up injuries on a regular basis, leading to him eventually being replaced as a starter by Marc Bulger.
Faulk would still be a star, but his production would slowly head downward. He was nearing the age of 30, and typically NFL running backs see a significant drop in their production at that age.
He still did well in 2002 with 953 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, despite missing two games. He again was sent to the Pro Bowl, which was his fifth straight and seventh overall trip to the mid-winter classic.
32 carries for 183 yards + 3 TDs.
7 receptions for 52 yards + 1 TD
Marshall Faulk put together an unreal performance in 2002 against Seattle pic.twitter.com/vL14hSLynF
— RAMS ON FILM (@RamsOnFilm) December 16, 2021
The Rams missed the playoffs that year, but they returned to the postseason in ’03 with a solid 12-4 record. Around this time, injuries were starting to take a toll on Faulk, but he still had 818 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground in 11 contests.
2004 was perhaps Faulk’s last strong year, as he mustered 774 rushing yards. The Rams barely made the playoffs with an 8-8 campaign, but as they did the year before, they lost in the divisional round.
After a poor 2005 season, Faulk had reconstructive knee surgery that would force him to miss the entire 2006 season. That was the death knell for his career, as he announced his retirement in March 2007.
“Just being around the game last year, I realized how much I love it,” Faulk said. “But my health is everything. And I didn’t want to return if I couldn’t get through a full season. It all came together when a close friend asked me ‘How many 34-year-old running backs are there?”
Life After Football
Faulk settled into the family life after he hung up his cleats. He has six children, and one of them, Marshall Faulk Jr., went on to play college football as a running back for the Central Washington Wildcats, a Division II school.
For several years, the elder Faulk served as an analyst for NFL Network. Unfortunately, his tenure there came to an end in 2017 when he was accused of sexual harassment by a former wardrobe stylist at the channel.
He has also done work for charity, starting the Marshall Faulk Foundation to raise money for poor children in St. Louis and New Orleans. He has also raised money for Carver High and San Diego State, and he has donated an ample amount of money to the American Liver Foundation.
The bookend to Faulk’s career came in 2011, when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He still ranks at or near the top in several offensive categories, and he is still acknowledged as one of the game’s greatest offensive weapons ever.
Happy birthday to Hall of Fame RB @marshallfaulk!
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) February 26, 2021
In today’s NFL, there may be a few guys who have equaled Faulk’s output both as a running back and receiver, but he was the original back who combined the elite talent and skills of both positions into one package.