SPARTANBURG -- DeShaun Foster prefers to keep things quiet.
But to his teammates and coaches, his talent screams, his highlight-reel plays sing and he speaks volumes about how to go about business while barely saying a word.
The Carolina Panthers' running back, entering his sixth year, continues to be viewed from the outside as a tease, a boundless talent who's never had a 1,000-yard rushing season. The injuries which shortened three seasons have defined him to others, but those who know him insist he's about to break out again, as they've said annually.
"The thing about DeShaun, he has very good talent, and he's been snake-bit a little bit," running backs coach Jim Skipper said. "I don't even want to bring the word up. But that's been keeping him humble. He's an outstanding competitor, he's a leader, he knows what's going on. If he could have a little luck and stay healthy, good things could happen.
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"But that's the luck factor in this business. You do all you can do, try to stay in good shape, but there are going to be circumstances."
They've already started happening this year, as he flashed with 62 yards on five attempts in last week's preseason opener. Tonight, he returns to the scene of one of his career-defining runs, and a smile creases Skipper's lined face when the place is mentioned.
Foster seemed to drag the entire Philadelphia defense into the end zone in the 2003 NFC Championship Game, breaking five tackles on his way to the game's only touchdown.
That one was the hammer, the proof Foster was more than the finesse back many thought him to be. Sure, he's popped some long runs and is better-cast in this year's offense, but that night proved what he could be.
"That one right there does it," Skipper said. "Everybody wants to say he's not a physical player, not this or that. When you physically do things to the other team, that motivates the entire sideline.
"Just like a boxing match. You can win it by decision, or you can win it by knockout. When you knock somebody out, that's what fires them up."
Amid it all, Foster's maintained an icy manner; quiet and reserved, dignified and proud.
And perhaps because of the problems he's had to overcome, he's developed into one of the next-generation leaders tabbed by ownership. When Jerry Richardson called five players to his lake house this summer to talk about the direction of the team, it was natural he picked singular talents Julius Peppers and Steve Smith. It made sense he called quarterback Jake Delhomme and cornerstone blocker Jordan Gross.
That Foster made the list surprised some, but not him.
"It's just that time for some us," Foster said. "We're not young guys anymore, so you want to get out there and produce. He just wanted to know if we were ready to step up to that challenge."
Foster shook his head when asked if he was surprised to be invited, but also downplayed the suggestion he was becoming a focal point.
"I wouldn't say that, I'm just trying to play my game, really," he said quietly. "I'm kind of a vet now. I've got DeAngelo (Williams), and Eric Shelton, young guys behind me. I just try to lead by example and go out there and help them out."
In many ways, Foster has become the new incarnation of his mentor, Stephen Davis.
When Davis arrived in 2003, he was the perfect fit for Dan Henning's straight-ahead running style, and quickly adopted Foster -- then coming back from his rookie knee problems. They formed the tandem that carried the Panthers to the Super Bowl, but combined, they added very little to public discourse.
"Stephen kind of guided him around and he's kind of guiding others around," Skipper said. "It's the thing we do. The guy's not seeking attention. He just lets the play do the talking, just a classy guy. Guy scores a touchdown and doesn't act like it's the end of the world, or the first time he's been here or the last time."
Of course, you also have to be able to play to capture the locker room. To his teammates, there's no question about that.
Delhomme said last year he expected Foster to gain 1,300 yards (he was 403 short), and he renewed the prediction this year since the new offense suits him better. "I still believe it," Delhomme said. "He's a heck of a running back."
But as comfortable as he looks in new coordinator Jeff Davidson's system, he cuts back quickly if reporters are around. He jokes and smiles easily around teammates, but looked pained when surrounded by media in New York last week. After being described at different points in his career as soft or a bust, Foster seems distrustful of the media, stiff-arming them the way he did Darrell Green on his iconic first run as a Panther.
He speaks softly anyway, but his voice drops to a low mumble when being interviewed. You're not going to get much out of him, but the things he lets leak speak to his feelings.
Someone asked about the Panthers' new system, and whether he was excited about the possibilities.
Foster looked up, eyes brightening a bit, and cracked a near-smile.
"Yeah," he replied. "You could say that."
• Who: Panthers (1-0) at Philadelphia (0-1)
• When: 7 p.m. today
• Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
• TV: FOX (cable channel 11 in Rock Hill)
• Radio: WBT (1110 AM)
• Notebook • 4C