Heat waves radiated off the turf field at A.C. Reynolds High School – the warmth was almost unbearable – and for a second, Justin Foster disappeared in the crowd.
He was wearing two shirts, and the second one had long white sleeves. No one else was wearing long sleeves, so you could pick him out by his outfit. If not that, his afro. If nothing else, his size. Even at that Shrine Bowl football combine, his physique stood out.
Six-foot-five and 255 pounds always does.
Foster popped back up. He was just tying his shoes. Coaches in dark green tee shirts called his number, and he walked over to the track surrounding the field.
He’d run the 40-yard dash, just one of a myriad of tests he’d complete today. With his reputation, Foster didn’t necessarily need to compete, but he did anyway.
As he stepped to the starting cones and put one hand down on the hot rubber, most of the crowd turned to watch.
They wanted to see what the top-rated senior football player in North Carolina does next. Everyone does.
That includes major college football programs across the country, all beckoning for Foster’s services. Clemson, Tennessee, Stanford … the list goes on.
And from looking at him, it’s easy to see why. His length and speed helped him rack up 67 tackles as a junior, 12 for loss. As a sophomore, he led Crest High School to an undefeated record and then a state championship.
With scores of coaches and players looking on, Foster got set. He kept his head down, and slowly pulled his right arm behind him into the air.
And then he took off running.
There goes the option
Foster’s introduction to football was nothing special, but he is.
He started in the third grade. Foster remembers a weight limit, which he always exceeded, kept him from playing outside linebacker.
In middle school, he moved to linebacker, and then in high school to the outside. He was always a big kid, his mother said, but he wasn’t always sure football was his calling.
“Growing up, I wasn’t too big into sports,” Foster said. “My big thing was working on cars, messing around and seeing how a motor works and things like that.
“Sports kinda came in a little bit behind there.”
His sophomore year was when it all came together. Foster, two years younger than many of his varsity teammates, started a few games. He did well.
Head coach Will Clark, then Crest’s defensive coordinator, remembers the moment everything starts clicking for Foster, a 2014 game at T.C. Roberson.
“He was on a stunt and he sacked the quarterback ... I think that was the first real time that he hit somebody and realized he could do that every time,” Clark says. “Just started playing the game a whole lot harder.”
At the end of the season, his team won the 3A state title.
His first scholarship offer, from Clemson, followed thereafter.
“There kinda went the option,” Foster said. “You’ve gotta play football now.”
The shade tree mechanic
When Justin isn’t on the football field or in school, he’s in a garage somewhere in his hometown of Shelby. And in there, he’s maybe even better than he is on the gridiron.
You’ll find him tinkering with a motor or an engine or some other part in the belly of an automobile. He learned how from his great-grandfather Albert Padgett.
“My grandfather had had him with him every step of the way ever since he was able to walk,” Teresa Padgett-Williamson said of her son.
Padgett was, as his granddaughter calls it, a shade tree mechanic.
He traveled from home to home of neighbors and strangers alike, fixing cars in their front yards. Sometimes, as the name suggests, that meant working beneath a tree.
But now, Padgett-Williamson said, the shade tree mechanic is a dying breed. Her grandfather was one of the last of a dying breed.
Before Padgett died, he wanted to ensure his passion endured long after he was gone. He needed a student.
He found one: his great-grandson, Foster.
Don’t touch the lawnmower
With her grandfather close by and her experience driving tractor trailers, Padgett-Williamson may have expected her son’s mechanical tendencies.
Just probably not so early on.
She recalls a time when Foster came up to her, letting her know her baker’s rack in the kitchen was loose.
“He said, ‘Are you gonna give me a screwdriver so I can tighten it up?’ ” she says now. “And I didn’t believe him at first, and I went over and checked it and my baker’s rack was really loose.”
Foster was 3 at the time.
There’s more. Within a year, Padgett-Williamson received a phone call at work that she still remembers today.
It was her family – they’d caught Foster underneath the lawn mower. He’d used two bricks to prop it up, one on either side, and intended to fix the mower.
“Luckily,” Padgett-Williamson says, “they caught him before he touched any of the blades.”
Before long, Foster was out with his great-grandfather, learning the intricacies of cars and how to fix them. He was, as he demonstrated from a young age, a quick study. His favorite?
“A 1970 Chevelle,” he said, grinning. “That’s the car I fell in love with.”
Foster’s time in the garage worked as much on his character, if not more, as he worked on the machines. Those age-old mantras – work hard, keep your head down?
He found them fixing cars; football was reinforcement.
Football or fixing? Or both?
His great-grandfather raised Foster in the shop. His mother and grandmother, Alberta Padgett, raised him outside it.
Altogether, they molded the young man who now faces the toughest decision of his life to date: picking a school.
Foster recently released, in alphabetical order, his top seven finalists: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Kentucky, Notre Dame, Stanford and Tennessee.
For now, Foster’s been linked mainly to Tennessee and Clemson, where his sister graduated in May. He still plans to visit his top seven schools this summer, and he wants to release a top three before next season.
And how exactly does he plan on narrowing down from these football powerhouses? By the number of national championships or top draft picks?
Nope. He wants to play, of course, and to get along with his coaches. But he wants something else, too.
“Basically, football, school, working on cars and stuff – working on anything – is pretty much me,” Foster says.
He wants the chance to tinker, as he always has. The chance to study engineering.
“That’s one of our main concerns,” Padgett-Williamson says. “That he’s able to study in that field and they’re not gonna discourage him to change his major.
“If he never makes it to the NFL, what would he be doing? And if he does make it to the NFL, what’s life after the NFL? We look at all things in a roundabout way.”
But all of that is still at least a year away. For now, Foster is focusing on the same things he always has:
▪ School, where he has a 4.2 grade-point average.
▪ Football, where he’s looking to win another state championship at Crest.
▪ And, of course, fixing things.