Nov. 18, 2016
By Denis Skwarcan
Cocoa is a small, touristy city on the eastern coast of Florida.
It has plenty of sand and lots of sun.
But University of Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston wasn’t interested.
“Never,” Folston says when asked if he spent a lot of time down by the water.
“I hated the beach.”
Instead, the 5-9 ½, 214-pound senior ran a lot of track and played a little bit of basketball. But he made his mark in football. As a senior at Cocoa High School in 2012 Folston rushed for 1,186 yards and 13 touchdowns while his team advanced to the Florida state semifinals. That year he also punted, played defensive back (had four interceptions, one returned for a score) and caught eight passes for 85 yards and one TD. For his efforts, Folston was named the Associated Press Florida Class 4A first-team all-state running back, and he fielded offers from Florida State, Auburn and Oregon. But Folston headed to northern Indiana.
“I came out here (to Notre Dame) on a visit and fell in love with the place,” Folston says.
“My parents also loved it, and this was the school we all could agree on. So I made it happen.”
The football transition to the major-college level came quickly. Folston found his way onto the field immediately as a freshman in 2013. He played in all 12 games, ranked third on the team in carries and yards and tied for the team high with three rushing TDs.
“Yes, I was definitely surprised by what I accomplished that year. Well, no, I wouldn’t say surprised,” Folston says. “I was ready for it when I came up here, and when the time came I produced like I knew I could. So, no, I guess I wasn’t surprised.”
He was, however, somewhat caught off guard by how physically demanding he thought the season would be compared to the reality.
“In high school my dad (James who played eight seasons in the NFL) and brother (James Jr., a sophomore defensive end for the Pittsburgh Panthers) and I used to work out all the time, sometimes three times a day, lifting weights,” says Folston, who also has a sister, Jazzmine, who ran track at Florida International.
“So, to be honest, it wasn’t as bad as high school, but I loved to do it so it also made it fun for me.”
Looking for an upgrade in year number two and possessing the confidence to do just that, Folston embarked on an even better sophomore campaign. He played in all 13 games, started 10 times and led the Irish in carries (175), rushing yards (889) and rushing yards per game (68.4). Folston was also second on the team with six rushing scores, and his 889 rushing yards were the most by an Irish sophomore since Darius Walker ran for 1,196 yards eight years earlier.
“I was expecting a better year,” says Folston, not entertaining any thoughts of surprise this time.
“I wanted to continue to make a name for myself at the college level. I wanted to play ball like I knew I could.”
The third time--or year--did not prove to be a charm. Folston started the season opener versus Texas and carried the ball three times for 19 yards. But on the third tote, a seemingly routine play which didn’t involve planting his foot in an odd way or being on the receiving end of a bad tackle, Folston tore his right ACL. Originally mistaken for a less-serious MCL injury, it was later confirmed to be the ACL, which required season-ending surgery. Not surprisingly, Folston didn’t think anything was wrong at first, but he then had to finally face the truth mentally after being told what the physical reality was.
“I didn’t know immediately that anything was wrong. My knee just felt a little sore like I had banged it or something,” Folston says. “My first instinct was to get in the next play and just go. But then the adrenaline must have worn off because it started throbbing.
“When I found out what was wrong, that tore my heart out because I wanted to be better than the year before. I had never been injured before in my life. And then to have this pretty bad injury? It really crushed me and took me about a week to get over the fact that I was actually hurt. Then knowing that I couldn’t play football for a whole year, having surgery and knowing I’m going to have a scar on my body for the rest of my life. Well, it was tough.”
Folston admits he also spent some time dwelling on questions for which there would never be answers: What if he had stayed healthy all season? What kind of stats would he have put up? Would they have been better than the year before? How would Notre Dame’s season have ended? Would Folston have left for the NFL early like classmate Jaylon Smith?
“Of course, of course, I thought about those things,” Folston says. “They ran through my mind for a long time. But at the end of the day I just had to tell myself that none of that stuff was happening and move on.”
Which he did with a support system that included his parents, his girlfriend and Notre Dame athletic trainer Rob Hunt.
“They were all there for me. They knew that sometimes it was tough and I was in pain,” Folston says. “But Rob was always telling me that I was going to be better than I was before the injury, and I just bought into that. I believed in myself and continued to work.”
With a full season still looming on the horizon, Folston had to figure out a way to stay engaged with the team without being on the field. For the first time in his life, he became the cheerleader instead of being the player for which everyone was cheering.
“Prior to that I had only missed one football game in my life, so it was definitely hard,” Folston says. “At the same time, I knew my teammates needed my support. It’s not going to hurt me for doing the cheering but it will help everyone else. So I can do that.”
After limited work during spring drills and being designated no-contact for the Blue-Gold spring finale, Folston says he felt like he was back to his old self this past summer. There was a little anxiety putting on the pads for the first time back (for full contact work), but he decided that could be more detrimental to him than if he was cautious.
“You can’t play nervous or you’re going to get hurt,” Folston says. “After I thought about that I was like, ‘You know what? I’m 100 percent, so why not play like that?’ So I wasn’t scared on the first play because I had already talked myself out it. And then when I was in the moment all that was behind me.”
Folston’s comeback season hasn’t quite been like he imagined, but, like the rest of the Irish, he continues to fight. He will graduate in May 2017 and has a fifth year of eligibility should he choose to take advantage of it. Like most elite college-level athletes he has the NFL in the back of his mind, but if he can’t play football then he wouldn’t mind talking about it.
“I don’t know how the season is going to end or what’s going to happen in the future,” says Folston who will receive his degree in film, television and theatre.
“So I can’t say what I’m going to do or what I’m not going to do. But I have thought about all this stuff.
“I would like to be on TV though, maybe on ESPN, sitting next to somebody talking about football all day.
“I could do that.
“I could develop the personality for it, and I definitely have the looks.”
Stay tuned for the next chapter update on Tarean Folston.
As the Irish saying goes, not done yet.
Denise Skwarcan is a freelance journalist from Elkhart, Indiana.