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Mason Foster fights for a place rarely held by Tampa Bay Bucs rookies

TAMPA — Mason Foster didn't care if the red and white gloves with the NFL shield clashed with the black and silver colors of his Seaside Raiders youth football league team.

"We all still wore it," Foster said.

The uniform accessories were distributed at a football camp each year by Herm Edwards, a resident of the ocean view community on Monterrey Bay. Foster attended the camp held by the former Bucs assistant every year until after his junior season of high school.

He heard stories about all the Tampa Bay players, met a few of them and idolized one. So when Foster walked into the office of Bucs general manager Mark Dominik last week to sign his rookie contract, he took a deep breath and made a startling request.

"I know it's a long shot," Foster said. "But is there any way I can talk to Derrick Brooks about wearing 55 because he's my favorite player of all time."

Dominik didn't hesitate.

"I said, 'I'm not going to let you talk to him, but thanks,' " Dominik said. "I told him, 'create your own number.' Maybe one day, some young kid will sit here and ask if he can wear No. 59."

Foster, the Bucs' third-round draft pick from Washington, will get his chance to build his own legacy starting this season.

At 6 feet 1, 241 pounds, he is a different body type than the Bucs have had at middle linebacker. His fire burns white hot whenever he steps onto the field.

The Bucs' decision to pass on free agent Barrett Ruud, their leading tackler the past four seasons who signed with the Titans, opened the door for another young player to direct the defense for Raheem Morris.

The first meeting came at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., in January during an interview with Morris and Dominik.

"There was an obvious presence when he walked into the room and just the makeup of the guy really showed up for us in the way he commanded the interview, the way he handled it, his personality," Dominik said. "I can remember Coach Morris saying, 'I'd like to have that guy in my huddle.' "

Foster is competing with second-year linebacker Tyrone McKenzie, the former USF star activated after being released by the Patriots. The job likely will belong to Foster by the start of the regular season.

The last rookie to start at middle linebacker for the Bucs was Jamie Duncan, a third-round pick from Vanderbilt. Both players were taken 84th overall and wore No. 59.

Duncan started the final six games in 1998 when Hardy Nickerson was diagnosed with inflammation of the sac around the heart caused by an infection. Nickerson returned the next season then Duncan took over in 2000-01, with modest results.

Dominik is not concerned with playing another rookie at a pivotal position.

"From Day 1 on my press conference, I told everyone I had a lot of confidence that this kid is going to be a really productive player for us and be a fan favorite, because he does bring energy," Dominik said.

Foster's football acumen was instilled by his father, William, a former San Jose State football player who coached Mason in youth football and baseball. In '96, he saved enough money to take the family to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, where Mason met another idol, Chargers linebacker Junior Seau.

In the Monterrey Peninsula, where golf is the dominant sport, football players can get lost. Foster attracted only one offer from a Pac-10 program — Washington. He was a starter by the end of his freshman season and wound up playing all three linebacker positions. As a senior, Foster recorded 163 tackles, the most by any Huskies player in 20 years. His 12.58 tackles per game ranked second in Division I-A.

"When I came in, I felt like I was better than a lot of people," Foster said. "That's just the way I was raised. My dad told me you should always think that, even if you're not the best, you should compete like you're the best."

And maybe one day, Foster's jersey will be in demand.

"We were very confident that he wouldn't have a hard time immersing himself into this because he loves football so much," Dominik said. "He loves it and he loves the Bucs."

Mason Foster fights for a place rarely held by Tampa Bay Bucs rookies 08/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 2, 2011 6:41am]
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