NO PLACE LIKE HOME
By ROBERT STEWART
Tiger Rag Assistant Editor
Editor's note: this story appears in Tiger Rag's Legends issue, which will hit newsstands this week.
Kevin Faulk’s football story begins and ends at Carencro High School.
It’s where Faulk first flashed his football talent more than 20 years ago, eradicating the opposition en route to more than 7,600 all-purpose yards and every high school football honor imaginable.
And it’s now where Faulk finds himself, after four decorated years at LSU and 13 years in the NFL, as a Golden Bear assistant coach.
Faulk traveled far and wide in between his two stops at Carencro. He rewrote the record books in his era in Baton Rouge, then toured the world as a longtime member of the New England Patriots. He’ll always be a Tiger and a Patriot at heart.
But the Golden Bear spirit still courses through his veins, and it drew him back to the place where he first learned to love football.
"It’s awesome,” Faulk said of being back home. "To actually give back what I’ve learned throughout the years and to be able to try to reach kids’ mindsets and change mindsets is a wonderful thing.”
To understand the story of Kevin Faulk’s football life, you have to start with his roots in Carencro.
KEVIN FAULK, LIVE AT THE CRO DOME
Carencro is a modest town by most standards. It’s a northern suburb of Lafayette with about 6,000 people. In a state filled with tiny communities like Convent and Livingston, Carencro isn’t that small.
But it still has that small town feel.
"Everybody knows everybody,” Faulk said. "Everyone knows everyone’s business. It’s just very tight knit.”
And on Friday nights in the fall, the Carencro masses flock to the Cro Dome to see the Golden Bears play.
No, it’s not actually a domed stadium. That’s just what the Carencro natives call the field at Carencro High. But it’s a hallowed ground where the likes of Damien James, Wade Richey and Alex Johnson have wowed spectators with their feats of strength.
Faulk put on the best show of all of them.
As a quarterback and all-around athlete, he rushed for 4,877 yards and 62 touchdowns in his Golden Bear career, 1,817 and 22 of which came in his senior season. He threw for 986 yards and 11 touchdowns. He racked up 1,693 yards and 15 touchdowns as a kick returner.
In all, he rolled to 7,612 career all-purpose yards and 89 total touchdowns, leading Carencro to its only state championship in 1992 as a sophomore thanks to a title-game MVP performance.
The honors rolled in. The Bobby Dodd Award as the nation’s best offensive player. Parade and USA Today All-America honors. Back-to-back Louisiana Class 5A Offensive Most Valuable Player awards.
You pull off feats like that, and every premier college football program in the country will come bang on your door. He was Leonard Fournette before Fournette was even born.
No wonder Gerry DiNardo was so eager to meet him.
It was December 1994, and DiNardo had just been lured from Vanderbilt to take over the LSU football program. He was being introduced to the Baton Rouge media, and he had promised to "bring back the magic” to a team that went 4-7 a season earlier.
The entire time he was talking to reporters, DiNardo had somebody in the back of his mind he hoped could bring back that magic — Kevin Faulk.
Immediately after his introductory press conference, DiNardo and football operations man Sam Nader packed up in a car to make the 61-mile trek west to meet the Carencro star.
"It probably opened my eyes to what South Louisiana is all about. It was about family, it was about schools, about churches, about food,” said DiNardo, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. "I must’ve asked Sam a million questions about where we were going, what it was like.”
At the time, DiNardo said, LSU was fighting off Florida and Notre Dame for Faulk’s commitment. But the Fighting Irish weren’t as high on Faulk’s radar, so it came down to a boxing match between the Tigers and the Gators.
DiNardo and Nader landed in Carencro and met Faulk, his coaches and his family. They first went to the high school, then made their way to Kevin’s home.
Faulk was polite and reserved. He maintained his poker face, not telling DiNardo what he was thinking about his future.
The brand new LSU coach made his pitch. We can give you both academics and athletics, he said. I want you to walk across that graduation stage with a championship ring on your finger. If you stay here, you’ll be close to home so your family can see you play.
DiNardo left Carencro uncertain of which way Faulk was leaning.
It turns out Faulk was sold from the moment he met the new LSU coach.
"It was one of those first impressions that lasted a long time with me — just who he was and who he showed me who he was as a person,” Faulk said.
THOSE ALL-AMERICAN YEARS
Kevin Faulk always feels comfortable in Tiger Stadium.
Donning a Carencro High collared shirt and Carencro bucket hat, Kevin Faulk wandered around the vaunted arena, withstanding the sweltering heat on a Wednesday in June reminiscent of the actual Death Valley, eventually making his way about halfway up the north end zone steps to the giant scoreboard he lit up so often 16 years ago. He was back at his home away from home.
"I’ve missed it since the day I left,” Faulk said.
Faulk made an immediate impact in Baton Rouge, leading the Tigers in rushing with 852 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman in 1995. He earned Independence Bowl MVP honors with 234 yards and two touchdowns in LSU’s 45-26 win against Nick Saban-led Michigan State.
As great as Faulk’s first season was, his 1996 sophomore campaign was one for the ages.
He rushed for 1,282 yards, second-best in LSU history at the time and second best in the Southeastern Conference that year. He finished fourth in the nation with 2,104 all-purpose yards. He was a consensus first-team All-SEC tailback, and the Associated Press named him a first-team All-American as an all-purpose player.
In possibly the most memorable performance of his career, Faulk rolled to a school record 376 all-purpose yards — 246 on the ground — to lead LSU from a 34-14 fourth-quarter deficit against Houston to a 35-34 win.
Despite coughing up two fumbles that led to 14 Cougar points, Faulk returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown, ran 80 yards for another touchdown and added another 3-yard score. With 2:05 on the clock and the Tigers facing a third down, Faulk sprinted for a 43-yard run to ice the game.
The spectacular plays became routine to DiNardo.
"We’d be on the headset and after Kevin would do this — it would be (running backs coach) Mike Haywood and me saying, ‘That’s not a surprise what just happened with Kevin,’” DiNardo said.
Faulk kept charging forward in his junior season in 1997. He was a consensus All-SEC tailback again after leading the conference in rushing and was third in the country in all-purpose yardage. In the Tigers’ legendry upset of No. 1 Florida, he led the team with 78 yards on 22 carries.
Then came time for a difficult choice for Faulk: Do I stay or do I go? NFL teams would’ve loved to have him.
But Faulk realized something: He was 18 hours away from graduating.
And he wanted another shot at an SEC championship.
The choice became easy. Let’s do this thing one more time, Baton Rouge.
"He called me and said, ‘Coach, are you ready to win an SEC championship?’ And I said, ‘Yes,’” DiNardo said.
The 1998 season was a disappointing one for LSU. The Tigers began the season ranked No. 7 in the country but never lived up to the hype, going 4-7 in the process.
But for Faulk, it etched his name in LSU lore.
Faulk ran for 1,279 yards to pile up 4,557 in his career — the most in LSU history and the third best in SEC annals. He finished his a career with 6,833 all-purpose yards, an SEC record that still stands to this day.
When asked about his favorite memory at LSU, Faulk points to his senior year, when he demolished school records and graduated in three and a half years.
"It probably wasn’t the best of years as a team, but as far as having fun with the guys and graduating, it was awesome,” Faulk said.
THE PATRIOT WAY
Returning for one more year at LSU paid off.
Following his senior season, the New England Patriots selected Faulk in the second round of the 1999 NFL Draft. The Patriots only finished 8-8 his rookie year, fifth in the AFC East.
But the Patriots hired Bill Belichick and drafted Tom Brady after that season.
You know what that eventually led to. Super Bowls, and lots of them. Faulk played in five of them in his career, winning three.
So yeah, it all worked out for Faulk.
"The first and last goal is to be playing for a championship at the end of the year,” Faulk said. "Once you reach that, that is something that’s a very special feeling.”
He never became an every-down back for the Patriots, starting only 47 of the 161 regular-season games he played. But he flourished in the roles of third-down back, out-of-the backfield receiver and return specialist in the Patriots’ offense.
He garnered 3,607 rushing yards and 3,701 receiving yards, and he scored 16 touchdowns on the ground and 15 through the air. Amassing another 5,041 yards on kickoffs and punt returns, he racked up 12,349 career all-purpose yards, best in Patriots history.
There’s that versatility DiNardo became accustomed to from Faulk.
"He was at the perfect place at the perfect time,” DiNardo said. "I just loved the way the Patriots used him because they totally understood what he brought to the table.”
More than two years after he retired, Faulk looks like he could still play in the NFL. He’s as muscular as ever and still looks every bit as agile.
But he hung it up in 2012, and at the time he said wasn’t sure where his life would take him after his playing days.
But in the back of his mind, Faulk knew what he wanted to do.
He wanted to be back home at Carencro High.
DiNardo, as a college football TV analyst, is in the business of making predictions on gamedays. Sometimes he’s right, sometimes he’s wrong.
But there’s one forecast he’ll always hang his hat on: that Kevin Faulk would one day return to Carencro as a coach.
"I’ve made a lot of predictions in my life, and a lot of them have been wrong. I was right on this one for like 20 years,” DiNardo said, laughing. "I don’t nail many of them, but I nailed this one.”
Faulk said he had always planned to become a high school football coach. That’s why he studied kinesiology.
"When I was done with high school — that’s what I went to college for,” Faulk said. "I knew what I wanted to do.”
In perhaps the most fitting role possible, Faulk coaches just about any offensive position at Carencro — quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, you name it.
Faulk even coaches his own son, Kevin Faulk Jr., at Carencro, which he says is "one of the hardest things in the world I’ve ever done.”
Faulk said he loves working with the kids to make them better as players and as people.
But there’s one thing he’s still adjusting to: he’s not coaching NFL players. These are kids, after all.
"The most difficult thing is understanding and realizing I’m not in a professional level anymore and that the mindsets of the kids are not the mindsets of, let’s say, a Tom Brady,” Faulk said. "They’re still high school kids. That’s the most difficult part for me.”
It’s probably safe to say Faulk will be able to make that adjustment in due time.
Isn’t that what he does? He adapts. He changes. He’s versatile. He’s football smart.
And he loves Carencro enough to stick around for a while.
There are about 61 miles in between Carencro and Baton Rouge, and another 1,600 from Carencro to Foxboro, Mass. Faulk has traversed all those miles an umpteen number of times.
But even after traveling all over the map, Faulk has found his way back home to Carencro.
You shouldn’t be surprised. He knew all along how the story would end.
BY THE NUMBERSA few stats from Faulk's legendary four years as a Tiger:
4,557 -- The number of rushing yards Faulk finished with in his career, best in LSU history by 507 yards over Dalton Hilliard
6,833 -- The number of all-purpose yards Faulk amassed for the Tigers, breaking Georgia legend Herschel Walker's SEC record. The figure still stands today.
376 -- The number of all-purpose yards Faulk racked up in the Tigers' 35-34 win against Houston in 1996. It is the most ever in LSU history and second in SEC history.
3 -- The number of times Faulk was named a first-team All-SEC performer (and yes, it's his jersey number, too).