CHARLOTTE — There were moments last fall when D'Onta Foreman wondered if he was done.
But there was someone back home who believed he could still play in the NFL, even if Foreman himself wasn't sure he'd get another chance.
And shortly after one of their final conversations, Foreman proved his father right.
The free agent running back reclaimed his promise as an every down back last year with the Titans, which made the Panthers eager to bring him in this offseason to try to build on it. After the job he did filling in for an injured Derrick Henry in 2021, the Panthers think Foreman can add a bigger and more physical complement in the backfield for Christian McCaffrey and Chuba Hubbard.
But before any of that happens on the field this year, Foreman can't help but rewind to a time when he wasn't sure it would happen at all.
Last summer, a brief stint with the Falcons ended when they released him from the practice squad on Sept. 3. For a guy who missed so much time with injuries in his career, the weeks of the phone not ringing seemed like a signal that he might not play again. When you're 25 years old, and you have 29 carries in the previous three seasons combined, it's a reasonable conclusion to draw.
"For sure, I had a lot of moments like that. Even before I got the call to go back to Tennessee, I felt like it was coming to an end," Foreman said. "I was honestly trying to figure out what I was going to do after football and what my next chapter was going to be."
He thought of going back to school, or developing some business ideas. But in October, his father reiterated his faith in his son.
"I told him during that conversation, before that happened, that I would take any call for that year, but if I didn't get a call that year, going into the next year, I'd be done," Foreman said. "At that point, I felt like I wasn't going to get any calls. So I was preparing my mind to be done. But once I got that call, that wasn't one I was going to leave on the table."
Days after that conversation, on Oct. 15, his father, Darreck Foreman, died in a vehicle accident in Oklahoma.
"He told me that no matter what, he was proud of me for what I had been through, everything I've done and accomplished," Foreman recalled. "He told me he loved me regardless of whether I was playing football or not.
"That gave me some peace in making my decision at the time. I knew I had to take advantage of any opportunity that might come."
The chance came when Henry broke his foot against the Colts on Oct. 31. Many thought the Titans' opportunity might have ended at that moment, so central was their big back to the way their offense ran. But the Titans were familiar with Foreman from a previous stint in 2020, so they called to see if he was available.
In nine games, Foreman ran for 566 yards with three touchdowns, and had three 100-yard games. It was the kind of output you don't necessarily expect from a backup, especially one who was contemplating retirement a few weeks earlier.
"It was about the teaching I had growing up, being able to be ready when your number is called, and being focused on the task at hand," Foreman said. "It was tough not to have those conversations with my dad. He was one of my biggest fans and one of my biggest critics, so just not being able to talk to him was tough. But at the end of the day, everything he taught me my whole life, I tried to live that and be the best man I could be.
"Another thing that kept me grounded, I knew Dad would want me to be focused and to do everything I could with the opportunity. I think that held me over. I wanted to make him proud and my family proud."
Instead of collapsing without their star runner, the Titans won four of their final five games in the regular season with Foreman carrying the load, winning the AFC South.
So for the Panthers, the appeal is obvious.
With memories of Mike Davis stepping in for McCaffrey in 2020, they knew the value of having a bigger back around.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule remembered Foreman's explosive ability from his college days, and thought it was a good fit.
"You see the way he played last year, he ran with power, ran the wide zone game, but had long speed to get down the field," Rhule said of Foreman, who came here on a one-year deal. "For us, in our situation when you have Christian McCaffrey, and you have Chuba, to add a big back like D'Onta, to me gives us a nice mix.
"He brings something the other guys don't have, and he showed it last year playing for the Titans."
This chance is another one Foreman wants to make the most of. He missed most of the 2018 season coming back from the Achilles, and spent the 2019 season on injured reserve with the Colts after a torn biceps.
So the simple act of going through offseason workouts and OTAs is one Foreman won't take for granted.
"It's been a while since I was able to have a complete year together with everything I've been through," he said with a laugh. He was also quick to point out how "welcoming" McCaffrey was for him, describing his new teammate as: "Great leader, great player, great person."
"Whatever my role, I'm ready to excel in it," Foreman said. "I feel like I can excel in it. So whatever it turns out to be, I'm going to put my best foot forward to get it done."
But no matter how things unfold here, Foreman proved last fall he could still make a difference — after his father insisted that he could.
"It was something I had to prove to myself and my family," Foreman said of his comeback. "My dad wasn't physically there to watch it, but it was something I wanted to show.
"I felt for years I could still play at a high level, and I could still help a team win. I think I showed that."
View photos of running back D'Onta Foreman on set with the Panthers as he officially signs on Thursday.