HOUSTON — It is hard to imagine, watching DeShaun Foster sitting on his makeshift throne at media day, diamond earrings, diamond bracelet, sparkling smile.
It is hard to envision, watching him tug at his teal and white Carolina Panther jersey, bursting out of his uniform and into the coolest Sunday in sports.
But, you know, this could have happened three years ago.
His crown could have been the Heisman Trophy. His championship contender could have been UCLA.
He could have been finishing the most memorable autumn of his life, playing in a major bowl game that could have lived in Bruin lore.
Instead, on Tuesday, when asked about that 2001 season, DeShaun Foster couldn't recall a single thing.
Are you bitter about how things ended at UCLA?
Were you treated fairly by UCLA?
Will you even talk about your last season at UCLA?
Pity the UCLA football fan during Sunday's Super Bowl, watching DeShaun Foster as he tries to dart around the New England Patriots as he used to skip through Pacific 10 Conference foes.
Ever tried to cheer through clenched teeth? Root for a sports car while moaning about an SUV?
Even those who have long since forgiven DeShaun Foster surely will not forget.
The energy with which he has helped lift the Panthers is the same energy that he once used to carry the Bruins, with one difference.
Three years ago, he didn't finish the run.
Three ago, his eligibility came up lame, and the entire program crumpled to the ground around him.
With three games remaining in his senior season, the Bruins were 6-2 and Foster's rushing feats had carried him to the top of the Heisman race -- six 100-yard games, including a 301-yard game at Washington.
Then there was this little thing with a car.
"Something that changed not only the course of our season, but also maybe my career," then-coach Bob Toledo said this week.
Foster was discovered driving an SUV that was owned by actor-director Eric Laneuville, placing him in violation of the NCAA's extra-benefits rule.
He was suspended for the rest of the season.
"He suddenly just disappeared," said Mike Seidman, former Bruin tight end who is also his teammate on the Panthers. "We were all like, 'Man, this really stinks.' "
It was a lot worse than that.
It was the sudden end to an underachieving Bruin season that featured 10 players who would play in the NFL.
It was the startling conclusion to a brief era of Bruin domination that included 20 consecutive wins in 1997-98.
And, of course, it was the beginning of the end for Toledo.
"It was really sad," said Toledo, who was fired a year later. "The kid made one mistake, and it hurt all of us, big-time."
If Foster had been playing, the Bruins probably would have defeated 17th-ranked Oregon the next week, instead of losing after Chris Griffith missed a 50-yard field goal in the final seconds.
On the play before the field-goal attempt, Akil Harris was stopped on a third-down-and-five run.
"DeShaun would have made that first down, because, if you look at the film, the guy just barely grabs Harris from behind with his fingertips," said Gary Bernardi, then-recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach. "Then we get closer, then who knows what happens?"
If Foster had been playing, the Bruins also would have fared better against then-unranked USC, which clobbered them, 27-0.
Right or wrong, Cory Paus' drunk-driving conviction would not have been made public before that game if Foster was playing. It is believed that one of Foster's supporters, understandably outraged at the NCAA's ruling against him, complained to a reporter that Paus was getting a free ride.
Paus' conviction was uncovered, UCLA coaches were informed, and three days before the big game, chaos ensued.
"I just know that after DeShaun left, everything went on a downward spiral," Seidman said. "We had lost a leader on the field, and a leader in the locker room."
If the Bruins had defeated Oregon and USC, then beat Arizona State as they did, UCLA would have been 9-2 -- not 7-4 -- and perhaps in a big game.
And if Foster continued his current rushing pace, well, the Heisman Trophy was eventually given to a running quarterback -- Nebraska's Eric Crouch. You do the math.
And throw in the cost of dropping to the second round in the NFL draft.
"It hurt us a lot, but it also really hurt DeShaun," Toledo said. "I think he would have won the Heisman Trophy, and I think he would have been a first-round pick."
A Ford Expedition is nice and all, but, c'mon ...
"Hey, DeShaun is in the Super Bowl," said Ricky Manning Jr., Panther cornerback and another Bruin. "He's doing just fine."
After missing his rookie season because of a knee injury, Foster has indeed rebounded to become a change-of-pace back with Stephen Davis, even scoring the clinching touchdown in the Panthers' NFC championship victory over Philadelphia.
Manning, charged with felony assault before his senior UCLA season -- charges that were later dropped -- has also done well, with three interceptions in that game.
Toledo chuckled when he saw UCLA rushing to trumpet the two players as Bruins after that title game.
"Everybody wanted to kick these guys out of school when they were there, but now that they're doing well, they're claiming them as Bruins again," he said.
Foster seems just glad to be back in good graces. He came back to UCLA last spring, attending the spring game at the request of Coach Karl Dorrell.
"I think Coach Dorrell is going to get things turned around," Foster said. "How can you judge him now? He doesn't have any of his players."
He said he will return to UCLA this spring to finish his degree, with a major in history.
"After I got hurt, I realized you can't play football forever," he said.
Ask any UCLA fan. Eleven games would have been plenty.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read his previous columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.