Feb. 11, 2008
Dana Howard knew at an early age growing up in East St. Louis, Ill., that in order to be the best, he was going to have to compete against the best. That meant playing sports at a higher level with older kids, including his brother and his friends. That approach worked out for Howard, as he developed into one of the most talented linebackers in the Midwest. Recruited by several powerhouse football programs, Howard opted to stay close to home and attend Illinois, a decision solely made on his desire to establish something special.
And did he ever.
Howard played linebacker for the Fighting Illini from 1991-94, was a two-time consensus All-American and left the school’s leading tackler with 595 career stops.
The future Illini star always felt that he would find success when he grew older. In fact, Howard admits that in fourth grade, with dreams of becoming a professional football player, he began to perfect his name signature style, which he still uses to this day. He dreamt of signing autographs and being the star player who eventually others would look up to.
J Leman, Illinois’ All-American linebacker who just finished his collegiate career in Champaign, grew up adoring the skills of Howard and even listed him as his Fighting Illini hero in his online bio.
“You realize (what your career meant) when the younger guys mention you,” Howard said. “When you hear a guy say that it takes you back. I’m only 35.”
Howard remains close to the current Illini program, often sitting down with players and talking to them about life. When he looks over and sees a young man looking right back at him with his undivided attention, Howard says he gets a feeling that was he is preaching is in fact valuable and interesting to the players today.
But not all things were so self-rewarding for Howard.
In junior high, he was forced to deal with the emotions of being cut in junior high by the football coach. A dejected Howard went home to his father Jeffery not knowing what the next step would be. Howard’s father took him back to the junior high and spoke with the coach, who indeed gave him a second chance at football.
From that point on, Howard vowed to dedicate his life to pursuing his dream of playing in the professional ranks. A successful high school career earned him recruiting letters from all over the country. Howard narrowed down the choices to four schools in Illinois, Michigan, Miami and Oklahoma. Miami was in the picture because his older brother played on the defensive line for Jimmy Johnson, but was dismissed later from the team. Howard’s mother made the decision for him that he would not even take a visit to the Florida school, so it was off to Oklahoma for the young product. He loved what he saw at Oklahoma, but decided to continue his search for the best school within the Big Ten.
While at Michigan, Howard was taken back by the storied tradition of the program, but left knowing that the Wolverines already had an established system and he wanted to go to a school where he could make a difference right away.
Howard found that in Illinois.
“(Illinois) wasn’t a program people were talking about at the time,” he said. “I felt we could establish something there.”
What Howard did not realize until he committed to Illinois was there were already several established traditions at the school, one of which was the fight song.
“Once I got to school, Illinois had the same fight song as my high school and we had the same colors,” he said. “I thought they stole our fight song, but then realized we stole it from them. I didn’t realize all the tradition Illinois had.”
Howard also soon came to understand the meaning behind what the Illini referred to as “Linebacker U.” The talented freshman was set to follow in the footsteps of other great Illinois linebackers such as Ray Nitschke and the legendary Dick Butkus.
“Those were rough, tough players you were measured by,” he said.
Howard admits that when he first came to the campus he did not know of Butkus or the postseason award that bears his name and is given to the nation’s top linebacker.
“I just knew I loved to play football and hit people,” he said.
He learned of Butkus and the award quickly, but first he had to learn patience as he was redshirted as a freshman.
“I had come in following a successful high school career and they told me I was going to redshirt,” he said. “I was young, cocky, and didn’t understand the decision. But in the long run, it was a good one because I grew stronger, got faster, and was able to shed some baby fat. It really allowed me to get accustomed to my academics as well. That next year I had a chance to compete for the starting role.”
Howard recorded at least 100 tackles in each of his four seasons and was a consensus All-American in 1993 and 1994. As a senior in 1994, the standout linebacker who had earned the nickname “Butkus” from his teammates, became very familiar with the Butkus Award when he hoisted it in his hands as that season’s honoree.
Following his stint at Illinois, Howard was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the fifth round of the 1995 NFL Draft as the 168th overall pick. He eventually signed with the St. Louis Rams and played 16 games with the team before shipping off to the Chicago Bears for a three-game stint in 1996.
“Playing in the NFL was all about being in the right place at the right time,” Howard said. “For me, there were several cases where I thought I was the better player at the position, but the team would play the guy making $5-10 million a year rather than me who was making $275,000.”
While Howard grew up idolizing legendary Bears’ linebacker Mike Singletary and followed a similar path that Butkus took from the Illini to the Bears, the privilege to wear the infamous Chicago jersey lasted only three games. Howard broke his finger early in the season and was placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the year.
In 1999 he was allocated by the Eagles and sent to Amsterdam to play for NFL Europe. Howard says his time spent overseas was great not only because he got to see the other side of the world, but it also gave him a sense of appreciation as well.
“It really taught me to appreciate everything I have and that there was no place like home,” he said. “I can always say I have been (a pro football player) and done a lot of things a lot of guys would dream to do.”
He goes on to say that several guys who make it to the professional level have a difficult time leaving the game. Howard left in 2001 and has since made peace with no longer playing. For the past seven years, he has served as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, where he currently works in Swansea, Ill.
The former Illini great was humbled to hear his former school selected him as its male representative for the Big Ten’s Black History Month campaign.
“In a way,” Howard said, “it is like Illinois is saying here is a role model. That’s really cool because I have never really looked at myself as one.”
Truth is, Howard was a role model long before Illinois chose to showcase him for this campaign.
Just ask J Leman.