Feb. 27, 2008
The word "versatile" is commonly defined as "capable of doing many things." Synonyms of the word include adaptable, all-around, and handy. So seeing that Desmond Howard was a high school All-American tailback from Cleveland, Ohio, a Heisman Trophy winning wide receiver at Michigan, a Super Bowl MVP kick returner with the Green Bay Packers, a video game poster boy, and now one of ESPN's top college football analysts, one could venture to say that he too, could also be used to define the word.
Defining Howard was often left to his play on the field, but he does frequently mention the words "honored, blessed and fortunate," when describing his career. He says he is fortunate he had the opportunity to play football at Michigan under the legendary Bo Schembechler and live the dream of playing in the Rose Bowl. He is blessed for all the awards he was able to win and the records he was able to break. Perhaps most importantly, Howard feels honored that along with "The Catch" and "The Pose", he is still thought of as a respected representative of Michigan, especially for the Big Ten's Black History Month campaign.
"It's a huge honor," he said. "Any time a school or an institution chooses you as a highly respected individual that can represent them, it's the ultimate compliment. When you look at all the awards given out, the ones that mean the most to an athlete, are the ones voted on by their peers. Any athlete I have spoken to, anything done by their peers, it is the most special to them. It's the same way with me about the university."
Howard grew up in the Cleveland community from a family that instilled the "Midwest mentality" in him, which essentially meant, no academics, no athletics. Sports were often the reason Howard stayed away from the streets, having three brothers - two older and one younger - to compete with. He said he always was playing the sport that happened to be in season and credits his development in those sports by playing with his older brothers.
"I always played football with the older kids and that helped in my development as an athlete," he said. "It forces you try to compete on their level."
As an All-American tailback at St. Joseph High School, who also led the state in interceptions on defense, Howard took his standard five visits to college campuses, but felt at the end of the day, no school could compete with what Michigan brought to the table. It was the desire to play in the Rose Bowl, the rarity to play for a legendary college, and the opportunity to play on a national stage.
Three days following camp in Ann Arbor, the coaching staff sat down with Howard and felt it would best to try him at wide receiver. The hope would be to find a multi-talented receiver, who would compliment the historically dominant Wolverine rushing attack.
"I had to get acclimated to a new position and used to running routes and reading coverages," he said. "I think they felt that if they could get the ball in my hands, they had something special."
The transition was not a fast one. Howard redshirted his freshman year in 1988 and saw limited catches in 1989 as he backed up flanker Chris Calloway. He recorded just nine catches on the season compared to 63 the following year. As a sophomore, the 1990 campaign was a coming out party for Howard so to speak, as he quickly made an impact in the season opener. He had six catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns in a loss at Notre Dame, and would later post big efforts with 140 receiving yards against Michigan State and 167 in the Gator Bowl against Ole Miss.
"I gave them an outside weapon," he said. "You couldn't afford to put eight in the box and play safety free while defending the run. Once we had a legitimate weapon on the outside, I think it complimented our style very well."
Howard was named first-team All-Big Ten by the conference's media and second team by the league coaches. He totaled team highs in receptions (63), receiving yards (1,025), touchdown catches (11), all-purpose yardage (1,642), kickoff return yards (504) and kickoff return average (29.6). His final figures in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches were also the second-best single season total in school history.
But despite turning in a productive sophomore campaign, Howard was never touted for any national awards entering his junior year. He remembers Houston quarterback David Klingler posing for the preseason cover of Sports Illustrated with a stick of dynamite in his hands, signifying essentially the Heisman Trophy was his to lose. Looking back, Howard savors the fact that the Heisman was not designed to be awarded to someone with his skills.
"I just went out there and played ball," he said. "Every time I touched the ball, I tried to do something special. I always felt that you should win that award on the field and that your play on the field should speak for itself."
Earlier in the 1991 season, with Michigan trying to avoid a fourth-straight loss to rival Notre Dame, the Wolverines faced a 4th-and-1 in Fighting Irish territory late in the game. Elvis Grbac found a laid-out Howard in the back of the end zone for the winning score - a grab many Maize and Blue followers refer to as "The Catch".
In the regular-season finale against Ohio State, Howard not only let his actions on the field speak for him, but he was also helped out by legendary ABC broadcaster Keith Jackson. Howard returned a Buckeye punt 93 yards for a touchdown, prompting Jackson to bellow "Hello Heisman!" when he crossed the goal line. Obviously unaware of Jackson's comments, Howard simultaneously struck the pose of the historic trophy, marking one of the most memorable moments in the history of college football.
"When you really take into consideration the history and tradition of a university like Michigan, and the great players who have been a part of spectacular games, memorable seasons and exciting plays, to just have your name or one or two of your plays mentioned is a huge honor."
Howard takes pride that he captured the 1991 Heisman Trophy without a public relations production that commonly follows Heisman hopefuls today, although Jackson's memorable endorsement certainly didn't hurt. To his credit, he simply let his play on the field influence the voters, which earned him 85 percent of the first-place votes, marking the largest margin in the history of the trophy at that time.
That season Howard became the first wide receiver in Big Ten history to lead the conference in scoring with 90 points. He also ranked first in the country in scoring with 11.5 points per game and also with his 27.5 yard kickoff return average. He led the conference in punt returns (17.4 avg.) and receptions (5.5 receptions/game), and tied for second on NCAA single season touchdown reception list with 19 scores.
The Heisman certainly was not the only major award he captured that season. He was the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year, a consensus first-team All-American, as well as the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Award honoree.
Howard earned his degree in communications in the spring of 1992, thus forgoing his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. He finished his career having set or tied five NCAA and 12 Michigan records and was promptly selected fourth overall by the Washington Redskins. Howard began focusing his role more as a return specialist in the NFL and eventually made stops with five teams before retiring in 2002. He played with Washington from 1992-94, Jacksonville in its inaugural season in 1995 and Green Bay in both 1996 and 1999. Between that time he was with Oakland from 1997-98 and finished his career as a Pro Bowler at Detroit from 2000-01.
Howard's 11-year NFL career will arguably be most remembered for one season and one game. During his first stint with the Packers in 1996, Howard led the league in total punt returns (58), return yards (870), return average (15.1), and return touchdowns (3). His 870 punt return yards also eclipsed Fulton Walker's 1985 NFL record of 692 yards. But it would his performance in Super Bowl XXXI that would cement his legacy as one of the greatest return specialists in the game.
Howard recorded a Super Bowl record 90 punt return yards and 154 kickoff return yards, including a 99-yard touchdown in the game. All totaled, his 244 all-purpose yards tied a Super Bowl record and his efforts earned him the MVP award, marking the first and only time a player has won the award based on a special teams performance.
"To win it first of all was special, but to do it on the team I was on - it was unbelievable," Howard said. "I was on the team with a three-time league MVP in Brett Favre and the late-great Reggie White, and to be able to do what I did was just very special."
Following his professional career, Howard was again honored for his return abilities, as in 2005, EA Sports promoted its NCAA Football 06 video game and its new feature "Race for the Heisman," by featuring Howard's famous punt return pose from the 1991 Ohio State game on the cover.
It was a gesture that Howard said not only gave the people who were there another memory of it, but it also provided an opportunity for younger kids to learn more about the meaning behind that play.
"When you are on the cover of something like that, it's one of the most popular games, so obviously it was an honor," he said. "Those kids playing the game weren't around when I was playing, so it may have forced some to `Google' or `YouTube' it to find how who did the Heisman pose."
However, those same kids would probably recognize Howard more from his current role on ESPN's College GameDay during football season. Joining the likes of host Chris Fowler and former Big Ten figures Lee Corso (Indiana head coach) and Kirk Herbstreit (Ohio State quarterback), Howard is enjoying highlighting and recapping all the big games from the week.
In the offseason, he resides in Florida with his wife, 15-year-old daughter, and 18-month-old twin boys.
Howard admits that it is hard to put into words what his experience at Michigan meant to him. He says he developed not only as an athlete at the school, but as a person as well. He says he is blessed to have attended a school of that stature and is proud to have made his parents proud of him.
There will undoubtedly be more honors and distinctions that come Howard's way in the future, including another memorable trip to South Bend and the nearby Notre Dame campus.
Although this time it will be for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
And one would think the word "versatile" would be one of the first engraved on his plaque.