HE ARRIVED Saturday evening, suited up Sunday morning, and felt the ball hit his hands midway through Sunday afternoon. Just under two minutes were left before halftime, in a building he had never called home, on a roster of men he had never called teammates. His body had no idea where he was. But his feet suggested he do what comes naturally: run.
So Desmond Howard ran. He ran left, leapt through two defenders, landed like Indiana Jones, and accelerated again. You half expected to hear trumpet music, swords pulled, the sounds of horses’ hooves in anxious pursuit. Twenty yards. Thirty yards. In a blink, the only man ahead of Howard was the Washington punter, Matt Turk, and there was no way, after the career turbulence of last week — getting cut by Green Bay, being out of the league, signing with the Lions two minutes before deadline — that a little old punter was going to keep Desmond Howard from the end zone. No way.
He juked to the right but moved to the left, his shoulders and hips swiveling as if not part of the same body. In an instant, Turk was on his knees, as helpless as a lost calf. The rest was open space, a 25-yard sprint from the waiver wire to the highlight reel. Howard reached the end zone like a kid winning a race to his front porch. He did a little dance.
Hey, Ma. I’m home.
“Did you even know the guys who were congratulating you in the end zone?” Howard was asked, after his 68-yard touchdown broke a tie and helped the Lions to a crucial 33-17 victory.
“You mean their names?” Howard said, laughing. “Well, no. But I said thanks anyhow.”
The Magic is back.
Would he strike the pose?
He once owned this state, this Cadillac kid with a toothy smile as wide as his confidence. And Sunday, for a brief moment, Desmond Howard owned it again. When he went into the end zone — the Lions’ first punt return for a score this season — fans were electrified. You could almost hear them from Monroe to Traverse City: “Is he gonna do the Heisman pose?”
After all, the last time Howard was cheered in these parts was during his 1991 Heisman season at Michigan. That may feel like yesterday, but Howard is 29 now, and a lot of water has passed under that bridge, some of it blue with disappointment.
A top-five draft pick and Heisman Trophy winner, Howard first fell from grace in Washington. After three years, they gave up on him, left him unprotected in the expansion draft, where he was plucked by Jacksonville. He stayed one season. He then sought retribution with Green Bay, as a return man, and promptly won the Super Bowl MVP award. He bolted for a big contract in Oakland, but was cut after two seasons. He ultimately signed back in Green Bay, hoping to rediscover his glory.
Instead, the Packers cut him last week.
“You hadn’t even worked out before today?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “You know what I did last week? On Wednesday I had my braces taken off. On Thursday I got fitted for a retainer. On Friday, I got my teeth cleaned.”
Hmm. Good for oral hygiene. Not exactly standard game preparation.
But then came Saturday. The Lions’ return man, Terry Fair, somehow broke his knuckle (you tell me how a man does that on a Friday). Detroit was desperate. Phone calls were made. Howard was flown in. He underwent a physical. He was signed, for the league minimum, for the rest of the year.
And by Sunday afternoon, although he didn’t have a home here, he had a uniform and — by halftime — a touchdown.
Would he help the team?
Now, no doubt, for fans of his Michigan days, Howard’s pro career has been a mystery. How can a guy with so much talent move around so much? Howard’s response about being cut by the Redskins always has been, “Washington hasn’t been to the playoffs since they cut me. So I guess their problems were bigger than Desmond Howard.”
But Sunday, he was saying the same thing about the Packers.
Time will tell if he fits in Detroit long-term. Short-term? There couldn’t have been a better delivery.
“When Green Bay cut me, I told my agent I only want to play for a contender. Otherwise, I don’t need to prove to people I can play.”
Nonetheless, he keeps doing that. He did it with no preparation Sunday, on the very first time he touched the ball.
“How did you know where to run?” he was asked.
“I looked at the colors. I ran away from their colors and stayed behind ours.”
Howard laughed. He was wearing a Lions cap and a Lions T-shirt and it was like seeing a solo rock star jump onstage with another band. A great guest appearance, but do you dare imagine it as a permanent blend?
Well, why not? The Lions beat the Redskins for the first time in 19 games Sunday. And perhaps, like them, Howard has come full circle. After all, this year’s Lions team is a wonderful battalion of late-round draft picks, backups-turned-starters and second-chancers.
What better place for a one-time magician seeking his way back to the light?
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760). He will sign books 7:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Little Book Shoppe On The Park in Plymouth.