NEW ORLEANS — In a world where job descriptions often fluff up the position — think of “sanitation engineer,” “audio consultant” or “political adviser” — it’s nice to meet a man who fits his bill in more ways than one.
Desmond Howard, Return Specialist.
I am not just talking about the man’s ability to move like the wind to the opponent’s end zone. I am not just talking about Howard’s zigs and zags, his explosion of speed, his single-season NFL record for punt-return yardage in 1996, or his eye-popping first half against San Francisco in the playoffs, which included one touchdown and one near-touchdown and which single-handedly knocked the 49ers into a long winter vacation.
No, I am talking about another kind of return, from a place where no professional athlete wants to be: the junk pile.
“Let’s not call it that,” he says now, laughing the hyena howl that marked
his happier days as a receiver at the University of Michigan. “Let’s just say
. . . some other teams made some bad decisions.”
You want to know what happened to Desmond Howard since he struck the Heisman pose in the end zone of Michigan Stadium in 1991, then flew to New York, picked up that trophy, framed the cover of Sports Illustrated with his picture on it, and signed a fat contract as a No. 1 draft pick of the Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins?
Here is what happened: He flopped for three years, never fit in, was booed, written off, and finally put up for grabs in the expansion draft.
Then he went to Jacksonville, which decided it didn’t want him either.
Finally, he came to Green Bay last summer, looking for work as a free agent. And he got hurt in training camp. Coach Mike Holmgren was this close to cutting him.
“People ask me all the time, what was the lowest point in my pro career?” Howard says. “It was then, in training camp, knowing what I could do, knowing they might cut me, and being too hurt to do anything about it.”
Were this an old western, you might say the buzz saw was about to meet the scalp.
But they don’t call him “return specialist” for nothing.
The (re)turning point in his career
With only a few weeks left in preseason — and who knows, maybe his career — Howard stepped onto the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers and watched a punt come out of the lights and into his arms. And he began to run. He eluded one guy and another, and streaked upfield, his jets burning faster. Thirty yards. Forty yards. Fifty yards.
As he neared the goal line, it started to come back to him, the old feeling of doing something great, making something happen, the feeling he had when he flew his 5-foot-10 frame across the turf in Michigan Stadium and hauled in that now famous fourth-down pass from Elvis Grbac that beat Notre Dame. You remember that play. It made kids across Michigan yell his name as they went diving in their backyards. Back then, it seemed, Desmond Howard could do no wrong. Everybody loved him.
And now, as the fans rose to their feet on that preseason punt return, he felt it again. You could almost hear the gods dubbing him with his new job title. “It turned my career around,” he says.
Today, he stands at the Super Bowl, behind a microphone with his name on it, and reporters come to ask him how he did it, how he made it back to stardom as an integral part of a Super Bowl team, how he must want to rub someone’s nose in it.
“I’m not going to do that,” Howard says. “All the time that things weren’t going well for me, I never doubted my own ability. If I had, I don’t think I’d have been able to do what I’ve done.
“My first four years were a learning experience. I learned about the business of football, the politics of football. I learned about being the scapegoat.
“People ask me about what happened in Washington, but you know, Washington was 7-1 this year, and they didn’t make the playoffs. Something’s wrong with that, and it can’t be me, because I’m not there anymore.
“Who are they going to blame now?”
He never believed the rumors
When Howard was in Washington, there were rumors about his work habits. There were rumors that he was simply not a good receiver. “The funny thing is,” Howard says, “I never saw any names attached to those rumors. So I ignored them. If someone is going to write something without attributing the source of the quote, well, you can say anything about anybody.”
Just the same, someone was saying it about Howard, and it hurt. This is a guy who seemed to never stop laughing when he was in Ann Arbor. When he was let go — not once, but twice — well, let’s just say the smile did not come easy.
It does now. He’s smiling. He’s laughing. He’s howling. Howard is a free agent after this Super Bowl. Whether he stays with the Packers or goes somewhere else, it will be for a lot of money and with a sparkling reputation as one of the best at his position.
“I guess part of me would still like to play receiver and get to touch the ball more,” he says. “But you know, guys have had good, long careers as return men.”
And he ought to know. In many ways, Howard’s career has been like one of his punt returns, dangerous and bumpy at the start, jagged in the middle, but clearing up quickly as he goes along. At the risk of sounding redundant, the Return Specialist is back.