First of all, about the haircut. He does it himself. Before each game. Calls it the “high inside fade, with the bald spot and the sideburns.” When he explains this, he rubs the naked skin above his ear and smiles, a huge smile, a smile that will make him famous one day.
“The sideburns,” he proudly notes, “are my personal thing. You got to be a little different, you know.”
Next, the earring. Little gold thing. Goes with the sideburns, I guess. He only wears it off the field, away from the football team. Coaches just don’t understand. You know how it is.
And then there are his delightfully quirky habits, such as meditating, or picking up the telephone and answering “Magic.”
“Oh, I’ve been doing that since the eighth grade!” he says, bursting into laughter. “Hey! You got to be a little different!”
What are you saying, Desmond? Catching all those touchdowns isn’t enough? Diving into the air and sucking that ball in with your fingertips, that’s chopped liver? Anyone can do it? The miracle catch that beat Notre Dame? The four touchdowns against Boston College? The Heisman Trophy talk? Not enough? You have to answer the phone funny and hide the earring and shave the side of your head but leave those little sideburns, stranded from the rest of your hair like a tree stuck on an island?
Well. Why not? Dare to be different. Besides, the way this kid is going, he could dye his hair orange and wear a petticoat to the huddle — they would still throw him the ball. And he would still catch it. Touchdown. Touchdown. Kickoffs. Punts. Pass receptions. Iowa. Michigan State. Florida State. It hardly seems to matter who or what is between him and the end zone anymore. Desmond Howard, whose nickname is indeed Magic, just seems to materialize there, the ball in his arms, the referee throwing his hands in the air.
“He’s got such great quickness, that’s the thing,” says his coach, Gary Moeller. “And then of course, he can catch it. And then, on top of that, he can dodge people. And after he dodges them . . .”
Uh, back to you in a minute, Mo. Because there’s the X’s and 0’s, and then there’s the big picture. See, Desmond Howard isn’t just the whirling dervish in the maize and blue uniform. He isn’t just the scoring machine who averages a touchdown every third catch and who racked up four TDs in the season opener and two in every game since (around campus they joke about calling him Desmond Two-Two.) He isn’t just the most exciting player to hit Ann Arbor since a certain speedster named Anthony Carter.
There’s something else. When this season is over, Howard might very well be selected “The Best College Football Player in the Nation.” The Heisman Trophy winner. If so, he would be the second Wolverine in history to win that award; the last guy, Tom Harmon, did it 51 years ago. Michigan, obviously, does not push its players for such honors. Push? Heck, they run from Heisman hype the way senators run from Ted Koppel.
But here is the thing about Desmond Howard. He is such a talent, such a game-breaker, and such a damn nice kid, that — hold your breath here — you might actually find the Michigan commanders giving him a (gulp) plug.
“If he continues like he’s going, then yes, I would say he deserves the Heisman,” says Moeller.
You heard it here first!
“Coach Moeller said that?” Howard asks. He jerks his head in surprise and grins. “Oh, man.” Howard will say things like this. Oh, man. Peace. He also wears beads around his neck, likes to meditate and has posters on his walls of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and a map of Africa. He signs autographs to people this way: “Peace my brother, Desmond Howard.” In all my time covering today’s college football superstars, he is the closest thing I have found to a child of the 60s. And he wasn’t even born until 1970.
“I think the 60s were a really interesting time, what people did and tried to do,” Howard says, making all of us oldsters feel a little bit better.
“They were trying to learn. Here at Michigan, I try to study my heritage as much as I can because it was never really available to me growing up. So much of the problems we have in this country have to do with education. Kids just aren’t being given a chance.”
He points to a small pile of posters against the wall. “A friend of mine gave me those. Each of them is about a different African king. I’ve been reading about them. It’s really interesting. I think maybe some of that lineage is in me.”
“Why, you think you were a king in another life?” I ask, half in jest.
He laughs. “I might have been one before,” he says, “and who knows? I might be one again.”
Now, before you get the idea that Desmond Howard is some sort of self-absorbed hippie, let me say this: Nothing could be further from the truth. He is delightful, funny, engaging, warm, and on top of that — and I can’t say this about every athlete I’ve met — he thinks. He looks at a situation and measures the consequences. Take his living situation. He moved far off campus — to Ypsilanti, actually — into his own apartment, by himself, because, he says “I have a lot of work to do. If I were living in the dorms, people would be knocking on my door all the time, wanting to talk football. I would never get anything done.”
He also realized that with the success he’s having, there may be pressure to skip his final year of eligibility next season and go to the NFL. He has a rule about that: Desmond has to graduate. So he has taken courses over the summer and is on track to get his degree in May. This way, should the NFL make him an offer he couldn’t refuse, he would still leave U-M with what he came for: an education.
“He’s such a self-motivated kid, both football-wise and academically,” says Moeller. “I remember when he first came here. I was the guy who recruited him. He was a running back in high school, and when he got here, I said to him ‘We have a lot of running backs right now. You sure you still want to be one?’ And he said ‘Yeah.’ Then, on the first day of practice, I saw him out there with the defensive backs. I said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said,
‘I just want to play as soon as I can, I don’t care where.”
Fortunately, Moeller and Bo Schembechler switched him to receiver, watched him for one day and figured that was where he belonged. Schembechler used to boast to reporters about this “crafty little devil from Cleveland, Ohio, who might just make you forget John Kolesar.”
It didn’t take long. Although Howard started slowly, with nine catches his freshman year, two of those were touchdowns. (“My biggest regret of that season was when we went to the Rose Bowl. I had one pass thrown to me, late in the game, and I was wide open. I could have scored. But Michael Taylor overthrew me. We could have won that game if I had made that catch. Nobody remembers it, but I do.”)
He has since provided better memories. A pair of touchdowns in the Gator Bowl. The nine catches against Indiana last year (including an incredible over the shoulder, one-handed grab.) The kickoff returns. The punt returns. The 12 touchdowns so far this season (and we are only five games in). And of course, the now famous fourth-and-1 diving bomb that clinched revenge against dreaded Notre Dame.
“Who really called that play?” I ask.
Howard bursts into laughter yet again. He does this, by the way, almost every time you ask a question.
“Let’s just say Coach Moeller called it, and Elvis (Grbac) confirmed it! Hahahaha!”
“And you delivered it.”
Basically, my foot. There is very little basic about what Howard does, unless you consider running past the defensive backs, past the special teams tacklers and past the big linemen a basic skill. “He’s better than Rocket Ismail,” says Michigan State cornerback Alan Haller. And that’s a Spartan talking!
Yet for all the hoopla, Howard refuses to play the part of Big Man on Campus. He does not walk to class in his football sweats, as many players do, hoping the girls will spot him and point. He does not spend a lot of time partying. He does not lose sleep over the Heisman.
“I know Michigan doesn’t promote its players for that. And I didn’t ask to be put in the Heisman race. For me, just to be mentioned in the same sentence means I’m on track for my goal.”
“To be the best football player I can be.”
Which leads to the final question — although it won’t be the last time it’s asked: What if he were to be the best, if he were to win the Heisman, would he leave Michigan after this season?
“Right now, I plan on coming back and going to graduate school. I realize the college years are the best time you can have, and I want to make them last.”
What is someone offered a Rocket Ismail-like contract?
He laughs again. “Then,” he says, “I might have to go.’
We’ll see. It’s not like the old days, when Harmon was playing. The great ones, they don’t stick around college anymore. If you’re lucky, you get a few fond seasons, and then they are on their way.
Still, it doesn’t mean they don’t learn anything. There’s a moment in the movie “The Natural,” where Robert Redford admits he wants people to look at him one day and say “There goes Roy Hobbs, the greatest hitter who ever lived.” I asked Desmond Howard what he would want whispered.
“Me? When I walk down campus, I want people to say ‘There goes Desmond Howard, he’s a smart young man.’ “
Better get a new daydream, kid. They’re saying that already. FIVE MAGIC ACTS Desmond Howard’s game-by-game statistics: Receiving TEAM NO YDS TD LG Boston Col. 7 86 3 19 Notre Dame 6 74 1 25 Florida St. 4 69 2 42 Iowa 4 47 2 20 Michigan St. 8 101 2 28 TOTAL 29 377 10 42 Rushing TEAM NO YDS TD LG Boston Col. 1 4 0 4 Notre Dame 1 29 1 29 Florida St. 0 0 0 0 Iowa 3 53 0 52 Michigan St. 1 4 0 4 TOTAL 6 90 1 52 Kickoff returns TEAM NO YDS TD LG Boston Col. 1 93 1 93 Notre Dame 0 0 0 0 Florida St. 2 60 0 48 Iowa 1 24 0 24 Michigan St. 2 15 0 14 TOTAL 6 192 1 93 Punt returns TEAM NO YDS TD LG Boston Col. 1 3 0 3 Notre Dame 1 8 0 8 Florida St. 3 60 0 40 Iowa 2 1 0 4 Michigan St. 2 18 0 10 TOTAL 9 90 0 40