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OUR REGGIE Memphians should have very little trouble in finding someone to root for in Super Bowl XXXVIII. They need merely find number 23 for the Carolina Panthers, a third-year cornerback by the name of Reggie Howard. Among the 44 players who start in this biggest of big games for the Patriots and Panthers, Howard is, hands-down, the least likely participant. And that includes Carolina quarterback, Jake (Who?) Delhomme. Recent history has been very good to University of Memphis defensive backs. Jerome Woods (Kansas City), Idrees Bashir (Indianapolis), and Mike McKenzie (Green Bay) are all starters for playoff teams. But none of these players has come as far as the former Kirby High School and University of Memphis standout you'll see playing for the Panthers this Sunday. I interviewed Reggie Howard in late September 1999, as he was to be the cover story for an upcoming Tigers’ gameday program. These are the kind of chats during which a player will typically take an “It’s about time!” approach to fielding the questions. “Darn right, I’m your cover! Might finally sell some programs.” Not so with Reggie Howard. He was humble, with an easy -- maybe slightly uncomfortable -- smile, and a genuine interest in providing answers that hadn’t been spoken before. Midway through his senior year, Howard was recognized as an NFL prospect, so he’d already found a different football universe from the one he knew at Henderson State, a Division II school in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where he’d matriculated before transferring to the U of M in 1998. But he deflected talk of playing in the pros, as he wanted desperately to first help Rip Scherer’s Tigers find respectability. And he stressed during this interview that he just loved the game of football, anywhere, anytime. Through a broad smile, Howard said, “Some of the guys mess with me by saying, ‘You’re like a little kid who just loves to play.’ “ Which made it all the more heartbreaking two weeks later when, during theTigers’ game at UAB, Howard suffered a neck injury making a tackle that almost left him paralyzed (in clinical terms, he sustained a subluxation of his sixth cervical vertebra). Howard’s college career and, one presumed, his football life were over. Which makes Reggie Howard’s appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII the stuff of cinematic tear-jerkers. Howard followed his doctors’ orders -- and his heart’s direction -- in rehabbing his injury, then impressed the Carolina brass enough to sign as an undrafted free agent before the 2000 season. It took another year before Howard made the Panthers’ active roster. (As a measure of Howard’s character, note that he returned to the Memphis campus during his NFL apprenticeship and earned his degree in marketing and management in May 2001.) All his labor must have seemed like a fool’s endeavor, considering Carolina’s woeful 1-15 season in 2001. But then coach John Fox arrived, playing time increased (75 tackles in 2002), and Reggie Howard was no longer just a medical miracle, but a full-time NFL starter. This Sunday, his journey from Arkadelphia -- via one gurney and myriad doubts -- will reach Houston and the biggest sporting event on the planet. After the pregame introductions, you probably won’t hear Reggie Howard’s name unless he does something spectacular (like intercepting a Tom Brady pass) or falls on his face (like giving up a touchdown pass to Mr. Brady). Such is the nature of (1) NFL cornerbacks and (2) Reggie Howard. He doesn’t have dreadlocks cascading down his shoulders (like those of his old Memphis teammate, McKenzie). He carries no nickname, like Prime Time or The Assassin. He’s not even the best player among the Carolina secondary (he defers to Mike Minter or Deon Grant). Howard is just a solid football player, one good enough-- and healthy enough -- to play in the sport’s biggest spectacle. Only one team can win Sunday, and only one MVP can go to Disney World. If you’ll join me on the Reggie Howard bandwagon, though, you’ll find yourself already in the realm of the unbeatable.

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