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 Its about time!
approach to fielding the questions. Darn right, Im 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 hadnt been spoken before.
Midway through his senior year, Howard was recognized as an NFL prospect, so
hed already found a different football universe from the one he knew at
Henderson State, a Division II school in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, where hed
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
Scherers 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, Youre 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). Howards college career and, one presumed, his
football life were over.
Which makes Reggie Howards appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII the stuff of
cinematic tear-jerkers. Howard followed his doctors orders -- and his
hearts 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 Howards 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 fools
endeavor, considering Carolinas 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 wont hear Reggie Howards
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 doesnt
have dreadlocks cascading down his shoulders (like those of his old Memphis
teammate, McKenzie). He carries no nickname, like Prime Time or The
Assassin. Hes 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 sports biggest
Only one team can win Sunday, and only one MVP can go to Disney World. If
youll join me on the Reggie Howard bandwagon, though, youll find yourself
already in the realm of the unbeatable.