The surprise under Howard's helmet

MIKE LITTWIN

December 31, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

PASADENA, Calif. -- The certified best college football player in the land is standing before the microphones talking about the Rose Bowl game and the Heisman Trophy and the famous catch and the famous pose when, suddenly, Desmond Howard says this:

"An athlete is the least thing I am."

You pause and consider the statement and wonder if it's not unlike George Bush saying being president is the least thing he is. Actually, I know people who would agree with that assessment.

The obvious follow-up is to ask Howard what is the most thing he is. And he says, without s skipping a beat: "Humanitarian."

Yes, humanitarian.

Again, you're sort of stopped short. I flashed to this mental picture of Albert Schweitzer as a child in a football huddle. Al, you go deep. Mahatma, you stay back and block.

OK, so it's a little presumptuous for anyone, especially a 21-year-old college kid, to call himself a humanitarian, but, really, it's what he wants to be. And that's not something you figure to hear from, say, Lyle Alzado. Obviously, Desmond Howard, the Michigan wide receiver/returner/this year's Rocket, who likes to be called Magic, is a gifted athlete. But the story is that he doesn't allow that single gift to define him.

Howard is a college student. He would probably say a seeker of truth, but in the best sense, that would be the same thing. He's the kind of college student who goes to hear activists Na'im Akbar or Angela Davis speak in the lecture hall when he could be doing what the rest of us did in our spare time in college -- for instance, opening beer cans with our teeth.

Living by himself in an off-campus apartment, far from the madding crowd, Howard likes to meditate in a room where the walls feature pictures of African kings. He wonders if he wasn't once one himself. Even off the field, he goes deep. This is Howard: He meditates and wears beads and helps wayward youngsters and catches passes that take your breath away.

There are a few other things to know about him. One is that before the season, nobody outside the Big Ten paid much attention to him. He was just another 5-foot-9 quick receiver who doesn't even look like a football player. A gifted athlete perhaps, but he's the kind who coaches say got where he did by hard work. Then he got to be a Heisman winner by breaking Tom Harmon's school touchdown records and by making the miracle fourth-down catch against Notre Dame, where miracles are not unknown.

And this: On a trip to California after his freshman season, he drove three hours out of his way to see Dr. Harry Edwards, who had lectured the team before the season. He drove the three hours and then waited two more before gaining an audience and walked away pleased by the experience.

"I take seriously the idea of student-athlete," Howard says. "Not only do I go to classes, I go to lectures. I want to dispel the stereotype of the typical athlete. When Desmond Howard is out in public, he represents himself, his university, his family and his people."

Generally, he wears a coat and tie, but on this day, a practice day, he is in a sweat shirt, coveralls and designer slippers. Nearby stands Elvis Grbac, his quarterback, saying that no one can stay one-on-one with Howard. He also says: "The great thing about Desmond is that he doesn't let any of this get to him. He's still the same Desmond. He doesn't try to take credit for himself. He makes it easy for everyone."

Well, he doesn't make it easy for the teams playing him, including Washington tomorrow in the Rose Bowl. He scored 23 ... TC touchdowns in 11 games, and most of those were human-highlight-film caliber, including the diving catch against Notre Dame. The pose -- arm outstretched, leg kicked high, in imitation of the Heisman statue -- came after a 93-yard punt return against Ohio State. "The idea," Howard said, "is not to take yourself too seriously."

The serious part comes off the field. As a youngster in Cleveland, he traveled across town to go to a better high school, to which he was first attracted because the players wore blazers and ties. In college, he's a frequent presence at the Maxey Boys Training School in Ann Arbor, saying there's only a thin line separating where he has been from where those youngsters have been.

"I can talk to them better than a lot of people because of my athletic success and because of my own personal experience," he said. "I've seen the same things they've seen. I don't just give them a standard message because each person is different. I just start free-styling."

He knows you can't just tell young people to say no to drugs. He knows he can't tell them to be like Desmond Howard, Heisman winner, either. But he can tell them to be like the Desmond Howard who wants to improve himself and the values, on and off the field, associated with that effort. And he can tell them that being an athlete is the least thing he is.

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