As the sun begins to set on an unseasonably gorgeous Minnesota April evening, former Viking Willie Howard barks out instructions to his new team. He moves his linebackers to the proper gaps. He instructs his offensive tackles how to start high and finish low when blocking for a wide receiver screen. His cadence effortlessly shifts between stern and humorous, keeping his knowledge-hungry pupils riveted. No fewer than forty players are attending the Tuesday night practice. With only five days until their home opener, they're soaking in every last bit of information from their Head Coach. After all, he did play at the highest possible level in football.
The practice session lasts exactly as long as the sun does. As the players walk off the field with virtually no natural light left in the evening, it's safe to say that these ladies will be prepared for their game on Saturday.
Yes, ladies. The Minnesota Machine, the local women's professional tackle football team, has made a significant upgrade to their coaching staff for the 2011 season.
Most Viking fans know Willie Howard as a promising defensive lineman that was drafted in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft, only to have his career cut tragically short by a devastating leg injury just eight games in. Although his time in the pros was unfairly brief, Howard uses the lessons he learned both on and off the field to this day.
Willie Howard didn't grow up with football. In fact, he didn't play a down of football until the age of 14. As a 6'4", 265-pound high school freshman in California, a coach of his Los Altos High School's football team wisely encouraged him to go out for the team. He played on the varsity squad briefly in ninth grade, but he was a fixture on the team for the remainder of his time there. Unfortunately, Willie's dominant play didn't translate into much success for his team--there were only 17 players on the team at the time. Howard recalls a 3-36-2 record during his time at Los Altos.
But while Howard's team didn't make much noise, he was able to turn heads at the Stanford lineman camp during his junior year of high school, where he was projected as one of the top linemen in the nation. Stanford offered him a full scholarship immediately after the camp, and Howard jumped on it since campus was only five miles from his home town.
After a successful career with the Cardinal, Howard was drafted by another Stanford football alumni--Dennis Green. (Green was the Head Coach at Stanford before taking the Vikings job.) Howard had never interacted with Green before the Vikings chose him, but he enjoyed playing for his new coach.
Willie remembers the exact day he got drafted. "I remember April 21, 2001, getting the call from Denny," Howard recalls. "Obviously I would have loved to get the phone call in the first round like anybody would have, but Michael Bennett got the call and I was fortunate enough to be there in the second round. When you talk about a coach with integrity and morals, I think Denny Green provided that combination. He had an ability to coach players and put together a staff that was working in the best interest of us as players, to be better players and human beings."
Willie also remembers the exact moment that his career ended. (This shouldn't come as much of a surprise--his memory is absolutely uncanny. After our interview, Howard rattled off the first and last name of each player on his brand new team by memory--in order of jersey number.)
"There was about two minutes and fifty-two seconds gone by in the third quarter," Howard hyper-accurately recalls. "In the first half I think I had eight tackles; Chris Hovan had gone down so I was getting a little more playing time. I was on Bruce Matthews; I was lined up on the right defensive tackle and Bruce was the left guard. It was a toss right, so therefore I was kind of out of the play. I was engaged with Matthews as he headed towards the linebacker, and Brad Hopkins came in from behind. An illegal cut block, and he rolled up on my ankle."
Howard knew the injury was bad right away. "As I was leaving the field, I called my agent right away. I told him, 'unless I have a miracle in me, I think I'm done, because I think I broke my shin.' The pain was excruciating."
If only it were that simple. It turns out that the hit on Howard had torn his ACL, PCL, MCL, LCL, and meniscus, fractured his femur, and had broken his ankle. In other words, not since Kyle Broflovski's knees exploded in "South Park" has someone blown out their leg that bad.
The injury still lingers with Howard to this day. He can't stand on his leg for more than about three hours before it goes completely numb. After instructing the Machine practice, he favored the injured leg with a noticeable limp. While he's still feeling the effects of the one play that ended his career, Howard isn't the type to dwell on it. "I don't regret it for a minute. It made me a stronger person...the education component of my career allows me to maintain a productive living for myself and my family."
The Stanford education Howard received through football helped him quickly rebound from the injury. "I talk to high schools all over the place and help them understand that the beauty behind being a football player is having the opportunity to go off to college. Because an education can never be taken away, even though with someone like myself, the millions of dollars that you envision can be taken overnight. In essence, that's what happened to me."
Howard still closely monitors pro and college football, especially his alma mater--he proudly sports a Stanford tattoo on his right arm. "I actually had a chance to go to the Orange Bowl and watch Andrew Luck put on a great performance," Howard proudly exclaims. He keeps in touch with current and former Vikings players as well, such as Adrian Peterson and Randy Moss. "It's pretty much a fraternity once you play in the NFL. When Randy came back to Minnesota, he gave me a phone call saying he was back in town. So the relationships are still there and I keep in as much contact as they want to stay in contact with me." Howard also discussed the NFL lockout, explaining that just like any relationship, the agreement needs to be based on trust and compromise. (He gets it, we get it--so why the hell can't the players and owners get it?!)
So how does a former NFL defensive lineman become the head coach of a women's football team? The answer is quite simple--when Howard sees an opportunity to educate, he rarely passes it up. He still coaches the Robbinsdale Cooper High School football team in the fall, and he coached the South Metro (now Minnesota) Dragons semi-pro men's team for the past couple of summers before joining the Machine this year.
"What the Machine were trying to do lined up so well with what I wanted to do with community service and how I want to give back," Howard explains. "Obviously my schedule's tight, but the rewards are great. You have 45 women, many of them that have never played the game before joining the team. They're really like kids that want to know more about the game. Every day in practice, they're busting their butt and asking questions. They're asking so many questions and they're eager to learn. It was an easy transition for me to fall into."
While much of his new team may not have grown up with the game of football, Howard remains impressed with what he has seen on the field. "Women are told to play hockey or maybe some rugby at most if they want some contact. But when you get out here and watch them play football, you'd be surprised to see some of these women hit. A lot of them would be able to compete at some level with some guys. Not every single person, but there are some that you'd never know if their hair wasn't in a ponytail coming out of their helmet. These girls can hit. This ain't no Lingerie Football League."
After the interview concludes, Howard immediately returns to answering questions from eager players while he shuts down the facilities for the night. Willie Howard may not have been blessed with much time to make an impact in the NFL, but he's making a big impact on football of all levels with his time now.
If you're as football deprived as most fans these days, check out Howard's team, the Minnesota Machine, during their home opener this Saturday. They play at 7:00 PM at Minnetonka High School for each of their home games; you can check out their full schedule here. (In the interest of full disclosure, you can also hear yours truly controlling the PA announcer duties as well as cheer on my sister, who plays for the Machine.)