Sept. 12, 2007
By Benton Strong
The funny thing about train tracks is that they are straight and never stray. Once a train gets moving in one direction it generally doesn't stop and it certainly never leaves the tracks. But, one of the most frustrating things about trains is that you cannot see where you're going or even where you've been. All you can see is what is passing you by.
Many college football players get on the proverbial train sometime in high school, one in which the they can only hope will take them to NFL glory. Rarely do they even look out the window to see what is passing them by. Sometimes these kids lose track of where they came from and almost never do they have any idea where they are going. And it was this thought that brought understanding to Husky senior Dan Howell.
Howell hasn't had the most diffi cult of lives, but choices have never been easy for him. Howell grew up in a two-parent home with a solid foundation and a childhood fi lled with options. When he says he didn't care much about school he means he graduated with a 3.6 instead of a 4.0. To Howell football was not the end-all of his life, it was just something he did for fun.
As a matter of fact, not only did Howell not think he was going to play football past high school, he didn't think he would attend college at all. At one point, there was little doubt in Howell's mind that he would follow in his father's footsteps and join the military.
"I was a decent student," he says. "I graduated with a higher grade point average because the level of expectations were pretty high. But really school was not my concern. Friends of mine had already made up their minds that they were headed to the military."
Howell was not the case of a kid with nothing who wanted to join up because he had no other options. Instead think the Tillman brothers. This is a young man who wanted to join, wanted to fi ght, wanted to represent his country and live by a code of honor and discipline. And this was a teenager thinking this way.
"I just realized that I had to have options," he recounts. "I wasn't going to stay at home or go to a junior college. I refused to put any extra stress on my parents and I knew it was time for me to get out and get some independence. The fastest way to do that is to enlist."
His tracks were headed to the military. Then all of the sudden he saw what was passing him by when people started telling him he could play football in college. So he did something incredible.He got off the train. He embraced the idea that there would be another one coming and it was going in a different direction that he may like a little better.
"I could honestly say that I didn't think I was going to play college football," recalls Howell. "At fi rst I just did it because I was good at it and I like to be the best. I only took the SAT because you are supposed to as a junior. It was in my senior year that I realized I had some control over my destiny. It was time to make the military a backup plan."
Howell traded in his footlocker for a football locker and his military uniform for a football uniform. The only thing he didn't trade in was his mindset. It did not matter what he was doing, he was going to be the best at it. The train he was taking was going where he wanted it to go and if it went astray, he would just get off and take another route.
"I've surrounded myself with people who have a plan," Howell says. "I am not here to live off of my parents or be lazy. I am here because I have a goal and a plan. I am here to become my own man and grow up."
That plan led him to Washington, where he made an immediate impact and saw action in nine games as a true freshman in 2004. As a sophomore he saw action in all 11 games to set up what would be a 2006 season in which his goals had never seemed more attainable. It was his time.
That is why it was an easy decision for Howell to step on the football fi eld against the UCLA Bruins last season, a week after attending his father's funeral. It wasn't about doing what his father wanted him to do. Instead it was the next step for him. Howell saw his father pass him by and realized it was now his turn to engineer the train. It wasn't for his dad; it was for him.
In the fourth quarter Washington led by three with a chance to pull off the biggest win of coach Tyrone Willingham's tenure. Howell's assignment on the play was to man the flat, which on this particular play was void of UCLA receivers and also evidently beyond the sightline of Bruin quarterback Ben Olson. Olson rolled out and fi red a ball right at Howell and as he snatched it out of the air it wasn't emotion that overcame him.
"The only thought in my head was `score a touchdown,'" says Howell, with an ear-to-ear grin on his face.
Thirty-three yards later the train had pulled into the station. In the end zone, there were thoughts that he was exactly where he was supposed to be and the reminder that there has always been a plan for him. Howell's life was all his own.
"Like football, life doesn't last forever," he explains. "It is for us to understand that not everything is concrete, but some things are. As I got older I understood that death is a part of life. For me the only question is how am I to lead my life now? I have to do what I know is right for me to do. If I couldn't handle the pain I'd have to step down, but death isn't something I can step down from."
Many people tell Howell he should be a coach one day. He is not so sure, but understands the idea. He has a story to tell and teach others, but more then that he realizes that everyone has a story to tell and each one should be heard. Each track should be occupied and everyone should realize they have a choice, just like he did.
"It requires work," he says. "I think it is important to hear stories from different backgrounds so that people can have an understanding that things aren't concrete. There are multiple dimensions to just about everything so nothing is certain, but you can work hard to make it that way.
Some would call it wisdom beyond his years, but Howell doesn't. He just didn't miss his train. The world has not passed him by and he has learned to control the variables, or at least understand that they are there and he has to deal with the inevitable.
Just like life is an endless number of great, inevitable rides down the tracks, like tunnel vision to the end zone.