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On the Run

After a rookie year that earned him a ticket to the Pro Bowl, Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard enters his second season with high expectations. What’s most amazing is that he almost didn’t get here at all.

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If Hollywood tried to make a movie about Jordan Howard’s life, it would die at some meeting early in the process. “Sorry,” some slick producer would say. “No one is going to believe this. This is just too much hardship for one person. It’s just not plausible.”

See, the 22-year-old Howard may be the top offensive threat on an improving (we hope) Chicago Bears team. And after just one season, he may warrant comparisons to the best running backs in the league.

But most impressive is the absurd cavalcade of adversity Howard has overcome just to get here. Defying odds that would’ve made most people bail on the whole idea of playing in the NFL, Howard is poised to break out and reach a level that was just a dream when he started playing football as a second-grader in Gardendale, Ala. “I’ve been overlooked everywhere I’ve been, my whole career,” Howard says. “That’s why I always carry myself like the underdog.”

 

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In person, Howard certainly isn’t an overwhelming physical specimen: He stands about 6 feet tall, with well-defined arms and calves the size of tennis balls. But you don’t see him and think “NFL star.”

But clearly, appearances deceive. Howard is already one of the top running backs in Bears history: Last year, he set the Bears’ rookie record for yards in a season, tallying 1,313 yards despite not starting until the fourth game of the season. (More on that in a moment.)

Even more impressive than his numbers, though, is his journey.

In high school, Howard totaled 2,217 yards in just his junior and senior years for the Gardendale Rockets in Alabama, yet he was recruited by just one school: University of Alabama at Birmingham, only 12 miles down the road from where he graduated high school. Don’t be fooled by the similarity in name: This is not the perennial football powerhouse University of Alabama—that’s 65 miles away, in Tuscaloosa. It would be akin to saying “I played for the Cubs!” when you actually suited up for the AAA Iowa squad.

Howard put up strong numbers at UAB, running for almost 2,500 yards his first two years. His reward: The football program just up and closed. Done. Over. (For the non-sports fan out there, this pretty much never happens.)

Howard shrugged that off and transferred to Indiana University, racking up ridiculous totals for a team that finished a mediocre 6-7: He ran for 1,213 yards and put up a jaw-dropping 238 yards against the University of Michigan, the second-highest total ever against the Ann Arbor pigskin behemoth.

(In a far-too-apt metaphor, Indiana lost in double overtime after they opted not to hand off to Howard from the 2-yard line, instead throwing a pass that fell incomplete.)

Howard’s reward for this exceptional college career: He was forced to wait until the third day of the draft to hear his name called. The Bears didn’t take him until the fifth round. And then the team didn’t start him until the fourth game of the 2016 season—he had only 12 carries in the first three games. “I’m gonna be real honest when I say this: I didn’t see the greatness in Jordan,” said Offensive Coordinator Dowell Loggains.

The humble Howard isn’t bitter about it, though, noting that injuries kept him out of most of the preseason team workouts. “I missed a lot of the offseason, so I wasn’t getting a lot of opportunities like the other guys were,” he says. “I wasn’t running behind the starters, and I wasn’t playing much until the last game of the preseason. That was when they were really able to see me.”

 

All those setbacks pale in comparison to the personal loss Howard experienced when his father, Reginald—who Howard still refers to as “my best friend”—died in 2007 from pulmonary fibrosis at only 52 years old.

To honor his father, Howard has worn the same T-shirt under his uniform since high school. The worn, grass-stained shirt—which has no sleeves, as Howard had to cut them off to accommodate his growing frame—features a picture of his tuxedo-clad father with the words “In Memory of My Dad.” In a heartbreaking interview posted on the Bears’ site, Howard breaks down into tears when he talks about how he still feels his father’s presence. “He missed my high school graduation; he missed me getting drafted… that’s a big regret because he [missed] out on a lot of things, but he was still there for me.”

Today, Howard is active with the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation based in Chicago; along with a stellar rookie season, that’s part of how he honors his late father.

 

Howard is not what you’d call, in NFL parlance, a “burner”: His 40-yard-dash time at the 2016 NFL combine was 4.57 seconds—18th place among his rookie class. And he’s not particularly elusive like, say, the quicksilver Walter Payton or the slippery Barry Sanders.

But somehow, Jordan gets the yards the team needs: On his second carry against the stout Minnesota Vikings defense last Halloween, Howard scrambled for 69 yards—gaining more on that play than any running back had gained against them in one game. That night, Howard became the first Chicago Bear rookie to
total more than 200 yards from scrimmage since Gale Sayers in 1965.

He calls this run his favorite play of the year: “Coming into the game, everybody was talking about how strong Minnesota’s defense was and how good they are at stopping the run,” Howard recalls. “I feel like that run really set the tone for how that game was going to go, and we ended up winning.”

The run also illustrated Howard’s style: He gets the handoff from (now-departed) quarterback Jay Cutler at the Bears’ 18-yard line and heads straight into the offensive line. There’s no dancing around; no waiting for an opening. Safety Harrison Smith dives and tries to tackle Howard by the ankles, but Howard quickly jukes out of the hold. There’s a quick collision a few yards past the line of scrimmage, then suddenly Howard bursts out the other side and takes off down the middle of the field, stopping inside the Vikings’ 15-yard line.

“I’ve got my own style,” Howard says. “I try to be physical when I need to be, but other times, I try to make them miss me. I don’t like going out of bounds because I want to give it back to the defender too.”

 

With his second season about to begin, it’s clear that Howard’s due for some good news. Beyond his personal tribulations, he’s been cursed to be on teams that weren’t exactly awesome. The Bears, for instance, posted a woeful 3-13 record last year.

“A lot of the teams I’ve been on haven’t been too successful,” he says in his gentle manner. “So this year, I definitely want to go to the playoffs.”

As for himself, he’s setting the bar a little higher.

“I definitely want to be the leading rusher,” he says.

“In the NFC?” I ask him.

“No, in the NFL,” he says.
“You think you can do that?”

“Oh, I definitely think I can do that,” he says.

Howard also sees good things for the Bears, in spite of their rough record last year.

“I feel like we’ve got a bright future,” he says. “We have a lot of young guys who were thrown into the fire, but I think we’ll put it together.”

It’s pretty clear that Howard already has.  

Onsite hair and makeup by Amy Geister for SalonDJ Hairtography | Photo Assistant: Naomi Chu