football Edit

How it happened for Howard

Xavien Howard went to school on a spring day in March with no idea how much his life was about to change.
Howard, a multi-year standout in football, basketball and track at Houston Wheatley, had signed a football scholarship with Trinity Valley JC on National Signing Day. He had dreams of Division I football, but he and his coaches didn't think he had the right combination of GPA and standardized test scores.
One of Wheatley's teachers - specially assigned to examine the academic record of athletes - had reviewed Howard's transcript just that morning. After reexamining the sliding scale that determines what SAT or ACT score would be necessary with Howard's GPA, she realized Howard had qualified. She happily broke the news to Howard and the Wheatley staff.
"I was in shock that I qualified," Howard said. "I thought I had to do two years at JUCO. I was in total shock - I just didn't know what to do!"
That was only the beginning. It just so happened on the day that Howard realized he could qualify for an FBS scholarship, Baylor defensive backs coach Carlton Buckels was making a stop by Wheatley. Only he wasn't there to talk to Howard.
"Baylor came in at the beginning of spring and they were asking about our (Class of) 2013 kids," Wheatley head coach Cornelius McFarland said. "I told him I wish there was some way Baylor would look at Xavien. (Buckels) looked at his film, and most of the highlights were of him at quarterback, but then they saw the few defensive back plays. He could tell what kind of kid he is. He said to me 'I really want to see this kid.' So we walked down the hallway and he met Xavien in person and (Buckels) said right away, 'man he's a big kid.'"
It almost seemed too good to be true - for both Howard and Baylor. On one hand, Howard appeared to be suddenly eligible, and here was a defensive backs coach from a major program showing interest. On the other, as much as Buckels was impressed, National Signing Day had long since passed. They had to not only ensure Howard would qualify, but also make sure head coach Art Briles was willing to add to the class.
So the Baylor coaches left Wheatley, but they left with a plan. Buckels told Howard he would stay in touch, and if he did in fact qualify, he could find a place for him in Baylor's 2012 class. But he asked Howard and the Wheatley staff, McFarland said, to stay "hush hush on the matter."
"We didn't want to go out promoting Xavien and talking about it until it was official," McFarland said.
Sure enough, nearly two full months later, Howard made it through the NCAA Clearinghouse, was mailed a letter of intent from Baylor, and signed with the Bears in the last week of the school year. It lacked the pomp and circumstance of his first signing day ceremony, but Howard was much happier the second time around.
"It started off in February I was signing with Trinity Valley, so HISD had a little ceremony at the field house for all signees," he said. "When I found out I qualified, and that I could sign with Baylor, I just signed the letter in my coach's office."
And then he was officially a Bear.
Howard's first recruitment
Start typing "Houston Wheatley" in a Google search, and the second option that appears is "Houston Wheatley basketball." The basketball team has a huge following thanks to consistent success. So when McFarland arrived at the Houston program to coach football, he realized he needed to do some recruiting of his own.
"We tell our kids there are 22 positions on the football field and five on the basketball court," McFarland said, essentially explaining to students that there are far more football scholarships to be had. "I've been preaching that ever since I got here. When I started out here, we had maybe 40 kids come out for football, and there'd be 150 for basketball."
One of McFarland's early targets was Howard, who impressed coaches in every sport with his athleticism and his attitude.
"Xavien was an outstanding basketball player," McFarland said. "But myself and our defensive backs coach talked to him and told him 6-foot-1 is a dime a dozen in basketball, but 6-1 and a good athlete is a jewel on the football field - especially at cornerback, where he can defend tall receivers."
Howard, who now says football is his favorite game, needed little convincing. Starting opposite of Howard in his senior season at cornerback was Will Jackson, who would eventually sign with Houston. Scouts, both collegiate and high school, knew all about Jackson.
But the book wasn't out on Howard yet. So opposing teams devised game plans that would attack the unknown corner opposite of Jackson.
"A lot of people thought they could pick on Xavien because they didn't want to mess with Will," said McFarland, "but they didn't realize they were jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire."
Howard punished the opposition for such game plans. He recorded nine interceptions - returning two for touchdowns - broke up another 33 passes and added 32 tackles. His numbers helped earn him first-team AP All-State honors for Class 4A. Not to be overshadowed were Howard's offensive numbers: more than 1,300 yards of offense and 21 total touchdowns.
"We knew he could be all-state at several positions, but we needed a quarterback," McFarland said. "All of our kids played both ways, so he played defensive back as well. He played it like a receiver. He'd play quarterback, maybe take one play off, then head out to the field to play defensive back."
Late riser
Several things contributed to Howard flying under the radar. First and foremost was his transcript. When colleges assumed Howard wouldn't qualify, they just moved on, McFarland said.
"I guess they had other defensive backs in mind," he said.
But Howard never gave up, continuing to put in extra work in the classroom. Even after signing with Trinity Valley, McFarland remained hopeful that Howard could attain the necessary scores.
"He busted his behind this year in the classroom," McFarland said.
Howard also didn't play much football his freshman season, McFarland said, as they had to work out his class schedule to catch him up with his peers. Playing AAU basketball also seemed to take up Howard's time and interest early in his high school career (Howard, for the record, continued to play basketball while also starring in football, averaging 13.2 points per game this most recent season).
And then there's the whole name thing. Almost every online reference to Howard lists him as "Xavier." But the name on his birth certificate is Xavien.
"Well, most people hear my name and think it's Xavier," he said "since most people know that name. Ever since then, I've just been writing Xavier on my paper. It kind of messed with some of my teachers."
McFarland said most people still call him Xavier, and "it was a small issue, but we've got that worked out."
Howard is very close with his mother. That was one of the reasons he really clicked with Baylor - it wasn't too far away.
"I liked because it was closer to home and my mom didn't want me to go far," he said. "She was nervous even about me going to play at the JUCO."
Howard also had a sister play basketball with Baylor star Brittney Griner, so he knows a few students in Waco. Howard will soon be there himself. He will enroll for the second summer session in early July and begin getting to know the coaches and teammates a little better.
He does, after all, have some ground to make up. But as he proved, he has some of the better recovery speed you'll find.
"He's a yes sir, no sir kid," McFarland said. "I call him a diamond in the rough. He's a kid that knows what he wants and is a determined kid. He wants the best. He's been busting his butt ever since I've known him. He's a respectable kid. I knew he was going to be special."