Playing football held no appeal for Long as a child. He could run fast and was big, too big. When he was nine he weighed 120 pounds. When he was 11 he was as big as the 13-and 14-year-olds. His uncle Billy, and then his cousin by marriage. Bob Murray, got him onto the Pop Warner teams they coached. He didn't stick around—for good reason.
"I was C-team age and A-team weight," Long said. "I didn't feel like going out there and taking a daily beating from kids two and three years older."
There was another thing, though, and it has been the dark shadow that has followed Long throughout his life. No confidence. Fear of failure, fear of being humiliated. On the street it was no problem. He could play street hockey, the No. 1 sport in Charlestown—"ball hockey," they called it—and he could play basketball and baseball in the playground, but football was different. It was organized, the real thing, uniforms, adults to yell at you, everybody watching. Pressure. The downside potential was too great.
Even as he climbed the football ladder, conquering each plateau as it came, the fear never left him. Two years after he finally committed himself to football he was a high school all-stater, seriously recruited by major schools. But to him, big-time college football meant only the chance for big-time failure.
"I'd just finished reading Meat on the Hoof, by Gary Shaw, where he tells about what they did to guys at Texas when they wanted their scholarships back," Long says, "how they ran them off the team and put them through torture drills. I was terrified. What if I can't play?"
He signed a letter of intent at Boston College and immediately had second thoughts. "What happens if he gets hurt?" his uncle Billy asked a BC coach.
"The guy told me, 'Well, we only have so many scholarships a year,' " Bill Mullan says. " 'He'd lose it.' So Howie switched and went to Villanova, where they offered him a four-year."
By his senior year he was good enough to be chosen for the Blue-Gray all-star game in Montgomery, Ala.—as a late entry. Joe Restic, the Harvard coach and one of the assistant coaches for the Blue team, needed a spot on the roster filled. He chose Howie, who had been a high school teammate of his son, Joe Restic Jr.
"I roomed with Colin McCarty, the middle guard from Temple who'd driven trucks with Joe Klecko," Long says. "No one talked to us. No one offered to take us out to dinner. It was the worst week of my life. They had a banquet the night before the game, and they introduced me to the guy I was going to play against, Zach Guthrie of Texas A & M. Texas? I'd never met anyone from Texas in my whole life. I'd seen him during the week. Great big guy, two-tone shoes, leather jacket, leather cap, toothpick in his mouth all the time. Never said a word. They announced his name at the banquet, then they announced me as the guy who'd be playing against him, and Frank Howard, the old Clemson coach who was emceeing the thing, pointed his finger at me and said, 'That's you, boy.' Scared? Hell, yes, I was scared."
And when the game started, when Long got his first taste of combat, the fear melted, and it was just football. He blocked a punt and pressured the quarterback all day. When it was over he was named defensive MVP. He said hello to his grandmother on national TV afterward and added, "Ma, it stinks here. I want to come home."