Moeller has told Howard that he is so talented that double coverage is not an acceptable excuse for failing to make a catch. "If you really want the ball, then you can't let two guys take it away from you," Moeller said. Howard hasn't. And when he isn't making circus catches, he is a lethal presence on special teams. Against Ohio State on Nov. 23, Howard ran back a punt 93 yards for a touchdown. It was the longest punt return in Michigan history, and upon completing it, Howard momentarily struck a pose in the end zone, his left leg held high, his arm outstretched, like the figure on the Heisman. He had planned the gesture as a way of "capping off the team's special season." he says. "I love entertaining crowds. I love hearing that silence, then the burst of noise when you make the catch."
Yet during the week, Howard is reluctant even to discuss football. So reluctant, in fact, that he moved off campus last year. First he tried an apartment with roommates, but unwashed dishes and unmade beds made him irritable. So this year he took an apartment alone in Ypsilanti, several miles from campus.
Howard rarely socializes with football players, preferring to surround himself with a small circle of intimates who are not athletes. He will not say who he is dating. "I like my privacy," he says. "I like my time to myself, not to be bothered by people. They don't mean any harm, but if they are always knocking on your door and stopping by, you can't get anything done." He is only 13 hours short of his degree in communications, which he will receive in May. After that he intends to go to graduate school, whether he enters the NFL draft or returns for a final year of eligibility. (He has another year of football left because he did not play a down as a freshman.) "When Desmond said he wanted to live alone, I knew we had a grown man on our hands," says Hattie.
Living alone also allows him to meditate, a habit he picked up from his mother. For 10 or 15 minutes each day, he shuts off the lights and turns on water sounds, and thinks. "It can be about anything," he says. "A big game, or a test."
Howard rarely socializes. He might go to the L.A. Club Cafe sandwich shop near the center of campus, where the proprietor fixes Howard's favorite meal, a grilled chicken sandwich with cheese fries and a strawberry shake. Or he will go to hear the more provocative public speakers who are regularly booked on campus, such as the psychologist Akbar or 1960s radical activist Angela Davis. He has more important things to do than socialize. "I want to destroy stereotypes about the black male athlete," Howard says, "it's a mission of mine to break down stereotypes about our behavior, our social life, our literacy, our academic situations...."
To that end, he has developed a strong interest in the 1960s and social activism. Perhaps his closest friend on campus is Greg Harden, a 42-year-old counselor who is a consultant to the athletic department and who has led Howard on an interesting quest for his identity. At Harden's urging, Howard has explored African-American history and culture, and the result is that Howard's sense of self-worth does not depend entirely on his being an athlete. They met two years ago when Howard called Harden to tell him how much he admired a speech on substance abuse that Harden had given to the football team.
Harden suggested some extracurricular reading, and ever since he told his protégé that "you dress for what you aspire to," Howard has regularly worn a coat and tie and carried a briefcase to class.
Howard and his friends at Cincinnati, Morgan and Greene, share a sense of curiosity about their race and an accompanying sense of responsibility to get their degrees. They exchange books and pamphlets in the mail, exploring the position and plight of the educated young black in America.
Howard has tried his hand at speaking and apparently has a gift for it. He has made a dozen visits to the nearby Maxey Boys Training School, a youth home, where his reception is mixed. "You play football?" some of the offenders have asked incredulously of the slight figure before them. "I play football," he affirms. His performance thrills Harden. "Some athletes have been a disappointment in not figuring out that they have access to power and getting chewed up by it instead," he says. "Desmond could be worth his weight in gold to the black community in showing blacks new ways to see themselves. He's trying very hard to do it right."
Perhaps too hard at times. Howard can display personal standards that border on priggishness. He is intolerant of others' mistakes and of people who do not live up to his high expectations. "I like reliable people," he says adamantly. He admits to fussing with his former roommates over housekeeping. "I think you have a responsibility." he says. "There's no sense in trying to go out and straighten up the neighborhood if your own home isn't straight." With Howard, says Harden, "mediocrity is not an option."