One afternoon when Desmond was in the 10th grade at St. Joseph's, as father and son drove home from football practice along Lakeshore Boulevard, J.D. said, "Desmond, I'd appreciate it if you'd show me how much you love your daddy. I want you to give me the next year. Don't go out. No girls. Just do your homework, play football and run track, and I give you my word, I'll give you anything you like for your senior year."
They struck that deal and then another while watching the 1988 Summer Olympics. J.D. told Desmond to pay attention to some of the athletes from smaller countries. He pointed out the ones he thought would win medals someday. "They aren't in the gold yet, but they will be," he said, "because you can tell that when they go home, they will keep practicing. Most athletes go home from practice and sit down to dinner while their mamas pat them on the head. You do a little bit more." A couple of afternoons later Desmond came home from practice and went for a run. "Now, Desmond, you are working on that edge," J.D. said.
Desmond didn't go to his senior prom because he had a track meet the next day. He rarely went to the local clubs where most of the neighborhood kids hung out. His social circle was restricted to two best friends, Marcus Greene and Morgan, studious and athletic kids from families not unlike his. "The only dance he ever went to I conned him into," Greene says. "He wanted to separate himself, just keep out of trouble. He knew there were shootings sometimes. He told me, 'Accidents will happen.' "
By his senior year Desmond, who played tailback and safety at St. Joe's, had 20 major schools recruiting him and a used Plymouth to drive. J.D. gave him the car and whatever else he wanted, and didn't mind driving a beat-up Oldsmobile himself. Michigan came after Desmond the hardest. Gary Moeller, now the Wolverines coach, recruited Desmond, whose 4.3 speed overrode any concerns about his 5' 9", 167-pound size. (He is now 176.) Moeller fell hard for him in his final high school game when he returned the opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. "The one thing I liked about him early was he wanted the ball," Moeller says. "He got mad when he didn't have the ball. He loved his hands on the ball."
Ann Arbor turned out to be colder than Howard had expected that first year. What's more, he was so taken aback by the array of talent at Michigan that during orientation, when the coaches grouped the recruits by position, he went with the defensive backs, thinking he might have a better chance of playing at that position. Moeller found Howard sitting with the safeties and tried him at receiver to see if he could catch at all. "We stood there and said, 'Yeah, he can catch the ball,' " Moeller recalls. "It was just a quick pass, and then, first thing, he made a [tackler] miss." Then head coach Bo Schembechler didn't know the full extent of what he had, but he had an idea. Asked what he intended to do the next season, after his leading receiver, John Kolesar, had graduated, Schembechler answered, "I've got this crafty little devil, Desmond Howard."
Howard's success has come partly by the hand of another Wolverine from St. Joe's, junior quarterback Elvis Grbac. Grbac and Howard had no idea that they would become the most decorated and prolific passing tandem in Michigan history, since all Grbac did at St. Joe's was hand off to Howard 30 times a game. Grbac completed exactly one pass to Howard during their high school days. But at Michigan they began developing a relationship that Howard now says is "almost telepathic—I can practically read his mind." The more laconic Grbac says, "It's a mutual friendship that's been growing for several years. There's something about him that just makes you play better. He understands your attitudes and quirks at crunch time. He's got a habit of being there at the right time."
HOWARD FINISHED THE REGULAR SEASON with 23 touchdowns, including a Big Ten-record 19 touchdown receptions. He has made catches of all descriptions and punt and kickoff returns so picturesque they should hang in art galleries. Even if Howard did not have staggering numbers, he ought to be awarded the Heisman simply for making plays look so pretty.
Howard's style is one part studied nonchalance, one part meticulous technique and one part haughty arrogance. He runs fastidious routes, but sometimes he runs them at less than full speed, reserving a step for the instant he sees the ball leaving Grbac's hand, when he hits another gear.
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 in the regular-season finale, 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.