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Magic's Show
Sally Jenkins
August 20, 2008
His acrobatic catches and a doting father's support elevated Desmond Howard to the game's pinnacle
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August 20, 2008

Magic's Show

His acrobatic catches and a doting father's support elevated Desmond Howard to the game's pinnacle

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Sports Illustrated DECEMBER 9, 1991

THERE IS MAGIC IN ANY ORDINARY act, and its essence is practice. Turn a carrot into a goldfish, pull a bird from a handkerchief, roll a coin over your fingers a thousand times until you can make it disappear. Practice—that is the innocent art of Michigan receiver Desmond (Magic) Howard.

Howard is a young man of 21 who is experiencing his first metaphysical stirrings, and you know what metaphysical stirrings can do to a young man. First he has a stirring, and the next thing you know, he is considering the true nature of magic. Then he is meditating and wearing an Egyptian ankh—the symbol of life—around his neck, and beads, and wondering whether he is more a black man than a maize-and-blue one, and soon there are posters of African kings on the wall of his apartment, where he lives alone, and then he is refusing to eat beef because of its impurities and reading Malcolm X and listening to the speeches of African-American psychologist Na'im Akbar and asking, well, Why?

Frequently, the answer is, well, Because. Howard has learned this not from books or meditations or speeches, but from his father, J.D. Howard, a tool-and-die maker. J.D. played basketball as a youth with the Jolly Jokers, a dime-store version of the Harlem Globetrotters, in the days when good black athletes didn't always get scholarships. More often they got a trade like tool and die. Desmond was all J.D. got for company after he and his wife, Hattie, split up when Desmond was 13; and J.D. devoted the next several years to raising a son who has otherworldly speed, a smile softer than your daughter's and a sure sense that there is more to life than all this.

Howard, now a joyous college junior, is a virtual shoo-in for the Heisman Trophy. With 138 points, he shattered Michigan's single-season scoring record of 117, set by Tom Harmon in 1940. But the numbers do not express the style of his performances or how absolutely no one has been able to stop him. Nor do they speak to what an unusual man-child he is, a gentle tofu eater, someone who talks to troubled youngsters, an activist who aims to get a Ph.D. in social work, a meditative loner with a vibrant laugh. There is an eloquence to Howard's play, a sense that it pleases his entire body, from his eyes to the bottoms of his cleats, to simply catch the football before 100,000 people on a Saturday afternoon.

IT WAS J.D. WHO EXPLAINED THE TRUE NATURE of magic to his son. Actually, he didn't explain it so much as live it, working overtime at the Osborn tool-and-die plant in inner-city Cleveland in order to send Desmond to St. Joseph Academy, a predominantly white private Catholic school, where he might have a chance to earn decent college-board scores and an athletic scholarship, and learn to speak in the fiercely educated tones that he now employs. "It wasn't cheap," Desmond says. "There was sacrifice. You learn what you owe."

J.D. worked, and wonderful things would magically appear, like the latest and most expensive sneakers, fashionable athletic wear, even a car. So when you telephone Desmond's rather ascetically decorated apartment near the Ann Arbor campus and he answers with the bright greeting "Magic!" he doesn't mean anything frivolous by it. He means work.

"To work at something until it looks easy defines my relationship to the word magic," he says. "It's the one aspect where I deserve the nickname." He adopted it in seventh grade and does not intend to relinquish it, even though it has taken on added significance of late.

Desmond's mother, Hattie Howard-Dawkins, who is now remarried, helped define the relationship as well. Desmond went to live with his father in part so his mother could earn her college degree. She then got a job on the Ohio Hunger Task Force, teaching day-care administrators how to plan meals for children. Before that she ran a day-care center in her home for 17 years. The size of young Desmond's allowance depended on how much he did to help Hattie, reading to the children at story hour, taking them outside to exercise, putting them down for naps. If he seems older than his years, she says, "I think he gets it from me, because he had responsibilities."

In the midst of Hattie's struggle to go to school, raise Desmond and his three brothers (two older, one younger) and run a day-care center all at the same time, J.D., who remains on good terms with his ex-wife, suggested that he take Desmond. "Let him come with me," he said. "You go on and finish school. You know my heart is with him." Hattie agreed. J.D. says now, "Without him I'd have been lost. I wouldn't have had a thing." Desmond's childhood friend Warren Morgan says, "It's like they're brothers. Desmond is J.D.'s life."

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