Whether you term Willie Howard's exit from the 2001 regular season as one injury or five injuries, it all happened in a matter of seconds. On one play during the Vikings' win over Tennessee on Dec. 9, 2001, Howard was continuing his ascent as one of the best defensive linemen on the team.
After the next play, his future as a Viking started to come into serious doubt, as his legs were rolled on by a Tennessee offensive lineman— and he recalls it all too well. On Dec. 12, he was placed on injured reserve, ending his season and some even thought it could end his career.
Howard had a pin placed in his foot. He had a fractured ankle. A Chondral (the cartilaginous surface of the bone) defect, which he says was his biggest concern. The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tore on his right leg. And the meniscus (cartilage in the knee) was damaged on his left leg.
The extent of the injuries was obviously severe, and he remembers the play vividly.
"I never want to say anybody is a dirty player. In my opinion, I did everything I could," Howard said. "First I played off the guard, then I got in the backfield like we're taught to do and I was coming down the line, where, in my opinion, I got cut behind me and rolled, which made the injury even worse, which I felt was a little dirty. But at the same time, as an offensive lineman, he's taught to keep players off their running back, off the quarterback. At that point in the game, I think I was doing pretty good, so I was a threat."
Howard didn't immediately know just how bad it was, but before he was driven into the locker room on a cart he knew it was serious.
"I didn't know I had a femur Chondral fracture; I didn't know I had the ankle," he said. "I just knew my knee was done. Then, once I was getting on the cart, everything just went limp. I knew there was a lot more going on."
Now he keeps focused on the present and the future. The past had him rated as one of the Vikings' best linemen last year before the injury, playing both left end and tackle. The present has him clearly focused and determined with his rehabilitation.
Every day during the Vikings' stretch of camps this spring, Howard could be seen either paying close attention to the instructions being given to the healthy defensive linemen or he would be running laps or gassers. He is in tremendous condition for a big man, but his attitude may be his biggest asset right now.
"To me, I look at it every single day and I'm thinking I'm going to play," Howard said. "Now, whether it be training camp or eight games into the season or even next year. As long as I know I'm going to do as much as I can to get back on that field."
At the end of May, he was slowly trying to make the transition to cutting and bursting off the leg. By the middle of June he was exploding off the yard stripes and running 10- and 20-yard sprints — time after time after time.
"The ACL injury, you have to make sure it is structurally intact before you start doing all that cutting," he said. "But then I also have that defect, which you don't want to chip a piece off again."
He may not be able to practice full speed at the start of training camp. Maybe not even by the end of training camp. But you get the feeling that he is determined to make it happen sometime in the coming months. He has a drive to return the field of play this season and prove that he can pick up right where his injury forced him leave — and that was on the fast track to a very promising NFL career as a strong and explosive defensive lineman.
Howard Recovery Based On Work Ethic
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