By Bob Socci
This story appeared in the Navy Gameday football program on November 17, 2012.
The first of the milestones occurred well after heavy gusts started spraying a hard rain sideways across East Carolina’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
In the second minute of the fourth quarter, with Navy comfortably ahead, sophomore Geoffrey Whiteside started out from the right slot of the Pirates’ 20-yard line. Running straight up the field, through the downpour and into the secondary, Whiteside had yet to score a touchdown in his brief collegiate career.
Within five yards of the end zone, Whiteside turned to the inside and found a dart from quarterback Keenan Reynolds on his fingertips. He snared the throw, before diving across the goal line and into the box score.
No more than a minute passed before one of Whiteside’s classmates celebrated his own first. This time, following an interception that positioned Navy in possession at ECU’s 33-yard line, Reynolds gave way to Trey Miller. Handling his initial snap of the game, Miller moved to the right and shoveled a pitch to Ryan Williams-Jenkins.
Williams-Jenkins collected the ball, held it against his right shoulder and sprinted down the far side. On his first rushing attempt as a Midshipman, Williams-Jenkins didn’t stop running until scoring the 55th of Navy’s 56 points.
Unable to run with Whiteside and Williams-Jenkins, a fellow slot back two years their senior still managed to stay with them every step of the way; his right knee in a brace and his weight supported by crutches.
“I felt like I scored a touchdown with them,” John Howell said several days later.
Howell watched Whiteside and Williams-Jenkins reach their uncharted territory from a spot near the Navy bench. No longer in uniform, he made his own arrangements to be in Greenville that afternoon, traveling separately from the rest of the Mids.
It turned out to be a treacherous trip, as the earliest signs of an impending Hurricane Sandy reached the South Atlantic coast. Regardless, Howell wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.
“To see them do well and excel in the game was great for me,” he said. “Being on the sidelines, able to celebrate with those guys was unbelievable.”
The last few seasons, some of Howell’s most memorable plays occurred along a sideline, from the left in Philadelphia to the right at South Carolina. In this instance, on the final Saturday of October, in the eastern half of North Carolina, a sideline marked two of his proudest moments. To understand why, you need to know what happened on Sept. 29, next to a sideline in Annapolis.
Two weeks earlier, Howell had represented Navy as a game captain at Penn State. An honor under any circumstances, it was especially thrilling for someone who grew up near Philadelphia and gone to Beaver Stadium as a kid. Sitting among the masses numbering 98,792 were nearly 40 members of Howell’s friends-and-family club.
“Being able to be selected to go out as one of the captains, in front of family and friends and people I know who were watching on TV, it was just unbelievable,” Howell said. “It was a great experience, very humbling.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the afternoon was a letdown for the Mids, who lost to the Nittany Lions, 34-7. They rebounded, however, to win easily at home over VMI the following weekend. That put them at 1-2 entering their final September date, against San Jose State.
Navy received the opening kickoff, and on the day’s fourth play from scrimmage, Howell ran 19 yards into Spartan terrain. For the eighth play, the Mids set up on 1st-and-10 from the 32. Originally to the outside of right tackle, Howell wheeled up that same side, sprinting adjacent to San Jose State’s bench. He was accompanied almost the entire way only by a stream of thoughts, while running under the arc of a deep ball from Miller.
“I was thinking this is wide open, there’s nobody covering me,” Howell recounted. “I thought, ‘This is going to be a great momentum swing in the game, to get the first touchdown.’”
Momentum swung, alright. But in the wrong direction.
“I saw the ball coming, I slowed down to catch it, and out of my peripheral (vision), I could see the safety coming over,” Howell continued. “I thought I would try to catch it and spin back on him, because he was coming pretty fast.”
Just as Howell planted his right foot and extended his arms for Miller’s throw, the Spartans’ Damon Ogburn launched himself toward the receiver. Ogburn arrived simultaneously with the football, his helmet leading the way. Howell went down, the ball came loose and an official threw his flag.
For his hit, Ogburn was penalized 15 yards for a personal foul. From his hit, Howell remained on the ground, in obvious agony. Not so evident, at least initially from afar, was the nature of his injury.
Williams-Jenkins, for one and speaking for others, immediately suspected a head injury. Or perhaps, he speculated from the opposite sideline, an ankle problem.
“I figured, ‘John will be back next week,’” Williams-Jenkins recalled weeks later.
As Howell remembers, many of the questions to come were from well-wishers, wondering whether he’d hurt his shoulder or suffered a concussion. Such was the nature of the blow, as well as the resulting penalty. Remarkably, his head was clear. And the first thing that came to mind was an old injury.
“I broke my femur in high school, so at first I thought I re-broke my femur,” says Howell, who was a three-time MVP at Lansdale Catholic, near his home in Hatfield, Pa. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I did not just break my femur again!’”
Howell realized it could be serious. Despite requests by Navy’s medical staff, he couldn’t bear to put any weight on his right leg. That didn’t keep him from wishful thinking.
“I just thought, ‘Geez, I hope I feel good, so I can get back up again for the next drive,‘“ Howell says. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about what the long-term (effects) were going to be. I was just thinking, ‘Let’s get to the sideline, have it looked at, and get it taped up.”
The team’s medical staff knew otherwise. Howell’s femur, his upper leg, was intact. His knee, they surmised, was not.
“It definitely hit hard when the doc’s on the sideline (said), ‘We think you tore your ACL (anterior cruciate ligament).’ I was like, ‘Can I keep playing with that?’” Howell laughs. “They were like, ‘If that’s the case, you’re done.’”
To find conclusive evidence, they scheduled an MRI two days later at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. In all probability, Howell wouldn’t recover in time to finish the season, much less the game.
Meanwhile, his offensive mates never regrouped. Shortly after Howell departed, their promising drive ended with a fumble inside the 10-yard line. Their next 41 plays netted only 78 yards. Four Spartan field goals amounted to a 12-0 final.
“I think it was a huge blow in that game,” Howell’s position coach Danny O’Rourke reflects. “Nobody wanted to believe it. Did that really happen? Especially because everyone knew how hard he worked. I guess it shows we’re not guaranteed anything. It doesn’t matter how hard you work and all the good stuff you do. It was tough on me, and all the guys.”
His loss, their loss, was devastating on different dimensions. To start, there was the impact of his physical absence from Navy’s offense. Howell was one of the Mids’ most consistently productive players.
One out of every seven career touches, as a runner or receiver, resulted in a touchdown. He scored on seven of 56 carries and two of seven catches. In 2010, Howell ran down the longest pass in Army-Navy history, streaking up the left sideline to grab a 77-yard strike from Ricky Dobbs. The second week of 2011, he raced up and down the field at Western Kentucky, scoring on 50- and 57-yard dashes. Then at top-ten South Carolina, he hurried up the right sideline for the first TD of a near upset.
Simply not having Howell in the lineup left an offense grinding its way out of the gate without one of its few proven playmakers. The day he went down, San Jose State pitched the first shutout of Navy since 2006.
But there was much more to their collective misery. The guy everyone called ‘Hollywood’ is beyond popular. As the son of a former Navy SEAL, and imbued with his dad’s work ethic, he’s also widely respected. His offseason workout partner, Williams-Jenkins, contends that Howell was always out in front, leading sprints.
“I don’t think anything’s been given to (John),” Williams-Jenkins says. “He represents what Navy football is all about, success through hard work.”
An equally impressionable youngster, Whiteside, concurred.
“I just felt so bad,” Whiteside said. “John worked so hard to be out there.”
“A lot of guys came up to me and were really sympathetic about it,” says Howell. “You could tell how sincere they were. They were like, ‘We really wish you were out there with us.’”
The only person, it seemed, who didn’t feel sorry for him was Howell himself.
“Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to play football. But that’s not going to break me down from who I am,” Howell says. “I can’t go back and control the play I got hurt on. I can’t control how fast or slow my rehab is going to be. I can control my attitude and outlook I have.
“There’s no need to be down and depressed, because that can spread to some of the guys. I might as well just look at everything as optimistically as I can and make the most of it.”
“His attitude has been unbelievable,” O’Rourke said in the middle of his 11th season as a Naval Academy assistant. “After the game, he was so positive. He kept saying, ‘I’ll be fine.’ He’s had a positive attitude the whole time.”
Including a couple of days later, when Howell’s MRI confirmed the Navy doctors’ worst fears, and more. Not only was his ACL severed, so were the MCL (medial) and LCL (lateral), other stabilizing ligaments in his right knee. Reconstructive surgery was scheduled for the following week.
At word of the bad news, it was Howell who texted Williams-Jenkins to lift his spirits. The gist of Howell’s message: Don’t worry about me.
“John was worried about us beating Air Force and getting to a bowl game,” Williams-Jenkins says.
With those ends in sight, Howell essentially began a second Academy career. He went to work as a de facto coach. The same afternoon he underwent imaging in Bethesda, Howell got back in time to sit in on football film review. He was out at practice that Monday, as well as the rest of the week; holding a practice script in one hand and carrying his crutches in the other.
“I just try to keep a positive attitude. I can’t physically be on the field, but I have a lot of experience through the years in the offense,” Howell explains. “I can be out there and support (everyone) vocally as much as I could on the field.
“I just try to push the guys, see if they can’t go one more rep before they take a water break. As much as I don’t want to be ‘that guy,’ I try to remind them that you never know when that last play will be.”
Of course, by the time the Mids left for Colorado Springs, Howell was all too aware of when his last play occurred. He’d already come to grips with it. But seeing his teammates off to a showdown with an arch rival was tough to get a handle on.
“When the team went out to Air Force on Thursday, and I was saying ‘bye’ to everybody, that’s when it hit hard,” said Howell. “That’s probably the hardest, when I was saying goodbye to the guys and not being able to go out there with them.”
While the Mids went west, hundreds of miles to the south, a recent Academy grad and ex-wide receiver understood exactly what Howell was experiencing.
Numerous ex-teammates, as well as some others Howell never played alongside, called and messaged encouragement. He heard from slot backs who once mentored him as a plebe, Bobby Doyle and Cory Finnerty. And from predecessors who played defense, like Bobby McClarin and Ryan Hamilton.
All are close friends whose accomplishments Howell admires; whose advice he treasures. But none endured what he’s going through. One who did is Doug Furman, who tore up his knee last fall at Notre Dame.
“You couldn’t have two harder workers than those guys,” said O’Rourke, who was struck by how closely the senior-year narratives of Furman and Howell parallel one another. “It’s ironic. The situation is very similar with those two kids.”
Actually, it’s eerie.
“When Doug got hurt last year, I was like right next to him on the field,” Howell recalls. “I turned and looked, and I was waiving the doctors over. For me, I was like, ‘How could that happen?’ He was one of the best guys on the team. He was always positive, inspirational. I thought, ‘This is such a shame for him go out in his senior year like this.’”
Two of the Mids’ best leaders. Both hugely popular in the locker and weight rooms. Each handed an unjust fate on the football field.
In the immediate aftermath of his injury, Howell’s mother and father, Liz and John, even reminded their son about Furman. Look at him now, they advised, remarking how Furman recovered and rehabbed, and is now symptom-free at flight school in Pensacola, Fla.
Typical of caring parents, their words were prescient. Within days, Furman reached out.
“When (Doug) called me, he said, ‘John I feel the same about you that you did about me. It’s such a shame seeing you go down,’” says Howell, before sharing their new inside joke, with a chuckle. “We have something more in common now.”
“With Doug, I can relate to him a lot. He told me to just do my rehab, go through the process and everything will be alright.”
Regarding Howell’s absence at Air Force, there was consolation. He couldn’t help Navy beat the Falcons. But he was able to enjoy the next best thing: watching them do it.
His folks drove to Annapolis for the weekend and entertained a group of Mids left off the travel squad. As Navy rallied into overtime and took the lead, John shouted at the TV. And when defensive end Wes Henderson swatted away a fourth-down pass to preserve victory, he joined a mile-high celebration two time zones away.
“It took all the pain away watching that last (Navy) touchdown, and seeing Air Force’s incomplete pass on fourth down,” Howell says excitedly. “We all went nuts. I had my knee brace (on) and threw everything that was in my hands, and just started jumping around.”
The day before the next contest, a Friday night affair at Central Michigan, Howell underwent surgery by CDR J.P. Rue, MD at Anne Arundel Medical Center. He was in and out in less than three hours, well in advance of his next appointment viewing of a 31-13 Navy win.
A month later, Howell experienced little pain or swelling. Recovery was going so well that during the Mids’ most recent home contest, he shared with a radio audience his wish for the Army-Navy game. He wants to be in uniform on Dec. 8, to run out of the locker room with everybody else.
“I would definitely say the Army-Navy touchdown was most meaningful,” says Howell, who grew up on America’s Game. “It was in Philadelphia, where I’m from, I had a lot of family and friends there, and playing at that stadium was unbelievable for me.
“Growing up, watching that game, I never really ever anticipated (playing in) it. Going there with my dad and seeing how the fans were and seeing the interaction, that whole atmosphere was electrifying. It was such a great thing to go to, seeing the rich tradition it had.”
And continues to have, thanks to young men like Howell.
He came to Annapolis, choosing to follow his father by serving his country. When he leaves Annapolis, he intends to follow his sister, Danielle, into the Marine Corps. Thirteen months older than John, she shocked her kid brother a year ago by enlisting. Now she’s in a dual program, bound for graduate studies at South Carolina and Officer Candidate School.
“I got a phone call, and she said, ‘Hey, I’m going to be a Marine,’” John says of the big sister he considers a best friend. “I’m like, ‘Good joke. Seriously. What’s up?’”
He laughs, repeating their words, then continues.
“I feel that definitely influenced me a little bit more to go into the Marines,” says Howell, who wants to fly in the Corps. “She kids me that (I) don’t even know what it feels like to be a Marine.”
Not quite, yet. But Howell is getting a feel for the post-military career he desires. His sideline perspective has given him a new outlook.
“I never really put too much (thought) into (coaching), until now. I really love the game,” Howell says. “Now that I’ve taken that role, I’ve really enjoyed the last couple of weeks, being able to sit back and look at it from a different perspective.”
If granted the service selection of his choice, there’s a chance Howell can be temporarily assigned to assist the football staff before attending The Basic School in Quantico.
“That would be a good transition for me, not being able to really finish my senior season,” he says. “Being able to coach the guys, would be a good transition out.”
In ways evident at East Carolina, his transition is already under way. The catch by Whiteside, the run by Williams-Jenkins weren’t strictly products of their own abilities. A lot of tutelage was invested in those two slot backs. Namely, from veterans like Howell.
Before and after injury. During games and practices. Lifting weights and studying video. Meeting in rooms at Ricketts Hall and Bancroft Hall. And conferring on the sideline, in the wind and rain of Greenville, N.C.
“John actually sits behind me in the meeting room,” explains Williams-Jenkins, who’s adapting to Navy slot back, after playing tailback in a high school spread offense. “When I have a question, I turn around and he helps me, just so I know what things to key on.”
“He helps me every day in practice or the film room,” adds Whiteside, a slot receiver before attending the Academy. “We get together in the meeting room or his (dorm) room. He’s always quizzing us on different defenses.
“I don’t know if I’d be where I am at right now, as far as learning the offense and learning defenses…I was so lost, I didn’t think I’d be playing.”
Howell’s voice helps create a welcomed stereo effect for their full-time coach O’Rourke. Often stressing the same points, they reach the more inexperienced slots in different ways.
“John helps those guys a lot,” O’Rourke says. “They look up to him because he’s done it. He can tell them in another language. He’s seen it first hand, against good people.”
There’s another obvious benefit of having Howell around, even if he’s no longer available to run, catch or block. Exposure to his everyday demeanor adjusts the attitudes of others.
“John’s taught me a lot,” admits O’Rourke, in a rare concession from a coach about a player. “He’s such a grounded kid.”
One false step, in the nanosecond of a football play, cut short John Howell’s career. This afternoon, on this — on his — Senior Day, we commemorate neither endings nor lasts. It’s the beginnings and firsts — his and those he influences — that we celebrate.
“John knows there are bigger things ahead of him. He loved playing and being out there, but it’s not like his life is over,” O’Rourke continues. “He’s a special kid. If I coach 50 years, I might not find another kid like him.”