Former Boca Ratonian Desmond Howard sets an example for local youth
When Desmond Howard was asked to keynote the 2021 South Palm Beach County YMCA Inspiration Breakfast, last May, the answer was a “no-brainer.” The Heisman Trophy-winning Super Bowl MVP wide receiver has affection for both Boca Raton, where he lived for nine years in the 1990s, and for YMCAs everywhere.
“The YMCA will always hold a special place in my heart,” he says. “As a baby, I learned to swim at the YMCA. And as I grew up, it’s where I made friends and participated in many activities and sports.”
Howard is accustomed to the spotlight. He secured the Heisman in 1991, his final year with the Michigan Wolverines, and his record-setting 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in 1997’s Super Bowl XXXI contributed more than anything else to the Green Bay Packers’ come-from-behind victory. He has given a TEDx talk and is now a fixture on ESPN as a pigskin analyst.
But the Y appearance in Boca still provided the equivalent of pregame jitters, in a good way.“I really take those opportunities extremely seriously,”he says. “I want to make sure my message comes across in a way that can positively affect the people I’m speaking to. I try to inspire and encourage the youth to live out their dreams and to understand that there are people out there who they may not know, who care about them, and care about their future. … I have a nervousness there, because it means so much.”
Not that the audience of 500 could detect any of this. Disarmingly funny, with a smile that could light up any room, Howard was received rapturously by the professionals and youth in attendance.“Desmond Howard was a fabulous keynote speaker,”says Jason Hagensick, CEO and president of YMCA of South Palm Beach County.“He emphasized the value and importance of positive role models, mentors and coaches in his life. This closely aligns with what we try to achieve at our YMCA.”
Howard played for five teams in his 11-season professional career. He retired from the NFL in 2003 as a preventive measure after a minor neck injury—“You only get one neck,”he says, add- ing,“I had accomplished everything I set out to accomplish, so I was good with my career.”He lives in Miami now, when he’s not traveling to college-football hot spots each week for ESPN’s “College GameDay.”
At 51, Howard is old enough to remember a more ruthless era of his beloved sport, before “traumatic brain injury”entered mainstream discussion. He likes to tell the story of playing high school football at St. Joseph’s in Ohio, where he was one of the few students of color. He cut his teeth under the school’s legendary coach, Bill Gutbrod, a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. His catchphrase during practices was“Where’s the blood?”If no actual crimson was being shed, Coach Gutbrod would pull a ketchup bottle from his pocket and squeeze the condiment onto the players’ uniforms.
“We accepted it was a physical sport,”Howard says.“Either you accepted that, or you didn’t. We took pride in the fact that we played a very physical sport. And it was OK—it was just the way of separating men from boys. Not everyone is cut out for football.
“It’s much more mentally demanding than it is physically demanding,”he adds.“Most people can’t go through the mental grind to even have what it takes to get through the fall camp, or to get through practice so you can play.”
These days, Howard expresses few allegiances to the teams he helped elevate; he just likes“to see my former teams do well.”Otherwise, as a client of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), he continues to speak at events like the Inspiration Breakfast, sharing the knowledge and insights he’s gained through decades of success.
“I try to encourage people with my own story, and hopefully it’s something that could hit a chord with them in a positive way, that can encourage them and influence them and inspire them to go out and achieve whatever they’re trying to achieve.”