We sat down with New York Jets right tackle Austin Howard, who played a superb game last week against Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams. Howard has an interesting background: He began as an undrafted free agent from Northern Iowa, where he played basketball and football:
Q: Was basketball your first love?
Howard: I always loved basketball, but the biggest role model for me was my oldest brother, Marcel, and he went out for football. He had a lot of success at Iowa State and was in the league for a little bit [training camp with the Detroit Lions]. So that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to follow in his footsteps. But basketball, I had fun doing it. It just got to a point where I realized I was too big -- a 6-foot-7, 290-pound power forward/center. I kept growing and growing and growing. I had a blast at Northern Iowa. We went to the NCAA tournament and played Georgetown [in 2006]. I didn't play in that game, and I didn't play much overall [five games, eight points], but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I remember we played "Big Baby" Davis. We actually beat LSU at LSU.
Q: What was it like coming out of a smaller school and trying to make it as an undrafted free agent?
Howard: I've never been used to big-time lights. I've always felt that, even through high school and college, I need to give 110 percent to really show myself. I was blessed to go to Northern Iowa because, one, I felt like it gave me an opportunity to focus on my education. In terms of sports, it was an opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond. I felt I could succeed there and show off my skills. At other places, I might not have had that type of chance.
Q: Kurt Warner went to Northern Iowa, and he had a storybook career. Is he the inspiration for undrafted guys out of Northern Iowa?
Howard: He has a great story, but, I mean, you can't look at him as someone you want to model yourself after and have that same type of mentality when it comes to the small schools. You know, guys make it. I believe we had three offensive linemen during my career at UNI that went to the league. It happens. If you're good, they'll find you.
Q: You weren't really on the radar here until the start of the 2012 training camp, when you reported at about 330 pounds. You dropped almost 30 pounds that offseason. Was that the turning point for you?
Howard: I never felt I was at a weight that was inhibiting my performance, but the coaches here know a lot about the body and science and the work that goes into this sport, and they felt it would be better if I was at a lighter weight. Obviously, it has worked. I have to give a lot of credit to my fiancee [Larissa Johnson]. She works out a lot. She was cooking all the meals and dragging me to her [fitness] classes at six o'clock in the morning. We did rollerblading, mountain biking, you name it. That helped me become the player I am now.