Redskins' seventh-rounder Horton a quick study

October, 2, 2008
10/02/08
12:34
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

No matter what the Redskins personnel department might say, choosing a player 249th overall is a crapshoot. At that point, you could gamble on the player not being drafted and have a decent shot of signing him as a free agent.

 
 AP Photo/Donna McWilliam
 Safety Chris Horton snagged his third interception of the season in a big win over Dallas.

But the Redskins went ahead and took UCLA safety Chris Horton in the seventh round, and four games into his rookie season, they can't keep him off the field. From the first time he put on the burgundy and gold in the Hall of Fame preseason game, he's consistently been around the football.

When the team's former starting safety Reed Doughty sent Horton a text that he might be too sick to play against the Saints in Week 2, he had no clue he was about to be Wally Pipped. Horton, who grew up in the Fifth Ward in New Orleans, had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the Redskins' 29-24 victory over his childhood team. He earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors and became an instant fan favorite.

Head coach Jim Zorn attempted to temper some of the enthusiasm by saying Doughty would remain the starter, but it was too late. After a win over the Cardinals, Horton was promoted to starting strong safety against the Cowboys. But if you're worried about all this going to Horton's head, you've got the wrong kid.

Some players who are drafted late carry a chip on their shoulder. Horton, though, almost seems amused by where he was drafted, saying he doesn't really blame teams for passing him by.

"They said I was tight in the hips, couldn't play man-to-man, had poor ball skills and no range," said Horton. "But I already knew I might not be the best safety around. I just felt like I was a good football player."

Horton admits that some of his rookie mistakes have been covered up by all the talk of his three interceptions. Redskins coaches actually removed him from Sunday's game against the Cowboys in favor of more experience, but he returned in time to make another huge play. With the Redskins clinging to a 20-17 lead in the second half, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo spotted a wide-open Miles Austin in the right flat. Horton was near the line of scrimmage, and he was supposed to key on a potential run.

But when he saw Romo's "eyes get real big," Horton went racing toward the sideline. Romo never saw him enter the picture, and Horton had his third interception of the season. The Redskins added a field goal to make it 23-17 and held on for a huge division win.

"I was supposed to play underneath the trail receiver," Horton said. "So I was going out there regardless of where [Romo] threw it that direction or not."

Horton said all his buddies from UCLA have been shocked by his interceptions. He made a lot of tackles in 41 games for the Bruins, but finished his career with only four interceptions.

"As a college player, I wasn't so fortunate to catch all those balls," said Horton. "My ex-teammates keep asking where these hands came from. I used to sort of freak out when the ball was in the air. I can remember one of my coaches telling me after the season that I'd missed seven opportunities. I definitely had some brick hands."

Horton began showing up early for practices to catch more balls. And so far this season, he's seized nearly every opportunity. He's the first rookie to have four takeaways in his first four games since Andre Young did it for the Chargers in 1982.

Horton was the 10th player selected by the Redskins in April, which means those lucrative bonuses that second-rounders Malcolm Kelly, Devin Thomas and Fred Davis received didn't trickle down to him. But that said, he's already sending money home to help his mother in New Orleans.

Horton was heading into his sophomore season at UCLA when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the home he grew up in. Most of his family had evacuated, but his 90-year-old great grandfather, George Falley, refused to leave. Falley had been a source of inspiration to his great grandson for years. He attended Horton's football games and served as a constant sounding board.

"He had such high energy," Horton said. "It was like he was a 50-year-old 90-year-old. He just didn't worry about aging, and you couldn't help but learn from him."

The family held out hope that Falley had been able to ride out the storm, and they simply couldn't reach him. Horton said a couple of months passed before his great grandfather's body was recovered.

"He just said he'd been there all his life, and he didn't want to leave," Horton said. "He'd been through some hurricanes, but obviously, this one was different."

Horton's family lost everything in the flood, but the thing that bothers him most is all the pictures that were destroyed.

"It's weird because there's no recollection of what we looked like as kids," he said. "We have to go over to some of my aunts' houses to try and remember."

Horton wants to use the money he makes in the league to help his family as it continues to recover from Katrina. And at the rate he's going, you would anticipate a more lucrative deal in the not-so-distant future.

For now, it doesn't seem like the instant success has changed Horton. He stays at home most nights watching re-runs of Showtime's "Dexter" with friends and playing video games online. A few weeks ago, a local teacher sent him a copy of "Horton Hears a Who!" to sign for her class. Horton not only signed the book, but promised to show up and read the book to her students.

"I almost watched the movie the other night," said Horton, "but I got distracted by a football game."

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