Winning the Heisman Trophy means that an athlete has produced outsized numbers to help his team reach great heights.
That was certainly the case with Desmond Howard.
Howard caught passes in bunches and returned kicks and punts for several hundred yards for the University of Michigan.
However, it was also Howard’s outsized spirit and personality that helped Heisman voters pick in his favor in 1991.
As he helped lead the Wolverines to a 10-2 record that year, Howard put on a display of speed, talent, and magic that won over the nation.
His ascension to the Mt. Rushmore of all-time college greats was sealed after a scintillating punt return touchdown against rival Ohio State in the final game of the ‘91 regular season.
When Howard crossed the goal line with the pigskin, he struck a Heisman pose that brought the home crowd to its feet.
— Rodrigo Alonso (@_Rodrigo_Alonso) November 12, 2022
After turning pro in 1992, Howard didn’t have a memorable NFL career save for a huge day in Super Bowl XXXI.
Despite his lack of success in the NFL, Howard is still a captivating figure in the world of sports broadcasting for ESPN.
This is the story of Desmond Howard.
Living with Dad
Desmond Kevin Howard was born on May 15, 1970, in Cleveland, Ohio.
He is one of four Howard boys born to J.D. and Hattie Howard who divorced when Desmond was 13.
Shortly after the split, J.D. had a conversation with his ex-wife.
Hattie was trying to raise all four boys, finish her college degree, and run a daycare center out of her home.
To lessen her burden somewhat, J.D. offered to have Desmond live with him.
“Let him come with me,” he said. “You go on and finish school. You know my heart is with him.”
It turned out to be a great decision for both Howard men.
“Without him I’d have been lost. I wouldn’t have had a thing,” said J.D. Howard in 1991.
While J.D. worked long days as a tool and die maker, Desmond became a star athlete in youth basketball and obtained the nickname “Magic” when he was in seventh grade.
“To work at something until it looks easy defines my relationship to the word magic,” Howard said in 1991. “It’s the one aspect where I deserve the nickname.”
A Challenge Accepted
Just before Desmond entered high school, J.D. gave his son an opportunity to attend a private school and let Desmond choose which one.
— Every Play Super Bowl XXXI (@sconiesportsguy) May 15, 2022
He picked St. Joseph’s High School when he saw the basketball team wearing fancy blazers before a game.
“When I saw those blazers, I knew that’s where I wanted to go,” he said.
Howard began making a name for himself as a football, basketball, and track athlete for the Vikings.
Then, when Desmond was a sophomore, J.D. challenged him to dig a little deeper to become an all-world athlete.
“I want you to give me the next year,” said J.D. “Don’t go out. No girls. Just do your homework, play football and run track, and I give you my word, I’ll give you anything you like for your senior year.”
A few years later, the two were watching the 1988 Olympics and J.D. told his son to pay attention to the athletes from the smaller competing nations.
“They aren’t in the gold yet, but they will be,” he said, “because you can tell that when they go home, they will keep practicing. Most athletes go home from practice and sit down to dinner while their mamas pat them on the head. You do a little bit more.”
Further inspired, Desmond Howard came home from football practice one day, and instead of lying down for a rest, went out for a brisk run.
“Now, Desmond, you are working on that edge,” J.D. said.
Hard Work Pays Off
Desmond was motivated by his father’s challenges and applied himself well in the classroom as well as the playing field.
During his senior year as a running back and safety for St. Joseph’s, Howard had as many as 20 major colleges offering scholarships.
People came from far and wide just to get a glimpse of Howard as he cruised for an astounding 5,392 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns and collected 10 picks on defense.
👀 The Journey…. Through the years with #21 Desmond Howard! 〽️💙
📍 St. Joseph High School (Cleveland, Ohio) ➡️ *Not Pictured!
📍 〽️ichigan Wolverines – 1988-1991 ➡️
📍 Washington Redskins – 1992-1994 ➡️ *Not Pictured!
📍 Jacksonville Jaguars – 1995 ➡️ *Not… pic.twitter.com/05v8aYrHRU
— A〽️aizing History (@JoeReynoldsAH) August 10, 2023
One of the schools interested in him was the University of Michigan.
Although the Wolverines coaches knew it would be hard to lure an Ohio kid to Michigan, then-assistant coach Gary Moeller knew he had to have Howard.
The coach happened to be in attendance in Howard’s final prep game and watched the prize recruit tear through the opponent for a 95-yard kick return score.
“The one thing I liked about him early was he wanted the ball,” Moeller said. “He got mad when he didn’t have the ball. He loved his hands on the ball.”
Howard did the unthinkable by shunning Ohio State for the Wolverines and then continued to play hoops and run track for the Vikings.
Still adhering to J.D.’s challenge, Desmond skipped his senior prom because he had a track meet the following day.
The Michigan coaches brought Howard to the school to play tailback, but the program was already loaded at the position with NFL-level talent.
Instead of waiting for playing time behind juniors Jarrod Bunch and Leroy Hoard, Moeller decided to work Howard out with the receivers.
“We stood there and said, ‘Yeah, he can catch the ball,'” Moeller recalls. “It was just a quick pass, and then, first thing, he made a [tackler] miss.”
Now playing a different position, Howard was still buried on the depth chart behind future pro, Chris Calloway and others.
Not starting led Howard to doubt his ability and he sought out advice from his Michigan counselor, Greg Harden.
Harden met with Howard several times and convinced the redshirt freshman that he had the talent to play at the highest level.
— LETTERMEN of the USA (@LETTERMENofUSA) May 15, 2017
Howard stuck it out and got a little more playing time in 1989, his freshman year.
As Michigan went 10-2, Howard played in 11 games and caught nine passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns.
He also returned 13 kicks for 295 yards.
Before the 1990 season, long-time Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler retired from coaching and Moeller took over.
Then, Howard’s former St. Joseph’s quarterback, Elvis Grbac, became the starter for the Wolverines.
The two reconnected like they were back in high school and Grbac found Howard 57 times for 858 yards and nine touchdowns for 9-3 Michigan.
“It’s a mutual friendship that’s been growing for several years,” said Grbac. “There’s something about him that just makes you play better. He understands your attitudes and quirks at crunch time. He’s got a habit of being there at the right time.”
Howard also returned 16 kicks for 472 yards and a score along with four punts for 47 yards while taking home second-team All-Big Ten and third-team All-American honors.
In 1991, Michigan thrived with a stacked roster and Howard’s magnificent play.
In 1991, Desmond Howard made "The Catch" on 4th down to lead Michigan over Notre Dame and pave his way to the Heisman Trophy. pic.twitter.com/WGvmtdbzNB
— FB_Helmet_Guy (@FB_Helmet_Guy) October 26, 2019
The Wolverines even bumped off Notre Dame for the first time in five years due to Grbac’s clutch passes and Howard’s huge receptions.
“All that stuff about Irish luck?” said Grbac after the game. “That’s bull.”
Howard would end his senior year with 61 receptions for 950 yards and an incredible 19 receiving scores (which led all FBS programs) and two more touchdowns on the ground.
Howard also had one punt and one kick return for scores.
His punt return for a touchdown is still remembered as one of the most exciting plays in college football history.
The Wolverines were in the midst of a 10-1 regular season with their only loss coming at the hands of the Florida State Seminoles.
In the final week of the season, Michigan hosted its biggest rival, Ohio State, and Howard was on the shortlist as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Any lingering doubt about who would win the coveted award ended near the end of the first half.
Michigan was leading the Buckeyes 17-3 when OSU punted the ball.
The idea was not to give Howard a chance to return the punt and Ohio State head coach John Cooper ordered the ball to be kicked out of bounds.
That didn’t happen.
Instead of sailing safely to the sideline, the pigskin traveled straight to Howard.
— 247Sports (@247Sports) December 7, 2019
At that point in the game, the Heisman hopeful hadn’t done much and he was itching to make a big splash.
Howard gathered the punt near the Wolverines’ eight-yard line, then left several OSU defenders grabbing air.
“I thought for sure he would run the other direction…he’s faster than all of us, he can outrun everybody that way,” said Buckeyes long snapper Jim Borchers. “I missed the tackle, and I think I was the only one that kind of got a hand on him or an arm on him on that play.”
In no time at all, Howard was past the scrum of players and only had to beat Ohio State punter Tim Williams.
“As I hit their sideline, I’m looking at the punter,” recalled Howard. “I gave myself enough room that once I saw the punter, I would be able to square him up, and then put a move on him. … I was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s about to happen. Yeah, it’s about to happen.’”
Williams, of course, whiffed as well, and by the time Howard reached the Buckeyes’ 45-yard line, there was nothing but green grass ahead.
Howard realized he was going to score and quickly thought about how he was going to celebrate.
As he reminisced years later, Howard happened to be dating a gymnast that season and she taught him how to do a backflip.
— Michigan Football on UMGoBlue (@UMGoBlog) October 10, 2023
When he neared the goal line, Howard “chickened out” on the backflip idea and decided to do something else to mark the occasion.
After taking a half dozen steps into the end zone, Howard promptly stopped and did the Heisman pose.
On this date in 1991, Michigan’s Desmond Howard scored a punt return TD and struck the iconic Heisman pose in the end zone as the Wolverines beat Ohio State 31-3.
He won the Heisman Trophy that season. pic.twitter.com/My6o5pn7sX
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 23, 2021
He was then mobbed by his teammates.
One of the media members covering the game was legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson who remarked to the viewing public, “Hello, Heisman!”
“To be honest with you, I did it so fast that I didn’t know if anybody caught it,” said Howard. “So I actually attempted to do it again, and these guys were all on me, they tackled me, so that’s when the pileup started.”
The moment is one that college football fans still remember whenever they see Howard in person.
“The funniest thing is now people do [the Heisman pose] when they see me; it’s almost like a greeting. So that’s the funny thing, they’ll do that anywhere. It might be in the bathroom and maybe at a restaurant — especially parking lots, going to games. … Yeah, I get asked often [to do the pose]. I don’t do it, because the more I do it, it kind of cheapens it,” said Howard.
Howard’s touchdown and iconic pose cinched it for many of the Heisman voters.
With 85% of the first-place votes (the largest margin of victory for the award at the time), Howard was the winner of the 1991 Heisman Trophy.
— Michigan Football on UMGoBlue (@UMGoBlog) December 14, 2022
To be sure, it wasn’t just the punt return against OSU that brought Howard the ultimate college football accolade.
His 23 total touchdowns (138 points) in ‘91 made Howard the first pass-catcher in the history of the Big Ten to lead the conference in scoring.
The Heisman wasn’t the only postseason award Howard received.
He was named a Unanimous All-American, first-team All-Big Ten, and was named the conference’s MVP.
Furthermore, Howard was the winner of the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award.
Although he still had one more year of eligibility, Howard decided to try his talent at the next level.
During his college career, Howard had 127 receptions for 1,944 yards, and 30 receiving touchdowns as well as 215 rushing yards and two rushing scores.
His special teams work added up to 1,140 kick return yards and two scores, 308 punt return yards, and a touchdown.
In 2010, Howard’s number 21 was retired by Michigan and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Fourth Overall Pick
The only setback Howard experienced in college was losing two of the three bowl games he played in.
The Wolverines lost the 1990 Rose Bowl to USC, then crushed the Ole Miss Rebels in the Gator Bowl a year later (Howard scored twice on passes from Grbac).
Then, after bringing home the Heisman, the highly anticipated 1992 Rose Bowl between Michigan and Washington ended in a 34-14 blowout win by the Huskies.
The last time Washington won the National Championship, they split it with Miami after the 1991 season.
To get there? They beat Michigan by 20, holding Heisman winner Desmond Howard to 35 yards receiving on one catch. pic.twitter.com/x3uNCXPmUe
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) January 9, 2024
None of that mattered to NFL scouts.
Sure, he was just 5’10” and 185 pounds, but Howard could fly and he had hands to boot.
The Washington Redskins had crushed 14 of their opponents in 1991 and won Super Bowl XXVI against the Buffalo Bills.
‘Skins general manager Charley Casserly believed Howard would fit well in a receiver room that included Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Ricky Sanders.
Plus, Howard could be utilized as a returner and his mere presence, Casserly felt, would only bring the franchise another title.
With that in mind, Casserly traded three draft picks (including their two first-round selections) to the Cincinnati Bengals to move to the fourth spot.
He then selected Howard.
Head coach Joe Gibbs was excited at the prospect of adding Howard to the Washington roster.
“This guy doesn’t have any flaws. We’re excited,” said Gibbs.
During his rookie year, Howard had six punt returns for 84 yards and a touchdown and added 22 kick returns for 462 yards.
He only saw one start as a receiver and had three catches for 20 yards.
— Obscure Washington DC Athletes (@RandomDCathlete) May 16, 2022
Based on his return numbers, Howard was selected for the PFWA All-Rookie Team.
Meanwhile, the Redskins finished the 1992 season 9-7 and lost in the divisional round to San Francisco.
Howard Becomes a Jaguar
In 1993, Howard had 23 receptions for 286 yards along with 430 total yards in kick and punt returns.
The following season, new head coach Norv Turner wanted Howard to play strictly as a receiver and he totaled 40 catches for 727 yards and a career-best five receiving touchdowns.
Before the 1995 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers joined the NFL.
Howard was left unprotected by the Redskins in the ‘95 expansion draft and the Jags snapped him up.
Jacksonville won four games that year and Howard started six times.
Desmond Howard on the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 1991 Heisman Trophy Winner played for the Jags in 1995 and was All Pro and Super Bowl MVP the next season with the Green Bay Packers. #DesmondHoward #JacksonvilleJaguars #Jacksonville #Jaguars #Jags #football #1990s #90s pic.twitter.com/GuWIfxl1o7
— The Thrill of Victory (@ThrillVictory) January 21, 2023
He is still remembered for scoring the franchise’s first game-winning touchdown while hauling in 26 passes for 276 yards and a touchdown.
Howard also added 424 yards in punt and kick returns.
Green Bay Signs Howard
Howard’s time in football purgatory was about to end.
While he was wrapping up his first season in Jacksonville, the Green Bay Packers were fighting their way through the 1995 postseason.
After beating Atlanta and San Francisco in the first two rounds, the Pack lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game.
Green Bay management and head coach Mike Holmgren knew that they weren’t going to take the next step without a few more weapons.
The team signed Howard from the Jags roster and later added former bad-boy receiver, Andre Rison.
During the ‘96 season, Howard caught only 13 passes from quarterback Brett Favre.
His real contribution to the team was as a returner.
While Green Bay went 13-3, Howard led the NFL in every major category as a punt returner including yards (875) and touchdowns (three, a career-high).
Additionally, he had 460 yards in kick returns and was voted as a first-team All-Pro.
During a Week 16 home game against Detroit, Howard returned his first two punts for 114 yards and a score on the way to a 167-yard afternoon.
I know it’s been 26 years, but what in the world were the 49ers thinking here? Had they watched any Packer games in 1996? A booming punt right down the middle to Desmond Howard? What did they expect to happen? pic.twitter.com/WARt2t9yUU
— Eric Drews (@GreenGold4Ever) January 19, 2023
Then, in the divisional round against the 49ers, Howard broke San Francisco’s back with a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 46-yard return that set up another score.
“You could tell it broke their spirit,” said Green Bay running back Edgar Bennett.
In the NFC Championship game, the Packers crushed Carolina, 30-13, to put the franchise in its first Super Bowl since 1967.
Super Bowl XXXI MVP
Before Super Bowl XXXI against New England, many of the Patriots players boasted that they weren’t afraid to kick the ball in Howard’s direction.
Although he had two solid punt returns in the first quarter that led to Green Bay’s first points of the game, the New England players still gave Howard grief.
“Nothing for you today, baby. We going to shut you down,” and Howard returned their affection. “I have never, ever talked so much during a game,” he said later, his hoarse voice the proof.
At halftime, Green Bay was leading 27-14 but Howard was still angry at the Pats for talking trash and he decided to do something about it.
“I’m going to take one of these kicks back; it’s only a matter of time,” Howard told Favre during the intermission.
He caught the ball and sprinted 99 yards to the house.
— IKE Packers Podcast (@IKE_Packers) February 2, 2020
That effectively sealed the victory for Green Bay and the team hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after a decisive 35-21 win.
After the contest, Howard was shocked when he found out he had been named the game’s MVP.
“I never thought I would get MVP,” said Howard in 2017. “It never crossed my mind until they actually announced it. It never crossed my mind because I’m not a stats guy. I’m really not. I just went out there and tried to do the best I could to put us in position to score points every time I got the opportunity. That was my goal, that was my job, that was my focus.”
The decision was an easy one for the MVP voters.
The 1 and only Special Teams player to win a Super Bowl MVP
Desmond Howard, Green Bay Packers
244 all-purpose yards, 99-yard kick return TD pic.twitter.com/kJyQiuRYeL
— IKE Packers Podcast (@IKE_Packers) August 11, 2022
Howard had no less than 244 all-purpose yards during the title game which tied a Super Bowl record.
Furthermore, his 99-yard kick return for a touchdown and 90 yards in punt returns both set Super Bowl records.
Pay Day with the Raiders
In 1996, Howard earned about $300,000 as a Packer.
His stats during the regular season as well as the Super Bowl meant that he was about to receive a huge payday from someone.
Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis loved speed and Howard had more than enough to help his team.
The Silver-and-Black had gone 7-9 in ‘96 and Davis paid Howard four years and $6 million to increase their win total.
Happy birthday to former Raiders PR/KR/WR Desmond Howard, May 15, 1970.
* scored 2 punt return TDs for the Silver & Black pic.twitter.com/cjMS8W79re
— AFL Godfather 🏴☠️👓🏈🔥 (@NFLMAVERICK) May 15, 2023
In 1997, Howard had four catches and 1,518 yards in combined return yardage as Oakland won four games.
The Raiders won eight times in 1998 under first-year head coach Jon Gruden.
Howard had two receptions and 1,581 return yards including an NFL-best two punt returns for touchdowns.
Howard is a Lion
Before the 1999 season, Howard re-signed with Green Bay but was cut during the year.
The Detroit Lions signed him days later and he spent the next three-plus years with the organization.
After posting 1,858 combined return yards and a league-best 95-yard punt return for a touchdown in 2000, Howard was voted to his first and only Pro Bowl.
— highly awesome revie (@danteprim) March 18, 2015
Then, two years later, Howard’s declining skills led to him retiring after the 2002 season.
During his NFL career, Howard had 123 receptions for 1,597 yards and seven touchdowns.
As a specialist, he had 2,895 punt return yards and eight touchdowns along with 7,959 kick return yards.
Howard was a member of the 1992 PFWA All-Rookie Team and was a first-team All-Pro once, Pro Bowler once, and Super Bowl XXXI champion and MVP.
Howard’s ebullient personality and megawatt smile landed him in the television business shortly after retiring.
After first working as an analyst with Fox Sports, Howard joined ESPN in 2004.
His talent as a TV personality, and ability to discuss football tactics and strategy, helped move him to ESPN College GameDay in 2005.
ESPN's updated College GameDay crew this season:
• Rece Davis
• Lee Corso
• Kirk Herbstreit
• Desmond Howard
• Pat McAfee
• Pete Thamel
• Jen Lada
• Jess Sims
— Front Office Sports (@FOS) July 24, 2023
Along with Kirk Herbstreit (who was an Ohio State quarterback during Howard’s “Heisman Pose” game), Lee Corso, and Chris Fowler, the program has consistently been rated as one of the top sports programs in history.
Howard can also be seen as a member of the popular “Heisman House” commercials.