By Kevin Wilson: PNT staff writer
Come next semester, Jeff Howard is still going to be a student at Eastern New Mexico University, but May’s graduation ceremony may be the only time you’ll see him on campus.
While Howard works toward his degree from ENMU, he’ll be continuing a football career in arenafootball2 with the Amarillo Dusters.
Howard is one of five former Lone Star Conference players to recently join the Dusters, who are in their second season of competition in the 23-team league.
Howard, a 6-foot, 245-pound linebacker, started three years for the Greyhounds after graduating from Portales High School in 2001. He was an All-American in 2004 and finished his career with 248 tackles.
Now, he’ll play a game with a 50-yard field and eight players on each side.
“I think it’s a good style for Jeff,” said ENMU football coach Mark Ribaudo, who coached Howard for four years as a defensive coordinator before being promoted to head coach for the 2005 season. “He moves really well. He’s a good thinker.
“It’s a quick-paced game and he makes quick decisions. I think he’ll be able to cover a lot of space on that short field.”
The Dusters had a similar opinion and called Howard.
“They gave me a call about a month ago and wanted me to come down and try out,” Howard said. “When they initially said that, I wasn’t very interested.”
The Dusters were still interested, so much so that they called Howard back a few days later and told him a tryout wasn’t necessary. Howard told Dusters management he needed to look into some things, primarily academically.
“I went and talked to a few professors,” said Howard, who is majoring in biology with an emphasis in pre-med. “They said they were going to work with me in the sense that I could do directed studies.
“It was a good situation. I could play football and graduate at the same time.”
He’ll be pulling a different type of double duty with the Dusters. Arena rules allow for a few specialists on offense or defense, but most players will have to play on offense as well. Howard said Perdue has him penciled in as a fullback.
“Obviously Jeff Howard brings an intense, tenacious approach to the game,” Dusters coach Steve Perdue said in a release from the team. “He’ll be an impact player on defense, and on offense we think he’ll be a punishing blocker and very effective with the ball in his hands.”
Howard admitted that he’s never seen an arena game from start to finish, only highlights and a few glances when the main Arena League is on NBC.
They’ve been sending me up some films,” Howard said. “I’m getting a feel for the game and a feel for what I’m going to be doing.
As a linebacker, you can’t drop into coverage very much. I’ve always liked doing that. But on the other side, you get to blitz a lot.”
Howard’s excited about a second chance at football a year after his college career ended, and his former defensive coordinator said he isn’t surprised.
“He’s been working toward that since he finished his career at Eastern,” said Mark Ribaudo, who took over as head coach after Howard graduated. “Once Jeff sets a goal, he usually reaches it.”
Howard did have his doubts until the Dusters called him, though. He said he tried out with some Canadian Football League teams and got passing interest from a few National Football League teams, but playing at a Division II school didn’t help his resume.
“I didn’t realize it as much until I was actually in the situation,” Howard said. “You really do get a stigma. They look at you differently. That’s not to say that’s right or wrong. That’s the way it is. The NFL’s a business.”
As is arenafootball2. Howard said the team will supply him with rent and meal stipends while he plays, along with a normal salary.
“The whole organization (was one) I was really impressed with,” Howard said. “I ended up meeting (Perdue) and the general manager (Warren McCarty) and (team owner) Bob Rogers. They seem like they’re really good people.”
The Dusters’ first game is April 8 against the Arkansas Twister in Little Rock. The other LSC players joining him are Marques Kelley, Aubrey Lacy, Deyon Scott, and Dewayne Mathis, all of West Texas A&M.