Midway through a strenuous summer workout with the Wright State coaches that left him bent over and grabbing the bottoms of his basketball shorts as his chest heaved and his mouth gaped to suck in some much-needed breath, Mark Howell suddenly straightened back up, peeled off his sweat-soaked t-shirt and started to run again.
As he did, you couldn’t help but notice the family name – HOWELL – tattooed in big letters across the stomach of the freshman point guard from Texas.
For him, though, the tat isn’t about self-aggrandizing adornment, it’s just a simple reminder of who he is and what is expected of him.
When you are a Howell on the athletic stage, you perform.
His grandfather — Paw Paw, as he calls him — is Mike Howell, who was named one of the 100 greatest Cleveland Browns.
In 1966, as a starting cornerback for the Browns, he had eight interceptions, second in the NFL. Two seasons later he was a backup safety and had six interceptions, 10th in the league. In 1969, also as a reserve, he had six more picks, fourth in the NFL.
He also has a Super Bowl ring from his time with the 1972 Miami Dolphins, whose 17-0 campaign remains the only perfect season in NFL history.
Mike’s two brothers were in the NFL, too. Lane spent seven seasons in the 1960s as a defensive tackle with the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, while Delles, a fourth-round pick of New Orleans in 1970, spent seven seasons as a defensive back with the Saints and New York Jets.
Delles’s twin sons — Ethan and Evan, both stars at Oklahoma State — made it to the NFL, as well. Ethan was drafted by Washington in 2000 and Evan was with the Baltimore Ravens briefly in 2001.
Mark’s dad, Mark Sr., was born in Cleveland when his dad played there. NFL great Jim Brown is his godfather. But rather than football, Mark Sr. went to Northwestern State in Louisiana on a basketball scholarship.
A cousin, Keia Howell, starred on the Louisiana State women’s hoops team and an older half-brother was an All Southland Conference linebacker at Southeastern Louisiana University.
“I don’t think there’s a Howell out there that has not done something athletic-wise,” young Mark said after his workout at the Mills-Morgan Center. “My sister, Marche, was a basketball star in high school, too, and was recruited by a lot of (Big 12) schools, but she took an academic scholarship to the University of Texas. But I’m telling you, she was good, too.”
So where in the pecking order does Mark fit?
“Well, my grandpa is the big dog in the family. He’s the top hound. He has that Super Bowl ring and he’s the one all the rest of us compare ourselves to. Me? I’m down toward the bottom of the list, but I’m moving up.
“One day I want to have a championship ring, too, and I don’t see why I can’t get it right here with Wright State.”
‘Ring’s the thing’
Mike Howell — who just turned 70 and is currently hospitalized with a lingering foot injury that won’t heal, his son said – was a quarterback at Grambling State University in the early ’60s and, in fact, will be inducted into the school’s sports hall of fame next weekend.
“Back in his day they didn’t allow blacks to play quarterback in the NFL so he was moved to defensive back,” said Mark Sr. “And he ended up being a great defender.”
In 102 games with the Browns, Howell had 27 interceptions and that cemented his spot on the top-100 list compiled by The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.
“We’ve got a lot of tape on him and actually he was faster than Jim Brown ,” Mark Sr. said. “A couple of times when he made interceptions the announcer would go, ‘There goes Mike Howell, the fastest man on the team.’ We wound that tape back three or four times just to hear it again. We were like, ‘Man, he’s faster than Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly? How about that?’ ”
Mike started out the ‘72 season with Cleveland but ended up with the Dolphins and got the Super Bowl ring that the whole family seems to cherish.
“When you walk in my grandpa’s house down there in Monroe (Louisiana), the first thing you see are the two lights shining on this box right above the TV in his living room,” said young Mark. “Your eye goes right to it and you might wonder what it is ‘til you see that big ring in there.
“There are pictures all around it and autographed helmets and footballs, but the ring’s the thing. I’ve held the box and took photos of it, but I never tried the ring on. Oh, no. You let all that stuff alone.”
That lesson was learned the hard way by Mark Sr.
“I was maybe 8 or 9 and I got the worst whuppin’ of my life one time because I broke the main rule,” Mark Sr. said with a laugh as he spoke by phone from Houston. “We were always told we could look at any of it, but not to mess with the balls, the ring, none of it.
“Well, my dad came home one day and me and a couple of my friends were outside throwing around his football with all the (Dolphins’) signatures on it. He came over, said ‘No’ — and then made me understand what no meant.”
Mike had regular footballs around the place, though, and would toss them to young Mark whenever he visited from Grand Prairie, Texas, the Dallas suburb where he lived with his mom after his parents split up.
“I can remember going around Monroe with him and everybody knew him and his brothers,” Mark said. ‘There’s not many families where three of their boys all end up in the NFL. That’s special to everyone down there.””
A late signee
A 5-foot-10 guard, Mark averaged 12 points and 3.4 assists a game for South Grand Prairie High School last season. His team finished 37-4 and lost in the state Class 5A championship game.
He drew interest from Long Beach State, Tennessee-Chattanooga and Abilene Christian, but was signed late — not until the end of May — by the Raiders.
“I’ve never seen Wright State play live, but I did see them on TV,” he said. “And when I visited and heard their story — how the team went from having a bad year to making some noise and being on the verge of really making it — it was something I could relate to. That was the same with my high school and we made it to state.
“And when I got here, I saw all these guys working extra to make it happen next season. I liked that. And I think I can add something to it.”
Coach Billy Donlon, who ran the workouts for Howell and Iowa Western Junior College transfer Ryan Bowie the other day, said if Howell gets stronger and shows he can knock down his 3-point shot, he’ll be able to play well at this level:
“He’s quick and great at changing direction and he’s bigger than Reggie (veteran point guard Reggie Arceneaux), but to make any kind of impact at all, he’s going to have to put in some work between now and when we start up next season.”
Howell said he knew that before he got here:
“When I told my grandpa and my dad that I was coming up to Ohio, they both got excited. But they also told me I had to give it my all, that I can’t forget the name I’m carrying up here.”
Then again, how could he?
It’s right there in big letters across his belly.
VIDEO: Watch Howell working out at Wright State and hear some of his thoughts about his career at MyDaytonDailyNews.com.