Case to Retire Desmond Howard’s No. 21 Goes Beyond the Field

Desmond Howard will be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame tomorrow, and on a teleconference with reporters to mark the event he stated that he thinks Michigan should retire his No. 21 jersey, as well as Charles Woodson’s No. 2:

Desmond Howard said Thursday he thinks the Michigan football program should retire his No. 21 jersey and Charles Woodson’s No. 2, although nothing is yet in the works.

“I believe it’s time, without a shadow of a doubt,” the former wide receiver and kick returner said. “It’s just a huge honor. For what I do, traveling around (as an ESPN analyst), I see a lot of players at other schools with jerseys retired who have not accomplished what Woodson and I have. Oklahoma even has wooden statues. Florida has statues.”

Unfortunately, I never had the chance to see Desmond work his magic on the football field — I was just past my fourth birthday when he played his last game as a Wolverine. But through the power of YouTube, it’s tough to imagine that anyone capable of creating this highlight reel doesn’t deserve to have his number alongside the Wisterts, Tom Harmon, and Gerald Ford:

Yes, Desmond Howard was undoubtedly one of the greatest to ever play the game at Michigan — I doubt I’ll find any who disagree on this particular site. But at Michigan, our pride in the team goes beyond what is accomplished between the lines, and expands to the impact a player has off the field. The greatest example of this is probably Ford, who was certainly a great player, but I doubt his jersey would have been retired in the 1990s if not for the fact that he became President of the United States — and no, I’m not complaining that his jersey was retired (if anything, quite the opposite, as that remarkable accomplishment deserves recognition).

I was lucky enough, when interning at The Wolverine Magazine in 2009, to cover the 10th annual Mock Rock, a fundraiser for Mott Children’s Hospital that features a skit show from each team in the athletic department. The Wolverine sent me to cover the event, with instructions to interview as many athletes as possible, but especially Desmond Howard, who was emceeing that year. To say I was nervous did not do it justice — this was my first chance to interview players I grew up idolizing, and despite never seeing Howard live, you’d better believe I’d struck the Heisman pose as a kid, and his Super Bowl MVP performance was one of my favorite sporting moments that didn’t involve a Michigan team.

Howard commanded the room in a way I’ve rarely seen, owning the stage while sharply dressed in a black leather jacket, flashing his famous smile while cracking jokes at every athlete in the room, from Jimmy King to Michael Phelps (not present, which was probably for the best). After the event ended, I reminded the Mock Rock organizers that I was supposed to interview Howard after the show, and they told me that he’d be available later and I should take the chance to find a couple other athletes to question in the meantime. This did give me the chance to interview King, who couldn’t have been a nicer guy — I’ll never forget his opening line after I introduced myself, saying, “Ace, I like that. That’s even better than Scoop.” — but I kept nervously glancing towards backstage, in complete and utter fear that I’d miss my opportunity to interview a legend.

Probably a half-hour after the show ended, when only a few members of the crew remained in Hill Auditorium to clean up, I was ushered into a small backstage dressing room to get my chance to talk to Howard. I had no idea what to expect, and apparently was visibly nervous, but Howard immediately apologized for the wait and — with members of his family standing in the doorway, clearly waiting to leave Hill and head home for the night — gave a fantastic interview, not once making me feel like I was imposing on his time when it was clear that I was the last thing between him and the end of a very long day.

Instead of giving the type of curt, boilerplate answers that I was quickly becoming used to receiving, Howard practically wrote my article for me, saying, “It’s always special to come back to Ann Arbor, and do something for a good cause. It’s been ingrained in us as players to help out Mott’s Hospital. I remember when Bo was the coach and before we would play on the West Coast — it would be around Christmas Day — we would go visit kids at Mott’s Hospital. To be a part of this was tremendous. I’m just glad that they asked me to come.”

This was not the type of humility I expected from a former Heisman winner and Super Bowl MVP who had become a somewhat boisterous television personality, but it was clear that Howard was indeed humbled by the experience and would do whatever it took to help out Bo Schembechler’s favorite charity. That, more than anything else, convinced me that Howard’s number should at the very least have a prominent spot in Michigan Stadium, if not retired entirely, never to be worn again by another Wolverine. It’s tough to imagine that anyone could do it justice, both on and off the field, and at a place like Michigan I believe that must be the criteria. Howard and Woodson — whose charity work with Mott has been well-documented — deserve the honor, and I hope Dave Brandon and the athletic department bestow it upon the pair sooner rather than later.

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1 comment
  1. MGoShoe said:

    Nice reminiscence, Ace. I heartily agree that Desmond deserves this honor.

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