Two decades after Heisman season, Howard headlines group entering Hall of Fame

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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published July 17, 2011

Desmond Howard, a former Michigan football standout and current analyst for ESPN College GameDay, was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in an induction ceremony on Saturday.

The prolific wide receiver led a group of 15 other players and four coaches into the Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind.

“This is a huge honor for me to be here in South Bend,” Howard said during a teleconference with reporters on Thursday. “I couldn’t be more proud to go into the College Football Hall of Fame as a Michigan Wolverine.

“It’s not being acknowledged for a game. It’s not being acknowledged for a season — it’s being acknowledged for a whole body of work — that speaks volumes.”

Howard set or tied five NCAA and 12 Michigan individual records in his three-year stint with the Wolverines. He caught 134 passes for 2,145 yards and returned three kicks for touchdowns.

Howard’s junior season earned him the Heisman Trophy — and Michigan a Rose Bowl berth — and was punctuated by a kickoff return for a touchdown against Ohio State in the season finale that prompted legendary ABC broadcaster Keith Jackson to pronounce, “Hello, Heisman!”

Obviously unaware of Jackson’s call, Howard paused for a moment after crossing the goal line and struck the infamous Heisman pose, cementing that image into college football lore.

But that’s simply the tail end of a magical season.

“The Heisman pose is pretty much the cherry on top,” Howard admitted.

Twenty years later, Howard remembers it all.

“It's hard for me to believe (it was 20 years ago), especially when I look in the mirror and I'm 20 years older,” Howard said. “Feels like it just happened. The time flies, it really does.”

He remembers the season-opener against Boston College, when he scored four touchdowns, and he remembers Notre Dame rolling into town the following week as the No. 7 team in the nation.

And he remembers quarterback Elvis Grbac’s pump-fake and loft to the end zone on fourth down. Everyone remembers the rest.

Howard sped past a pair of defensive backs down the right sideline and dove to the back corner of the end zone, making the iconic catch for a touchdown and another Michigan victory.

“I’m totally stretched out, but my legs are crossed,” Howard said, describing the catch. “I'm not even sure how I did that ... There was a kind of calm, relaxation there too. Beautiful.

“The touchdown catch against Notre Dame is really what put me on the map nationally for a lot of people, as far as being a legitimate Heisman candidate.”

“The Catch” got the ball rolling, and the reverse for a touchdown forced Howard to be in serious Heisman contention in just the second week of the season.

“The next thing I know, I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated,” Howard said.

But Howard still remembers the season clearly enough to credit his teammates and coaches for their contribution in growing a 5-foot-10 running back recruit from Cleveland into a national icon in college football.

Per usual in Michigan football history, it all goes back to Bo.

“At Michigan, playing under Coach (Bo) Schembechler and Coach (Gary) Moeller, it's never about individualism, it's all about the team, so I never had any goals of becoming All-Big Ten or All-American, or even the Heisman,” Howard said. “So this deal here, the Hall of Fame, was never even on my radar.

“I just hope that my teammates understand that this is something we accomplished together.”

Howard will be honored by Michigan prior to the “Under the Lights” tilt against Notre Dame on Sept. 10, but he thinks his alma mater should go a little farther and also memorialize Charles Woodson, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1997.

When asked whether he felt his jersey should be retired, Howard had no hesitation.

“I believe it’s time, without the shadow of a doubt,” Howard said. “It’s just such a huge honor, and what I do know for a living is you travel around and you see how a lot of these programs have retired jerseys of players who haven't even accomplished some of the things on the field like myself and Woodson have accomplished. It's just a way they try to honor their players.”

Howard also announced that his book, I Wore 21: The Legend of Desmond Howard, is expected to be released on Sept. 10, the same day as the first night game in Michigan Stadium history. The 190-page book will chronicle Howard’s life before, during and after his time in Ann Arbor.

But as he places his lasting legacy in the College Football Hall of Fame, Howard is just focused on the three years at Michigan that brought him into the national spotlight.

“It’s mind-blowing how far I’ve come since that first day packing up the van with my dad and drove up to Ann Arbor from Cleveland,” Howard said.

“Who knew the road would take us to South Bend?”