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Friday, December 21, 2012
Jets' Austin Howard hits the right notes

By Jane McManus

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Austin Howard has all the hallmarks of an offensive lineman: a 6-foot-7 frame supporting 333 pounds, a head that challenges an NFL helmet-maker and the rough hands of an ice fisherman.

But the Jets' right tackle hopes, despite fingers with all the delicacy of link sausages wrapped in athletic tape, to one day learn to play piano.

On its face, it may sound far-fetched, but Howard, 25, has a reason to believe. He already plays the cello, an instrument that may be his size now but that wasn't when he first picked it up -- or tried to -- in second grade.

"It was a challenge, but [it was OK] once you figured out ADGC -- the strings -- and where to put those stickers on there to put your fingers in the right spot at first," Howard said. "Where I grew up all of the kids played in the orchestra or band."

There was a point where I had to choose between going to a basketball game my freshman year or going to an orchestra recital. And my parents made it pretty clear I was going to the orchestra recital.

-- Jets RT Austin Howard

And Howard's cello waits for him, in the corner of the dining room at his parents' house in Iowa, ready to be picked back up when his football career ends. Howard, the youngest of five children, comes from a musical family. The cello was passed down from the oldest, Marcel, until it finally reached Howard.

It wasn't the only thing Marcel handed down. Marcel played football at Iowa State and was signed by the Detroit Lions as a free agent. But torn ligaments in his wrist derailed his football career.

"I think athletes are multifaceted," said Marcel, now 34. "There are other things they would be doing if they weren't playing. And a lot of them have a creative side and music is a way to express that creativity."

Howard taught himself the drums and bass, and again like Marcel, he has a few programs on his computer to mix hip-hop beats with classical samples he knows from his upbringing. Someday, Howard hopes his musical awareness will provide a career after football, maybe in producing, which Marcel has been dabbling in as well.

"How serious will I ever get? You never know," Howard said, "but it's definitely something I'm very interested in. Sometimes I'm driving with my girlfriend and [I'll stop her] in mid-sentence: 'Wait, wait, wait, stop! Just listen to this song real quick....' Everyone knows I'm really into music and tones."

Marcel said the family's dedication to music instilled a sense of discipline that worked well in sports.

"I think there is a connection," Marcel said. "You have to be disciplined to play an instrument and it carries over."

Howard, who played collegiately at Northern Iowa, is in his first season as the Jets' starting right tackle. It was a job he got quickly after the team sent Wayne Hunter to the Rams. The Jets could have chosen an offensive linemen with a higher draft number -- Jason Smith or the more guard-oriented Vlad Ducasse -- but opted for Howard as the starter, using Smith and Ducasse in niche roles.

"He's really trying to focus in, working with [tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson] on some of his pass techniques," Jets center Nick Mangold said of Howard. "I think he's definitely improved as the year's gone on."

Howard was an undrafted free agent who played for Philadelphia in 2010 and joined the Jets in 2011. Going from being one of 80 players in rookie camp to a starting spot takes a lot of work, but Howard has long had his priorities in order.

Those priorities just weren't always sports.

"There was a point where I had to choose between going to a basketball game my freshman year or going to an orchestra recital," Howard said. "And my parents made it pretty clear I was going to the orchestra recital."

Then there was the year Howard had to quit the middle school basketball team because his report card wasn't up to par. It was pretty embarrassing, but he got the message.

"There was always a standard in my house," Howard said. "We don't like C's."

Marcel and Austin hope music is something they can collaborate on in the future. It's a hobby now, but the two are mixing their own beats, blending classical, country sounds, even snippets of conversation with percussion and bass.

"[Marcel] has done a lot of things I've looked up to and I've really admired, from football to school to music," Howard said. "The whole digital producing of music, being able to put something that you think sounds really cool on a format and listen to it."

It may sound like a long shot. But so is learning to play the piano or playing right tackle in the NFL.