Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs top pick O.J. Howard lifted by love of family, hometown

TAMPA — There's nobody else like O.J. Howard. At least, that's what everybody says. The 6-foot-6, 251-pound tight end from Alabama can block, run, jump and catch better than almost any man in the NFL draft.

He also is humble, polite, thoughtful, smart and has all the attributes you would want from your 22-year-old first-round pick.

Yup, O'Terrius Jabari Howard is one of a kind. But when his mother, Lemasa Parker-Howard, watched him from the first row of a news conference at One Buc Place on Friday, she thought of another athlete in the family, one who looked and sounded just like her son.

O.J.'s uncle, Terry Parker, was the same height and had the same mannerisms. He played basketball at Alcorn State. Some believed that he would have a chance to go pro. But one night in 1984, when Terry was coming home from a Christmas party, he was involved in a head-on collision with a drunken driver.

He died at age 19.

"(O.J. is) like the spitting image of him, and I just see and feel like it's him all over again," Parker-Howard said. "(Terry) was very humble. It's just so awesome. When I look at O.J., I see him. It's very remarkable.

"(O.J.) was always a very peculiar child. No problems. He never gave us any trouble. He was just always willing to help someone and go the extra mile."

O.J. doesn't run from the comparison to the uncle he never met.

"I think it was passed down to me just to be in this position to lead the family in the right direction from this standpoint of life, just being an athlete," he said. "God works in mysterious ways, so I definitely look up to that and take it as an accomplishment."

Family is what O.J. is all about. He did not attend the draft in Philadelphia so he could remain near his home between Prattville and Autaugaville, Ala., about 20 minutes northwest of Montgomery, where his great-grandmother turned 99 years old recently.

His grandmother Lauretta Parker-Tyus worked hard as a waiter and saved money to buy a restaurant, Laura's Country Kitchen on Blossom Road in Autaugaville, during O.J.'s youth. He said people would travel from 40 and 50 miles away to try her biscuits and sweet potato pies.

In the summer, O.J. would walk across the street to his grandmother's home at 4:30 a.m. and head for the restaurant to prepare breakfast.

"Everybody loved to go there to eat. I was a part of it, just always being near her trying to help any way I could, sweeping up and doing things like that," O.J. said.

His grandmother operated the restaurant until she died in 2006. "She was well-recognized in the community," O.J. said.

O.J. attended school in Prattville as an eighth-grader. But two days before entering his freshman year, the family was informed it was zoned for Autaugaville School, which had been part of the segregated system in the old South. Instead, his mother enrolled him in Autauga Academy, a small private school where he eventually found himself an unwitting civil rights hero.

O.J. was a terrific athlete who averaged a double-double in basketball. His first love may have been baseball.

"I was a good baseball player," he said.

He led his team to a state championship. Florida offered him a chance to play football and baseball. Legend has it that O.J. played his entire junior season with a wooden bat that he never broke.

O.J.'s father, Kareem, coached him in baseball and other leagues when he was young. But his mother was his biggest critic and drove him hard to achieve.

"I always pushed him," she said. "After each game, I'd go home and watch the games and critique him and kind of pull them apart and tell him on that play he kind of slacked a bit and he should've blocked him a lot harder and that could've went the other way. So yeah. I think I pushed him a little harder than most."

But Autauga Academy has a segregationist history. It was founded in 1969 for white parents who didn't want to send their children to segregated schools, and it still has a portrait of Robert E. Lee. During his senior year, as O.J. prepared for early enrollment at Alabama, he was informed he couldn't take his white girlfriend from Prattville to the prom at Autauga Academy.

"I was only 17 years old, so it was a lot of adversity at that age," O.J. said. "I think when I went through that, it made me grow up and become who I am today. It's like that sometimes. But I got through, and now I'm here. I look at it like a block in the road.

"Any time you go through something like that … it blows your mind. You don't want to believe it."

The entire community rallied behind him. No one on the school's board of directors would admit they were behind the directive. Eventually, the board relented, and the headmaster's attempt to hold an assembly to apologize ended up with students pelting him with bottles. He spent three weeks on unpaid leave.

"Everybody in town rallied behind me. They kind of looked at me as almost kind of a hero," O.J. said.

When O.J. was the most valuable player of Alabama's national championship win over Clemson after the 2015 season, Howard's hometown threw him a parade.

"It was so amazing to see so much love that was displayed," his mother said. "And it was so good to see how the community just rallied around you. It wasn't about Alabama or Auburn anymore. It was just about O.J."

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