It should not be a surprise that an Austin Howard story is starting with these words: Dray Joseph has been in this position before.
The former West St. John and Southern quarterback has been here, in this exact spot on the razor’s edge of the present moment.
Behind him, suddenly, was an entire college career. In front of him, the 2013 Bayou Classic, a stark and literal reminder of what remained of his playing days was ticking away on the game clock.
“You always hear people say those years go by fast,” Joseph said, “but when it hits you, your senior year in your last Bayou Classic, you’d be like, ‘Damn, where did all that time go?’ ”
It should not be a surprise that an Austin Howard story starts with Dray Joseph and the realization that time passes fast and careers suddenly come to a close, because that is where Howard’s Southern story starts.
It was five seasons ago that Joseph directed Southern to a win in that 2013 Bayou Classic game, then piloted a winning performance in the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship game to wrap up a record-setting career.
It was four seasons ago that Southern turned to another former West St. John product, Howard, to replace Joseph. Time marches on at its constant rate. Suddenly, an entire record-setting career is behind Howard, too.
Where did all that time go?
In last year’s Bayou Classic, Grambling did to Southern what Southern had been doing to other teams all season — it capitalized on just about …
Shocker — it was hot outside when Howard first reported to Southern for workouts in the summer of 2014.
He thought he was there for a sort of freshman orientation session. Instead, he and the rest of the freshmen did an intense workout in the weight room, then ran somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen sprints up the A.W. Mumford Stadium stairs.
As Howard remembers, it was raining in Baton Rouge on the first day of preseason camp in 2014. The team got away from the precipitation to Seymour Gym, where Howard started bonding with members of his freshman class.
“That’s how we’re all close today,” Howard said. “It started four years ago.”
This is a good time to point out that his first day also marked the time Howard first felt ownership of the team.
“I feel like it was my team when I walked on campus,” Howard said.
He felt that way right away because of the way he carries himself, with the ease and sureness that feels unique to those who play the quarterback position.
You can hear that sureness in his voice, senior running back Herb Edwards said. And Howard knows it, too.
A thing he likes to tell his teammates: Match my swag.
“If he’s feeling himself, if he’s hot, I’ve got to be hot,” Edwards said. "If I’m hot, I’m going to make the next man hot. If we’re all on the field hot at once, we’re scoring, we’re all scoring, we’re all playing to the best of our ability. That’s what he brings to the field.”
Maybe it was that attitude that allowed him to establish himself in this way right away, the true freshman taking over the game’s most important position from a record-setter who came from the same place — tiny Edgard, Louisiana.
Four full seasons since that first day of fall camp, the Southern football team is unequivocally Austin Howard’s.
“That’s the guy,” Edwards said. “When he’s up, we up. When he’s down, we down. When he’s playing medium, we’re playing medium.”
Said Howard: “I had to be that guy. Guys look at me for an answer for anything — adversity, positive or negative situation — they’re looking at the quarterback, they’re looking at me. That’s what it is.”
It is not an uncommon occurrence on the sideline to hear Howard before you see him, Edwards said. If things are not going well, Howard will roam the sideline yelling at anyone within earshot.
The message is always the same: Stay positive.
The time and place were appropriate: It was late November on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf, and Southern coach Dawson Odums was speaking fo…
“Austin is the soul of the team,” Edwards said.
And yet, a bit of contradiction: Although he felt ownership of the Southern football team the moment he stepped on campus, Howard feels his area of greatest personal growth since that day has been in his leadership.
Coming from Edgard — population: 2,441, according to the 2010 census — Howard knew just about everyone in his home town.
Joseph reckons Howard was about 6 years old the first time they met. Greg Joseph, Dray’s father, was Howard’s baseball coach. It was Greg Joseph who convinced Howard to go out for football.
“Probably just as good of a baseball player as he was a football player,” his high school football coach, Robert Valdez, said.
When Howard was commanding one of those West St. John huddles in high school, he was talking to kids he had known his entire life.
“Those are the people I played little league baseball, little league football with,” Howard said. “You know how to handle that, you know how to handle them when something’s wrong with them. But coming here, you had guys from everywhere.
“I had to kind of figure out what would make them tick, what would make them go harder, things like that. Once I learned that, I knew how to deal with each and every individual.”
It should be noted that they had to learn how to deal with him and his sometimes peculiar personality as well.
Howard is a character. He sometimes finishes interviews by grabbing TV microphones and freestyle rapping. He is often easily identified on the practice field as the one dancing, or the one playing some sort of a joke that leaves him running from a teammate.
“He’s like that all the time; that’s him,” said quarterbacks coach Matt Leone. “Sometimes you’ve got to reel him in, but at the same time you’ve got to let him be who he is. It’s a daily challenge, but it’s fun.
“That’s an area we constantly have conversations about: trying to find a balance.”
He looks back on it now with laughter, but Howard’s shenanigans used to grate on Valdez at West St. John.
“He couldn’t stop,” Valdez said. “The only way you can get him out of my hair is to get him to do something. Go play receiver, go play safety, I don’t care, just do something, because I can’t have you sitting around. He just can not be still.”
What dawned on Valdez later was that Howard’s mind worked the same way: It was constantly in motion, seeking stimulation.
Game film gave Howard’s mind something to work over. He digested it quickly.
“He picked up everything so fast, it was almost like having a coach on the field,” Valdez said.
That has only continued at Southern. Leone calls it FBI — his shorthand for football intelligence.
“He’s extremely sharp,” Leone said. “You can explain something to him one time, and more times than not, he’s going to get it. It’s a great asset to have, especially in a quarterback.”
His leadership has helped guide his team to a 27-6 record against SWAC peers during his time at Southern.
His talent and football intelligence have resulted in a career that surpassed Joseph’s own in terms of statistical brilliance. Against Prairie View earlier this month, Howard broke Joseph’s career records in both yards passing and touchdowns passing.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a blessing,” Joseph said. “My dad always tells us that records are made to be broken, but at least it’s somebody that I grew up with and look at as a brother.”
It should not have been a surprise that a story about Howard started with a story about Joseph, because of the way their lives and careers are interwoven.
They talk two or three times a week, and they rarely bring up football. But when they do?
“We laugh and joke about it,” Joseph said. “Like, ‘Man, who would’ve thought the odds would play out like that?
“But I always tell him to be better than me, to create his own path. People always try to compare him to me, or say, ‘Aw, look what he did: He followed behind your footsteps.’ But I’m happy that he broke my records because it’s given him a chance to blossom into his own personality.”
The one thing Joseph still possesses that Howard doesn’t, and that Howard is rapidly running out of time to achieve: a SWAC championship.
Win Saturday, and Howard has a chance to go out as a champion, just like Joseph did.
If he doesn’t, time will march on.
“It sounds cliché when people say you’ve watched him grow from a boy to a man, but literally, I have,” Joseph said. “… Watching him grow was a pretty awesome thing.”