Xavien Howard put the National Football League on notice on a balmy Miami night in December of 2017. The young Dolphins cornerback was in the middle of his sophomore campaign after being drafted in the first round from Baylor the year before, but he had struggled with injuries his rookie year and played only a handful of games. Howard had some flashes of brilliance that first year, but it wasn’t until that marquee matchup with New England and Tom Brady that Howard went from unheralded young gun to bona fide star.
“I was starstruck when I first got in the league, I was like, ‘Man, I remember seeing you all on TV!’” Howard said. “But when I started playing and seeing guys like Brady I realized I was playing with the best in the business.”
Howard was battling the flu in the run-up to the primetime game against the Patriots. He felt drained, and, unable to keep any food down before the game, he went on an IV drip to try and feel a little better. Whether Brady knew Howard was ill is up for debate, but the Patriots QB decided to test the young defensive back early, which suited Howard just fine. “[Brady] ended up trying me and I ended up with the interception and was like, ‘Oh wow,’” Howard said.
But that wasn’t the end of Howard’s coming out party. Brady continued to throw the ball his way, and Howard continued to put his defensive assignment on an island. It wasn’t long until the young CB had collected another souvenir from the legendary Patriots QB. “The second one — I just said to myself, ‘I got two off this guy?! This is crazy.’ And he was still trying me. I wish I would have gotten three from him that game.” Of the six passes that were thrown Howard’s direction that night, none of them would reach their intended receiver.
Howard’s ability to wreak havoc on opposing teams’ passing plans paid off in a serious way this offseason when he inked a contract worth $76.5 million over the next five years, making him the best-paid defensive back in the NFL. “All the hard work I put in from little league to high school to college, I feel like it just paid off,” Howard said. “Even though I feel like I had a slow start in the league, the work ended up paying off and that’s what it’s all about.” But before Howard went to the car dealership or put himself in a Miami penthouse, he had some unfinished business back in his hometown of Houston.
Howard grew up in the city’s Fifth Ward, a rough neighborhood within shouting distance of downtown Houston. He knew that he wanted to do whatever he could to provide for his family and give them a home in a safer locale, and once the ink was dry on his big contract Howard went looking for a house for his mother. “It’s something she dreamed about and we ended up moving about an hour away from where we were at first,” Howard said. “Putting her in the best situation and putting my little brothers in the best situation with the school district and all that — that’s what it’s all about.”
The sprawling suburban home outside of Houston was the culmination of more than a decade of hard work and perseverance. No more sharing rooms, no more fighting over who was next in line for the bathroom. It was a home that Howard and his mother could be proud of. Howard posted a photo on Instagram of him and his mother standing in front of the new house, both all smiles. “Something I promised my mother,” the caption reads. “Finally thru [sic] all the obstacles we had overcome. A dream can go a long way with faith and hard work.” A nose for the football and exceptional athleticism doesn’t hurt either.
As for Howard, he’s dreaming of a Texas homestead as well. A self-described “Texas boy,” Howard loves his home in Miami but is set on buying a house that fits one of the state’s mottos. “Everything is big in Texas,” he said. “So I just want a big house. A couple stories, a lot of land so I can build a basketball court and a playground for the kids to come over. Like a little park for the kids so we can have a barbecue when the family comes to town.” He’s even thinking of trying his hand at that Texas pastime of saddling up and riding. “I’m thinking about getting a horse,” he said. “And maybe even a rooster.”
But that won’t be for a couple of years. In the meantime, Howard has work to do. His massive new contract comes with an equally large set of expectations. Being the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL isn’t a title that Howard bears lightly. “This year is a big year for me. I feel like there’s a big difference and I can’t get too comfortable,” he said. “I feel like people get complacent when they get paid, and I don’t want to be that guy. I’m at the point where I still want to work. The sky’s the limit for me, so we’ll see where it’s at.”