Miami Dolphins

Shots fired, lives forever changed: How a past murder shaped Xavien Howard’s future

Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard focused on getting better

Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard speaks to the media after practice at the Dolphins practice facility on Thursday, May 24, 2018.
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Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard speaks to the media after practice at the Dolphins practice facility on Thursday, May 24, 2018.

When Xavien Howard was in the fourth grade, his mom briefly pulled him out of Houston’s Fifth Ward and sent him to live with his grandmother a half-hour away.

But this wasn’t punishment for bad behavior.

It was to keep young Xavien alive.

He was a witness to a killing outside of his family’s modest home, and his family feared he was not safe while the shooter remained at large.

“Yeah, on the railroad tracks,” Howard, the Dolphins’ third-year cornerback, told the Miami Herald after an early August practice. “I saw it. I seen it. The guy had shot a guy on the railroad tracks. I was outside playing basketball by myself. He said, ‘Go in the house, someone’s shooting.’

“Then I’m thinking, ‘This is the guy who just shot him.’”

Eventually, the killer was caught, Howard said, and he was able to come home.

But the emotional damage was done. Witnessing such a tragedy would of course be traumatic for anyone, let alone a child.

And yet, that experience started him down a path that led him to the NFL, where in 2018 he has a real chance to become of the league’s best young defenders.

“Seeing all of that stuff, it just motivated me,” Howard said. “‘I’ve got to get my people out of there.’ A bullet ain’t got no name. Anything can happen. I just want the best for my little brothers and my little sister. I just want the best for them and just really trying to help my family out.”

Mission accomplished.

His mom Luckcher and her six other children are out of that neighborhood, thanks in some part to Howard’s storybook success.

Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard impressive with three interceptions at practice and can't wait to brag in the locker room.

He grew up in an admittedly “poverty-stricken environment;” and there was a time when all seven kids somehow crammed into three-bedroom home. Sports were his escape, and eventually his way out.

Basketball was his first love, and had epic battles with his older sister.

But like many kids his age, he saw football as his surer path to success, and decided to join the team his sophomore year at Wheatley High School.

There, he was teammates with William Jackson III, who would also become an NFL defensive back; Jackson in 2016 was selected by the Bengals 14 picks before the Dolphins took Howard.

“That was amazing,” Howard said. “We used to push each other every day. He was the quarterback, I was the receiver.”

After leading Wheatley to the area finals in 2011, they both went on to play collegiate football in Texas — Howard for Baylor and Jackson for Houston.

Howard redshirted his first year on campus, and played mostly on special teams his second. But Year 3 was Howard’s breakout season, starting all 13 games and making the all-Big 12 team as an honorable mention.

Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke says cornerback Xavien Howard's three pics today at practice doesn't mean he will start, there is more work to be done.

Then as a junior, he took a huge leap forward. Howard was first-team all-conference after picking off five passes and breaking up 10 passes.

That was enough to declare for the draft a year early. Smart decision, as the Dolphins took him early in Round 2, trading up to do so.

“This is a prototype player,” Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said at the time. “It’s a core position — premium need for us. This guy checks all the boxes in terms of height, weight, speed, competitiveness, toughness. This was a player that was a target player for us and when the opportunity arrived for us to make a play to get him, we jumped at it.”

Fast-forward a year and a half, and the Dolphins have no regrets. After a injury-impaired rookie season, Howard was a force in Year 2, winning conference player of the week honors for picking off Tom Brady twice — despite battling a virulent stomach bug that had him puking on the sidelines.

And an excellent 2018 training camp suggests that his best might still be to come.

“It’s all about this year,” Dolphins defensive backs coach Tony Oden said after a training camp practice in which Howard intercepted Ryan Tannehill three times.

“We are starting fresh. One thing that I can talk about is how hard he’s working right now. He’s doing everything we ask, he’s being accountable, he gets extra help. As you can see he was out here catching the ball after practice. We want him to improve every day. He’s a good player, we don’t try to be good we try to be great. Still a ways to go, but he’s working.”

Howard, playing under his rookie contract, is great value for the Dolphins, but that could change. He is eligible for an extension after this season, and if he plays like he has practice, the Dolphins might be inclined to give him one.

That life-changing money would help ensure that his family would never again have to live in a place where 10-year-olds have to worry about murders while shooting hoops outside their home.

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