Rusty Bradley may have taken a cue from the long-ago television show "Father Knows Best."
Bradley watched Davis Howell
star at linebacker in middle school. However, when he reached ninth grade at Christian Academy of Knoxville (Tenn.)
, Howell was told by his new coach that his future was at wide receiver.
Howell told MaxPreps this week, "Coach Bradley always told me I was going to play wide. I didn't care what I played. I was kind of frustrated because I love defense. But it's been worth it."
The position shift has been so worthwhile, in fact, that Howell is just 16 catches short of tying the national record of 349 career receptions. The 6-foot-1, 191-pound senior steadily has progressed during his outstanding career and enters Friday's Class 3A state semifinals against Elizabethton with 333 catches for 4,472 yards and 53 touchdowns.
To say Howell was born with a defensive mentality is putting it mildly.
His mother, Leigh Howell, recalled, "When he was 4 or 5 (preparing to play in a neighborhood game) he asked his dad, 'Can I use my head to hit?'"
He started playing organized football at age 7 and noted, "I was one of the bigger kids growing up. They put me at middle linebacker, because I was kind of a head-hunter."
Another senior wide receiver, Franklin Murchison
, related, "He just killed people. He hit a kid so hard that an ambulance had to come on the field. No one wanted to hit him in our drills (because they received more punishment than he did). He grew up with all (three) brothers and he would never get hurt."
Howell did remember those days, probably with relish.
He acknowledged, "The first time (an ambulance had to be called) I was sad and stated crying. After that (three or four more ambulance calls over the years), I thought, 'Well, I guess I've got to get used to it.' I was a little rubber ball bouncing around out there."
Bradley actually got his first look at Howell, Murchison, Josh Smith
(another wide receiver) and quarterback Charlie High
when he tutored them in sixth grade physical education class. They have been great friends from a very young age and today make up one of the premier passing combinations in the country.
Even playing sixth grade flag football and soccer, "These guys were just ultra competitive all the time," Bradley said. "They even would bring receiving gloves to class."
In eighth grade gym class, Howell dove for a pass and broke his wrist. He still likes to proudly point out, though, that he managed to make the catch.
"It was a pretty intense game," Howell explained. "I'm not going to lie. I didn't even feel pain at the time, because I had so much adrenaline. I finished out the game (another 20 minutes)."
Able to break in as the No. 4 wide receiver, Howell finished his freshman year with 26 catches for 349 yards and three touchdowns. His sophomore year was much more productive as he caught 84 passes for 1,110 yards and 13 touchdowns. It ended one game prematurely when he broke his collarbone during the state playoffs - causing him to miss a game for the only time in his career.
He won't forget that hit.
"It was a big ole' country linebacker," he described. "He hit me pretty good. I played seven more plays and made one catch. The rest of those plays I just blocked."
As a junior, Howell had a brilliant year, catching 105 passes for 1,424 yards and 19 touchdowns. He really stepped up in the playoffs as the Warriors won their first Class 3A state title. During a 35-27 semifinal victory over Austin East (Knoxville), Howell made 10 catches for 142 yards and one touchdown. In the title game, a 49-14 rout of Milan, he had 12 catches for 143 yards and four touchdowns.
Bradley acknowledged, "I don't know if we would have won or even reached the state championship game if it wasn't for Davis. The bigger the game, the better he played. He always rises to the occasion and makes big plays for us."
Howell relishes his role as a big-game performer.
He says, "I like to have the ball in my hands when its third or fourth down. I trust myself. I want to be the one to make the play. If I don't it's on me."
Besides being called a clutch player, he also is described as fearless.
"I guess I got that name because I go over the middle and catch balls," he explained. "I get hit hard a lot."
Despite his great junior year, Howell has produced an even more superb senior campaign with a possible two games to play. So far he has 118 catches for 1,589 yards and 18 touchdowns. He even has been given - believe it or not - opportunities to double up and play linebacker in key situations.
In the second game of the year, Josh Smith
, a University of Tennessee recruit, broke his collarbone and was forced to sit out several games, though he's back now.
"I knew I had to step up," Howell said. "I had more attempts to catch balls, but it hurt because I wasn't playing with my best friend."
Experiencing his greatest year yet, Howell broke his right thumb in the second quarter of the 10th game - not coincidentally the Warriors' only loss, 31-28 to archrival Alcoa.
"I was playing defense and hit a guy who was bigger than me," he said. "I got taped up and went back in. I missed two or three plays. I knew I broke it, but for us to win I had to play."
He still wound up with seven catches for 67 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
"The normal cast (which went on the next week) gave me the tip of my thumb so I could catch the ball better," Howell explained. "I've had a new cast every week and it's getting smaller and smaller."
In the beginning doctors urged him to end his season and not risk permanent damage. He would have none of that, however, even though he had his share of pain during the first couple games.
Bradley noted, "Some times, when the ball hits just right, he does have some pain. He's going to tell you he's fine whether he is or not."
Looking back, Howell admitted, "It used to be when a ball hit the cast it was just like breaking it (the thumb) all over again. It's fine now. I don't know if it's adrenaline, or I'm not paying any attention to it. It's started to calcify. I thank God for it."
Acknowledging the type of player that Howell is, Josh Smith says, "He's a tough kid. It's a big character thing that Davis has (to play with injuries)."
High, who is rewriting Tennessee passing records, adds, "He's a competitor. In practice, you can see after he catches he kind of winces and just keeps on playing. He's a big target, physical and has great hands. All he cares about is us winning the state. You've got to meet Davis. He's one of a kind."
His mother likes to add, "He's tough in a quiet way (too). He tries to motivate other people. He stands up for what's right and for his faith. I'm more proud of that."
During the 3 1/2 games he has played with a broken thumb, Howell still has managed to stage some remarkable feats.
Despite his obvious handicap, Howell got his revenge on Alcoa during a 38-36 state quarterfinal victory by making 13 catches for 168 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His biggest play, however, was catching the 2-point conversion that supplied the winning margin. Adding frosting to the cake, he made the catch one-handed as he fell in the end zone.
"I was getting tackled on the play - it should have been pass interference," Howell revealed. "He had one of my hands tied down."
Bradley exclaimed, "It's amazing what that kid is doing right now."
A devout Christian, Howell believes, "God is using my injury. If I break the record, I won't be doing it in my own strength. God perfects us. If I did it in my own strength, it wouldn't mean as much."
Even though he could become the greatest receiver in high school history, Howell still has no solid college scholarship offers. He said that Wake Forest was interested, but his 40-yard dash time (4.75 seconds) was not good enough.
Howell, who has a 2.8 GPA, confided, "I'm still praying, waiting and trusting in God. If I'm not supposed to play in college, I'm OK with that."
Still, every week he proves that he can catch the ball with the best of them, even his idol Bengals star A.J. Green. He loves Green's soft hands and superior route running. He has strength (bench presses 250 pounds) and athleticism (vertical jump of 32 inches).
He freely admits, "I'm a football addict. I figure out the defense and what I have to do to get open. I'm fastest in the first 10 or 20 yards and have the ability to make space. I have perfected my route running. I like to think that I'm not going to be tackled by one or two guys. Breaking tackles is key for me."
So, how much pressure will Howell face in Friday's state semifinals?
He replied, "My main pressure is just to win the next game and get to the state (finals). The more I think about it, the more I get excited."
The Warriors' explosive no-huddle, spread offense will provide Howell with plenty of protection. To make a point, Murchison (5-8, 150) has caught 70 passes for 915 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Smith (6-1, 185) has snared 52 for 960 and 12 touchdowns. Throw in High (6-0, 176), who has 4,314 passing yards and 48 touchdowns, and this powerhouse is going to be hard to stop.
Off the field, Howell loves to go duck hunting and fishing, though he concedes he only fishes "to get away from the outside world." He also has been recruited by the Shooting Club because he has the reputation of being a good shot.
Oblivious to any pressure, Howell promises, "Saturday, right after we beat Elizabethton, we're going to get up early and go duck hunting."Watch more videos of Christian Academy of Knoxville football