Back before Justin Houston became a football star for the Chiefs, he was just a kid from a big family in a small Southern town trying something nobody in the room was sure he could do.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
This is in the weight room, at Georgia, Houston’s junior year. Nobody can quite remember how or why they got to this point, but there is 420 pounds of iron in front of Houston. That’s more than the weight of a full-grown lion, and more than anyone had ever power cleaned at Georgia. Football coaches love this lift because it requires raw strength but also disciplined technique, a good indication of the explosiveness required to break through mountainous offensive linemen.
So, Houston stands in front of the weight, deep breath. His hands are so big he isn’t using straps. He bends down, and flings the bar to his shoulders in a fraction of a second. Nobody at Georgia — not a linebacker, not a lineman, not anyone — has ever done this.
“Did that just happen?” Georgia strength coach Dave Van Halanger says to an assistant.
Houston’s college teammates swarm him. They are screaming. Later, Van Halanger will say it’s the best lift of anyone he’s ever trained. That list includes more than 40 NFL first-round draft picks.
Houston, a shy man with 10 brothers and sisters, allows himself to smile a bit. But mostly, he continues working. Houston has always been most comfortable working, preferably with his friends and teammates.
This is part of what is making him so valuable, and beloved, with the Chiefs.
DeAngelo Tyson first met Houston about 13 years ago. Houston was a seventh-grader in a small Georgia town called Statesboro. Tyson was a year younger. The boys would grow up together, first starring at Statesboro High and later at Georgia.
But back then, they were just a couple kids who wanted to make the basketball team. Except Houston got cut.
“He was mad because he thought he was better than me,” says Tyson, now a defensive end for the Ravens. “And he was better than me. I couldn’t play basketball. They just got me because I was big.”
There is a bit of what makes Houston tick in that story. He set a goal to make that basketball team, and when he didn’t achieve that goal, it shook his world. He also became friends with a younger boy who may have taken his spot, a kid who agreed that Houston was better. And eventually, Houston became good enough at basketball that high school friends assumed he would play the sport at Georgia after football season.
Houston doesn’t let a lot of people in — he didn’t want his mother or any of the 10 other children she raised to talk for this story — but bits and pieces come out in conversations with those who know him.
He is quiet but would grab younger players by the collar if they weren’t focused at Georgia. He is confident (enough that he wants to break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record and be thought of on par with Derrick Thomas) but self-aware enough to basically give himself over to teammate Tamba Hali’s tips.
“Justin’s so far ahead mentally,” Hali says.
When Houston is told he can’t, he does. When he’s told he’s not good enough, he improves. That’s what happened at Georgia, when assistant Todd Grantham’s promotion to defensive coordinator meant Houston found himself in a new defense with new responsibilities — namely more coverage, and less regular pass rushing.
He struggled with the adjustment at first. In the long run, it made him a better linebacker because Houston saw the value in the mental side of football. But in the short run, it may have contributed to some criticisms of him coming out of the NFL Draft in 2011.
After Houston declared for the NFL after his junior year, Jon Gruden called him “the most disappointing guy I studied.” Mike Mayock declared himself “not a Justin Houston guy, just on work ethic and hustle.”
The criticisms confused many of those close to Houston — “I never saw what they were saying about him in all the years I’ve been playing with him,” Tyson says — but his high school coach has a theory. Steve Pennington says the switch to a 3-4 defense left Houston thinking more and attacking less. When you’re thinking, you’re moving slower. Maybe that’s what those draft analysts were seeing on video.
Whatever it was, there was also a reported failed marijuana test before the draft. Houston has never gone into specifics about the reports, but after the Chiefs drafted him in the third round — 30 or 40 picks later than he was projected to go at one point — he referenced “a poor decision.”
That is, basically, all that Houston has said. He doesn’t bring the draft up, doesn’t talk about having a chip on his shoulder or something to prove to every team that passed him over.
His mom raised all 11 of her kids this way. Be tough. Not entitled. Nothing is given, everything must be earned. Houston says he still hears his mom’s message — it could be worse — guiding him today.
So Houston worked his way through every step of becoming an NFL star: first absorbing every bit of advice he could from Hali and coaches, then proving himself worthy of every-down play late in his rookie year, then earning enough respect to be selected a Pro Bowl alternate last year and now generally carrying a reputation as one of the league’s best linebackers.
In that way, Houston’s rise in the NFL world is a lot like him as a man: understated, violent on the field, unassuming off of it, and built primarily on hard work.
A few reporters are waiting by Justin Houston’s locker, ready for him to look into their cameras and tell them what it means to win the AFC defensive player of the week award after sacking Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert three times.
In the privacy of the Chiefs’ locker room, coach Andy Reid announced the award and let Houston say a few words. By all accounts, he used every one of them to thank his teammates. This is the way Houston talks about football — I couldn’t have done it without my teammates.
Once in front of the news media, a radio reporter asks Houston about himself and the answer is 20 words long. When a TV reporter asks Houston about Hali, the answer is 41 words long.
This is how Houston prefers things. Simple. Focused on others. He’s in a good spot for that, by the way. Hali is the one with the big contract and more national recognition, even as Hali (and others around the league) openly talk of Houston being the better player.
Houston’s low profile should not be taken as overt humility, though. This is a gifted athlete with an NFL ego, just one that doesn’t come out with public bragging or extensively choreographed sack dances — witness his, well, what exactly was that thing he did after his sacks last week?
Houston keeps that ego mostly inside himself, letting it spill out during games. But challenge him, and you’ll see. It’s why he’s dead serious about chasing Strahan’s record and Thomas’ legend.
And it’s why Houston won’t hesitate when asked if he can power clean more than 420 pounds now.
“I haven’t tried since that day,” he says. “But catch me during the offseason. I can do more than that.”