During the dog days of training camp, when the heat is on and the novelty of padded practices has finally worn off, Chiefs players have different motivations to get through Andy Reid’s three-hour workouts.
Winning. Playing time. Money. You know, the usual.
But whenever Chiefs defensive lineman Jaye Howard needed motivation over the last three weeks, he simply looked over to the same corner of the small white tent that overlooks the Missouri Western practice fields.
There, he’d spot the short woman with dark black hair, tending to the babies in the two car seats beside her. And inevitably, Howard says the sight of his wife, Shashana, and their twin newborns, Jordan and Jeremiah, would always bring a smile to his face — and some pep to his step.
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“I glance over there,” Howard said after a recent practice while pointing to the tent, “to remind me what I’m doing this for.”
Howard, 25, wasn’t the only player in Chiefs camp who’s playing football with the noble intention of providing for his family. But like the others fighting for roster spots, he knows staying in the league is hardly a guarantee.
While each team often invites the maximum of 90 players to training camp, only 53 can make the team. This raises the stakes for everybody — families included — which is why Shashana showed up to practice regularly, twins in tow, to take her place under the Chiefs’ family tent.
Every little bit helped, she figured.
“I’m his backbone, I’m his support system, his No. 1 cheerleader,” Shashana said. “Even with the twins, as little as they are, we’ve been here since day one.”
Howard appears a safe bet to make the team. He played a little down the stretch last season — including in the Chiefs’ playoff game at Indianapolis — and started the preseason opener against Cincinnati on Aug. 7 when starter Mike DeVito sat out because of a fractured hand.
But Howard, like the other non-established Chiefs currently on the roster, knows better than to count his chickens before they’ve hatched. The last time he came close to doing that, he found himself out of a job.
Howard and his wife remember Aug. 31, 2013 — also known as cut day — well.
He was set to enter his second season with the Seattle Seahawks after entering the league as a fourth-round draft choice out of Florida in 2012.
Howard knew the Seahawks were deep on the defensive line, but teams are loathe to give up on draft picks after only one year. He racked up four quarterback hits and four hurries in 99 snaps.
“I had a strong preseason, so I thought I was good enough to stay there and play,” said Howard, who is listed at 6 feet 3 and says he weighs 320 pounds.
Still, Howard and his wife waited around on cut day in their Seattle home until the deadline. As it approached, they hadn’t gotten a call, so they prepared to go out for lunch. Then Howard’s cellphone rang.
“We just looked at the phone and we saw that phone number and our smiles just kind of died,” Shashana said. “And we said, ‘Well, this is it.’”
Shashana was devastated, but they were grateful when the Chiefs claimed Howard off waivers. She packed Jaye a bag and he was on his way to Kansas City, where he made six tackles in three games while his former teammates went on and won the Super Bowl.
Howard says he was happy for his former teammates, but he hasn’t forgotten the end in Seattle.
“That definitely motivates me,” Howard said. “I never want to be in that situation again, that’s why I bust my (behind) every day.”
Shashana gave birth to twins April 9. Before they were born, Shashana said, her husband was all about himself, football and her.
But that’s no longer the case.
“As soon as they were delivered, it was just a wake-up call,” Howard said. “My life changed that fast. I’ve got a family now, people that’s depending on me. I still have my mom and my sister to take care of … but now it’s just bigger.”
Shashana said Howard, after a bit of a slow start, now offers to help out with the twins when he can.
“It was a bit scary for him at first because of his size and their size,” she said. “But now, he’s completely hands-on. He’ll tell me, ‘Hey, no, you sit down, I’ll change diapers, I’ll put them to sleep, I’ll make bottles.’
“Like I said, it has changed him completely.”
Still, she knows the biggest thing he can do to help her and their sons is succeed in his chosen profession.
During the Chiefs’ 41-39 preseason win over the Bengals on Aug. 7, Shashana again sat in the Chiefs’ family room at Arrowhead Stadium with their two sons.
She knew this was a big game for Jaye because it was a precious opportunity to show what he could do with the starters, a chance to potentially lock up not just a roster spot, but an actual role on the team — the first step toward earning stats, respect and a shot at the kind of dollars players dream of.
So one can understand why Shashana, upon seeing Jaye get a sack in the third quarter, unleashed a yell so loud that it woke up Jordan, who was sleeping.
“I was like, ‘I’m so sorry!’” Shashana said with a laugh. “He started crying, but I just kept saying, ‘It’s for a good purpose, it’s for a good purpose, daddy made a sack!’”
Howard, who also had four combined tackles, played 45 snaps — second most on the defense. Some of that had to do with injuries — not only did DeVito sit, so did 2013 seventh-round pick Mike Catapano — but it was also an indication that the Chiefs wanted to get a good look at Howard.
This past week, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton praised Howard’s progress while noting he has a lot of little things to work on.
“He understands the system better and has been able to have some flexibility in where he’s played,” Sutton said. “He has flashes of really good athleticism — he can be a very explosive guy.
“From his standpoint, the thing he has to do is become more consistent. If he does that, he is going to be a really good football player for us.”
Potential aside, with cut day looming again — it’s Aug. 30 this year — Howard and his family will be sweating it out with several other Chiefs and their families over the next few weeks. If the worst-case scenario happens, they all know there’s always a chance a player can be picked up as a free agent.
But that’s a game the Howards don’t want to be forced to play again.
“Lord willing,” Shashana said, “we’ll stay here in Kansas City.”
To Jaye, every glance toward that hill in St. Joseph was a constant reminder of the stakes.
“I can’t let them down,” Howard said. “I make sure they’re here every practice. I just look at them, and I know she’s here. I look out there and I know I’ve got to go hard.”