RENTON — Everyone has seen the gaudy numbers T.J. Houshmandzadeh put up in Cincinnati, seen the pony tail and the tattoos, even heard the interviews where he sounds like he might just be another overconfident receiver.
But there’s another side to the Seahawks’ biggest offseason acquisition, a side far fewer people have seen, but that is more worthy of the praise Houshmandzadeh will receive for what he does on the field this season.
At some point this season, Houshmandzadeh will do something that will make 67,000 Seahawk fans stand up and cheer. But moments like one a week and a half ago at the University of Washington, those are why professional athletes sometimes are really worth looking up to.
Houshmandzadeh could have easily kept going about his business on that Friday evening, finished the last 20 minutes of practice and called it a night. Instead he found a group of University of Washington football players standing on the sideline, watching as the Seahawks held practice at Husky Stadium. Two had backgrounds like Houshmandzadeh, they were Southern California raised and had taken the junior college route to the Pac-10.
So even though Houshmandzadeh had other things to do, he started talking to the UW defensive backs on the sideline. Sure they talked football, and he even coached them up a bit, showing them what moves to watch for from opposing receivers.
But then he hammered home his more important message. One he wished somebody would have told him years ago.
“They kind of came up the same way I came up,” Houshmandzadeh said. “I was just trying to give them the type of advice I wish I had gotten. I told them that not everybody is going to make the NFL, that’s just not going to happen, but to take advantage of the opportunity that they have to go to school for free. That’s it, because at the end of the day, if you don’t make it at least you want to have something you can fall back on to have a good life for your family.”
Houshmandzadeh is lucky, he knows that. He didn’t take school seriously enough, but got away with it. His athletic talents made him a multi-millionaire, and he may someday go back and finish school, but he certainly doesn’t need to. So many young athletes that have shared the same dream didn’t end up where he is, however.
Houshmandzadeh didn’t graduate from Barstow High School, but did well enough at Cerritos Junior College to get into Oregon State. There, like so many other college football players, he spent most of his time worrying about football and left OSU without a degree. Eight years later, he’s on a sideline talking to young athletes, “Don’t be stupid like I was. Make sure you get a degree out of this.”
He wasn’t doing it because he sees himself as some great ambassador for the importance of education, or because he thought anyone was going to notice his good deed. No, Houshmandzadeh just saw some kids that reminded him of a younger version of himself and relayed a message he didn’t hear enough.
“I didn’t have nobody telling me that, and they probably won’t listen, but they’ll at least remember me telling them that,” he said. “No I didn’t (get a degree) but I didn’t have anybody to tell me, and even if they had, I’m not saying I would have listened, but I didn’t even have that voice on my shoulder telling me to do that. I didn’t have that.”
And even if Houshmandzadeh doubts the strength of that message, the people hearing it, and the people who have preached it before, say it means more coming from him than a parent or a coach.
“I don’t think there’s any question that a young kid that’s a freshman or sophomore in college is going to listen to a guy like T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has a great resume and has made it to the Pro Bowl, more than they are a 52-year old coach like myself,” said Tim Lappano, Houshmandzadeh’s offensive coordinator at Oregon State, who is now the tight ends coach for the Detroit Lions.
Lappano, who recently spent four years as the offensive coordinator at Washington, has spent 24 years of his coaching career in college, and has little doubt those Huskies will take Houshmandzadeh’s message seriously.
“He has instant credibility with those kids,” Lappano said. “When we can get some ambassadors in the National Football League like that to step in front of high school kids and college kids and tell them, ‘Hey, get your degree.’ I think that they do have a lot more credibility sometimes than an older coach barking that message.”
And for college athletes, whose previous encounters with Houshmandzadeh involved an Xbox controller, some quality time with a Pro-Bowl receiver won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
“I think it’s a big thing for pro guys to come out and talk to us like that and tell us the right thing,” said UW cornerback Quinton Richardson. “The first thing he emphasized was the importance of getting our education, and I really appreciate that. That’s not something we always hear from the older guys, I really respect that. … He’s someone who has been through the same walks of life as you, been through the same steps, and he’s telling you, ‘That’s the most important thing, take advantage of all your opportunities.’”
Of course, right or wrong, a lot of Houshmandzadeh’s credibility comes from what he does on the field. Seattle didn’t sign him because he’s a good guy — though that was no doubt part of the evaluation process — the Seahawks added him because he has been one of the league’s most productive receivers in recent years. That’s something Houshmandzadeh doesn’t plan on changing now that he’s in a new city.
“I have big expectations for myself,” he said. “I don’t have set numbers or anything like that, but I feel like this should be my best season as far as yards and touchdowns, give or take one or two, for my career. I don’t know about the catch situation but I feel like yards wise and touchdown wise, this should be one of my better seasons if the coaches call my number like I think they are.”
And having never played a regular season game in a Seahawks uniform, Houshmandzadeh’s first season in Seattle is already off to a pretty good start.
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com. For more Seahawks coverage, check out the Seahawks blog at heraldnet.com/seahawksblog