By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

HANOVER – Give Miles Oldacre credit. The Yale University safety took his best shot at Dartmouth’s Nick Howard late in the Ivy League teams’ Oct. 9 game at Memorial Field, sprinting across the hashmarks and accelerating into the quarterback’s left side.

Oldacre, however, encountered the Big Green version of a New Hampshire state snowplow. The initial impact dropped the defender to his knees as the 6-2, 230-pound Howard spun slightly sideways and dragged the Bulldog towards the goal line. Howard dove over Oldacre’s flattened body for what proved to be the winning points in overtime.

Nick Howard runs over Miles Oldacre (5) for the winning touchdown. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

“I take pride in playing quarterback like a linebacker,” said Howard, whose 5-1 team visits arch-rival Harvard on Saturday for a game that will likely end the loser’s league title hopes. “It goes back to the Green Bay thing. It’s definitely a blue-collar town.”

There are six U.S. locations with that name, but this is a football story, so you know Howard’s talking about his Wisconsin home. The NFL’s oldest franchise, the Packers, has operated in the city of 107,000 on Lake Michigan’s southern end since 1921. To say pigskin pride runs deep in the Brown County seat is a massive understatement, and in Howard, Green Bay has a native son who runs as hard as anyone in the Ivies.

“He’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached,” said Tim Birr, Howard’s high school boss. “He doesn’t often take punishment. He dishes it out.”

Said Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens: “If somebody tackles him, they’re going to know it. He’s friendly, considerate and has a nice smile, but he plays with an edge. He’s a vicious runner.”

Dartmouth interim athletic director Peter Roby celebrates a victory over Yale with Nick Howard. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Last April, however, Howard wasn’t big, powerful or vicious. He was simply a heartbroken young man grieving the loss of his mother, Mimi, after a 10-year battle with two types of cancer. 

Behind on school work and needing to make up his midterm exams, spring football practice could have rightly been the last thing on the 20-year old’s mind. Instead, Howard found solace on the gridiron, where for short bursts he could shed his emotional and academic burdens. It’s long been that way.

Howard was born in St. George, Utah, where his father, former University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point player Chris Howard, was in the midst of his college football coaching days. The elder Howard finished his career with seven seasons leading the NCAA Division III Lawerence University program in his native Appleton, Wisc., a 30-minute drive southwest of Green Bay.

Let go by Lawrence after compiling a 19-50 overall record and a 1-9 mark in 2011, Chris Howard turned to selling generators and coaching his only child, who had roamed the Vikings’ locker room, sidelines and bus aisles since he entered school. The youngster was athletic enough to set discus and shot-put records at his junior high school, which is named after Packers’ legendary coach Vince Lombardi.

In football, Howard started for Southwest High as a 14-year old linebacker, competing in Wisconsin’s second-highest division. He played that position as well as quarterback during his final three years with the Trojans, sharing the backfield with standout running back Josh Komis, now also an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision player at St. Thomas (Minn.) University.

The pair sometimes lined up side-by-side, the defense unsure of which player would receive the shotgun snap and which would become the other’s blocker. Howard said he also threw for more than 2,000 yards during his final two seasons, but college recruiting interest was mostly predicated on him playing linebacker. 

Birr said he thinks Howard would have been a Football Bowl Subdivision player if he had embraced defense, for he was offered a preferred walk-on slot at Iowa for that side of the ball. The teenager and his father, however, were wary of the repetitive head-banging necessary to do so. Nick Howard committed to the University of South Dakota as a quarterback, although he says now he strongly suspected the Coyotes would have moved him to linebacker in short order.

With that in mind, Howard later decomitted and verbally pledged to attend Cornell as a linebacker. If he was likely to be shifted to defense anyways, he thought, why not at least receive an Ivy League education? The date to apply to Cornell via early decision, which locks a prospective student into attending that school, was approaching when Dartmouth first made contact.

“You know Harvard, Princeton and Yale and I’d heard of Cornell before, but I didn’t even know what Dartmouth was,” Howard said. Still, the Big Green was dangling the opportunity to try out at quarterback and its coaches seemed sincere in that promise. So he took a recruiting trip to Hanover and fell in love with the Big Green’s campus and football program.

The Howards did their research and were impressed not only with Dartmouth’s academics but how it deployed powerful Jared Gerbino as a dual-threat quarterback. Gerbino rarely threw, but he was highly effective and Teevens sold the Howards on the idea that Nick would have a chance to be Gerbino’s successor. The Big Green’s policy of low-impact practices was icing on the cake.

Howard decommitted from Cornell, which had previously also recruited Gerbino as a linebacker. The Big Red gained a measure of revenge in 2019, however, upsetting Dartmouth on Memorial Field and forcing it to eventually share the league title. 

Howard’s only action of the season came during that game, when he ran four times for 19 yards. The rest of the time, he watched the quarterback tandem of Gerbino and Derek Kyler, who’s back this fall as a fifth-year senior. Howard said he’s studied both players, learning to be a better runner from the former and to regulate one’s emotions and analyze a defense from the latter.

“Most schools weren’t willing to take a chance on me as a quarterback because I’m unorthodox,” said Howard, who also visited Harvard but didn’t care for its urban setting. “I do things you don’t see every day.”

Howard has rushed 75 times for 472 yards and nine touchdowns this fall, including three scores at New Hampshire two weeks ago. Last week, however, he was held to 23 yards in eight attempts during a shutout loss to visiting Columbia. The righthander has completed 9 of 12 pass attempts for 80 yards.

Kevin Daft, Dartmouth’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, said Howard is further along in his development than most players his age because of his father’s influence. Being able to watch and practice with Gerbino certainly helped, as have Howard’s efforts to make himself bigger, stronger and faster.

“Nick throws the ball really well and has a strong arm and a good release,” said Daft, who uses multiple formations and motions and foresees Howard receiving more chances to air it out in the the future.

“When to use him or Derek is done a little bit by feel and how the game’s going. It’s not a perfect science, but you gravitate towards the guy who’s playing well and maybe better-suited to play against a certain team.”

Although Chris Howard helped orchestrate his son’s success, he still figuratively pinches himself while watching Nick play. 

“When it starts working out, there’s a little bit of disbelief,” Chris Howard said. “You can believe in your child all you want to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone else is going to.”

Howard carries life experience more weighty than most his age. His mother was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when he was in fourth grade and Howard said it led to “anger issues” he best processed through football’s camaraderie and physical demands. Mimi Howard, who worked in employee relations for a regional department store chain based in Green Bay, beat that illness but developed breast cancer when her son was a high school sophomore.

“Every day, I think about how much stress and extra baggage I put on her plate,” Howard said. “When I was younger and my dad was coaching, she was pretty much on her own raising me. It was a heavy load.”

The son recalls his mother’s smile, her passionate enjoyment of the holidays and how she insisted upon his visits home from college that he not feel badly about spending time with his friends. Mimi and Chris were able to watch the 2019 Cornell game in person, but she chose to stop chemotherapy in early April of this year as her health significantly declined.

Nick Howard hadn’t been home since shortly after New Year’s because he was interning for West Virginia Congressman Alex Mooney, a former Dartmouth football and rugby player. The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol occurred on the student’s third day of work. He and his coworkers were locked down for nearly 12 hours inside their Cannon House Office Building rooms, roughly 100 yards from the Capitol grounds.

Following that memorable day and the completion of his internship, Howard hitched a ride to Hanover and was three weeks into the spring term when he learned his mother was weakening. Although it was unclear how Dartmouth’s pandemic restrictions might impact Howard’s return, he flew back to the Midwest and spent his April 17 birthday at Mimi’s side.

“School wasn’t the first thing on my plate and I was falling behind, but Coach Teevens was a saving grace,” said Howard, who was also concerned how missing the start of spring football practice might affect his 2021 season. “He told me to do what I needed to do and he would handle the school issues for me.”

Howard returned to Hanover after several days but received a call from his father three hours after he stepped on to campus. Mimi was fading and asking for Nick, so the son scrambled back to Green Bay the next day. The day after that, his mother died. Five days later, Howard was again back at school, with football providing its familiar shelter and an emotional outlet.

Chris and Nick Howard flank Mimi Howard. (courtesy of Chris Howard)

“I hadn’t told anyone here except my two or three closest friends and the coaching staff,” Howard said. “I didn’t want to put that on them while they were trying to get ready for spring ball.”

When news of Nick Howard’s situation spread throughout Dartmouth’s locker room, he discovered the program’s concept of brotherhood is more than mere words.

“We received so much support from my teammates and their parents and the whole Dartmouth football family,” Howard said after a practice earlier this month, his eyes watering and his voice growing husky at the recollection. “Football became the only time of day I could have fun.

“That was what really go me through the emotional burden of grief. Instead of just going home after class and crying, you get to be with your friends and be grateful for that.”

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