For one of the few times in his celebrated 13-year pro football career, Redskin strong safety Ken Houston begins training camp facing a legitimate challenge for playing time at his position. But Houston gave every indication today that he doesn't intend to spend what could be his last Redskin season as a part-time player.
Although Houston stopped short of forecasting his retirement, he admitted he has thought seriously about his future during the past offseason. And it is assumed among most Redskin officials that the 12-time all-pro player will retire after this year.
But before he steps aside, Houston says he still has some things to prove:
He wants to come back strongly after breaking his forearm against the New York Giants the 13th week of last season.
He wants to show he still can perform on the same lofty plateau he has occupied during a career that has established him as perhaps the best strong safety in NFL history.
He wants to play on a Super Bowl team before he retires, and he says he is convinced this current Redskin team "is capable of going all the way. We could have last year, we have the same people back, we had a good draft and we are just going to be better. And I think I can help get us to where we want to go."
Team sources have indicated that a superior camp showing by Tony Peters, who replaced Houston after the injury last season, could lead to a change at the strong safety spot during the upcoming season.
But removing Houston from the starting lineup, if it ever comes to that, would be a most difficult decision for the Redskins. He is the club's most respected player and his strong leadership and quiet dignity are intrinsic factors that have to be taken into consideration.
"You just don't take Ken Houston out," said one source, "especially if you are opening with Dallas. He still can play. But this camp will be important to see how much of his skills he still has. Remember Tony has quite a future ahead of him."
Houston, who will be 36 in November, is aware of Peters' talent, one reason he has reported to camp in the kind of condition that a man 10 years younger might envy.
"In mini-camp in May, I ran a 4.74 40 and that's as fast as I was running them in 1967, when I came into the league," he said. "That tells me I haven't lost my speed, which is something I'm always concerned about.
"Then in the offseason, I worked a lot in Houston with some of the Oiler receivers who were going through a conditioning program. I got to cover people like Ken Burrough. I wanted to run things like 'go' patterns just to see how I would measure up. Most times, they didn't beat me."
And what did that off-season coverage work tell Houston?
"It told me I still could play," he said. "The last thing I want to do is hang around and take up space. When I lose my skills, I want someone to tell me. I want to get out and not embarrass me or the team. I don't want to hang around on sentiment.
"But right now I think I'm going to have a great camp. Maybe my best ever. I really feel that good."
Houston isn't bragging. That's not his style. He was talking instead in a matter-of-fact fashion as a man who has extreme confidence in his skills and his experience.
"See," he said, "i'm still learning. Really. I've always felt that a player begins to actually understand this game and not rely just on his off-the-wall athletic ability just about the time his body can't do it anymore. o
"I've been fortunate. My body has held up well and now I'm at the point where I can start utilizing all the years I've had in this league. If you can blend experience with the physical skills, it makes for a useful combination. That's what I hope I have going for me."
"I'm sure I've lost some of my mobility, but not enough to hurt my ability to play the spot. Last year, I was convinced that I played as well as ever, I was having a good year. Maybe not everyone agrees, but in my own mind I was satisfied."
Houston's season was shattered by the broken arm, the first serious injury in his career. He stood by helplessly when Washington's playoff dreams were dashed by Dallas in the season finale.
Coach Jack Pardee is convinced that a healthy Houston in that Cowboy game would have meant a Redskin victory. With Houston around, Washington would have had more flexibility in its secondary to counteract Roger Staubach's pinpont fourth-quarter passing.
"I was really frustrated by the injury," Houston said, "frustrated that I couldn't help out, that I couldn't play. I really think I could have made a difference out there, I have to feel that way. But not being able to help really tore me up. It had never happened to me."
Whatever thoughts Houston had about retiring were eliminated by the broken arm. He didn't want to finish on that note.
"Remember, the only thing wrong with me was my arm," he said. "I could keep my legs and wind in shape. I didn't have any problems with groin pulls or with the stomach muscle tear that has bothered me the last few years.
"I've been lifting weights in the off-season, too, and now I think I'm stronger than I've ever been. That extra strength, plus the fact I'm concentrating more and locking up better, has helped my tackling."
Houston may see time at Mark Murphy's free safety position and he also could find himself sharing the strong safety spot with Peters.
"I'm not going to fight any plans they have for me," he said. "But I'm not ready to sit on the bench yet.
"Yes, I think there is serious competition for my position. They aren't just going to hand it to me out of sentiment.
"Tony is a very good football player. He is very capable. He's got youth on his side, but I'd like to think I have experience on mine. It ought to be interesting."
Peters, who came to the Redskins in a trade with Cleveland last year, could see his role on the team affected by the Jeris White contract hassle. If White doesn't report, Peters may be pressed into also performing at cornerback, where he played at times in 1979 for Joe Lavender during obvious running situations.
"There is no question we are going to play a lot of people in the secondary," Houston said. "The way we use personnel, it keeps everyone fresh. I just want to play well enough to make sure I fit in all the plans from the very start."