Ken Houston quit pro football once, before his glorious career had even begun. He walked out of the Houston Oiler training camp his rookie season. "I had everything I wanted," he said, "They gave me a car and a $6,000 bonus check. I didn't have to give those back, either. I knew I wasn't going to do anything in the pros, so why fool around?"
That's always been the trouble with Ken Houston. He never has been able to truly measure how talented he is. Even now, he says the impact of making all those Pro Bowls -- 12 straight, more than anyone except Merlin Olsen -- and, being called the greatest strong safety in NFL history haven't really struck him.
"I always thought being the best was what you were supposed to do," he said.
"I would have been disappointed if I hadn't made the Pro Bowl."
If Houston cannot measure his own greatness others can. And his is a rare greatness, for it extends far beyond the playing field.
If he has a streak of meanness or selfishness, he has kept it well hidden. Those who come in contact with him come away with the same thought -- a kindly and caring man.
"Ken Houston is your friend, even if he doesn't know your name," said Bobby Beathard, the Redskin general manager. "He's a man's man in the truest sense of the word. He doesn't talk about faith and belief. He lives it."
On Saturday, prior to his last Washington home game, the Redskins will pay tribute to Ken Houston. As he heads into reluctant retirement, his final season spent largely as a reserve, he will be showered with gifts by friends and admirers alike. But George Allen, the man responsible for bringing Houston to Washington, wonders if those who will witness the ceremony will truly understand about Houston.
"It's been a rare opportunity," Allen said. "How many times do you have a chance to watch the best there ever was at a position? Think of that. Many towns never are blessed like that. You only read about the great ones or see them once in a while. But Redskin fans have had, what, eight years to study him and appreciate him."
And to think Houston came to Washington believing he might not be welcomed. After all, Allen had given up a mind-boggling five players to the Houston Oilers for his services after the 1972 season. "Probably, a lot of fans didn't know where Houston was, much less had heard of Kenny Houston, the player," Houston said with a laugh. "I had a lot to live up to. It was like starting over. I didn't know how the players or the city would take to me."
By now, he has found out. Within the team itself, he is by far the most popular and respected member. He is the Redskins' conscience and their leader.In a sport where jealousies and rivalries often determine relationships, Houston's dignity has lifted him above the pettiness. He has no enemies on the roster; only friends.
The city also has found out about Ken Houston. Along with Joe Theismann and Mark Moseley, he is asked to make more appearances and speeches than anyone on the team. He'll accept a fee, but he says he's never turned down a request if no funds were available.
"I want to meet people," he said. "I want to show them that football players aren't something special. We aren't different than the average person. We just happen to be in a profession called football."
But Houston carries this one step farther. After most of these engagements, he winds up "making two or three future dinner dates in people's homes. Or I'll take two or three kids home. I'll go to someone's birthday party if they ask me.
"Why? It's one of my biggest faults. I can't say no. I don't have the nerve to turn them down."
"I respect him more than anyone on the team. He's the kind of person every father wants his son to grow up to be." -- safety Mark Murphy
Houston was asked the other day to talk about his long and distinguished career.
HIS EARLY ATHLETIC DAYS: "I was a better basketball player than anything else. Bishop College offered me a scholarship, then withdrew it. I went to Prairie View to play football only because they wanted a teammate of mine and he said he wouldn't go unless they took me, too. I was a center on my high school football team. I was the only guy who had the speed to run this one play, where you had to block your man and then dash down the line and hook the end. I also ran track and swam. I thought I was a large-size man, so I did all the field events. The track events were for the little guys. I never dreamed of playing pro football, that was out of the question.
HIS DAYS AT PRAIRIE VIEW: "I never did start at center. I think they were going to cut me but then they switched me to defense and let me play linebacker. I began thinking about the pros when scouts started talking to me in my junior year. Houston showed the most interest; they said they were going to draft me in the early rounds. When the first day of the draft went by and I wasn't picked, I kind of prodded them. I told them if they didn't take me, I was going to Canada. So they picked me in the ninth round."
HIS ROOKIE SEASON: "I signed with Houston for $13,000 plus the car and bonus. Canada won't give me a car, but I had to have one. A couple of us went to a bank and cashed our bonus checks. I stuffed my pockets with the bills. I was a rich man. I went to camp but I decided to quit. I didn't think I would make it and I wanted to be with my wife and start teaching. But I got my notice for my Army physical. I flunked it because I had two knee operations. I decided to go back to camp. I said, 'Hurt this body, beat it up.' I didn't want to be in the service. Funny, I had seen Jim Brown play on television. I always said I didn't want any part of someone like him. He could hurt you."
"He played the position perfectly. He keeps good position, he reads his keys right and he has all that experience.And he has such long arms. He always gets his hands on the pass with those arms." -- former tight end Jean Fugett
Just recently, Ken Houston was at a speaking engagement when a man came up to him and said, "Until tonight, I hated you. The way you played, I thought you were horrible."
"That happens all the time," Houston said. "It bothered me because people thought I was dirty. I wasn't. I was aggressive."
But Houston admits he was a renowned head hunter, one of the most savage tacklers to ever play defensive back. "I was good because I was always physical. Remember, I had been a linebacker and I always thought I could have played that position in the pros. As a strong safety, I've spent a lot of time taking on pulling guards and trying to force against the run.
"When I broke in, the forearm was legal. Everything was legal. To survive, you had to be tough and mix it up. Everyone tried to get at the head. We used to say, 'If you kill the head, the body will die.' You were protecting your territory. You had to get their respect. Or they had to fear you. A good pop in the head achieved both."
Richie Petitbon, now the Redskins' secondary coach, was the NFL's original strong safety. He started playing that position in 1959; previously, teams just had two safeties, and neither was assigned exclusively to cover the tight end.
"If Kenny wasn't the best to ever play the position, then Richie was," said Allen, who coached them both. "Kenny had good size (6-3, 200 pounds), he was quick, he had good speed. And he had a mean streak in him, too. He was a bad loser. And most of all he was smart. He knew how to play."
"He's legit. He is genuinely concerned for people -- not just his friends or his teammates, but everyone. The man cares." -- Harold McLinton, 1978.
This has not been a very good year for Ken Houston. After recovering last spring from the first major injury of his career (a broken arm), he wanted to be part of the Redskins' march to the Super Bowl. Instead, the team floundered and he was benched midway through the season.
Then his best friend, McLinton, was badly injured in an automobile accident and later died. And his wife, Gustie, has been hospitalized, suffering from headaches caused by a low red blood count.
He did not want to go out this way, a seldom-used substitute watching the younger Tony Peters take the spot he manned for so long. Houston, 36, is convinced he still can play and play well. That's what hurts the most. He wanted to retire on his own terms, as a star. He didn't want someone else to tell him he was finished; he wanted to determine that fact himself.
"I can play another year," he said. "I'm convinced of that. I was in a daze after I was benched and I'm still not sure why all this happened. If it was a youth movement, okay, but they never said so."
But Houston wasn't caught unprepared for retirement. He has been preparing 10 years for what he calls "my second life." He went back to college in 1973 and earned a master's degree in counseling. Gustie has two master's degrees and a Ph.d. The couple has invested conservatively, in bonds and real estate. Despite his $140,000 salary, the Houstons decided to live within the income limits they estimated they would have once he left football.
What will he do? He isn't sure. John Koons, of the Koons car empire, has offered him a job, which eventually could lead to his own dealership. He also has long wanted to be a teacher and coach, maybe in the NFL. He says he will wait a few more months before making a final decision.
"Whatever my decision, I'll approach my new job with the same attitude as I did football," he said. I'll learn it from the ground up. I'll want to be successful in it to a point where I can help others. I'll do it well. And no matter, I'll do some coaching, even if it's on the pee wee level. I need to be around kids."
"He's like a father to me. During my rookie year, he took me under his wing. He got me through some rough times. I'll never forget him." -- fullback Clarence Harmon
Ken Houston on life: When I was 10, I remember fishing a lot at a big pond near my home in Lufkin (Tex.). It was wonderful and I never wanted anything in my life to change. It was the simple things that kept me happy then, and they still make me happy now.
"I'm someone who likes to hunt and fish. I like to seek out peace. I can find it by walking in the woods and checking out the leaves in the fall. We tend to judge success in material things. But we worry so much about what we have; we fight to hold onto the headaches.
"I feel I could lose everything I own and still have everything. I have my Christian beliefs. That is my ultimate peace."
Houston has spent much of his adult life doing something he has enjoyed immensely. He has found peace in a violent sport. Now that he has to leave football, he is sad.
"I don't think there is anyone on the team who likes to practice more than I do," he said. "Why? Because that's what I've always wnated to do.
"I'll miss it; I'll miss it a lot. I'll miss the fans and my teammates, and the locker room and games -- everything.
"You can't repeat a phase in life like I've just been through. You should't try. It's like death. It's over."
Houston paused. "It will be tough for a while. Football is all I've ever lived for. I can't imagine what life is going to be like without it."