In the eight months since he last put on a football uniform, Ken Houston has had offers to play football again, with Houston and Buffalo. Joe Gibbs offered him a chance to coach with the Redskins, and he has been approached by several businessmen to do public relations or sales work.
But these days, Houston is more than content to rise every day at 6 a.m. for a 45-minute drive from his home to Sterling High School in southeast Houston. He teaches two health classes and three physical education classes and, most important of all, coaches the defensive backs for the varsity football team.
The man some consider the greatest strong safety in the history of professional football says he's fulfilling a lifelong dream, even if he has taken a drastic pay cut, from $125,000 a year with the Redskins to about $20,000 as a first-year school teacher.
"The money's a shallow thing, not that important," Houston said over the telephone the other day. "I could have made a lot of money, but I'd be doing something I didn't want to do. I get up early. I work on the weekends. I don't get home until 7 or 8 at night.
"But I'll tell you what. I've never been happier. I've never been more relaxed. I work in the same school system with my wife, and we share so many things. I know I made the right decision."
He also says he knows that former coach Jack Pardee made the wrong decision that day in October when he decided to bench him against the Denver Broncos, preferring to play a younger man, Tony Peters. Pardee also chose not to play Houston against the Giants in the Redskins' final home game of the season, Ken Houston Day, one last humiliation for a proud man.
"I'm not the kind of person who holds a grudge," Houston said. "But yes, there's still a little bitterness. I try not to think about it, but there are times I still ask myself 'Why me?' How could they justify it? Nobody ever told me why I wasn't playing last year, and I know I could have played. Nobody on that team was playing any better.
"I still think I could play another year or two. But what really bothers me is the way I had to leave Washington. I left the game on a sour note, and that's it for me. A lot of times one bad thing can overshadow so much good. I hope that's not what people remember me by, but you never know."
When he left Washington last winter, Houston had no idea what he would be doing for the rest of his life. He says he "laid around the house for three or four months" and had several calls from coaches still interested in him as a player.
"I could have gone to camp with Houston or Buffalo," he said. "And if I'd pursued it, I probably could have had other offers. But I wasn't really sure I wanted to play any more. After a while, I kinda lost interest, and the more I was out of it, the less I wanted to go back.
"A little bit of me died when I left Washington, especially the way it happened. When you're the victim, it takes something out of you. I also loved Washington, loved playing for the people there. It would have been hard to play anywhere else."
So last spring, Houston began looking into the possibility of teaching and coaching. He has a masters degree and was certified to teach in Texas, and there were several offers from Houston high schools. He chose Sterling because his wife was running a tutoring program for homebound students there and he liked the idea of starting as an assistant coach.
"I just felt I wanted to start in a place where I could learn from the ground up," he said. "I also wanted to teach more than coach, but this presented an opportunity to do both. Eventually, I would like to be in a position coach in the NFL. A head coach? I'd like to think I could do that some day, but right now, I'm happy doing exactly what I'm doing."
His employers are delighted, as well.
"The kids just love him," said Walter Jones, Sterling's principal and the man who hired him. "He's knowledgeable, and he's always been interested in young people. You always hear so many of these guys talking about coming back to work with the kids. Well, Ken Houston is doing it.
"I knew there was a possibility a pro team might want him again this year, and I called him in and told him if that's what he wanted, I certainly wouldn't hold him back. But he's still with us, and the kids really appreciate the guy."
Tom Hendricks, the Sterling head coach, agreed.
"Kenny relates to the kids beautifully," he said. "At first, I thought Ken might tend to be a little permissive and not grab the bull by the horns. But one day, a couple kids came out a few minutes late, and he let 'em have it.
"People come on time now, no question about that. And the guy's got such great knowledge. You have to respect a guy who was the best of all time."
Sterling is a predominantly black school, catering to a mostly middle-class community on the outskirts of the city. The football team won three games last year and only 25 players came out for spring practice -- that's right, high school spring football -- in April. Sterling also lost its season opening game last Friday, 19-14, to Houston Madison, on a last-minute touchdown. But Madison is always a city power, and the Sterling coaches are very optimistic.
"Right now, we've got 70 on the team and another 25 who want uniforms," Houston said. "We think we're gonna have a good season. Yeah, I'm really into it. It's everything I really wanted. Things do have a way of working out for the best."