Most everything Joe Howard owns is up for sale: the lava lamp, the tape deck and the equalizer and the 45-watt receiver, even the giant picture of stampeding elephants over the small bunk in his dormitory room.
"They're all going," Howard said the other day. "You see something you like . . . "
How much for the University of Notre Dame football helmet, set atop a stereo speaker suspended from the ceiling by four black chains? And what about that color picture over by the little plyboard book shelves, showing Howard in full uniform, sucking on a plastic mouthpiece, and with, "Joe -- Small Wonder, one of the best, for 4 years of excellent football . . .God bless you, Gerry Faust," scribbled in the bottom right corner?
"That stays with me," Howard said, giving the picture a quick read. "Some things you can never let go of."
In this room crowded with mementos of his four years here, Joe Howard -- overlooked in the recent National Football League draft of college talent -- has come to wonder what, if anything, can relieve the great burden of memory he's been wrestling with lately, or address the feeling that what once seemed like forever now seems so very far away. A little more than four years ago, Howard -- a graduate of Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington and an all-Met performer in both football and basketball -- chose to attend Notre Dame because, he said, "I saw the opportunities."
For starters, Howard hoped to get a first-rate education. And he hoped to become one of the best receivers in Notre Dame history, despite his relatively small stature. At 5 feet 9 and 170 pounds, Howard could hardly contain his dreams or control his private vision of the future. Who could doubt that "Mr. Everything," as he was once called by Washington sportswriters, would perform well above his own enormous expectations?
But like scores of other heralded high school players who advanced to the college game, only to endure season after season of disappointment, Howard said he will not make excuses for failing to become the star player he had hoped to be, yet finds himself doing so nonetheless.
"I was a wasted talent here," he said.
Howard, who is majoring in sociology, earned five varsity letters at Notre Dame -- four in football and one in basketball -- but there are no more games to play in South Bend. He speaks of his football career with much chagrin, although he is set to sign a free agent contract with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers next week, according to his father, Joe Johnson. Three days after the draft, Howard said he "had heard from" four teams -- Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Green Bay and New England -- and "was waiting to see who would give me the highest bid."
"When I look back on my days here," he said, "I have to say that I had the most fun my freshman year. I made the freshman all-American team and I was being compared to Anthony Carter, who was a great receiver at Michigan. The three years that followed, I was really disappointed because I hoped for a lot more than what I got. Maybe my expectations were too high, I don't know."
Though "living in the doghouse," as he puts it, Howard will be remembered as the smallest player in the modern era of Notre Dame football, which traditionally fields one of the largest teams in the country. His old coach, Gerry Faust, who continues to struggle to fulfill the great expectations a nation of supporters held for him, said Howard helped open the door for other players of less-than-formidable size, including all-America tailback Allen Pinkett, also 5-9.
"Joe should be proud," Faust said. "He proved that, in major college football, how tall a man is should not overrule his heart and determination."
Milt Jackson, a wide receiver and one of Howard's closest friends, said, "Joe always played a lot bigger than he looked. When he ran routes, not many people could stay with him."
But Howard, who grew up in Clinton, Md., said, "I always thought of how I'd be in different situations. At Boston College, I could've been a substitute and caught more passes than I caught here. At North Carolina, I might have been appreciated more. I'm not saying that everything about my career at Notre Dame wasn't successful because I didn't catch 200 passes. I just wasn't used to the fullest extent I could've been used."
Howard said Faust, now approaching the final year of a five-year contract, asked him to come by his office Thursday morning, and "we talked about it all. I said what I had to say and he said what he had to say. I felt a whole lot better about things afterwards. Looking back, I guess Coach Faust was only doing what he felt was right for the team.
"People make decisions on what they feel. I can't have my way all the time. I think he felt that I was mad at him, and I'm really not. I don't hold a grudge or anything. It's just that, when I look at my statistics, I'm disappointed."
As a senior at Carroll, Howard signed a letter-of-intent with North Carolina shortly after visiting Notre Dame. He said he was "mad and hurt" that Faust had not offered him a scholarship when "all the other guys who came up that week, all the high school all-Americans, they were going around saying, 'Coach offered me today, Coach offered me today.' I was disappointed. I felt I was just as good as everybody else . . . But I knew the reason I didn't get an offer right away was because of my size."
An assistant football coach from Notre Dame came down to Washington the day before the national signing day and saw Howard lead Carroll over DeMatha in a basketball game. Later that night, Howard, who was also sought after by several colleges to play basketball, said he learned that Notre Dame "had a football scholarship ready for me to sign the next morning at 8 o'clock. I knew right then where I wanted to go. It was the education I wanted . . . And I wanted to prove that I could play and that size wasn't a factor."
As a freshman, Howard entered the starting lineup at midseason and caught 17 passes for 463 yards, including a 96-yard touchdown pass against Georgia Tech. The following year, his best statistically, Howard had 28 receptions for 528 yards.
But he describes his junior year as "really hard" and his senior season as "frustrating and terrible," mainly because he pulled his hamstring against Michigan State, missed two games and found himself overshadowed by Tim Brown, a promising freshman receiver who ended up catching 28 passes during the season, almost twice as many as Howard.
"In the end," Howard said, "there was some anger. I felt I could have contributed to the team more. The determination was still there. When I look back on it, it could have been better. Sometimes I wish I had gone to Boston College . . . But that was before Doug Flutie came along."
Jackson said he thought of Howard as his "mentor," and remembers "all those times Joe would take younger players aside and talk to them. He was always enthusiastic, and I'd get down a lot. When I thought my routes were terrible, he'd tell me how to make them better. I never really heard him complain about anything."
Sometime during his junior year, when it became apparent that he would be used primarily as a downfield blocker, Howard became disgruntled and decided to visit Faust in his office. In the two previous years, the Fighting Irish had finished 5-6 and 6-4-1, and rumors were circulating that Faust would soon be fired as head coach.
For Joe Howard, football had progressively "come to be like a business," he said. "It was less fun. There was a point where I started losing some incentive . . . I had talked about transferring a few times but knew it was only out of anger. I was frustrated and I was hoping we'd win more."
The meeting, as Faust remembers it, "came at a pretty tough time for Joe . . . He wanted to know why he was not doing this and not doing that . . . "
Howard met with Faust to ask if he could get more playing time. The offensive philosophy, Howard said, had shifted away from the passing game and concentrated on the enormous running skills of Pinkett. Still the starter, Howard said he "wanted to return kickoffs and punts. I thought the more I was on the field, the more I could do.
"It didn't turn out to be a positive conversation. Stuff was said that I really didn't like. I was just in there trying to help out any way I could, but I don't think he really took it that way. He said a lot of negative stuff that hurt me. I didn't like it."
Faust said he "bent over backwards to let Joe play as much as possible. I even overruled his position coach at times to put him in there. We had some extremely talented young players at his position, but I don't mean to take away from what he meant to us. I love Joe Howard. He was a big part of our team."
A week after playing Boston College in the 1983 Liberty Bowl (won by Notre Dame, 19-18), Howard joined Digger Phelps' basketball team as a point guard and became something of a local legend, joining the ranks of two-sport performers such as Johnny Lujack. Howard filled voids left by Joe Buchanan, who had injured his knee, and Dan Duff, an academic casualty. Howard, described by Phelps as "the spark that makes things happen," scored five points a game and helped the team advance to the NIT championship game.
"Basketball was a way of relieving myself of the disappointment and frustration that I had from football," Howard said. "On the court, I learned that playing sports could be fun again . . . But it was really hard after basketball was over. I had to stay in the infirmary a couple of days because I was so exhausted. I was really worn down. I slept for two days straight. Then when I checked out, I had to go to spring training for football.
"As soon as I got out there, Coach Faust goes and says nobody has his position tied up. I got mad about that . . . I got tired of having to prove myself."
Faust said, "Nobody at Notre Dame has ever had a lock on any position. Every one of our players should feel he'd better compete hard and try to win a starting spot. That's why we go out there in the spring and work the way we do. You want your young men to be as competitive as possible, it's the only way they'll get any better."
Even now, Howard said, he feels as if he's living in "some kind of football limbo," uncertain of why his days at Notre Dame did not turn out better, even less certain of his future in the game.
"I will always be a team man," Howard said. "And every year I played I set new goals for myself. When I look back over the whole four years, I know I didn't accomplish what I might have. Hard as I tried, I never really got to show what I could do."