Sunday, February 18, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham / Times Associate Editor

Teaching keeps Howard at the top of life's game

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Ron Howard had been to the top.

Whether as a member of the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X, one of the original Seattle Seahawks, or as an iron worker perched on the skeletal 76th floor of what would be the Columbia Tower.

"It was always about hard work," he said, "and it still is."

Howard was more famous then, a terrific athlete from the Tri-Cities who played basketball at Seattle University and football in the NFL.

But he is happier now, with his sixth graders at Aki Kurose Middle School in the Rainier Valley, a big man with a big smile and a big job.

"He has a way of pulling their best efforts out of them," said BiHoa Caldwell, his principal. "I just hope we can keep him here. The coaches at Rainier Beach High School keep trying to recruit him away."

The faces in his health class are full of curiosity and color. Howard has more than their attention. He has their respect.

"Tone down the enthusiasm," he says at one point, and of course, they do.

"The kids in middle school are the best," he continued. "My job every day is to make every one of them feel important. To be the best example I can of a good human being.

"Man, I just love my job."

The kids can't know or care that he caught the touchdown pass that gave the Seahawks the first win in their history, a 3-yard reception from Jim Zorn with 13 seconds remaining to beat San Diego in a preseason game.

Howard would catch 37 passes that season, second only to Steve Largent.

He became a pro football player because his college basketball coach at Seattle U., Bill O'Connor, was related to Andy Robustelli, general manager of the New York Giants.

Howard went off to New York for a tryout. It was easy to tell that he could run fast enough and catch well enough to get a shot at the NFL. The Giants offered him a contract.

He wanted to think about it. He wasn't alone. The Dallas Cowboys were thinking about it, too.

"They flew me first-class to Dallas," he said. "I met Coach (Tom) Landry. Mike Ditka coached the tight ends. Dan Reeves was a coach there, too."

He signed for $5,000 and made $17,000 his first season.

But he played with Roger Staubach and behind Billy Joe DuPree and Jean Fugett at tight end. The Cowboys let him go in the 1976 expansion draft that filled the rosters of the Seahawks and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Howard's career lasted three years in Seattle. He was never comfortable with Jack Patera as coach, and was particularly pained by the firing of Sam Boghosian as offensive coordinator.

In the decade that followed, he toiled as a steel worker. Men who were his friends died on the job. It was hard, dangerous work.

"I was vested in the NFL's pension," he said, "and I wanted to work long enough to have two pensions by the time I was 40."

Finally, after all that fame, all those years and a bad back, he did what he wanted to do in the beginning: be a teacher.

He'd had a fifth-grade teacher in Pasco, Mr. Denslow, who, according to Howard, "took me under his wing and made sure I was ready for high school. I can tell you I wanted to be a teacher back then."

Out of high school, he wanted to play basketball at Washington State for Marv Harshman, but couldn't get a high enough score on the SAT.

"Back then, you couldn't prepare for it. I took it three times and didn't pass. Man, it broke my heart," he said. "It predicted I would have a 2.3 grade point in college. Well, I had a 2.8."

Howard graduated from Seattle U. in four years. He had the basics for a teaching credential, and later did his student teaching at Seattle's Mercer Middle School.

In the end, Frank Ahern, one of the most respected coaches in the Seattle School District, would be more important to him than Tom Landry or Don Monson, his high-school basketball coach.

"Mr. Ahern, he's my man, my inspiration," Howard said. "He taught me about helping every student every day. Ah, man, I've never, ever heard him say anything negative."

Howard is nearing 50. He lives in Redmond with his wife. His day dawns at 4:30 a.m., and after a stop at Starbucks he is at school at 6:10.

The kids at Aki Kurose adhere to a dress code. They go beyond being orderly, however. They seem genuinely invested in education.

After the regular day ends at 2:15 p.m., Howard spends an hour with the intramural sports program, working with those kids who can't play on the varsity teams.

Then he heads to Rainier Beach High, where he is an assistant coach in football and basketball, and one of the head coaches in track. If there isn't a game, he's back home by 7:30 p.m.

Howard doesn't aspire to coach and teach full-time in high school. He is working on a masters degree so he might become an administrator.

"If I won the lottery I'd continue to teach," he said. "I'll retire at the middle school."

One of his students isn't feeling well. Neither is the teacher.

"We've got something in common," Howard says softly, leaning down to the student's level. "We're both here because it is important, because we've got things to get done."


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