FOXBOROUGH, Mass -- A.J. Howard figured, like the rest of his New York Giants teammates, that the season would end after the Dec. 30 finale against the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants weren’t going to the playoffs and his rookie season would end after spending nine weeks on the practice squad.
However, the rookie safety’s journey took a welcomed twist. Howard’s agent Brian Hamilton told him at the end of the season to sit still before signing any reserve/future contract with the Giants. The New England Patriots, No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, were interested.
“So I end up not signing with the Giants for that fact,” Howard said. “A week later, blessed enough to sign here. Still here.”
By rule, Howard had to wait a week after the end of the regular season before joining the Patriots' practice squad. He signed with New England on Jan. 8, just in time for their postseason run.
Fast-forward almost three weeks later, Howard has been living out of a hotel and will be returning home to Georgia with a chance to win an unexpected Super Bowl ring. He is from Hamilton, Georgia, an hour and change outside of Atlanta, the host of this year’s Super Bowl.
“I figured I’d end my season with the Giants and that would be it until next year. The end of my rookie year,” Howard said last week with a wide smile on his face from inside the Patriots' locker room. “Then the opportunity with the Patriots came knocking and you definitely can’t say no to that. An opportunity to go to the playoffs and also compete for the Super Bowl. That’s crazy.
“I never would have thought this eight, nine weeks ago. It’s good to be here.”
Howard isn’t the only ex-Giant with a chance to win a ring on Sunday. Cornerback Donte Deayon is on the Rams’ practice squad. Deayon was a surprise cut by the Giants in mid-October. He signed with the Rams in early December and also has a chance to earn a ring.
Howard and Deayon won’t play in the Super Bowl this week, barring injuries. They still were expected to make the trip, practicing and soaking in the experience. Howard’s role, after serving as a running back and safety for the Giants' scout team late in the regular season, has been to play on special teams and defense for the Patriots' scout team during practice. He has relished the opportunity to watch quarterback Tom Brady at work.
Along with the practice came some unlikely paychecks. Practice squad players make $7,600 each week. Howard views it as an added bonus to being able to see first-hand how Brady (whom he considers the best-ever) and coach Bill Belichick operate.
He said of Belichick: “Good dude. Really smart. I knew he was a really smart coach and definitely one of the best coaches ever, but it’s amazing to see how detail-oriented he is in everything he does. Even starting with squad meetings, giving you the whole ins and outs for the teams, it’s great to be around greatness.”
Bill's son, Steve Belichick, is Howard's safeties coach.
It’s an unlikely way for his rookie season to end after going undrafted out of Appalachian State last spring. Howard originally made the Arizona Cardinals' 53-man roster before being waived the following day after several waiver claims and a turf-toe injury. Howard then waited to get healthy and the Giants signed him to their practice squad six weeks later.
It has been quite a ride.
“It’s really cool. Even when I’m in New York, my first day it’s Eli [Manning] and Odell [Beckham]. And then I get here it’s Tom Brady, best quarterback ever in my opinion. Amazing to be able to compete against him in practice and see what he sees. It’s crazy.”
From the Giants' practice squad in Week 17 of a 5-11 season to the Super Bowl, "crazy" seems an appropriate description.