One reason Will Howard wasn’t daunted by third-and-11 situations is that he’s a tall, strong, and athletic quarterback who was surrounded by talented, accomplished players in the Downingtown West huddle.
He could throw. He could run. And he could pick and choose from a wide collection of dynamic playmakers with whom to share the football.
“Those guys made my job so much easier,” Howard said.
But the real reason that Howard tended to keep his cool in tight times — and the true source of status among teammates, coaches, and kids in the school’s hallways — is that he didn’t have a smooth path to his lofty position as senior leader of a Class 6A team that won 13 games this season and captured the program’s first District 1 title in 23 years.
Howard took his lumps as a sophomore — on the field, on the scoreboard, and as the lightning rod for internal strife that roiled the team that season. His junior year was much better, until he broke his arm in Week 7 and was forced the watch the rest of the campaign from the sideline.
"Things were not perfect,” Howard said. “I know people in this world have been through much more difficult times, but it was hard. Those were tough situations for me.
“But when you’ve had those experiences, you face that kind of adversity, it makes you better. It makes you grow.”
Everything came together this season for Howard, The Inquirer’s Southeastern Pennsylvania football player of the year.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Howard led Downingtown West to a 13-2 record, a share of the Ches-Mont National Division title, the Whippets’ first District 1 crown since 1996, and a berth in the state semifinals.
Howard showed the way with his passing and running as well as his knack for making big plays in big moments, especially in big games late in the season. He was at his best when it mattered most.
“He led us on a magical season,” Downingtown West coach Mike Milano said.
Milano talks twice as much about Howard’s character as his athletic ability, which is not in short supply. Howard is a basketball standout as well as a football star, and a Power 5 program recruit with a scholarship to play quarterback at Kansas State of the Big 12 Conference.
But the coach hearkens back to the 2017 season, when Howard was tabbed to replace the returning starter, a popular senior, at quarterback. It was a move that upset some upperclassmen and not a few fans as well — and put the 10th grader in an awkward spot.
“That split the team a little bit,” Milano said. “But to Will’s credit, he won those guys over. It took time, but they eventually came to realize, ‘Hey, Will Howard is the real deal.’ ”
The 2018 season started well for Howard and the Whippets, who had a 6-0 record heading into a showdown with 6-0 Coatesville. But that night changed everything, as the Red Raiders dominated the game and Howard suffered a broken right wrist that ended his junior season.
“I just told this story at the banquet,” Milano said. “Will missed one practice, the day he had surgery. He never missed another day.
“We had to move a tight end [Ryan Wetzel] to quarterback and he helped us win our next five and we won two playoff games and Will was his biggest supporter.
“He became the best coach on my staff. That tells you everything you need to know about Will Howard.”
Howard believes his sophomore and junior seasons set the stage for his success as a senior. He said he became a stronger player because he was forced to become a stronger person.
“That’s why I love football,” Howard said. “It prepares you for life.”
This season, Howard led an offense that averaged 41.5 points. Howard passed for 2,543 yards and 27 touchdowns and also ran for 12 touchdowns.
Beyond the overall statistics, Howard played his best football in pivotal moments — directing the fireworks show in the big win over Downingtown East, answering the challenge late in the District 1 semifinals against Haverford High, going 9-for-10 passing for 180 yards and a touchdown and running for a couple of key first downs in the emotional, District 1 title-game victory over old nemesis Coatesville before 8,000 spectators Nov. 22 at Kottmeyer Stadium.
“I’ll never forget that night for the rest of my life,” Howard said.
Howard plans to enroll at Kansas State in January to get a jump on his schoolwork and attend spring football workouts. He intends to return to Downingtown for the prom and to walk with his classmates at graduation.