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November 21, 2012TUSCALOOSA | Ben Howell is thankful for every bruise. He is grateful for every thudding tackle that has taken him to the turf in practice. He is appreciative for the jersey that got shredded in a game last weekend.
Most of all, Howell is thankful for football. The University of Alabama's walk-on running back from Gordo didn't have any options to continue playing after his high school career until he got the offer to walk on at Alabama without a scholarship. He knew he was signing up to be a practice player - in truth, a live practice dummy - for one of the nation's top defenses to tee off on, to help them prepare for games on Saturday.
For four years, the 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior has gladly suffered for the privilege of wearing the crimson jersey. This season, he dressed out for every game and has even been able to get on the field in six contests, rushing 15 times for 47 yards.
When he gives thanks today, it will be for family and support from his hometown and for having the chance to play at Alabama.
"Football is definitely on the list," Howell said. "I'm thankful for the opportunity Coach (Nick) Saban and the other coaches have given me to come here and be on the team for four years and contribute. I'm thankful for the opportunity God gave me to come here."
Howell's teammates, too, are grateful that he's part of the team.
"Ben Howell is probably one of my favorite players I've ever been able to play with," safety Vinnie Sunseri said.
"He might not be the most athletic person, but I mean he gives his all, 110 percent of the time no matter what it is. A lot of the guys get mad at him because he's always going so hard even when we're doing walk-through and stuff, but that's just the kind of person he is. Him being able to go out and play is just awesome."
Said defensive lineman Damion Square, "The man has been giving us a look (on the scout team) for the past four years and I'm glad they're giving him an opportunity to showcase his talent out on the field for all that he does for us every week. Ben is a great player with a great heart and knows what he's doing and knows the game of football really well."
Howell caught some breaks that allowed him to play at Alabama. His mother, Jackie, works for UA as an office manager at Alabama Public Radio, which qualifies him for a big discount on his tuition, and he also earned academic scholarship help. His father, Richard, and grandfather, Jack, own a beef and poultry farm, so the family has been able to help out with rent and other costs. He also has the support of his sister Sara, a fellow Gordo High graduate who is a freshman at Alabama.
Playing at a Class 3A high school less than a half-hour drive from the UA campus, Howell didn't get a look from the Crimson Tide during the recruiting process. So he made them look, sending highlight tapes that garnered him an invitation to a camp, where coaches liked his attitude and effort. After UA's loss to Utah to end the 2008 season, he got the call from Joe Pendry, then UA's offensive line coach, with an invitation to join as a walk-on.
"I always loved Alabama," Howell said. "My mom was a big Alabama fan. My dad was actually an Auburn fan until I got to college and came here. I always loved playing football. I actually loved playing baseball in high school, too, but it just didn't look like it was going to work out. I was better at football and I've always been a real physical guy, just like hitting people and stuff like that."
From the start, Howell's job was more to be hit than to hit. He worked against UA's first-team and second-team defenders in practice, and was there to help make them better.
"It was really just overwhelming," Howell said. "It took a little while to get used to it, for sure.
"There definitely have been times where I've been just, man, is this worth it? Especially my freshman year, knowing I wasn't going to get to play any."
So why did he stay?
"The wins, that we were a good team made it a lot easier," he said. "And, also, I felt like God gave me this opportunity to do more than just play football. To help others, show others the right path, stuff like that, remembering that and that I'm here to help the team as a whole and not just for myself, that helped me stay on track."
Howell has been hit by All-Americans like Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, Terrence Cody and Javier Arenas. He will tell you, honestly, that he has lost more practice-field battles than he has won.
"One hit, my freshman year, Dont'a Hightower - he probably doesn't even remember - he came through the middle and I was supposed to block him and he just plowed through me," Howell said. "At that time I probably weighted 185 pounds. He killed me.
"Running into Cody was like a brick wall, he was just huge. Javy Arenas could hit really good, too. He would pop you. I've had to block Upshaw a few times. Not fun. It gets brutal out there sometimes."
Every once in a while, Howell has come out on top in practice. He savors those moments.
"I've had some good plays," he said. "One time my freshman year, Javy came to tackle me and I think he thought he was going to kill me. I just kind of side-stepped and kept going. I felt like I was a champ."
Sunseri has seen Howell battle bigger, stronger, faster players in practice. He likens him to Rudy Ruettiger, a former Notre Dame walk-on who had his career chronicled in film.
"Coach calls me 'Rudy,' but he's actually the real Rudy," Sunseri said. "He gives it all, all the time."
Howell played in one game as a sophomore, running five times for 11 yards against Georgia State, but didn't get a single carry as a junior. He began to face reality.
"I'd always dreamed of being the main running back," he said. "Probably around my junior year, it just looked like that's not going to happen. I just thought I've gone this far, I need to finish. That's one of the main things in this program is finish. It's really going to help me if I keep with it."
Howell will leave Alabama with at least two national championship rings, for the 2009 and 2011 seasons, and could earn another if UA wins out the rest of the way.
This season has provided reward for all his hard work, all the bumps and bruises and long days at practice.
Last weekend, he even got a souvenir. His jersey got ripped at the end of Alabama's victory over Western Carolina and his name tag nearly came off. Teammate Carson Tinker, UA's long snapper and himself a former walk-on, pulled it off after the game and handed it to Howell.
"I put that in my pocket," Howell said. "I asked the managers first, and they said it's no big deal."
Running out onto the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium this weekend will be a big deal. It will be Howell's last home game.
"It's my last game and it's actually the first time I've got to dress against Auburn," he said. "That will be really cool.
"Sometimes I take it for granted, but afterwards I have to look at it and (realize) that's something a lot of people wish they could do. It will be really special."
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Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.