Perception isn’t always reality. Especially for an NFL rookie.
Following a week-long training camp holdout, Houston was one of the last two NFL draft picks to sign a contract. When he finally did report to Chiefs camp, Houston was well behind the standard rookie learning curve.
The NFL Lockout had already taken away the 2011 off-season in its entirety. Houston couldn’t talk to Chiefs coaches and the coaches couldn’t contact him. Houston had no playbook, no direction and no true realization of what it took to succeed as a professional athlete.
At his first practice, Houston looked winded and somewhat lost. Head Coach Romeo Crennel, then the team’s defensive coordinator, looked on and noted that Houston had, “a long way to go.”
Regardless, Houston quickly went on to excel. It wasn’t long before his first day at camp was forgotten. His success may have come too quickly.
“In the preseason I thought the NFL was going to be easy,” Houston admitted.
Houston dominated an otherwise forgetful second preseason game at Baltimore, finishing with a pair of sacks and forcing a fumble in punt coverage. He’d officially hit the radar among most Chiefs fans as the answer to a lingering pass rush deficiency opposite reigning AFC sack champion
“I told Tamba that I’d easily get 10 sacks,” Houston remembered saying shortly after the Baltimore game.
Hali, well versed in both the art and the difficulty of achieving a sack, tried his best to offer the rookie a reality check.
“He told me it was hard to get even one sack in the NFL and that 10 sacks would equal a great year,” Houston recalled. “Then he told me that the preseason was nothing compared to the regular season.”
It wasn’t long before Houston learned that Hali was right.
The rookie was held sackless in the Chiefs season opener against Buffalo and again in Week Two at Detroit. There was no change Week Three in San Diego. Week Four yielded the same result as well.
“I was getting kind of worried about getting my first sack,” Houston said. “It was getting kind of tough out there. I found out that there is a lot of hard work that you have to put into it.”
Houston was shutout for his first 11 regular season games. He didn’t record his first sack until December 4th.
While Houston’s span of sackless football covered more than three months since he first predicted a double-digit sack total, Hali entered the picture once again with additional words of wisdom.
“He just always kept talking to me,” Houston said. “There were times when I was down, but he’d just keep talking to me to try and keep me in a positive mindset. He’d tell me that if I kept working, everything would pay off and that I just needed to be patient.”
Patience paid off Week 13 in Chicago when Houston not only recorded his first NFL sack, but also tied a Chiefs rookie record when he finished the day with a three-sack outing. In addition to taking down Bears QB Caleb Hanie three times, Houston also added three QB knockdowns, forced a fumble and broke up a pass.
The breakout game gave Houston the reassurance he needed.
From there, Houston’s game took flight. He went on to make 10 starts, finishing sixth on the team with 70 tackles and ranking second behind Hali with 5.5 sacks.
By season’s end, Houston rarely left the field. He was a fixture opposite Hali in sub-package sets and in base personnel. His teammates responded by voting him the club’s 2011 Mack Lee Hill Rookie of the Year Award winner.
“I really didn’t see it happening with the way my season started off,” Houston said. “I was disappointed in myself and I wanted more than what I was doing. But being around this team, I love this team. They made it so much easier for me.”
Houston has spent his off-season training at Rock Hard Fitness in Atlanta. His workouts consist of circuit training, running hills and flipping tires. Yes, flipping tires. Those big, monster truck types of tires.
As for the repeat of a double-digit sack prediction? That still exists in a roundabout way.
“I just hope that I can do as much as Tamba does,” Houston said.
That’s a tall task, but one Houston is much more mentally prepared to conquer.