Former Lanett Panther battles adversity in his pursuit of making it to the NFL

Published 12:38 pm Wednesday, June 12, 2024

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The journey to being a professional football player can seem like a straightforward path for those on the outside looking in, but that’s not the case. Ja’Won Howell has seen several forks in the road on his journey to accomplish his dream of making it to the NFL. 

Howell graduated from Lanett in 2018 and signed to play with North Alabama University as a running back. Prior to the 2022 season, Howell elected to enter the transfer portal and spend the rest of his college career at Alabama State. 

After two years at Alabama State, Howell declared for the NFL draft. Howell was not selected, but his performance at an All-Star game did attract the attention of several pro scouts. In January, Howell accomplished part of his dream of becoming a professional football player as he signed with the Edmonton Elks of the Canadian Football League. 

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“It was like a surreal moment for me,” Howell said. “Getting that call from the GM and them offering me a contract to come play up there, it was like a lifelong dream. My ultimate goal is to play in the NFL, but just being able to play professionally and knowing that a lot of NFL players play up there and go back to the NFL, it was just a great feeling knowing that those years of hard work paid off for me.” 

Playing in the CFL brought its own set of challenges. After arriving in Canada for rookie minicamp, Howell immediately began adjusting to being 2,000 miles away from home and to being in one of the coldest cities in Canada. Howell also had to adjust to the major differences in the rules and regulations in the CFL. 

“The CFL is just different,” Howell said. “They only play like three downs. It was a different experience, but it was easy to adjust to. The field is bigger, the end zone is bigger. The way they run their offenses and defenses is different with an extra man on the field. Reading the box and stuff like that as a running back took some adjusting too.” 

Howell appeared in two preseason games for the Elks, but his time with the team was short-lived as Edmonton cut 29 players on Jun 1 with Howell being one of the casualties. 

The move to cut Howell did not come due to a poor performance on Howell’s part, it came from more regulations in the CFL. A team in the CFL can only have up to 20 players who are not from Canada, and the Elks already had roughly 16 veterans on the roster. 

“They told me after the second preseason game,” Howell said. “I was dominating day in and day out in one on ones against former NFL players… I didn’t know prior to singing that they could only have a certain amount of Americans on the team… They had 16-17 vets that were already Americans on the team. There were 50-60 rookies competing for just a couple of spots, which I did not know.” 

Howell was told that it was less about him and more about the rules and the numbers in the CFL. Howell gained a lot from the exposure in the CFL, and now he is looking to find his way to another professional team. 

“Just knowing that this is only a stepping stone to get to the NFL, that drives me,” Howell said. “In the fifth round this year, somebody from the CFL got drafted to the Jets. What’s stopping me from doing that? Unfortunately, I didn’t make the roster, but it doesn’t stop just because I didn’t make the team. There’s plenty of opportunities out there for me.” 

Howell has seen a tremendous amount of improvement and personal growth since his time at Lanett. Howell’s decision to transfer to Alabama State in 2022 acted as a turning point for his career in college as he became more valued and learned from coaches with experience at the professional level. 

At Alabama State Howell learned under head coach Eddie Robinson Jr and saw the best years of his career. In two years, Howell rushed for 680 yards and six touchdowns.
Robinson was the second-highest draft pick in Alabama State History and spent 11 years in the NFL. Howell also learned from Jacoby Jones and several other former NFL players at Alabama State. 

“He really helped us out with knowing the mindset of a professional athlete, how to move like a professional athlete,” Howell said about Roberts.

Howell has had to deal with a ton of doubters during his time at the collegiate level. Coming from a small school can lead others to think less of you as an athlete, but Howell has made a habit of proving those doubters wrong along the way. 

“Somebody that comes from a small school like Lanett, I wear my rings and they’re like, ‘Those state championships don’t count,”’ Howell said. “Once we put the pads on and I start displaying my talent, they’re like ‘You’re really good.’’’

“Never let anybody downplay your talent. That goes for players and coaches,” Howell added. 

Howell was doubted during his time at North Alabama, but he found another opportunity at Alabama State. The process of being a Division I athlete helped Howell learn patience, which he will need for the waiting period he is in now.
Howell is still fully focused on being an NFL running back because he knows that he has that type of talent. Howell has a lot of film from his time at Alabama State and Edmonton. Howell also has a ton of support from his coaching staff at Alabama State. 

“Right now it’s just back to square one, back to the drawing board,” Howell said. “I know it’s not over for me. That was just the first stop in my professional career. I’m grateful for it. I learned a lot.” 

“The ultimate goal is still the NFL,” Howell said. “I still feel like I can play at that level. I’ve played against players that have been there. I’ve been trained by people that have been there… I know that it’s still there for me. I still have a lot to give.”