What a year for Detroit. In the last 365 days, General Motors returned to the New York Stock Exchange, the Tigers returned from mediocrity to win a division title, and, yes, the Lions are a legitimate NFL contender. Three years ago, Detroit was an embarrassment. This year, as CNBC’s Jim Cramer said, “We are all Detroiters.”
But perhaps the best Motor City comeback story belongs to a high school football player named Monique Howard. That’s right: Howard is a girl and a football player. And she’s not a kicker. She’s an offensive lineman — and a good one. She’s gotten a little bit of publicity for blazing a trail. But the path she took to get to a football career has been almost completely overlooked.
That story is raw, gritty, surprising and inspiring. It is uniquely Detroit.
Two years ago, Monique Howard was not a football player, not at her current high school, and not even a starter on her basketball team. She was, quite honestly, a troubled teen.
Howard got into a fight with a basketball teammate at Martin Luther King High School and threw punches. She says she was kicked off the team and encouraged to transfer. “They said I couldn’t come back for my senior year,” she says. King assistant principal Lawrence Fitz says it was mutually decided that Howard “would benefit from a different environment.”
Either way, the girl was gone — from the team and from King.
This is the kind of story we hear all the time, about aggressive kids in urban settings. They get into fights, they leave school, they spiral. And in this case, it got worse. Last summer, Howard and her mother had a falling out. “We just didn’t see eye to eye,” Howard says. “I never liked to be in the house. I’m an active person. She always wanted me to be in the house. She said I put basketball before everything.”
They agreed Monique should live elsewhere. Her father was not in the picture, so in more than one way, Howard was going nowhere. She was six feet tall and wonderfully gifted. She was a good student. But she was lost.
And then things changed.
Shawn Hill was the basketball coach at one of King’s rivals — Pershing High. Howard heard good things about the coach and asked to switch to Pershing. Her transfer was granted, and she moved.
But she also moved in.
Hill has 10 kids — nine of his own and one adopted — in his three-bedroom house on Six Mile Road. They all play basketball. Two of the girls, in fact, are headed for Division I scholarships. When Hill heard about Monique’s troubles at home, he figured, well…
“Maybe she needed a male figure, a father figure,” Hill says. “I got 10 kids. What’s one more? Come on!”
So “Mojo,” as Howard is known, moved in with her coach and nine other kids. (Hill’s oldest left for college.) You’d think this would lead to even more trouble, but 10 hoop players in a three-bedroom house has been more sitcom than soap opera — more “Modern Family” than “Big Brother.”
“I’ve known how to deal with kids when they needed special attention,” Hill says. “We laid the rules down right away. From then on, she’s been a good kid. Accepted everything we asked of her.”
Pershing’s a distinctly American school. It’s in a working class neighborhood populated by every group from African-Americans to Arab-Americans to Bengalis. Sounds a bit cheesy, but Pershing thinks of itself as a big family. “It’s really like that,” says Hill. “You have to really be there to see it. It’s love.”
That love seeped in right away for Howard. “There’s so much family, so much love she’s not used to having,” Hill says. “It’s like she went to Pershing all four years.”
Howard joined the hoops team, but had to wait a semester to play since she transferred. Her first game was, naturally, against King.
Mojo was almost overwhelmed by emotion, trying so hard to show she belonged on the same court as her former teammates. She got some big rebounds and Pershing won at the buzzer. She had found a home.
Then her story took a turn nobody expected.
A football coach saw Howard throwing a shotput and saw potential for something he needed: a lineman.
Howard is 190 pounds and almost none of it fat. The girl was strong. But an offensive lineman? We’ve heard of the star kicker being a girl. But this? Of the 44,000 or so Michigan high school football players to take the field each year, an average of 36 are girls. Nobody in Detroit had ever heard of a girl playing in the trenches — let alone protecting a quarterback from oncoming lineman up to 100 pounds heavier.
But Mojo was fearless. And to his credit, so was her basketball coach.
“I’m looking at her lift weights and thinking, ‘Whoa, you really are strong,’ ” says Hill. “She said, ‘Coach, I think I can play football.’ So I said, ‘If you start, you can definitely not quit.’ “
Head coach Charles Spann was skeptical and put her through the difficult fall practice paces. Mojo held up. Actually, she did better than hold up. She earned a starting spot. And in her first game in August, she blocked a defender so hard he landed on his back. Mojo had to be told to “get off him.”
“The first day, I didn’t know she was out there,” says athletic coordinator Ray Williams. “I thought she was just another lineman. I thought she was another boy.”
Howard, now a senior, has gotten praise from opposing coaches, opposing players, and even the Detroit Lions, who welcomed her for the first hometown Monday Night Football game in 10 years.
“She’s not some kind of gimmick,” says Detroit Public Schools official Chuck Johnson. “The girl can actually play.”
Skeptics waiting for her to throw another punch should probably shelve that thought. Football’s the perfect outlet for Howard’s aggression, and any leftover energy is spent playing one-on-one — or five-on-five — with her housemates. The hoop behind the house on Six Mile is never idle for long. Her “sisters,” Nijcah Hill, 16, and Caprice Dennis, 17, are both headed for D-I schools, so Coach Hill’s house probably has as much women’s basketball talent as some small American cities.
But perhaps the most remarkable part of the story is the lack of pettiness around her. Usually women in traditionally male sports get undermined immediately. Not Mojo. Sure, she’s heard it from opponents. But not from anyone in her school. Maybe that’s because the Doughboys — yes, that is the team’s mascot, named after World War I soldiers — are in the state playoffs for the first time since 2004. They start this week.
Or maybe it’s because Howard is quick to recognize her tight end, Lamar Jordan, who helps her with blocking assignments.
Or maybe it’s because teamwork seems to be contagious in Detroit these days.
“My attitude has changed,” Howard says. “It went from being negative to more positive. I’m in a more positive place with more positive people.”
Things are even better with mom, who comes to her games and feels less tension from her daughter. And in the classroom? Williams, who is also her teacher, says her personality is “electric.”
“Everyone loves me,” Mojo says, “and I love them back.”
It’s vintage Detroit, circa 2011: A fairy tale ending delivered in the form of a pancake block.