The long journey of Justin Houston, one of the NFL’s great mysteries
This story appears in the Oct. 12, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Let's start with the fire. The day Justin Houston lost everything began like any other lazy Saturday at the two-bedroom house on Garfield Street in Statesboro, Ga. It was Oct. 25, 2003. Justin was in the ninth grade. That afternoon his mother, Kimberly, left him in charge of two younger brothers, and he sat them on her bed to watch cartoons so he could dial up a love interest.
Then the phone went dead.
Justin walked out of the bedroom. The door nearest to the den, as he remembers it, was engulfed in flames, with smoke billowing from underneath the frame. He panicked and ran onto the front lawn in his T-shirt and gym shorts, only to realize he had left the boys, Tylen and Aaron, inside. He turned around. “I couldn’t see nothing,” Houston says, “only smoke. It was dark inside. If I didn't know that house, I would have been in trouble. We'd been there for years. I could run through that house with my eyes closed.”
So he did. Justin sprinted back inside, fighting through the smoke and flames, and found his brothers, who were too scared to move. He shepherded them outside. The clothes on their backs were the family's only possessions that didn't burn.
According to the Statesboro fire department incident report for case No. 23089, an alarm sounded at the station at 3:19 p.m. Firefighters could see the smoke from the firehouse, a mile-and-a-half away. They arrived at 129 Garfield Street four minutes later and, as they later noted, “found the structure completely involved.” As in, completely on fire. They twice asked for additional personnel; it took eight firefighters more than two hours to extinguish the blaze. The report concludes, “The residence is a complete loss.”
That record does not list a cause for the fire, but it finds that no “human factors” contributed. Houston says his family believes the blaze resulted from “some old wires in the ceiling” that sparked near the water heater on a wall in the other bedroom. The report estimates the damage at $45,000 for the residence and $15,000 for everything inside.
Afterward local churches helped feed and clothe the Houstons while they found another place to live. The family of 10—besides Justin, Tylen and Aaron, Kimberly has nine other children, six of whom lived with her at the time—eventually settled into a house about 30 minutes outside of town. Statesboro High and its football teams helped as well, according to one of Houston’s childhood friends, Jon Knox. But little was said about Justin's heroics.
That's the thing about Houston, the Chiefs linebacker who in July signed a new six-year, $101 million contract. “He rescued those little boys,” says Knox, yet he didn't seek any praise. He doesn't share that story with many outsiders. His teammates say they’ve never heard it.
Houston says he never told them.
Ask any Kansas City player about Justin Houston and be ready for the look. Eyes downcast. Brow furrowed.
REPORTER: [Justin and I] talked for an hour.
DEE FORD, CHIEFS LINEBACKER: Really?
REPORTER: I don't think the casual sports fan knows anything about him.
FORD: That's exactly right.
REPORTER: Is he different in [the locker room]?
FORD: Justin is Justin, man.
REPORTER: What does that mean?
FORD: That's a Justin thing. That’s between God and Justin.
There should be a website called Justin Houston Facts, a hub for learning about one of the NFL’s great mysteries. Of note: Houston is married to a lawyer ... has a three-year-old son ... is expecting a daughter ... loves his Air Jordans ... bears a scar on his chest from a cyst he had removed as a child ... has a tattoo near the scar that says ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME. He’s a 6'3", 260-pound All-Pro with 52.5 sacks in 59 starts, but the only place he wants to stand out is on the football field.
In a world of needs-no-introduction athletes, here's a star who requires one. Even Houston's mentor, fellow outside linebacker Tamba Hali, concedes, “Outside of football, we don't hang out that much.”
Houston enters a conference room at the Chiefs’ practice facility and folds his large frame into an office chair that wobbles under his bulk. ESPN's morning blabfest First Take plays on the television on the wall, but Houston pays no attention. He doesn't even look.
The first question lobbed his way is the same, always. Why don't people know anything about you? “I don't want the spotlight,” he says. “I see how other guys do it, and I know how I would like to do things.”
Which is to say, the opposite. Late in the fourth quarter of his final outing last year, against the Chargers, Houston notched his fourth sack of the game and 22nd of the season. He stood half a takedown away from the NFL's single-season record, Michael Strahan’s 22.5 in 2001, but he was asked to drop into coverage on the last play of the game. He never complained, never begged for the chance to make history, an opportunity he might never have again.
Houston says he doesn't see himself as famous. “This is my job, just like you have a job,” he says. “The only difference: They put my job on TV.” (Never mind the autographs, bank accounts, 62,000 Twitter followers.... Other than those little things, no difference.)
“We’re all human,” Houston says. “Some guys, when they do interviews, it’s all about them. Some guys, every single thing they do is all about them. I have a big family, so I’m used to everything not being all about me.”
Country. That’s how Houston describes his hometown, a city of roughly 30,000, some 30 minutes from the Georgia–South Carolina border. “Like if you’re driving in from Atlanta or Augusta, you just see cornfields,” he says. “That type of country.”
Statesboro is known for its university, Georgia Southern, and the fields of cotton, peanuts and corn that spread for miles outside the city limits. People go there to retire, Knox says, or they simply never leave. They hunt and farm, and they watch and play sports. The vibe is overalls and tractors. “It’s big enough that you can have some of the city opportunities, but small enough that you can hide and nobody knows where you are,” says Steve Pennington, Statesboro High’s football coach.
Houston is a football warrior raised by women. His maternal grandmother, Linda Houston, worked three jobs, house-sitting during the day and pulling night duty at a nursing home. She rarely slept more than three hours at a time, often in a chair. Justin’s mother had no steady male influence to lean on. She was strict. She wanted her kids home by 6 p.m. and in bed around nine. She wanted her rules followed without exception. “The whuppings I got,” Houston says, “I appreciate them now.”
His brother Demetrius, eight years older, was the nearest thing he had to a father figure. Demetrius pushed Justin into everything from sports to street fights. He demanded toughness. “He didn’t believe in raising no chumps,” Justin says of the second-oldest in his family.
Justin is the family’s sixth oldest—smack in the middle—but an outlier when it comes to size. He’s larger than any of his siblings, including his twin brother, Jared, who was born a minute later. That mass was evident early on in hands that looked like oven mitts and in feet so big that Justin’s brothers and sisters called him Flipper.
On Garfield Street, Justin recalls a life without privacy, a bathroom that never seemed free, a house that never went quiet. The siblings spent all their time together; the kids played hide-and-seek and video games and deemed the person with the most losses the Scrub of the Night.
Justin, despite his bulk, played point guard on the Statesboro High basketball team, bringing the ball up the floor. “That joker was a mini-LeBron James,” says Pennington. “He was the best 6’3”, 215-pound point guard you’re ever going to see. He could have played some college ball on the hardwood.”
In his other sport, Houston started by wanting to emulate Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, to run away from contact rather than seek it. But from seventh grade, when he first played the sport, he was a defensive end—and from the first blow he delivered, he hit more like a man than a teenager. High school teammates called him Big Tomb, for the savage blows he delivered.
But Houston had not fully grown into his frame, so he wasn't heavily recruited until after a state semifinal his junior year. That game, played at the Georgia Dome, pitted Statesboro against Griffin High and its future NFL running back, Bobby Rainey. Griffin ran away from Houston all day, but he stalked its backs across the field, and Rainey averaged only three yards a carry. Statesboro forced a fumble two yards from its end zone and made several fourth-down stops to win 7–0. The next weekend Houston and his teammates secured the state title. “Justin went from being this big dude, great athlete, to being basically the Incredible Hulk,” says Knox, a safety on that team.
Urban Meyer, then at Florida, offered Houston a scholarship, but Houston wanted to stay closer to his family. Then Georgia coach Mark Richt paid a visit.
Houston followed Knox to Athens, a three-hour drive from Statesboro. They shared an apartment with two other Bulldogs, and that marked Houston’s first adjustment to life away from home: There was too much space. He'd never had his own room before. “[At Georgia] we had to share a bathroom,” he says, “but that was nothing.”
He struggled that first year getting to classes on time (or at all), red-shirted, played sparingly as a freshman and was suspended for two games his sophomore season for violating team rules. He sometimes coasted during games, coaches say, relying on natural ability over technique.
Houston had gained 40-odd pounds by the time Todd Grantham was hired as Georgia's defensive coordinator in March 2010, before Houston's junior season. Grantham switched the Bulldogs to the 3–4 scheme the Dallas Cowboys had run when he was their D-line coach, from ’08 through ’09. He scoured his new roster for a collegiate version of DeMarcus Ware—whom he’d watched rack up 31 sacks during Grantham’s time in Dallas—and saw Houston, big for an outside ’backer by college standards but typically sized for the pros. “I'll be honest,” says Grantham, “I thought he was as explosive, or more explosive, than DeMarcus.”
Houston welcomed the switch away from 4–3 defensive end. He still rushed the quarterback about 85% of the time, but now he did so from a more comfortable standing start, and he exploded even faster. Every morning he settled behind Grantham's desk, typed in the password his coach had given him and studied film—Ware and the Cowboys—until it was time for class. Whereas most NFL rush defenders relied on either speed or power, Houston saw Ware blending the two, making him one of the most feared defenders in the NFL.
That winter, after ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. tabbed Houston as college football’s top 3–4 ’backer prospect and the heir to Ware’s throne (Houston had 67 tackles, 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in 2010), Houston, citing his family’s needs, declared for the NFL draft. At the combine he wowed scouts with 30 bench-press reps at 225 pounds, a 36.5-inch vertical leap and a 10'5" broad jump.
Richt would later say that Houston reminded him of another former Bulldog, receiver A.J. Green, in that he was both private and supremely gifted. But he was also, it appeared, still maturing. Houston tested positive for marijuana at the combine. That, paired with college tape that showed him at less than full effort (which Grantham admits was a problem at Georgia), sent Houston tumbling into the third round.
Scott Pioli, the Chiefs’ general manager at the time, called up Grantham, who alleviated his concerns. Neither of them agreed with ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, who labeled Houston “the most disappointing guy I studied.”
“I knew I had put myself in a bad situation,” Houston says of having fallen all the way to the 70th pick (one spot before the Cowboys nabbed DeMarco Murray). “At that point, I just wanted to get after it.”
This summer, two years after John Dorsey replaced Pioli as the Chiefs’ GM, Dorsey retreated to his vacation home in Door County, Wis. The cabin has no cellphone reception, so each morning Dorsey drove his white Ford Expedition north to Fish Creek and turned up a hill to the highest point in town, the Nelson Shopping Center. There he parked behind a hardware store and resumed negotiating a contract extension with Houston's agents. Each session lasted upward of three hours. “I had some moments,” says Dorsey, “where I assumed [the store owners] must think I'm staking out the joint.”
In mid-July the two parties reached an agreement that guaranteed Houston more money ($52.5 million) than any defensive player not named Ndamukong Suh. Those millions reflect the name of the hardware store where Dorsey parked each morning: True Value. In the opinion of Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Houston “was the best in the business last year.”
It’s difficult for anyone other than Houston to understate his impact. Consider the Chiefs’ Week 2 game against the Broncos, which Kansas City lost only after Denver returned a late fumble for a TD. Houston sacked quarterback Peyton Manning twice, batted down a pass and disrupted three other throws. He set the edge against the Broncos' running game, and Denver gained only 61 yards on 22 carries. Houston rushed from the left and the right, from outside against tackles and inside against guards, even from the same side as Hali. “The most underrated part of Justin's game is how much he does,” says Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. “Unless you watch him play every game, you can't appreciate that.”
That versatility is the result of continual growth. Early on, Houston asked so many questions of Hali, five years his elder, that the veteran ’backer finally said, “I’m telling you too much; you can't have all my secrets.” Hali did, however, teach Houston the importance of using his hands to gain leverage on opposing linemen. He adjusted Houston’s stance, having him put more weight on his back foot in order to better explode off his front. Together they practiced the footwork required to drop into pass coverage. Says Hali, “Justin was more like a sponge than any other guy I’ve been around.”
Houston’s personality, his skill set and his versatility coalesced into a perfect fit for Kansas City. Chiefs fans are rabidly supportive but usually leave him alone when he dines out or hits the mall. He’s like them in that he defends one smoked-ribs joint above all others; in his case Jack Stack Barbecue. And in the Chiefs’ locker room—maybe the least flashy space in the glorified world of pro football—he's found teammates with similar mind-sets, who respect his space and privacy.
Last season Kansas City suffered severely from injuries and health problems, starting with the Week 1 loss of two team leaders to IR and culminating in the Week 13 departure of All-Pro safety Eric Berry, Houston’s best friend on the team, for lymphoma treatments. (The Chiefs, according to Football Outsiders, had the NFL’s sixth-worst injury situation in 2014.) Houston visited Berry at the hospital roughly a dozen times (more than any other Kansas City player, according to various teammates), and in the end—reluctantly but at Reid's request—he stepped into the leadership void.
The Chiefs closed out 2014 with two wins in their last three games, finishing 9–7 but falling just short of the playoffs. After their finale, a 19-7 victory over the Chargers, Houston stepped before his teammates. He talked about the season and about Berry and about the potential that still needed to be realized, and he committed to a playoff push in ’15. (Although the Chiefs have stumbled to a 1–4 start, they're past the toughest portion of their schedule; their remaining opponents were a combined 23-28 through Sunday.) “It stayed with me the entire off-season,” Dorsey says of Houston’s appeal. “It was that sincere. That heartfelt. That real.”
Minutes after autographing his new contract on July 15, Houston settled on his first purchase. He didn't buy anything that might be considered stereotypical or lavish for a multimillionaire athlete. Instead he spent a few hundred dollars on the only thing he really wanted: a plane ticket back to Georgia.
News of the deal’s consummation had reached Houston near the end of yet another workout. He finished 45 minutes of abdominal torture, flew from Atlanta to Kansas City, tried to sleep, failed, drove to team headquarters, passed a physical and signed a stack of papers an inch thick. Next stop: the airport, for a return trip. On board he turned his head away from his fellow passengers, focusing on the farms spread below the window. Even if his tears were joyful, he didn't want anyone to see them.
After landing he pointed his car southeast, toward Statesboro. He cranked the volume on the stereo, sang out loud and drummed the steering wheel with both hands as he lost himself in the moment. (His second purchase: a speeding ticket.)
Three hours later he pulled into his mother’s driveway and met her and his grandmother at the door. They didn’t talk for 10, maybe 20 minutes; they just hugged and cried. Then they retreated to the garage and told stories for hours: stories about siblings and sports and the ultimate middle child.
Houston is now known in Georgia and Missouri and, to some extent, across the country. Yet only a handful of people really know much about him. On the way to one of his sacks against the Broncos, TV cameras captured his face. He was smiling. And that better summarizes his thoughts on the 2015 season than anything he could say. Or would say.
His siblings are older now, deep into their own lives. Demetrius owns a barbershop in Statesboro. Another brother runs a cleaning business. One sister is going back to school to get her master’s degree. Others are in high school or college. The youngest Houston is in eighth grade. Justin gives them all the same gift each Christmas: new shoes.
As he wrapped up his visit, he hugged his mother and grandmother one last time and shared a final surprise that he'd saved for the end. He had purchased two plots of land next to each other in Statesboro, and there he planned to build a house for each of the women: marble kitchens, hardwood floors, everything designed to their specifications—whatever they want.
That gesture will say what Houston cannot express in words. He will replace what his family lost. He will show how far they’ve come.