Jack Howell and family ties that define CSU football’s star safety

Before he takes the field, Jack Howell always makes sure to check his phone.

Inevitably, there will be a text from Dad — and a long one at that.

The messages are expressions of love, with some football sprinkled in, and a reminder of the exceptional family name Howell’s trying to live up to.

“I definitely take pride in my name, and that’s always something that’s defined my play,” Howell said. “… I look up to (my dad), I look up to my sister’s incredible work ethic and determination, and I admire the hours my younger brother is putting in, too, to become his own player.

“All of that fuels me on Saturdays. That’s how I became the player that I am.”

The player Howell has become is one of the best defensive backs in the Mountain West — and the latest in a line of Howells to live up to the standard set by the family patriarch.

Jack’s dad, John, played at CSU and then six years in the NFL, winning Super Bowl XXXVII with the Buccaneers as a backup safety/special teamer. His mom, Laura, was a three-sport prep star in Nebraska and setter at Chadron State. Older sister Jaelin won two Hermann Trophies at Florida State and is one of the NWSL’s top midfielders. Younger brother Jake is a two-year starter at inside linebacker for reigning Class 5A champion Cherry Creek.

Suffice to say expectations were high growing up in the Howell household, where Jake says the kids “were raised blue-collar tough, for sure, and we were taught how to be leaders from our dad.”

“I always knew even when they were each five years old that they were going to be as good as the work that they put into it,” John Howell said. “And as long as they were under our roof, that effort and that work was going to be maxed out. And once they picked their sport, they’ve never wavered from that dedication.”

All three siblings are captains for their respective teams this fall, with Racing Louisville FC headliner Jaelin the youngest captain in the NWSL. The 23-year-old, a staple in the U.S. Women’s soccer program since she was a teen, is turning in a strong season after getting left off the recent World Cup roster.

That omission surprised Colorado soccer fans who have tracked Jaelin’s meteoric rise from Real Colorado to FSU to the NWSL. Jack said “it straight pissed me off” that his sister was stuck watching at home as the USWNT fell in the Round of 16, the team’s earliest World Cup exit ever.

But Jaelin got over being upset, and got back to work, just as Jack did when he didn’t have any Power 5 offers out of high school. Jack played three years at Valor Christian, and then as a senior at Hamilton (Ariz.) during the pandemic-affected 2020 season, but never generated much recruiting buzz at either state powerhouse.

“What my mom and dad have taught us is how you respond to the valleys in your life,” Jaelin said. “Are you going to sit down and make excuses, or face that adversity and use it to your advantage? That’s ingrained in all of us.

“Like Jack has done (with his hurdles), I viewed getting left off the (World Cup) roster as an opportunity to learn and grow. Obviously I wanted to be on it more than anything, but nothing has changed for me. If anything, I’m going to work harder and prove even more why I think I should be there in upcoming years. The Olympics are next year, and the next World Cup is 2027 and I’ll still be young. I’ve got a lot of time to keep doing all the little things right and working the hardest I’ve ever worked.”

Back in Greenwood Village, Jake is taking notes on both his older siblings’ roller-coaster rides, and on his sister’s latest blip in her quest to cement herself as one of the world’s top soccer players.

“For me, I have built up pressure in my own head, because I want to prove something and I want to prove that I’m every bit as good as my siblings,” Jake said. “Growing up with them, there’s always that question: ‘Who’s the best athlete?’ I still feel like I have a lot to prove.”

Jake is taking the same, unheralded dirt road as Jack and John, whose lone college offer as a barely-scouted safety out of tiny Mullen (Neb.) came from CSU. Jake racked up 113 tackles last year as the Bruins won their fourth straight title, then finished third in the Class 5A 215-pound state wrestling tournament. He still doesn’t have any college offers, and said he’s keeping his options open for both sports.

“He’s a sleeper and an underdog that a lot of people are overlooking,” said John Howell, Cherry Creek’s safeties/special teams coach. “I have no clue why. You would think what his sister’s done, and what his older brother’s done, and him being second in tackles as a junior linebacker for the best program in the state would garner a little more recognition.

“But I guess not, and we’re okay with the dirt road. We’re okay with proving people wrong — that’s what this family has always done.”

Even when proof is offered by a Howell, there are still questions.

Coming off his strong sophomore year, Jack has NFL aspirations, but the 6-foot, 200-pound safety is far from a lock to get drafted, in part because he plays at a Group of 5 school.

In that vein, CSU defensive coordinator Freddie Banks said Jack’s focus this offseason was on adding depth to his skills as a man and deep zone defender to prove he’s more than just a hard-hitting tackler.

“It’s really impressive to see a dude that is a first-team all-conference guy who is yearning for knowledge and yearning to be better like he is,” Banks said. “He’s extremely humble. And he’s about to take the next step this year in a real leadership role for us.”

Last year, Jack’s play made him and John the first father-son duo in Mountain West history to both be named to all-conference players. CSU head coach Jay Norvell is counting on Jack’s growth to translate into big plays as the backbone of the Rams’ secondary.

And Jack’s teammates, with an understanding of his bloodlines, believe the safety can deliver on the hype.

“He’s one of the best safeties I’ve played against,” CSU tight end Dallin Holker said. “But one of my favorite things about Jack is his mindset — he attacks each day, he hustles, he never knows when to stop. It’s something he’s clearly developed over his life. He’s relentless. I’m expecting big things from Jack this year — we all are.”

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