Ex-Badger football player Daniel Howell Jr. hasn’t cracked open a textbook in 30 years. On Jan. 25, however, he returned to UW-Madison to tackle his dreams and work towards earning his Bachelor’s degree.
Howell — who always has a smile on his face — is not the typical, “college-aged” student that’s trying to breeze through in four years. He has a daughter and grandchildren and works full-time as a Program Coordinator/Case Manager at Porchlight, Inc, a local non-profit that houses the formerly homeless. While he doesn't need his degree to advance his career, the 54-year-old ex-tight end has the same end goal that his younger peers do.
“I think he just feels like he got a redo and got to take another chance at doing [college] right and get his degree,” Karla Thennes, the executive director of Porchlight and Howell’s boss, said. “So he's really excited. And of course, we're all about developing our staff and that kind of stuff, so we're very excited for him.”
Howell grew up in the projects in Chicago, and moved to a white suburban neighborhood in Ohio with his mom after his parents split up. Due to his distinct way of speech, Howell was placed in speech class for three years because he “couldn’t pronounce words.”
“I went from straight up hood, all ghetto, to the only Black kid in the neighborhood,” Howell said. “It was like a culture shock from being in an all-Black neighborhood to being the only Black kid.”
Howell proved to be immensely gifted athletically and academically, from being a stellar athlete in football, basketball and track to maintaining a 3.5 GPA in high school and being in the top 10% of his class. He used those gifts to get into the University of Wisconsin-Madison and play as a tight end on the 1985-90 Badgers football team.
While there however, he became wrapped up in the partying culture and his GPA dropped from a 3.5 in his first semester to below a 2.0 throughout his college career. Although he was close to getting a degree after five years of upper education, Howell failed a class in his last semester, and fell just short of his goal of earning his degree.
“I was entitled, very prideful and took my talents for granted. And when that didn't work out, that totally messed me up,” Howell said.
Although he struggled along the way, to the point he was “hustling” to get a roof over his head, Howell found his way into the field of social work and decided to get a job with Porchlight. He now recognizes this as his calling.
“He always talks about giving back and having received many blessings in his life,” Thennes said. “It's a hard job, right? Every day is different, and no day is easy. You don't get a lot of thank you’s; nobody's out there patting you on the back. You have to get your inner strength from another source, and he does that.”
That strength? Howell accredits it all to his relationship with God and how God never left him, even in moments that Howell said could have “put [him] away.”
“I don't listen to secular music because it takes me back to the streets,” Howell said over the sounds of Christian pop drifting through his office. “I don't need that. I don't listen to Christian music and try to look spiritual, or try to impress people, but I need it for a reminder of who I am.”
Because of the hardships he has endured throughout his life, Howell uses those experiences to form a stronger connection with residents at Porchlight who are battling a multitude of issues.
“He doesn't shy away from a difficult situation. Many of the residents really struggled during COVID, you know, the ones with mental health issues, their anxiety was just through the roof,” Thennes said. “People relapsed and people really struggled, and Daniel's very passionate about recovery. I think that has helped many of the residents through their personal struggles.”
While there are struggles with managing his school and work life, Howell sticks to a strict schedule of “school, work, workout, sleep and eat” with no time left over for a social life. With all online schooling due to COVID-19, Howell has found that the inability to meet in-person with Teaching Assistants can prove to be a hindrance to his grasp on challenging material.
Even with the shocked looks he gets in the COVID testing lines when he tells people he’s a student and not a professor, Howell is fully-equipped and determined to get his degree.
“Today is all about making good decisions, it is all about discipline, it is all about having good support, it is all about keeping boundaries around,” Howell said. “I’m back in Madison. I'm excited about getting my degree. It's the right time. I'm ready.”
Howell will complete the goal that’s been on his heart for years and graduate in spring 2022 with a degree in Psychology. When asked what his plans are after he earns his Bachelor of Science, Howell says that he might get his Master’s, but he is definitely going to stay at Porchlight to continue his work with the formerly homeless.
“Porchlight has been a blessing, you know, my working with these guys here. It's not even a job. It's a duty; it's my calling,” Howell said. “I love it. Even though it's crazy and all that stuff, that's what I’m supposed to be doing. It's like a marriage; I’m supposed to be here.”