The face that made Howie a
star...on and off the field
The next two seasons, however, were difficult ones for Long. A strike-shortened 1987 season and an injury plagued 1988 campaign saw Howie's defensive statistics drop. The labor unrest of the 1987 season seemed to effect not just Long, but the entire team. "We're not the same club that went out on strike," said Earl Leggett referring to his defense. "But, they're starting to play harder. All of 'em are playing a hell of a lot harder each week." Howie played well enough to be named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl team. Even so, skeptics began to openly suggest that his play was not up to the level it had been and that his career might be headed in the wrong direction.
An injury, originally diagnosed as a calf strain, sidelined Long for the final nine games of the following season. Each week, coaches, teammates, and reporters asked when he might return to play. What no one realized at the time was that the injury, which eventually required surgery, was far more serious than first thought. Long had completely blown his calf and blood was leaking into the cavity of his lower leg.
Incredibly, the cycle almost repeated itself the next season, when Howie ripped the ligaments in his ankle during training camp. Determined, he attempted to play despite the injury.
"The fact is, when you're not healthy, you can't play well," he explained after the season. "It's all a matter of health . . . I take pride in what I do. I work hard. But when your calf blows, when ligaments tear in your ankle, there's nothing you can do."
New head coach Art Shell told his star lineman, friend, and former teammate, to take time to heal. While appreciative of his understanding, an impatient Long was back in the starting lineup after just a two-week layoff. When he returned, albeit still very sore, he played with a vengeance. Almost immediately he began to look like his old self. Although he started just 11 games, he recorded five sacks and generally wreaked havoc on opposing offenses. His resurgence didn't go unnoticed. The nine-year veteran was rewarded with his sixth Pro Bowl selection.
"I'm more proud of that Pro Bowl than any other, after being injured and everyone counting me out," he proudly stated. "I was challenged and accepted the challenge," he said in reference to the earlier speculation that his play had deteriorated.
As if to accentuate the fact that he was all the way back, the once-again-healthy defensive end began the 1990 season with a Howie Long game. Against the Denver Broncos, he recorded six solo tackles, one assist, two sacks, a forced fumble and recovery, and applied quarterback pressure that helped produce an interception and a Raiders touchdown.
The next week in Seattle, however, with 4:40 remaining in the third quarter, disaster struck. On a routine play, Howie caught his foot on a seam in the artificial surface under a pile of players. "I just couldn't get my foot out," he said. "It felt like 27 seconds."
The result was a sprained right knee, a broken bone in his foot and the injured reserve list. Once again, naysayers speculated that it was the end for the Raiders' defensive star. Projected to be out for at least six weeks, he was back after just four. His return to the lineup was a physical and emotional lift that helped propel the Raiders to the playoffs.
Far from over, his career continued for three more very productive seasons. During that period he added two more Pro Bowl appearances to his resume, tying Art Shell's team record of eight.
Although he had been considering retirement for some time, when he learned he had tied Shell's Pro Bowl mark, he decided it was time to call it quits. "Many things drive you," he said at his retirement announcement. "You want to be the best at what you do. You want to win a world championship and you want to go to the Pro Bowl. I wanted to be the Art Shell of the defensive line for the Raiders."
Howie Long has always been a man with goals and willing to go the extra mile to achieve them. Few would argue with his success.
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