Alex Howell was the only freshman in the tunnel that Saturday, his chinstrap so tight it fused his jaw shut, 89,000 people packed into to the last row at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium. Earlier in the week the graduate assistant tapped Howell on the shoulder and asked if he'd like to dress for the game against Mississippi State. Howell doesn't remember the exact words he said, other than it was an emphatic affirmative. So here he was.
Suddenly his teammates, much bigger, much faster than he, poured out ahead of him like water sweeping over a dam, pulling Howell in their wake. He sprinted after them, legs pumping, adrenaline surging, ears ringing, running into a deafening roar that was as much for him as it was for anyone in orange, blue and a white helmet that day.
Ten years after that moment, Howell is now a designer of a video game about college football. For him, priority No. 1 is imparting the sense of awe, good fortune, validation and chest-bursting pride he felt even in a game that, like every one for which he suited up at Auburn, ended without him playing a down.
"It is, literally, the experience I wish I could share with everyone," Howell says. "Now I have that opportunity."
Howell is the first dedicated designer assigned to NCAA Football's "Road to Glory" career mode, introduced in 2005 and fairly neglected for the past few years. Joining EA Sports less than a year ago, Howell's only job is to breathe new life into one of sports gaming's first singleplayer career modes.
Coy about specifics for now, it's pretty clear where Howell's emphasis lies in the mode's off-the-field components. It's the practice field, where Howell made himself most valuable to an Auburn program that went undefeated his senior season. In high school Howell was invited by then-coach Tommy Tuberville to join the team as a nonscholarship player. When he arrived on the Plains, he was converted - at the Rudy-esque dimensions of five-foot nothin', one-hundred and nothin' - to running back from wide receiver. No one plays Southeastern Conference football at that height and weight; they run plays on the scout team.
That doesn't mean coaches don't notice their work. And it doesn't mean they toil without reward.
"From coming on the team as a scrub, I knew that the harder I worked in practice, the harder I worked on the scout team, the more respect I would earn," Howell said, "and the coaching staff would then allow me to do more things. It's really easy to translate that experience of workouts, and practicing, to the video game, up to the point where it's you going through the tunnel with 89,000 screaming fans all around you."
Lots of the NCAA Football design team has exposure to college football beyond simply being big fans. Producer Ben Haumiller was himself recruited by programs such as Texas A&M, and also was invited to walk on at Florida State, but chose not to. Howell, with championship rings (including the one Tuberville made for the 2004 Tigers, infamously shut out of a BCS title shot) is a rarity in the Tiburon office.
"It's great to have that element on the team, of a guy who's actually gone through it," said Haumiller. "A lot of us here played high school ball but didn't step up to playing in college. He knows what it's like to earn time playing in practice. And he's a great game guy, a huge video game nerd."
Indeed, Howell describes himself as "the biggest JRPG nerd," throwing off a sports writer when he talks excitedly about Persona 3 and staying at a hotel whose bar is called "The Velvet Room." This job is not a sinecure for an ex-jock. Howell is a recent master's degree graduate of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, from whose top-rated game design program he emerged as something of a perfect candidate for this particular title.
"It had always been somebody's second or third responsibility," Haumiller said of NCAA's singleplayer career. "Until now, it never was someone's main focus.
"He's taking role-playing game elements and bringing them into Road to Glory," Haumiller said. "A lot of what you're trying to do in an RPG concerns trying to level up and build your character. Alex understands that as an RPG gamer, and he's trying to do that in a way that makes sense to a sports gamer. You don't want to throw them into something that's completely foreign."
Howell admits that he was one of those guys who, in the moments between all the work, the meetings and the games, was cataloging his experiences and thinking it all would make for a good book someday. His memoir, however, is a video game.
"People just don't understand how much of a business college football is," Howell said, and he wasn't referring to dollars, but the fact this is a singleminded job for the coaching staff, if not also some players. "These are people's careers, and if they don't win, they get fired.
"My first step, that I wanted to take, was in trying to translate the actual emotion of how well you do and how bad you do in the game," Howell said. Players will have more than their own advancement riding on a third-down pass or fourth-quarter fumble; it'll be a moment that has some implied pride or disappointment coming from the sidelines.
The rewards, of course, will be more substantial than putting on a uniform for a single game. Whatever they are, Howell hopes people will find them as meaningful, as hard-won, as simply running onto the field was for him 10 years ago.
(Top image by Kevin C. Cox | Getty Images)
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.