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Spurred by personal tragedy, Jordan Howard seeking to change lives

The Bears’ star running back is more than a bruising football player. He’s a man motivated by previous trials using his platform for a cause close to his heart.

Jordan Howard is consistently intrinsically motivated by more than football.

When imagining Bears running back Jordan Howard, you picture a bowling ball of a running back who punishes defenders. You watch a player who refuses to give in and who makes certain that he leaves everything on the football field. A man who galvanizes a team and stays self motivated by treating every run as if it was his last, for a greater success. To not waste any opportunity. Howard has blazed trails through his first two years in the NFL. He’s done things like become the fastest to record 10 100-yard rushing games in Bears’ history. He’s accomplishing feats a franchise rich in tradition may have previously not thought possible.

But Howard, the football player, pales in comparison to Howard the humanitarian, as much as they are the same exact person: dedicated, selfless, and endlessly driven.

When Howard was just seven-years-old, his father was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. He didn’t fully understand it then, but this diagnosis would forever change his life as it would eventually spur upon motivations to make his family, and more importantly, his father proud. To live through every endeavor life offers to it’s fullest. To help people and work for others, not himself.

At 12-years-old, the affectionately coined Reginald “Doc” Howard passed away due to direct complications of the disease: a condition that the medical world still does not have a cure for to this day.

Following his personal tragedy of a man he looked up to, Howard would channel his energy into becoming an Alabama high school football star. He’d turn that into a three-year college career of which he would use to jump to the NFL and the Bears. All the while his dad being consistently present with him, under his football pads in the form of a meaningful shirt acting as a guiding light.

At now 23-years-old, Howard has a football dream realized. He’s one of the most recognizable professional athletes in Chicago. A throwback to the type of player and person that a city as a whole can relate to. That’s because of his innate humility mixed in with a slight dash of swagger that you have to inspect Howard closely to notice. A personality that’s lent itself to what he’s focusing on off the playing field.

Howard knows deep down his father would’ve taken tremendous heart in this dream: especially because of how it’s led his son to attempt to change the world where he can.

That mentioned dream has manifested into Howard taking a personal investment in helping find a cure for pulmonary fibrosis: the disease that took the life of a man he admired so much.

It’s translated into being a direct spokesman for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation in Chicago, which was founded in 2001. It’s the only non-profit organization with an exclusive intent to educate and work for a cure for a respiratory disease that has a life expectancy of less than five years for those directly affected. The exact type of statistic Howard is determined to lessen and diminish altogether.

While his motivation for being such a huge benefactor for the foundation originally came from a personal place, it’s evolved on a wider scale. This cause is close to his sensibilities and has become a crucial example of how Howard wants to use his platform of playing a game, for more than, well, playing a game.

“It means everything to me,” Howard told Windy City Gridiron at a Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation event on Wednesday. “It’s just great for me to support this cause even though he (his dad) is no longer here.”

They say the best demonstrator of a person’s character is how one responds to adversity. Adversity for anyone in life is inevitable. The roads to success and making a difference are consistently winding and will have pitfalls, most of which are unexpected.

It’s how people like Howard turn said obstacles in their way into positives. How they can become role models for others and laser in on goals not concerned with their own welfare. Howard’s experiences with his father have allowed him to become the man he is. They’ve presented a path that Howard finds conducive to simultaneously honoring him, being happy individually, and keeping those affected by pulmonary fibrosis continually in mind.

Through three years as NFL player, Howard has made attacking this condition a personal mission. He joined forces with PFF in November 2016, in the midst of a season where he was second in the league in rushing as a rookie: showing his priorities were never convoluted. As soon as Howard had the opportunity to make a difference away from his stated profession, he jumped at it.

Since then, the complex Bears’ tailback has spoken at PFF events. He’s worn specifically branded cleats for the cause to bring about as much awareness as possible. He’s even led a fundraiser to where he presented a $10,000 check to the organization last winter. Quite simply: Howard has been an unparalleled jack-of-all-trades for this ideal.

What’s been most impressive is how much Howard’s efforts have seemingly multiplied and become more aggressive as time has gone on. It’s almost as if the more acclaim he’s received as an athlete and human being, the more comfortable he’s become in the spotlight to spearhead a movement against pulmonary fibrosis such as this. That has transformed him into a willing face of a movement.

Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation President and CEO Bill Schmidt joining forces with Jordan Howard at an organization event earlier this week.

The persistence Howard has shown to find a cure for pulmonary fibrosis isn’t lost on foundation president and CEO Bill Schmidt, who is eternally grateful for what time and resources Howard has already dedicated. The fact that Howard found any time or resources to share of his own would’ve been enough. It speaks volumes that a person of Howard’s stature instead exceeded expectations. Schmidt, undoubtedly, is appreciative of what else is to come.

“It means the world to us,” Schmidt said to WCG of Howard’s participation. “In a very short period of time, Jordan has done an enormous amount to bring visibility to a disease that frankly, has not received enough attention.”

Without Howard in the fold, the foundation would still press on and work diligently to accomplish it’s directives against pulmonary fibrosis. With Howard on board, PFF has taken dramatic steps forward in publicity, reputability, and overall effect. His presence galvanizes a medical movement rising to the forefront, which is something Schmidt has noticed firsthand.

“It’s a devastating disease, and a lot of people don’t know about it,” said Schmidt. “So somebody like Jordan stepping up and making people aware is vitally important. We hear from people all over the country who are so excited to see him stepping up in this way.”

This is the inspiration a man standing on Howard’s platform can instill. Those suffering can take heed in someone like Howard being in their corner fighting for them. He not only fights for yards on the football field. He fights for what and who matters off of it.

And Howard can do that because he can relate to the devastation. It’s something out of a movie script for him to become a valued influencer against a disease that perplexes the medical community to this day: especially after going through the traumatic experience as a child.

To his credit, Howard stays true to himself. Even while being so directly involved, his face on a movement against what took his father’s life isn’t what’s important to him. It’s about keeping the center of attention on those affected by pulmonary fibrosis.

The only validation Howard needs, if he even needs it to begin with, is the approval of his father in seeing the selfless instrument of change he’s grown up to become. If you ask Howard now, he’s of the belief “Doc” Howard is overjoyed while looking down on his son.

“He’d be very proud of me, just because I’m doing something that’s not about me, it’s about helping other people,” said Howard. “He’d be very proud of me.”

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.