Rookie mini-camp is this weekend at One Buc Place. The newest class of NFL draftees and rookie free agents will file in, eyes wide, clad in club-provided gear and hungry to prove themselves on the biggest stage of their football careers.
It was a position Bucs' tight end O.J. Howard was in just one year ago. Howard was drafted 19th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Bucs out of the University of Alabama. While Alabama is about as close to an NFL faction as any collegiate athletic program gets, you can bet there was still a learning curve to be had.
On the field, that learning curve wasn't as evident. The rookie tight end did well *in his first season– *like, tied for the team-lead in touchdowns, well. We caught up with him to talk a little bit more about his adjustment to NFL life off the field and ended up learning about his budding ice cream truck business and the album he's been listening to six times a day since it came out. This is Behind the Buccaneers with O.J. Howard.
CV: When did you start getting called 'Juice'?
*OJ: Oh, it was at Alabama. I would probably say junior year. *
CV: Not til college?
OJ: Well, ok, I can't lie. Maybe four people in high school called me that – friends and my head coach. Then college it really took off.
CV: Now you're in the Sunshine State where there are a lot of oranges.
*OJ: Yeah, man, I have to start getting some publicity on that, some endorsements – a promotion with Tropicana or something. I'm working on it. A couple years, get my feet wet. Me and the Rays are going to do a collab at Tropicana Field. I got it planned out. *
CV: Have you been to a Rays game yet?
*OJ: I have! I had the chance to throw out the first pitch last year. It was cool.
Bucs players and staff, alongside Jabil and United Way Suncoast, spent a day giving back to the local community.
CV: You grew up in Alabama. You went to school in Alabama. This is your first time living somewhere different. Tell me what that's like. How's Tampa?**
*OJ: It's amazing. Been here almost a year. The first time I've ever been outside of Alabama period, living. I got adjusted to it. The biggest adjustment was the traffic. I've never seen so much traffic that can back you up for like an hour. It was different. Especially where I live out here. But the weather is always nice, so that's amazing. I couldn't have been in a better environment.
*CV: Like you said, it's been a year. What have you learned after your rookie year? Especially off the field – what was the learning curve there?
OJ: It was just the fact that you had to start doing things like paying the bills and writing out checks to certain things like the lawn company, for instance. The first time ever that you had to set up direct deposit here, I didn't know. The Bucs called me like a month later and were like, 'hey, you got a check worth a lot, do you have it still?' And I'm like what? I looked in my bag and there was the check and I was like, 'wow, I didn't cash it.' I wasn't used to going to the bank and cashing checks so setting that up and just the day-to-day things that make you an adult were different for me.
- *CV: Well you're 23. Most people your age probably aren't having to take on this much responsibility. Do you think football has played a role in you growing up quicker?
*OJ: Definitely. I actually graduated high school early and started college mid-year. That was another jump for me. Then I started my NFL career early, so it's a big task. There's a lot of growing up to do fast.
- *CV: You've gotten used to Tampa as a community but how about when you go back home? Is it different now?
*OJ: No, it's not. The biggest thing for me is that I enjoy the moments with friends and family. There is so much support back home. I actually started an ice cream truck business back home, so everybody loves that, 'O.J.'s Frozen Treats.' That's going around now. We sell ice cream and my mom and dad run the company. The community always shows love and always has, so I love it back home.
*CV: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
*OJ: I have a brother and three sisters. My mom adopted. I have one of each but my mom adopted two girls, so now I have two more sisters. I have a brother, he's 19, my sister is 25, a three-year old sister and an 18-year-old sister. *
CV: How is it with that many girls?
*OJ: It's not as bad as you think. The three-year-old is the toughest one to deal with. She knows it all. She's sassy. She's so smart. She loves Tampa Bay. She knows the song. She sings that, 'hey, hey, Tampa Bay, the Bucs know how to shine,' she knows that song by heart. She comes to see me play and she loves the cheerleaders.
*CV: I heard that they have O.J. Howard Day now in your hometown?
OJ: This year that passed by was the third one. It's been three years since they've been doing it in February.
CV: So they started it before you were drafted?
*OJ: Right. It's pretty sweet. It took place after we won the National Championship my junior year, so my senior year was the first year for it in 2016. It was a pretty cool thing.
*CV: Speaking of the National Championship – I saw that you were in the Alabama locker room last year, too. Do you go back often?
*OJ: Yeah, we were turnt. I don't get to go back that often. That was only my second game of the year. I made it the first game of the year because we had our game get canceled because of Hurricane Irma, so I had the chance to go back for that reason. I told the guys I'm seeing y'all in Atlanta against Florida State [in their first game], hopefully I'll see you back in Atlanta for the National Championship and it happened. I just knew they had the opportunity to be great this year, so it worked out.
*CV: What differences do you notice from being on those Alabama teams to now being in the NFL with your Bucs teammates? In college you're with those guys for a few years, here a guy could be gone the next day. What's that like?
*OJ: Yeah, that's really the main difference. In college, there's more time together. The guys go through the workouts over the summer too, which are kind of mandatory. Then here, a guy could be gone within a week, in college you could spend four years with guys so that's a little more different. Guys here have families, so that's different, also. And that's the right thing to do is to spend time with your family. In college, you're always around each other.
CV: Who's your best friend on the Bucs?**
*OJ: I would probably say right now, Maurice Fleming. 'Reese' was one of my favorite guys, he was my boy when we came in as rookies together and then he got hurt so we had to release him and put him on IR. But we stayed in contact the whole time while he was rehabbing and he was just like, 'I'll be back, I'll be back' and I said, 'I know.' He came back now and we're hanging out every day, so that's my guy.
*CV: Are you close with your unit? The tight end group seems pretty cool.
*OJ: Oh yeah, everyone has that bond. Cam [Brate] is cool, he's our big-time leader now. I told him [after his contract extension] he owes everybody dinner. And his fines go up a little more now because he can pay them [laughs]. Nah, everybody loves everybody in the room, so it's amazing.
*CV: Were you always into football growing up?
*OJ: I actually loved baseball first. Then football came after that. As I got older, I played baseball up until 11th grade but that was the year I had to decide after I got an offer from Alabama and all these other Division I schools. The scouts in baseball were like, one more year in high school baseball and we'll think about drafting you. But I wanted to enroll early in college. I did that, which meant I didn't get a chance to play baseball my senior year. I had to make that decision and I think it worked out for the best. *
CV: I'd say so. What was it about baseball that kept you in it for so long?
*OJ: It's just the fact that you get to go up there and all the pressure is on you. There could be a time, it's a full count, the game is on the line, last out and you have to get a hit. I love that moment. There are so many times you get to enjoy with your teammates, too. That baseball bond is really special because you're always in the dugout, you play way more games than football, so it's really cool.
*CV: Coming from baseball, which is a pretty superstitious sport as well, do you have any pregame rituals that carry over to football?
*OJ: Definitely. I have to wear the same socks. I always make sure after the game to put those in the laundry basket so I can wear those same socks every game. The tights – I definitely have my favorite in each color, red or pewter or whatever we are wearing. As far as routine, I have to go home in the mornings. Home games, my mom will cook breakfast for me. She makes just like bacon, eggs, stuff like that, biscuits. Then I get in the hot tub and I read my daily scripture. Then after I get out of my hot tub at home, I roll out, stretch, then I go look at the playbook, then I go shower, put on my clothes and head to the stadium.
*CV: Is there a soundtrack to this routine?
*OJ: It's different stuff. This year is going to be Drip Season 3. It's definitely going to be that coming up. The album is by a rapper from Atlanta called Gunna. I could play it every day. I have played it every day – at least six times, each song over and over again. Dead serious. The first game of the year, I am definitely going to rock that hard. Unless he drops '4', then I have to go to the next one. *