Just halfway through his high school career, Jordan Houston is already well-versed in the highs and lows that can occur on a football field.
The running back from Flint Hill School in Oakton, Va., started the first game of his freshman season, earned a scholarship offer from Penn State after that initial prep campaign, then found himself sidelined last fall.
Houston, a 5-foot-10, 178-pound prospect, soon wraps up a sophomore school year that routinely challenged his resolve. Big plans lie ahead for the 16-year-old with plenty of potential, but his journey to this point warrants attention.
“I’m trying to prove I still have it,” he said. “Actually, I’m trying to prove I’m better than ever before.”
Houston, who lives in Charles County, Md., lined up in the backfield last Sept. 10 with tremendous expectations. Just two months removed from the moment Nittany Lions coach James Franklin extended an offer in front of several family members, a stage was set for him to claim a larger, perhaps even national, spotlight.
His sophomore season started with a sprint. Houston gained 106 yards on his first 7 carries against Paul VI High (Fairfax, Va.). Then adversity struck.
He suffered a fractured left fibula during a collision. Flint Hill won the season opener but lost its offensive catalyst.
“I was so mad because it was going to be my breakout season,” Houston said.
After rushing for 1,846 yards and 19 touchdowns in 10 games as a freshman, he found himself watching the action from afar for two months.
“Jordan was devastated,” said his mother, Karen Houston. “He worked so hard to have a big season and then it happened in the very first game, and at least seemingly took him away from the focus of college recruiters.”
Fresh off a couple quality spring camp performances, Houston is now probably in the best physical and mental state of his life. Perhaps more importantly, he’s motivated to make his reputation resonate far beyond Maryland, Virginia and Happy Valley.
An offer the entire family embraced
Gallitzin, Pa., with a population of 1,668 in the 2010 census, is unequivocally a Penn State football community. Located approximately 50 miles southwest of State College, it’s the home of Houston’s maternal roots.
“That’s where we come from, that’s who we are — everything is Penn State,” Karen said. “Looking back, it’s unbelievable to think someday I would have a child who not only loves football but became good enough to play at the school.”
Karen graduated from Penn State. So did her younger brother, Steve Szynal, who owns Nittany Lions season tickets.
They were both in the room when Houston formally became a Penn State recruiting target. It was Jordan’s second trip to Franklin’s office in five weeks.
The first invitation arrived last June, following an impressive performance at a program-run camp. A Penn State staff member told Houston and his grandmother, Irene Szynal, that Franklin desired a private word with both of them.
“He said I did really well that day and they’d be keeping an eye on me,” Houston recalled.
Naturally, Irene beamed with pride. She notified uncle Steve, a diehard Nittany Lions fan, later that day.
Upon learning that his sister and nephew were driving back to campus a month later for another camp, Steve hoped he, too, would have a story to tell.
“I arranged my next trip to State College so I would be in town at the same time, and told my sister if Franklin wanted to see Jordan in that office again, I want a phone call,” Steve said. “If they didn’t mind, I wanted a chance to be in there with him.”
Shortly after teeing off on the eighth hole at a golf course in State College, Steve and another Szynal sibling, Jon, received the call. They quickly set a course for nearby Beaver Stadium.
Soon after, a family affair was underway in Franklin’s office.
Joined by running backs coach Charles Huff, the Nittany Lions leader welcomed Houston, Karen, Steve and Jon, along with a cousin and a nephew of Jordan. Those in the room said they won’t forget how Franklin took the time to personally introduce himself to each visitor before beginning a conversation that changed everything.
“He asked if we like Penn State, so I responded ‘Yes sir,’ ” Houston recalled. “Then Coach Franklin said ‘Well we like you, too, and we want to offer you a full scholarship.’ My mom yelled ‘when?’ and he said ‘right now.’ It was an emotional moment. I cried, my mom cried. It was crazy.”
Just 10 games into his varsity career, Houston was already on the wish list for team that would win the Big Ten title six months later.
“I don’t think anyone expected it,” Karen said. “It was a major surprise since he was so young. Coach Huff explained they decided they were going to offer, so why wait? Even on the car ride back home, it was almost like, ‘Has this really happened?’ ”
Houston spent countless days of his childhood running around in Nittany Lions gear. In a couple years, he may swap T-shirts and hats for a full uniform.
“When you’re young, you follow your family’s lead,” he said. “I’ve heard about Penn State since I was young, so that’s where I’ve wanted to go. Now it’s actually possible.”
It’s a realization of the future Karen imagined more than a decade ago.
“Ever since Jordan knew what a football was, he was carrying one around,” she said. “He would go to his older brother’s practice when he was 3 or 4 years old, with little shoulder pads on and knee pads down around his ankles.
“Then when Jordan was about 5, I remember telling his ankle-biter coach he was going to play at Penn State.”
About a week after landing his offer, Houston returned to Gallitzin for a family reunion. Irene announced the news to those gathered around the dinner table, resulting in a steady flow of congratulations and Penn State sales pitches.
“It’s one thing to get a big Division I offer, but getting one from the school your whole family loves is pretty special,” Steve said. “We were pretty much blown away. No one is telling Jordan he has to go there or anything, but it sure would be fun. To me, it would be kind of like the movie Field of Dreams – is this heaven?”
A recruitment temporarily derailed by injury
In possession of an early FBS opportunity, Houston set his sights high for the 2016 season. Film of just a few game highights might have been enough to warrant more offers and circulate his name across faraway college football recruiting departments.
Just as that July trip to Penn State altered Houston’s outlook, the ensuing injury also changed dynamics.
DeJuan Ellis Sr., a sports performance trainer in Fort Washington, Md., started working with Houston before his freshman year. He knew the injury hurt more than just his client’s leg.
“When you love the game like Jordan loves it, and all of the sudden you can’t play anymore, it’s a very difficult thing,” Ellis said. “It hit him hard. He was crushed.”
Though Houston didn’t require surgery, he spent much of his sophomore season in a cast. He managed to return for the final game, rushing for 94 yards on 12 carries in a 42-21 defeat, but admitted his skill set was diminished.
“I was upset with myself and just really frustrated overall,” Houston said. “We were losing most of the game and I couldn’t help the team as much as I know I normally could. I tried to be the best I could be, but there was still some pain.”
It was the first time he failed to surpass 100 yards in 12 high school contests. The repercussions off the field, in his new reality as a college recruit, particularly stung Houston.
Penn State remains his only Division I offer.
“I see all the sophomores getting a bunch of offers right now and can’t help but think that should be me, too,” he said. “I’m glad to see other young players succeeding, but there’s some frustration when it feels like you’re kind of being slept on. I know I have the talent.”
— Jordan Houston (@usmigo) July 7, 2016
For any athlete forced to sit, the “what-ifs” can become more nagging than an injury itself.
“Even Coach Huff told Jordan if it hadn’t happened he’d probably have 20 offers by now,” Karen said.
Huff visited Flint Hill shortly after the season. Houston also traveled to Happy Valley for the bookend games on Penn State’s home schedule — victories over Kent State and Michigan State.
Throughout last autumn, he also called upon his older brother, Christian, a football player at Harvard. Shortly after being named a Crimson starting receiver, Christian suffered an ACL tear in his right leg.
Both dealt with disapointment after appearing on the verge of milestone seasons. Fortunately, they fought through it together.
“Christian has always motivated me, and I’ve tried to do the same for him since his ACL tear,” Houston said. “He told me to keep my head up, focus on the positives and control what I can control. That meant a lot coming from him because his injury was more serious and requires a much longer recovery time.”
The 2017 spring evaluation period continues to shine a large spotlight on members of the 2019 recruiting class. Programs have sent out offers in bunches, while recruting industry leaders evaluate, rate and rank prospects.
Houston has yet to receive such treatment from sources such as 247Sports, ESPN, Scout or Rivals.
“I do want offers, I do want to be ranked. I think one leads to the other,” he said.
The comeback and a quest for 2,000 yards
Ellis, the father of a 2018 Virginia Tech commit, wasn’t surprised by Houston’s sensational freshman season.
“As soon as Jordan came in, I knew he was special,” he said.
Ellis also anticipated any of the dark clouds that typically accompany an injury wouldn’t take long to dissipate.
“Mentally, Jordan is a dog,” he said. “Bouncing back this offseason wasn’t a challenge at all. He embraced the process from a training standpoint, and set out to become bigger, faster and stronger.”
One late-winter day stands out to Ellis as a turning point in Houston’s recovery. He watched his pupil leap onto a 36-inch plyometric box while strapped with resistance and armed with 30-pound dumbells … 32 times.
The all-time record at Ellis’ training center for this workout is 37 reps.
“Jordan is 110 percent back,” he said. “I’m ready to see him put on a show this season. He’s more explosive and he is hungry.”
Houston attended a couple showcase camps this spring, including The Opening’s Washington, D.C., regional. He finished the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds and learned to trust his leg again while working through drills.
“It’s fun and exciting to be back on the field,” Houston said. “I’ve been training so hard since the injury and truly feel like I’m better than ever.”
He already set 2,000 rushing yards as a personal goal for this fall. Houston is significantly more formidable than the freshman who punished opponents in 2015.
He competed at 5-8, 155 pounds that season, exceeding his weight in rushing yards in 4 contests. His frame has grown by 2 inches and more than 20 pounds.
“If anyone forgot about me, I plan to remind them as a junior,” Houston said.
It won’t be today or even this year, but he may someday look back at the trials of 2016 as a one step back-two steps forward experience.
“I’ve noticed he now has a raised level of maturity and focus, with football and his school work,” Karen said. “I think that happens anyway as kids get older, but this setback pushed him to maximize his abilities moving forward.”
I will be the winner of the Heisman trophy one day💯🏈. pic.twitter.com/NX5KBRQOtW
— Jordan Houston (@usmigo) January 2, 2017
His return to action could also coincide with increased exposure on the recruiting circuit.
Houston has been in communication with coaches at Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina, Temple and Virginia Tech. He is slated to attend summer camps at Clemson, North Carolina, Ohio State and Virginia Tech.
A return to Penn State is also likely this fall. After all, he knows a guy with season tickets.
Regardless of what happens, Franklin and the Nittany Lions will always be the first to believe.
“I remember how exciting those games were as a Penn State student even when I really didn’t know anyone on the field,” Karen said. “Honestly, I can’t put into words what it would be like to watch my son out there. It would be surreal.”
Houston could spend hours allowing his imagination to drift toward a future where he runs out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel in front of a 107,000 fans and family members, but there’s work to do.
“Whatever he sets his mind to accomplish, Jordan will do it,” Ellis said. “That’s just how he is — incredible work ethic and focus. No one is going to set a limit for Jordan. If someone tells him he’ll only rush for 2,000 yards this season, Jordan will go run for 2,010 yards.”