Justin Houston, an All-Pro pass-rusher for the Kansas City Chiefs, visited Ivy Prep Gwinnett recently to offer some coaching advice about how to overcome the hard knocks of life and score with a successful career.
His visit came during his negotiation of a $13.2 million franchise contract with the Chiefs. The star athlete is known as one of the top defensive linebackers in the NFL today. Houston told the girls school of more than 300 gathered for a Community Caucus that his life may seem exciting and lavish now, but realizing his NFL dream wasn’t easy, especially when people around him doubted his abilities.
“My whole life people told me what I can and can’t do,” Houston, 26, said. “My dad wasn’t there. I didn’t have a father figure. I had teachers who told me that I wasn’t going to make it at the University of Georgia. They didn’t think I was smart enough. I’m here to tell you, don’t let anyone kill your dream.”
Houston, the son of a single mom, began playing recreation league football as a young child for exercise and fun. It gave him an opportunity to travel and show off his speed and agility. He thought he would grow up to be a great offensive player, but when his coaches saw him play, they put him on defense, which is where Houston made his mark.
After leading Statesboro High School to a state championship in 2005, Houston was offered a football scholarship to play at the University of Georgia. He told the girls of Ivy Prep that succeeding in college while playing a sport takes discipline and time-management.
“In college, you are not going to study the day before a test and pass,” he said. “I tried that a couple of times and that didn’t work out at all.”
After college, Houston was in the pipeline to become a first-round draft pick, but a failed drug test caused his ranking to free fall.
“I got into trouble because of a drug problem and I fell from the first round to the third round,” Houston said. He tried to keep the news from his family, but it was soon broadcast on sports channels. “I couldn’t hide it anymore. My mother, brother and sister were upset with me because I didn’t feel comfortable coming to them to tell them about it.”
Houston told the girls of Ivy Prep to share their problems with parents or mentors who can give them support and advice. He added that roadblocks can be overcome through faith in God, family support and a laser focus on personal goals.
“When something bad happens, some people get down on themselves and get depressed,” Houston said. “You have to turn a negative situation into a positive situation.”
With the support of his family and help from his trainer, Houston found his way into the NFL despite the drug test. He started his rookie season with the Chiefs playing through his nervousness and was recognized for his potential for greatness. During his first three NFL seasons between 2011-13, Houston was praised for his defensive skills and his ability to sack quarterbacks. In 2014, Houston led the NFL in sacks accumulating a record of 22.
“My favorite part of playing football is sacking the quarterback,” he said. “Anytime you sack the quarterback that kills the offense.”
Houston’s hard work paid off big. He was recently named as a franchise player in Kansas City. His contract talks continue.
“Justin is a talented player and key contributor to our defense,” John Dorsey, general manager for the Chiefs said in a statement released to the media. “It was in the best interest of the club to place the tag on Justin. We will continue to discuss long-term options with him and his agent. Our goal is to reach a deal that is mutually beneficial. We want to keep Justin in a Chiefs uniform for years to come.”
Impressed by Houston’s story, seventh grader Jedidah Titus asked the football player about his goals outside of football. “If you could do any other job, would you and if so what would it be?” she asked Houston.
The defensive player shared his post-football dream: “I would like to train kids and help them reach their goals,” he said. “I thank God for my trainer. He really inspired me.”
Even after Houston made it to the NFL as a rookie, his trainer was there to support him. Houston said he told his trainer he wanted to play in the Pro Bowl. “My coach told me to speak it into existence,” he said. “I made it to the Pro Bowl every year except my first year.”
Houston said he is living his dream, but he wants a different lifestyle for his son, who is now three years old. As a pro football player, Houston has dislocated his elbow several times and suffered from a hyper-extended knee. “The pain I feel sometimes, I never want my son to feel some of this pain,” he said.
Houston told students no matter what career they pick; it takes hard work to make dreams come true. “You have to realize that it’s not a straight ride up,” he said. “You are going to have some bumps and curves. You have to believe in yourself when others doubt you. You have to aim high. The sky is the limit.”
Principal Joy Treadwell said the talk helped students to realize the importance of working hard to get ahead in life.
“He did an amazing job imparting upon our girls the importance of team work and of hard work,” Joy Treadwell, principal of Ivy Prep Gwinnett said after Houston’s talk. “It was great for him to dispel some of he myths our girls have about professional athletes.”