2023 CFL Draft profiles: Saint Mary’s TE Sebastian Howard overcame homelessness for shot at pro football

Photo: Michael Scraper/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Scouting football players is more blackjack than science. You look at the available information in your hand — physical traits, personality, and past production — and place a wager on draft day, playing the odds that your coaching staff hold the perfect card to “hit” on a prospect.

Some players are safer bets than others, but even the best hand can bust at this table. Long shots sometimes pay off big, making the gamble all that more exciting. But every prospect comes with a set of cards that gives you something to bank on.

The hand describing Sebastian Howard might as well be a joker and the instruction card.

The Saint Mary’s University tight end is as complete an enigma as you’ll ever see in the CFL Draft; a study in blind projection and untapped potential. At six-foot-five and 220 pounds, he runs a 4.71-second forty-yard dash — unicorn numbers that earned him a promotion from the CFL’s Invitational Combine to the main showcase in Edmonton last month. Yet, rather than dominate against lesser athletes, Howard has struggled to see the field in college and has collected just seven catches for 69 yards in 11 career games.

Talent evaluators have their work cut out for them in determining what to make of that contrast in the lead-up to the 2023 draft. According to the player himself, the reasons behind his stunted college production cannot be easily explained.

“I wish I had a black-and-white answer for that but I don’t,” Howard said during an interview with 3DownNation.

To fully understand the gap between the player Howard has been and the one he has the tools to become, scouts will need to know where he came from. It’s a story that the 24-year-old doesn’t share easily, still choosing to keep some details close to his chest.

Genetically, he was always destined to thrive on the football field. His father played running back at BYU and the University of Arizona, meeting his mother while in Vancouver for business before returning to his home in the US.

Born and raised on Vancouver Island, Howard did not have many options to play the game. He suited up for a few games with local teams growing up but couldn’t find ways to make it to practices. Life at home was a struggle and eventually, the circumstances deteriorated to where he was no longer able to live with his mother.

His father seemed to offer the best alternative. Now living in Portland, Ore., he lured Sebastian and his siblings south of the border with promises that were never kept.

“He said that there would be a better life for us in Portland, which was not true,” Howard recalled.

“It’s a tough story, but my father wasn’t really a good role model at the time and just didn’t put us in school and didn’t make that effort. It wasn’t really a topic of discussion with him. There wasn’t really another option at the time.”

Still in his early teens, Howard dropped out of school and began working as a nanny to make ends meet. It often wasn’t enough and without consistent support from his father, he bounced between family shelters and the street.

“I was homeless in the States, where there wasn’t a lot of resources,” he revealed. “I didn’t know where I was gonna be sleeping or eating. I was just telling myself to trust whatever God has in store for you.”

His salvation finally came at 16 years old, when an aunt made the journey from Parksville, B.C. out of concern for his well-being. Horrified by what she saw, she brought him back to Canada and took him in.

“She basically pulled me back to Vancouver Island. She put me back in school and got my life sorted out,” Howard explained with a smile. “Kind of like The Blind Side. She’s my Sandra Bullock.”

As part of his aunt’s efforts to get his life going in the right direction, Howard began playing football at Ballenas Secondary School in his Grade 11 year. His talent was obvious and his frame was drool-worthy, but a torn ACL kept him off the field for much of his senior season. Fortunately, he had already caught the eye of the University of British Columbia coaching staff and his high school coach’s strong connections to the institution helped land him a spot in the 2016 recruiting class.

It seemed as if the worst of his struggles were behind him but, like so many young athletes, achieving the dream of playing college football caused Howard to lose focus. After overcoming so much, the emotional whiplash was especially harsh and this time, he was to blame for his failure to thrive.

“My time in Portland, it was just a hard life. And then two years later, I’m at UBC, they had just won a national championship and life is good. It’s a beautiful city,” Howard explained. “It was almost like a dream and so I got distracted, was not good with my academics and ended up failing out.”

The road back to eligibility would be long and hard, with Howard sitting out the entire 2018 season. He continued to live on campus at UBC while working his way back but finally found a spot to play in 2019 with the Langley Rams of the Canadian Junior Football League.

He dressed for three games with the team, recording just three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. However, the logistical challenges that came with playing in Langley proved to be a wake-up call.

“It’s almost what I needed. That trek is like two hours, I was getting home really late and I was also working because I wasn’t eligible for student loans. That was a time when I grinded it out, doing homework on the bus,” Howard said. “That shows you how badly I wanted it. I don’t know any of my teammates that would do that. I had to cut a lot of people out and eventually, I got my grades back up so that I could get back into UBC.”

Unfortunately for him, the Thunderbirds had officially moved on and head coach Blake Nill didn’t want to welcome his wayward receiver back into the fold.

“Unfortunately, there were some business decisions that had to be made,” he recalled with a touch of sourness in his voice. “We have a great relationship but he thought that football had left me and I have a way of being a little more resilient to that kind of feedback.”

Photo courtesy: Saint Mary’s Athletics

Former UBC defensive coordinator James Colzie III, then the head coach at Saint Mary’s, welcomed him with open arms and he has found a home in Halifax, though he still knows little about the city. Howard’s life outside of football has been limited for the past two years as he has worked to stay focused academically and maintain his body, a difficult balance he believes contributed to his lack of production.

“My academics are always first but doing both is very taxing for me,” he said. “I’m in love with football and everything I do revolves around that when I get home. If I’m able to do that at the next level and just focus on that, I feel like I can bridge that separation gap within a short amount of time.”

Then there has been the position switch, as Howard has moved away from his traditional wide receiver role to that of an H-back tight end while on the East Coast. Now asked to block defensive ends and linebackers consistently, he has been forced to add weight to his long frame — something he has often struggled to accomplish.

Initially committing to UBC at just 175 pounds, it took time for him to add enough bulk to even compete as a receiver in U Sports. He’s well above that mark now at a svelte 220 but is considered thin at his new position, leading some teams to question how he fits at the next level. Howard is more than confident he can add the weight, but not without the financial stability of a CFL contract.

“Gaining weight costs money, let’s be realistic,” he said, referencing his years scrounging on a shoestring budget. “I feel like it would take me two years to be in a good position in my current situation.”

While his technique as a blocker is raw, Howard is undeniably gung-ho about the experience, believing he can be a “Swiss-army knife” for a CFL offence. He is enjoying the chance to put his hand in the dirt, playing a relatively niche role in the Canadian game.

“Switching to tight end, I realized that I actually like the physicality of the trenches,” he explained. “Being with the big boys made me love football more because you can make a big block for your running back and see him go 50 yards and you feel good. I wasn’t used to that as a receiver, where there’s almost a selfishness of you just wanting to get the ball.”

He’s growing off the field as well and has found his calling in life. Howard plans to complete the final two years of his university degree during the CFL offseasons with the goal of moving into social work upon his retirement. He aims to one day help vulnerable kids like he was, allowing them to discover their potential.

As for his family, his mother is in a better place and back in his life. His relationship with his father remains difficult.

“It’s non-existent,” Howard acknowledged. “But I try to reach out because I’d rather have that forgiveness and move past it.”

Despite being held back at every turn, scouts still believe the lanky receiving mismatch has developmental upside and could blossom at the professional level like so many other big-bodied targets have in the past. As a result, he is likely to hear his name called late in the 2023 CFL Draft on May 2.

Looking back at his life, Howard has just one message for his younger self: keep going.

“I’m going to get emotional, I was thinking about that the other day. I couldn’t even believe where I am right now,” he said, fighting back a tear.

“Even if I don’t make it in the CFL, I’ve already beat statistically so many roadblocks in my life. I’m just happy to be here.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.