This is not a story about a marquee player who couldn’t crack the varsity lineup in high school. Nor is it about an underdog who overcame adversity and graduated from the school of hard knocks on his road to stardom.
Ryan Howard’s journey fits neither bill.
He was a three-year letterman in baseball at Lafayette High School in suburban St. Louis, where he hit two home runs in his first varsity game as a sophomore. The 6’4” Howard played the trombone in his high school marching band. He comes from a loving, supportive family who valued education first and foremost.
The story went astray, though, when this student-athlete with tremendous ability fell by the wayside on the recruiting trail—a slugger who went from a non-scholarship college player to the NL’s MVP.
Keith Guttin, head baseball coach at Missouri State, had followed Howard since his sophomore year at Lafayette. “He was a bit of a late bloomer in high school,” Guttin says. “I think coaches knew about him, [but] they were just kind of waiting for him to make the next step in terms of his development as a player.”
Guttin was one of the many coaches who stood pat on Howard and his big bat. By his senior year, Howard looked like a big-league prospect, but college coaches never came knocking. So there he was, a recent high school grad with no scholarship offers and no prospects of playing professionally.
What did Howard do? He continued to hone his craft in the homemade batting cage in his parents’ basement.
Then, in late July 1998—less than a month before the start of the fall semester—Howard decided to enroll at Missouri State and join the baseball team as a non-scholarship player. Guttin says, “He wasn’t what we call a street walk-on, where he just showed up and made the team. He came here on a handshake agreement that he would be given a scholarship his sophomore year.”
Following a campaign that resulted in Freshman All-American and Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year honors, Howard was more than worthy of those scholarship dollars. “I think he received more scholarship money than he was supposed to get,” Guttin recalls.
Thinking of the extra time Howard spent in the cages and his phenomenal freshman performance, his college coach credits the Big Man’s success to his remarkable work ethic. “I think that what separates him is how driven he is and how much he wants to be a great player,” Guttin says. “He takes tremendous pride in his performance. If you’ve ever had any discussion with his family, you know where it comes from.
“Baseball is a game of perseverance,” Guttin adds. “Those who are overlooked, start off slow or don’t get all the opportunities have to keep plugging away to achieve success.”
Watch an exclusive video interview about Ryan Howard’s pre-game routine and baseball idols.