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TAMPA — The Achilles rupture required nine months to completely heal. The remedy for his heartbreak took just as long to develop.

But the timely arrival of his infant daughter may have been the only thing that helped O.J. Howard overcome the most bittersweet year of his life.

Now Howard is learning that he can play football and be a father at the same time, and neither game needs to suffer.

Howard was off to the best start of his career last season with 11 catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, he helped spur a 21-point comeback against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 4 with three receptions for 50 yards, including a touchdown.

But with 11:05 remaining in that Oct. 4 game and needing a touchdown to take the lead, Howard was the first option for Tom Brady on a slant route. Brady looked Howard’s way but saw him stumble, then came back across the field and connected with rookie running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn for the go-ahead touchdown.

Howard tried to walk if off but couldn’t.

“Tom was looking to throw me the ball. He looked at me when I came out of my cut,” Howard said. “When I planted to cut on the slant, it felt like someone kicked me. I never fell to the ground. I put my hand on the ground to brace myself, and I never could get the sensation back in my foot. I was like, ‘Man, somebody hit me really hard.’

“And that’s when I remembered the Kobe Bryant interview, the Kevin Durant interview when those guys said (an Achilles tear) felt as if someone kicked them.”

A blessing follows desolation

At 6-foot-6, 251 pounds, Howard had never really been hurt until he entered the NFL as the 19th overall pick in the 2017 draft by the Bucs. Before the Achilles injury, he had never had surgery of any kind.

An ankle injury put Howard on injured reserve the final two games of his rookie year. The next season, foot and ankle injuries cost him six games. In 2019, a hamstring strain following the bye cost him two games.

But with Brady’s arrival, Howard recommitted himself to fitness and focus. He was among the first players to join Brady for throwing sessions in the spring at Berkeley Prep, and the two had instant chemistry on and off the field.

“I always worked hard my whole life, but (2020) was different,” Howard said. “We were just locked in, because we were playing with the greatest quarterback ever, so everybody focused on … trying to be the guy that wasn’t going to be the issue. I can’t give him a reason for him not to get me the ball. So I dialed in with him, I stayed here before practice and worked with him.

“We were starting to get a little feel for each other that L.A. (Chargers) game, and then I tore my Achilles. It was disappointing. It’s the first time I really shed tears over the game because I literally saw all the work I put in. I know how hard it was. Working out at Berkeley ― all that stuff just went through my mind at one time. And in four games, it was gone through the drain.”

But big blessings come in small packages, and Howard was about to discover how cradling something other than a football brings more joy on fall weekends.

“The good Lord will find a way, and he blessed me with a baby girl,” Howard said. “She eased the whole pain.”

Eight days after Howard was injured, Kaliana Mia Howard was delivered by Howard’s girlfriend, Chanel Sideboard.

Doting dad

They call her Kali, and if the pictures of this cherub-cheeked, saucer-eyed baby girl hugged up to Howard that he posts on Instagram don’t melt your heart, well, you may want to check for a pulse.

Because of his injury, Howard was able to thoroughly enjoy full days and not too many sleepless nights with her as an infant ― something he would have missed with all the practices and meetings and training sessions that dominate the calendar during an NFL season.

“The whole process of me going home and spending time with her … and now that she has the personality at (seven) months, it has made it all go by so easy,” Howard said. “That helped me get over this, for sure, having a new little one.”

If you know anything about Howard, despite his intensity on the football field, he is about as relaxed as a person can be. He also comes from a family in Prattville, Ala., that has always been surrounded by children. In addition to his biological siblings, older sister Shabria and younger brother K.J., Howard’s parents have adopted Shun (5) and Shayla Edwards (6) after helping serve as guardians for them.

Howard teases Brady that he is the same age (43) as his father, Kareem. His mother, Lamesa, worked as a nurse and bought ice cream for kids who would brave their shots.

Kali occupied Howard’s time and focus when he wasn’t watching the Bucs play from afar on Sunday afternoons.

“It was tough, but in the end, it kind of worked out,” Sideboard said. “Without O.J. when Kali was first born, I wouldn’t know what to do. He helped out a lot. A lot of athletes don’t get to experience that when their babies are born during the season. I was just thinking about the positive of the whole situation and how it worked out. His spirit, everything, was as if he never got hurt.”

As it turns out, Kali has her dad’s temperament. Almost nothing gets her upset.

“Literally, she’s super chill,” Howard said. “When you’re telling people about her, they’re like, ‘I know you’re not getting much rest.’ I’m actually getting a lot of rest. For two weeks only, she was off her schedule. We had to wake up at 4 a.m. and change her diaper and all that stuff. … After that, she would go to bed at 9 p.m. and sleep until the next morning.

“She’s always smiling. She’s a loving little girl, and she doesn’t give us a hard time ever. Whenever we go down, she goes down. And if we have a late night and want to stay up and watch the game or something, she wants to hang out.”

Back in the game

The ultimate girl dad sat with his daughter watching Alabama football on TV on Saturdays, and when they were on the road, the Bucs on Sundays.

During rehab, Howard had a workout partner in Vita Vea, the Bucs defensive tackle who was recovering from a gruesome broken leg he sustained in a loss at Chicago in Week 5. Howard knew his season was over. Vea had a small chance to return from the injured list in time for the playoffs or Super Bowl.

Vea returned for the NFC Championship Game win at Green Bay, playing 33 snaps and pushing the pocket so well that outside linebackers Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for five sacks.

“It was awesome. Being a part of a championship was cool and winning a Super Bowl,” Howard said. “A lot of guys never get a chance to do it. To be able to do it in your stadium? Obviously, I would’ve loved to have been able to be out there participating. That’s what makes this year sweeter, because for me it’s like I want to get back there for myself and help this team get back. A lot of guys, they played in the game. I didn’t get a chance to.

“For me, the injury was tough. I got over that. I missed things like celebrating in the locker room after the NFC Championship Game. Stuff like that. Little things like riding the plane home celebrating the NFC Championship. I couldn’t experience that feeling.”

Howard, who is playing under the club option for one year, $6.013 million, began running routes in the past month. He should be cleared to participate in the mandatory minicamp that starts Tuesday. Kali will be getting on her feet soon, as well.

“I missed a great run with us winning the Super Bowl, but I have memories I’ll never forget,” Howard said. “Seeing my daughter roll over for the first time. Just seeing her learn little words and stuff. It had its good that came out of it. Now the process is almost finished with my rehab, and it all makes sense now. No matter, the circumstances happened, but it really was in God’s favor.”

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