Wed, 28 Sep 2022

Folktales: The Hyphen Wins A House

Arizona Cardinals
21 Sep 2022, 05:03 GMT+10

The second season of Folktales begins this week, with "The Hyphen Wins A House" premiering on the Arizona Cardinals YouTube channel Wednesday at 7 p.m.

LaRod Stephens-Howling was the quiet one, always, and particularly as he trotted out to take the opening kickoff for the 2010 home opener, a direct contrast to the frenzied fans dotted around then-University of Phoenix Stadium.

The time leading up to the game - any game - was tough for Stephens-Howling, the Cardinals' seventh-round pick from the University of Pittsburgh the year before. Every time, without fail, "I'm nervous as crap."

"Can't even feel my fingers until I touched a ball for the first time," he said.

The Raiders were the opponent in the Cardinals' third game of the year - they had won in St. Louis but lost in Atlanta - and the reigning NFC West champions were a much different looking team from the year before, without Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby and Antrel Rolle.

Sebastian Janikowski kicked off for Oakland, and the ball settled into Stephens-Howling's hands, two yards deep in the end zone.

The man they called The Hyphen brought it out, with fellow running back Jason Wright as his lead blocker. The Raiders flew down the field trying to take him out.

"I just remember the hole opening up," Stephens-Howling said.

The play became one of the most memorable of Stephens-Howling's career, not just for the result, but for what it meant to a couple who had just moved to Arizona.

Home may be where the heart is, but this time, The Hyphen was where the house was.

Dave Johnson wasn't a Cardinals fan yet. He and his wife Darcy just had moved to Arizona.

They didn't need a house, either. They had just bought one.

It was there in the Lennar Homes office where an agent suggested they sign up for a contest. It was in conjunction with the Cardinals. If the team could return the first kickoff they received in a game, a lucky fan would win a house.

Dave Johnson made it clear they weren't in the market, and neither Dave or Darcy made it a habit to sign up for such things. But the encouragement didn't stop, and he figured, why not?

"Two weeks later, she called and said, 'Hey Dave, you guys want a chance to win a house? You get to go to the game,' " Dave said. "And I was like, 'Cool.' "

The promotion blossomed from brainstorming sessions the Cardinals business development team had with Lennar, looking for an interesting way to team with one of the franchise's new sponsors.

"The genesis of this was this great idea of, let's theme a promotion around one of the most exciting plays in an NFL game - a player taking it to the house, especially on the opening kickoff," said Steve Ryan, Cardinals senior vice president of business development. "If that happens, we're going to give away a home."

It sounded good in theory. The promotion was all season long - in whatever half the Cardinals received the opening kickoff. But as the Johnsons settled into their seats, truthfully, what were the chances?

Stephens-Howling was the epitome of a team-first player, in part because he had to be - at 5-foot-7, he was never going to be a prototypical NFL athlete - and in part because of his personality.

He played behind Shady McCoy at the University of Pittsburgh. He broke down in tears during a conference call with Cardinals media after he was drafted, overwhelmed with the emotion of the moment.

"I knew the mission here was I was going to make my mark on special teams and it hard for them to get rid of me," Stephens-Howling said.

His rookie season, someone gave him the nickname "The Hyphen." At the time, he was unsure of the moniker, but that changed over time.

"It stuck with me," he said. "You have to earn a nickname and to know the Cardinals fans, that's what they wanted to call me so it was like, 'Let's go with The Hyphen.' "

That's about as flashy as Stephens-Howling would get. He wasn't going to get much time in the backfield behind Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, although he was a good receiver. And he wasn't going to make any waves about that either.

"Quiet" was the one word every teammate asked about The Hyphen used to describe him. He calls himself an introvert, the one of five brothers who never wanted the attention on him. Interviews, he could do without.

He wanted to stay humble.

"He wasn't the one who was going to be talking trash," kicker Jay Feely said. "He was just going to go out there ... a guy who certainly played bigger than he was."

The Johnsons got to watch warmups on the field before the game. Dave enjoyed seeing Larry Fitzgerald, who had been a ballboy for his hometown Vikings and whose father, Larry Fitzgerald Sr., wrote newspaper columns Johnson had read often.

The ultimate prize was unlikely, but the contest did get them free tickets. They settled into their seats in the south end zone, and Stephens-Howling made his way to the goal line right in front of them.

Stephens-Howling had no idea of what was on the line. He knew nothing about any potential house, and certainly not the Johnsons. That was probably for the best. If he was nervous as crap anyway, no reason to add such pressure into the equation.

The Hyphen never thought twice about bringing it out. He followed Wright right up the middle, hit the seam, and suddenly there was a lot of daylight. He veered to the left. Janikowski had a chance to get him, but Stephens-Howling wasn't about to let the kicker take him out.

There was one last Raider who might've made the tackle, but that's when safety Rashad Johnson swooped in to clear the way after making a mistake earlier on the return.

"LaRod made the cut and thank God my guy didn't come in to make the play," Johnson said in 2010. "When he did squirt through, I just started sprinting to get back ahead. I noticed the kicker was there but I knew he'd beat the kicker racing to the sideline so I ran past (LaRod) to make a block and let everyone forget I miss that block earlier."

Stephens-Howling crossed the goal line. The introvert then broke out what then became his signature celebration, coming to a two-footed jump stop, puffing out his chest in a Superman-opens-his-shirt look, and letting out a primal scream - one that couldn't be heard with the din of the crowd.

"I don't think I had any control over the moment," Stephens-Howling said.

Offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges knocked the ball away when he barreled into Stephens-Howling during the celebration. Safety Adrian Wilson fetched the ball and handed it back, a gesture Stephens-Howling still remembers fondly more that 10 years later.

What did Wilson say to his teammate? "I probably cursed at him, saying all types of stuff," Wilson said. "You know how I was back then."

The Johnsons were going through their own surreal moment. Stephens-Howling was running away from them but it was clear magic was happening. Dave Johnson didn't want to believe it at first. Were there any penalty flags? But Darcy wasn't worried.

"I was like, 'Oh, he did his job. We win a house,' " Darcy said.

The Jumbotron flashed that the Johnsons had won a house, and the crowd, already screaming from the Hyphen's touchdown, screamed again. Dave went to get a beer and told the vendor he was the lucky house winner and the vendor told him the beer was on the house - in keeping with the theme of the moment.

But even with the game only a minute or two into the first quarter, Dave Johnson couldn't stop pacing. He never did want to go back to his seat, hoping to leave and release his nervous energy. But Darcy insisted on staying.

The Cardinals were equally emotional, but they still had a whole game to play.

"It was a good feeling," Wright said back in 2010. "Honestly though, what I thought was 'I have to get back on kickoff coverage, so I don't want to expend too much energy, especially the first play of the game.' I jogged down, mocked a couple of Raiders fans, gave LaRod some dap, and got back."

The game was back-and-forth, with a Larry Fitzgerald touchdown catch and Feely extra point with 3:33 left giving the Cardinals a 24-23 lead. It was fine - until a 39-yard Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie pass interference put the Raiders in field goal range.

Janikowski, who had already missed two field goals in addition to his kick-6 to The Hyphen, somehow missed the 32-yard attempt.

"It was always ingrained in us, always go hard because the kickers do feel the pressure," said Wilson, who was on the field-goal block team and leaped in joy after the ball sailed wide.

Stephens-Howling doesn't remember when he found out he had won someone a house. Maybe it was halftime in the locker room, he thinks. But he did think, like the Johnsons, it was almost like a dream.

"It was like, 'How did I just do that? How did I get in a position to do that?' " Stephens-Howling said. "First of all, who just gives away a house? But I mean, it was an awesome feeling."

The Johnsons made appearances on all the local television stations. They appeared on the "Big Red Rage," the team's flagship radio show. They were invited to a practice to meet coach Ken Whisenhunt, quarterback Derek Anderson and Stephens-Howling, who stood with them in a press conference and presented them with a signed ball.

"It was like a blur that week," Dave Johnson said. "It was really fun, but it was sort of a blur."

The Johnsons never did live in the house they won. With their own house already, the decided to build one near the stadium and rent it out to a friend of Darcy's father. But they enjoyed every minute of the process, putting some of their own money in to make sure the house was upgraded perfectly.

"We've done a lot of great promotions," Ryan said. "We've given away cars, we've given away season tickets, we've given away cash. But we'd never given away a home. And here we are talking about it 12 years later, so you know it was special."

Stephens-Howling returned two other kickoffs for touchdowns while playing for the Cardinals, but neither could top the one against the Raiders. His children are just old enough now to understand their father used to play in the NFL, and relishes the chance to show them highlights like the play against Oakland.

He's still mostly quiet, of course, although his TD celebration - which was modeled after fellow Pitt product Larry Fitzgerald after Fitz would make a big play - still made his teammates smile.

"I made a joke in the film room the next day," said John Skelton, a backup quarterback at the time. "He scores and he does like the Superman thing, and I was like, 'LaRod, did you even make a sound when you did that?' He rolls his eyes and looks at me like, 'C'mon, Skelton.' I'm like, 'I'm just saying you are too quiet. I can't picture you screaming like that.' "

Stephens-Howling had earned such an emotional outburst. There aren't many players that have won someone a house, a feat that will link he and the Johnsons forever.

"It's still a fun story to tell," Dave Johnson said. "A lot of people still remember it."

The Hyphen certain does, now more than a decade later.

"It was kind of like a moment where 'I am here in the NFL," Stephens-Howling said, "and this is real.' "

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