How fast a football player can run can be somewhat anecdotal. Handley head coach Larry Strain knows this truth all too well.
“I’ve been around so many kids and so many other coaches, you hear it all the time,” Strain said. “So many parents talk about, ‘Oh yeah, my kid runs a 4.4.’ That’s baloney.”
So many things in sports aren’t quantifiable. Heart, determination, focus. These things exist in sports, but there’s no way to measure how much of them exist in any given player at any given time.
One thing that absolutely is quantifiable? Speed.
And a high school football player that can run the 40-yard dash – the industry standard measuring stick for speed – in 4.4 seconds or less is almost unheard of.
While Handley senior running back Devontae Houston showed heart, determination and focus throughout his stellar 2019 season, he’s the county’s player of the year in large part because of his speed.
Houston burst onto the local high school football scene as a Handley freshman in the state semifinals against Andalusia in 2016. His 47-yard touchdown run broke a scoreless tie in the second quarter of that game and was a definitive stroke in the Tigers’ 19-0 victory that sent them to the state finals. And even with all the talent on a team that proved itself to be state-title worthy, the fast little freshman led Handley in rushing in the final two games of the season. For Devontae Houston at the start of his high school career, the sky was the limit.
But after that brilliant flash in the 2016 playoffs the expectations for Houston leveled off. He had his moments, but his sophomore season was swallowed up in a 2-8 rebuilding effort and his junior year was pocked with injuries that limited his productivity.
Entering the 2019 season there was no reason to expect Houston to have the kind of impact that he did on the ground. In fact, he wasn’t even going to be the starting running back. That spot was reserved for sophomore Tae Meadows, while the plan for Houston would see him line up primarily in the slot. But Meadows had a lingering knee issue that kept him out of all but a couple of games, and Houston was forced into action as the featured back, with no real plan B on the roster.
Add in the fact that Handley’s young offensive line began to come into its own and you have a perfect storm for a record-breaking season.
Larry Strain didn’t know exactly how fast Devontae Houston was, but he was going to find out. It was the winter between Houston’s sophomore and junior season, and with his stopwatch in hand the head coach decided to measure Houston against the industry standard.
“I timed him, I remember, at least six times in the 40. And every one them was 4.4. Some of them were under, some of them were in the low 4.4’s,” Strain said.
“I didn’t even announce it to anybody because most of them are going to think, ‘Yeah, coach Strain is off his rocker.’”
The reason for that is simple.
“You don’t have somebody that’s got 4.3 speed very often on your football team,” Strain said. “There aren’t that many people in the world that can run that fast.”
This season started off modestly enough for Houston, who had 104 yards and no touchdowns on 19 carries in a season-opening loss to Tallassee.
But Houston went for over 200 yards and three touchdowns the following week against Holtville, then exploded for 315 yards and three more scores on 23 carries in a 62-36 win over Booker T. Washington in week three. With over 600 yards through the first three games, something special was brewing.
“He didn’t really get loose in the Tallassee game early on because we were still trying to figure things out and get things straight,” Strain said. “But it was obvious in the Booker T. game. We gave him the ball one time, and he went the distance two or three times early. We scored 42 points in the first quarter in that game. It was pretty obvious then that he might capable of a special season.”
As Houston continued to pile up yards and Meadows was eventually lost for the season, the natural question arose: Who has the Handley rushing record, and could Houston break it?
The answer to the first part of that question was Stacy Garrett, who rushed for 2,052 yards in 1991. The answer to the second part of the question turned out to be a resounding “Yes.”
Houston finished the regular season with 2,035 yards, leaving him 17 short of the record heading into Handley’s first-round playoff game against West Blocton. He broke the record on his third carry of the night and continued to establish a new record with every carry thereafter.
When Handley’s season finally came to an end in a heartbreaking loss to Montgomery Catholic in round two, the final tally for Houston was 2,494 yards and 29 touchdowns (another school record) on 293 carries. That’s the highest known single-season total in the county for anyone not named Terrance Wilkes, whose 2,884 yards for Wadley in 2005 stands as the county record.
The Handley program is as healthy as it has been since the start of that 2016 season. Only a handful of seniors – Houston included – contributed to this year’s 7-5 campaign. Meadows should be at full health when the 2020 season begins, and Handley will have an imposing defensive front headlined by 5-star recruit Dylan Brooks.
But no one in the next line of Handley Tigers can do what Devontae Houston can. That 4.4 speed that Strain was reluctant to publicize? It was verified last summer at a college scouting camp at Troy University, where Houston ran under 4.4 twice in front the scouts there.
Houston hasn’t yet picked up an offer from a major Division I college, but FCS programs like Kennesaw State and Jacksonville State have shown an interest.
Wherever Houston ends up he will bring with him something that few people possess, according to Strain. The quantifiable, record-setting, “dadgum speed that he’s got.”