Houston's Fifth Ward gave Dolphins' Xavien Howard his ambition

Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard has three interceptions through seven games this season. Mark Brown/Getty Images

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Oct. 25, 2018. The Dolphins are making Xavien Howard the NFL's highest-paid cornerback with a five-year, $76.5 million deal that has $46 million guaranteed, sources told ESPN's Adam Schefter on May 9.

MIAMI -- Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard returns to Houston to play the Texans on Thursday night (8:20 ET, Fox). This weekend, he plans to walk the streets of his old neighborhood.

A Houston native, Howard tells outsiders to stay far away from the Fifth Ward. It's a high-crime neighborhood northeast of downtown. Danger can find you in the Fifth Ward.

In making his way out, Howard is starting to make a name for himself.

"Who's Xavien Howard?" asked Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins, tongue-in-cheek, in the lead-up to Thursday's game.

Howard, 25, in his third NFL season, is tied for the NFL lead with three interceptions. He made his big splash last December with two interceptions each against the Denver Broncos and Tom Brady's Patriots in back-to-back games.

"He's kind of an underrated guy across the league. Last year he played really well, and this year he's been playing great. He's been shutting everything down," rookie defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick said. "He's just waiting on his moment for everybody to recognize who he is and the job that he does."

You've likely heard stories similar to Howard's before. The NFL is full of players who used football to get out of bad circumstances. Howard knows he is fortunate, given some of the things he witnessed growing up.

When he was in middle school, Howard was playing basketball near his home when, he says, a man shot another man 10 yards away from him. Then the shooter saw Howard.

"I was traumatized by that for a long, long time. After he did it, he looked at me and said, 'Go in the house, they shooting.' I'm just happy the guy didn't shoot me or come get me," Howard said.

Howard told his mother, Luckcher Howard, what happened and she feared for his safety. She sent him to stay with his grandmother, who lived 30 minutes away, for two months. He was still frightened the man would find him.

"That day made me change everything about me. I straightened up. I started taking sports seriously," Howard said. "I said, 'I got to get me and my family out of the hood and away from seeing this.'"

Howard uses the ritual of returning to his old neighborhood to remind himself of what he escaped.

When he walks the streets of the Fifth Ward in Houston, Howard sees a drug dealer on the corner selling an eight-ball of cocaine; his eyes settle on a homeless man sitting on the side of Lyons Avenue; his friends tell him a story of the kid who got jumped and robbed near the Fruits of the Fifth Ward mural. Howard could have been any of those people.

Taking the walk is his version of therapy, self-preservation and making sure he never gets too comfortable.

A life-changing tragedy

Howard's pain didn't stop when he left the Fifth Ward. He's reminded of the consequences of big mistakes every day. His older sister and childhood role model, Ashley, is in prison on a 35-year sentence.

"His sister is his heart," said Cornelius McFarland, Howard's high school football coach. "I know that bothered him. I know it still bothers him."

In May 2013, Ashley Howard and two other women -- Shiquanta Franklin and Racquel Gonzalez -- decided to steal 16 polo shirts from Macy's in Deerbrook Mall, per court records. Police followed them on a high-speed chase as they escaped in a red Dodge.

Franklin, the driver, ran a red light, hitting another car and killing the driver, Rosalva Quezada, per court records. Quezada also had her three sons in the car, one of whom was critically hurt in the accident. Gonzalez testified that Howard told Franklin to "keep going" instead of stopping at the red light because "she had too much to lose."

Xavien, then a redshirt freshman cornerback at Baylor, was devastated. In February 2016, Ashley was found guilty of felony murder. Franklin was sentenced to 25 years.

"Xavien was going to do whatever he had to do for her," McFarland said. "I don't know if that's one of the reasons why he came out early from college. But I think it could be. I know it was a grind for him to be a positive impact on a family that was going through so much."

McFarland said Ashley also had a chance to get out of the Fifth Ward. She was a multisport athlete who got a scholarship to play basketball at a local Texas college. But Ashley left college after one year, returned home and got in trouble while looking for ways to make money.

Xavien, who asked McFarland to be a character witness for Ashley during her trial, also saved his money to help her get legal representation.

Ashley fought back tears when she issued an apology to the victims during the trial via a Houston TV station: "It was an accident. What more can we say? We apologize."

Xavien, the second-eldest of seven kids, left Baylor after his redshirt junior season and was drafted in the second round in 2016. He helps care for Ashley's young son.

Fifth Ward in him

This time, Xavien Howard's return to the Fifth Ward is part of a business trip. He has quickly emerged as a star cornerback, and Thursday night will be his first time in Houston as an NFL player.

His man-coverage ability has convinced Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke to allow Howard to shadow top receivers.

Burke raves about Howard's physicality. McFarland says that's the Fifth Ward in him.

Howard was a late-bloomer at cornerback -- he only played one year at that position before he got to Baylor. He was a receiver and quarterback in his first three years at Wheatley High School.

McFarland knew Howard was going to be the next big thing after he rushed for 185 yards and two touchdowns, passed for 245 yards and two TDs, and returned two interceptions for TDs in his final high school game.

"He came to the sideline at one point; he didn't have nothing left. I turned to him and said, 'Xavien, tonight you're earning your scholarship,'" McFarland said. "He took another drink of water, went back in and showed out. We ended up losing that game in a shootout, but I remember the whole [team that won] finding Xavien and shaking his hand."

Howard locked down the high school passing lanes with Bengals cornerback William Jackson. They met in middle school when they got in a fight at a skating rink. But eventually, a friendship evolved.

"It's easy to pick the wrong route because everywhere you go, you see it," Jackson said about growing up in the Fifth Ward. "It's easy to be the doughboys [drug dealers] -- they had the nicest clothes and shoes. It was easy to gravitate toward that. X and I didn't take the easy way out, and now we're in the NFL."

Howard and Jackson played against each other for the first time in Week 5, when the Bengals beat the Dolphins, and exchanged jerseys afterward.

"Me and Will changed a lot of guys' mindset that is in Fifth Ward right now. It was always negative going around Fifth Ward," Howard said. "The shootings, drugs -- you can't stop. It's still going on. A bullet don't have a name on it. But I want kids to know they can make it out too."

He has come too far to fall back or short of his ultimate goals.

"I go back to Fifth Ward to give myself motivation. I go back to remind myself I ain't made it yet," Howard said. "I go back to tell myself, if you don't do this thing right, you could be back here."