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Top 50 All-Time Bills, No. 41: OT Howard Ballard

Howard "House" Ballard checks in at No. 41 on the Top 50 Bills of All-Time. (<a href="">photo source</a>)
Howard "House" Ballard checks in at No. 41 on the Top 50 Bills of All-Time. (photo source)

OT Howard "House" Ballard (1987-1993) | 6'6", 325 lbs.

Notable Achievements: Two-time Pro Bowl Selection

Howard Louis Ballard was born November 3, 1963 in Ashland, Alabama.  Ballard attended the historically black college, Alabama A&M, where he was selected to the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference first team in his final two seasons (1986-1987).  Following his stellar career there, the Bills selected Ballard with the 283rd pick in the 1987 Draft, which was early in the eleventh round.  He joined an up and coming Bills team that had a pair of established tackles in Will Wolford and long-time Bill Joe Devlin.  Ballard didn't start a game his rookie season, but moved into the starting lineup in his second season as Devlin moved inside to guard. 

Career Highlights
Affectionately nicknamed "House" because of his giant frame and sturdy build, Ballard became one of the best right tackles in the league during his time in Buffalo.  The Bills got one of the biggest steals in their draft history when they selected him in 1987, just a few picks after such luminaries as Dick Chapura, Rafe Wilkinson, and Jim Reynosa.  In fact, lead writer, Chris Brown, named Ballard the third-biggest steal in the team's draft history. 

House joined the Bills in 1987 and spent a year behind veteran Joe Devlin, playing in all 16 games, but starting none of them.  After Devlin moved inside to right guard for his final season in Buffalo, Ballard became the starting right tackle, becoming one of the best in team history over the next five seasons. Ballard was part of the new wave of mammoth offensive tackles, which would become a staple of offensive lines over the years. In the late '80s and early '90s, Hall of Fame tackles like Anthony Munoz, Jackie Slater, and Gary Zimmerman, as well as long-time Pro Bowler Lomas Brown, all checked in under 300 pounds, with Munoz, Slater and Brown routinely playing under 280.  Ballard, along with former Bruce Smith nemesis Richmond Webb of the Dolphins, started the trend of the massive player manning the tackle position.  Blessed with a huge frame and light feet, Ballard helped prove the big man could handle the edge.

Ballard didn't miss a game in his Bills career, starting the next 80 regular season games and another 14 playoff games as he established himself as one of the premier right tackles in football.  His play earned him a Pro Bowl berth in each of his final two seasons in Buffalo (92-93), and he was also named First Team All-Conference by the Sporting News from 1991-1993.  His excellent play not only earned him recognition league-wide, it also earned him a shiny, new contract.  Following the 1993 season, Ballard was an unrestricted free agent; he went on to sign with the Seattle Seahawks for 4 years and $10.5M. His knees ending up becoming a problem as his career with Seattle came to a close after the 1998 season.

One of the low points of Ballard's career was the days of the "Bickering Bills".  Although he wasn't the hand that stirred the pot, he was part of the ingredients tossed in.  Following the 1988 loss in the AFC Championship game, the team had high expectations and the pressure seemed to get to them early on.  After a Week 5 loss to the Colts, Jim Kelly lashed out at his offensive line - Ballard specifically - citing them as the reason he suffered a separated shoulder.  Ballard had missed a block on Colts defensive end Jon Hand, allowing him a free shot on Kelly.  Marv Levy believed Kelly said that Ballard had struggled with Kent Hull's line calls, and hoped that he would benefit from the mistakes he made.  Although Ballard went on to continue improving, the 1989 season was filled with turmoil for the team.

Best Moment
Considering House Ballard was an offensive lineman and played while I was just a pre-teen, I really don't know what his best moment was.  My friend Google failed me here, but it's pretty obvious that Ballard had a successful career in Buffalo, likely highlighted by many great individual plays.  I'll choose some generic moments to salute the House.

In his second season as a starter, 1990, the Bills went on to finish 13-3 and reach their first Super Bowl.  Ballard was part of an offensive line that allowed just 27 sacks, the fewest allowed by the team in almost a decade.  The next year he helped lead the way for Thurman Thomas, who went on to have his first 2,000 yards from scrimmage season, while being named NFL MVP.  As a starter in four Super Bowls, Ballard was a huge part, both figuratively and literally, of those offenses.

Marv Levy had a story in his book, Where Else Would You Rather Be?, about the rookie Ballard playing a big role in the AFC East Division clinching victory over the Jets:

The Jets were not going to give in easily, and late in the game they scored a touchdown. The score was 6-6, and they lined up to kick the game-winning extra point.

Remember how often I have emphasized how important the kicking game is? We deemed it to be so important that we had included a starting offensive tackle on the kicking unit designated as our "point-after-touchdown defense" team. It was "House" Ballard, and the big fellow bullied his way through the front of the Jets' place kick protection unit, threw his massive paw into the air, and deflected the attempt. The game went into overtime.

I'm pretty sure all of that is incorrect.  For one, Ballard was a rookie and wasn't a starter along the offensive line yet.  Second of all, the Jets didn't score a touchdown that game.  They scored a pair of a field goals from kicker Pat Leahy.  Third, Fred Smerlas blocked a field goal attempt with less than 30 seconds remaining in regulation to send it to overtime.  I'm not sure what Marv was talking about there, or what he confused it with, but he was pretty far off of what actually happened!  He was right about Ballard being on the field goal block unit though.  Does anybody remember Ballard blocking an extra point or field goal during his career?

Finally, I found a funny story about Ballard and his "amusing" post game interviews (about halfway down the page).  Following a shellacking of the Browns 42-0, a game in which Ballard completely wiped out Browns defender Thane Gash, his one word interview after the game about the hit was rather humorous and an indication of his serious, yet quiet demeanor.

Parting Shot
House Ballard was one of my favorite Bills as a kid, simply because of his nickname.  I always found it funny, even though I don't recall spending much time, if any, watching him play.  He was one of the best offensive tackles in team history, a part of the great Bills line of the Super Bowl days, and a prototype for the current NFL tackle.  I can't help but wonder if Ballard would have been a higher draft priority today based on his size and athleticism for the tackle position.  He would have been one intriguing draft prospect, that's for sure, but his career played out just fine regardless.  Ballard was the original Jason Peters, on the field; an afterthought offensive line prospect that developed into a Pro Bowler.  Let's hope Demetrius Bell follows in his footsteps of being a late-round pick from a small southern school and developing into a Pro Bowl starting tackle.  The Bills struggled replacing Ballard after he departed, and rightfully so.  He was a darn good player.

Career Stats with the Bills
96 games
80 starts
1 blocked extra point, according to Marv

Howard "House" Ballard (75) leads the way for Thurman Thomas during Super Bowl XXV against the New York Giants.