Full speed ahead

Early edition

Published December 20, 2006

TAMPA — On special teams, the path Houston Hess typically chooses is a simple one: full speed  ahead, directly toward an opposing kick returner.

The path that brought him to USF is less straightforward .

Hess is a freshman walk-on linebacker who leads the Bulls with 11 special-teams tackles. More impressive, he’s 22 years old and playing football for the first time in nearly five years.

“It’s been a blessing for me to be able to go to school and do something I love to do while getting an education,” Hess said.

Faith and football

Hess was a three-sport standout at Oswego High in suburban Chicago, starring in football and basketball and as a right-handed pitcher in baseball.

He had scholarship offers in baseball, but knew his immediate future was with his Mormon faith, which allowed him to take a two-year mission once he was 19.

“It’s something I’d always wanted to do,” said Hess, who grew up in Utah. “I’d seen other people do it, cousins and uncles, and their experiences and testimonies gave me the desire to do it myself.”

In spring 2003, he left athletic uniforms behind for a white dress shirt and tie, and headed for Argentina.

“A wild experience,” he said. “A great opportunity, and I learned a lot, grew up a lot. I was really humbled.

 “Showering with a bucket, washing my clothes, learning a whole different culture and language,” said Hess, who now speaks fluent Spanish.

“It’s amazing to see the people and how they live. They’re the happiest people in the world, even though they have nothing.”

He finds daily reminders of his mission in the little things that transcend both parts of his life.

“Every time I put on a pair of sandals, I think of Argentina,” he said. “There, you don’t walk around barefoot. I always had to wear sandals, in the shower, wherever I went. So now, when I put on sandals, the first thing that comes to mind is the mission.”

When his mission ended in spring 2005, Hess had planned to walk on in baseball at Illinois. His family had moved to Florida, however, so he had his doubts — he had been away from them for two years, so did he want to leave them again for college?

His sister, Lyndsie, had written him about USF, where she was enrolled and was part of the Sun Dolls dance team that performs at athletic events. His parents had attended games to watch Lyndsie, but also left impressed with Bulls football.

“They saw how fun the games were, so I decided to come home and give football a shot,” said Hess, who earned a spot on the Bulls roster, redshirted the 2005 season and made his debut this fall.

“He’s a great kid, works his tail off,” coach Jim Leavitt said. “He’s done a great job for us on special teams.”
So many changes

As if years away from the sport weren’t transition enough, Hess learned a new position at USF. He played free safety in high school, but his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame was better suited for outside linebacker.

His contributions have been on special teams, but he has earned the respect of the team’s senior linebackers, Stephen Nicholas and Patrick St. Louis.

“Hess goes out there and works hard every day in practice,” St. Louis said. “He does what the coaches ask of him, never complains. He’s a key contributor on special teams, and here, that’s the first place you get a real shot at playing. My first year, I never played (linebacker) in a game, but I played special teams.”

Hess, who had four special-teams tackles in USF’s upset of then-No.7 West Virginia last month, said he picked up his work ethic and commitment on his mission.

“With all the hard times and trials and tribulations I came across in South America, when it comes to times where people might quit during two-a-days, I’ve been able to push through it and keep on going,” he said.

Hess, as a freshman, is older than St. Louis, and has more maturity than most first-year players, even if there’s good-natured ribbing from younger teammates.

“I get fun of for my age around here. They wonder if I got held back in school,” Hess said. “I’ll be around here a while, so I’ll be an older one of the bunch. But it was worth it, the decision I made to do the mission. Well worth it.”

And if his efforts are limited to special teams, well, Hess has already given years of his life to other things without hesitation.

“I know the Lord will put me where I need to be,” he said, “and things will work out how they should.”