Remember the great speech you delivered in middle school? Of course you don’t. Few occasions in adolescence are dreaded more intensely and forgotten more deliberately than facing the undivided attention of one’s peers.
Imagine, then, the emotions in February 2015 of seventh-grader Ed Howard, now a first-round Draft pick of the Cubs. He began the school year with a hero’s welcome at Memorial Junior High School in Lansing, Ill., after he and his Jackie Robinson West teammates won the U.S. championship at the Little League World Series. The team visited President Obama at the White House. Now the time had arrived for Ed to speak in front of his class about the thrilling summer.
As Howard and his family prepared to leave for school that morning, the news bulletin came across their television: Little League International had disqualified the team for including players who resided outside the league’s official boundaries.
When Ed arrived at school, his principal and teachers sought him out.
Are you OK?
Are other kids asking you about this?
Do you still feel like giving the speech?
Yes, he did.
How much would the news alter what he planned to say?
“I didn’t change anything,” Howard told MLB.com recently. “I just talked about the experience, how everything was [in Williamsport], and left it at that. It wasn’t too hard getting in front of the class. I was comfortable.”
More than five years later, Howard is a star shortstop at Mount Carmel High School on the South Side of Chicago, and he was the nation’s top-ranked high school infielder for the MLB Draft.
Perhaps there was another reason Howard, the No. 15-ranked Draft prospect, didn’t struggle with the speech -- to him, the Little League World Series wasn’t the experience of a lifetime. It was an experience of a lifetime. That distinction illuminates Howard’s approach to the MLB Draft, where he was selected by the Cubs with the 16th pick.
“It’s all about life experience, and he got a dose of that very early,” said Howard’s father, Ed Sr. “He still wanted to go to school that day and give the speech. He was going to do it. He wasn’t going to mope about it.
“We always talk about controlling what you can control, and he’s really listened to that. He has motivated himself. I told him back then, ‘That’s not going to be your last highlight. You’re not going to be in our basement when you’re 25, talking about what you did when you were 12. You’ve got to keep pushing yourself.’ And that’s exactly what he’s done.”
Yet, it would be inaccurate to say Howard let go of his disappointment right away. He didn’t.
In some constructive ways, he still hasn’t.
“That day, I was angry,” Howard said. “I went out there and played hard, and it felt like they were taking my name out of the history books. But the best thing to do was move on and keep working for bigger and better things.
“That moment humbled me. I learned right away to never get too high or too low, because something can always take you back down. You have to stay levelheaded. That was a big lesson for me.”
Howard’s maturity is evident in a number of ways, including the logistics of his high school education: He’s made the half-hour commute to Mount Carmel -- each way, in Chicago traffic -- for four years. On days he had early-morning baseball workouts, his alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. His parents, Ed and Calandra, sacrificed family vacations in order to afford tuition at Mount Carmel, an all-boys Catholic school that produced a pair of second-round picks in the 2018 MLB Draft, outfielders Josh Stowers and Alek Thomas.
“I’ve talked with scouting directors a lot over the last few months,” said Brian Hurry, who has reached five Illinois semifinals and won one state championship in 20 seasons as the Mount Carmel head coach. “One of the most common things I hear from them is, ‘We’ve been following him for the last couple years, and we can’t find anything wrong with him. He seems to be too good to be true.’ I just tell them, ‘No, he really is what you’re seeing.’ He’s a humble, hardworking kid. He loves the game. He’s going to be great in the clubhouse at the professional level. He’s all of that.
“Besides all of the obvious talent on the field, he has the intangibles, too.”
Hurry said Howard had Division-I potential in basketball but stopped playing the sport in high school in order to focus on baseball. Last summer, Howard traveled alone to major events such as the Prospect Development Pipeline and USA Baseball 18U World Cup tryouts.
He did so with a purpose.
“Being from the Midwest, you always hear about the kids from California or Florida,” Howard said. “I watch them and challenge myself to show my own worth and what I can do. I wanted to make the point and show them that even though I’m from the Midwest, I still believe I’m the best shortstop [in the group]. It was a really competitive summer for me.”
Ed Sr. was impressed by the seriousness with which his son approached the rigorous summer.
“It was baseball, baseball, baseball,” the elder Howard said. “It wasn’t all roses. He had to work through the rough times. When he started doing well, I realized in that moment that this is what he wants to do. It’s a blessing for him to find his passion at such a young age. We all have passions in life, but we may not be good at them. He excels at what he loves.”
Mount Carmel was poised to be one of the top teams in Illinois this year before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Howard and his classmates attended a modified commencement ceremony in May, in which graduates drove onto the Mount Carmel football field with their families and remained in their respective cars. At the conclusion of the evening, each graduate stepped outside and threw his cap into the air.
Similarly, Draft Day was different than the Howards envisioned several months ago. But the family was together, just as they have been for so many frigid April games over the years: Ed; his sisters, Chanel, 23, and Capri, 20; and their parents.
Just as on the day of Howard’s seventh-grade speech, the circumstances have changed. Howard’s resolve has not.
“The kid’s a winner,” Hurry said. “Whichever team drafts him, they’re getting even more than they imagined.”