Lamarr Houston knows it’s still circulating — the ridicule, the mockery, the easy-access YouTube footage. He understands the critics have attached the harshest of labels to his first season as a Bear.
Disappointment. Failure. Total bust.
And he’s aware that many fans still view the abrupt end to his substandard year as nothing short of clownish, his only sack leading to a questionable celebration that led to a career-altering knee injury.
“I know it’s out there,” Houston says. “I do. But, hey, you take it with a grain of salt.”
Still, while the 28-year-old outside linebacker has developed armor to deflect criticism, guided by an understanding that the most important chapter in his football career has to be this next one, Houston’s story can’t start anywhere but here — at the 33-yard line on the south end of Gillette Stadium.
That’s where Houston’s fifth NFL season ended and where the slapstick memes began, with the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee ruptured and an odd instinct telling him to join the masses in amusement.
“When I was on the ground,” Houston says, “I laughed too. I had to.”
After signing a five-year, $35 million contract to join the Bears as a defensive lineman, Houston played 396 snaps over eight games before finally recording that first sack. And when it finally came — with Houston bursting off the edge unblocked to smother Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — the urge to celebrate took over.
Up Houston bounced, skipping, leaping and, as he always has done during his sack dance, pretending to heave a pair of heavy dumbbells to the ground. Upon landing, his right knee blew out.
That the injury came during a celebration was bad enough. That the Bears were down 25 points at the time late in a blowout loss that epitomized a humiliating season turned Houston into a punch line.
Yet on the field, as Houston’s own laughter slowed, his mind raced ahead.
“My second thought was ‘Laugh now. Because next year when I come back, there’s not going to be much to laugh about.'”
Houston understands how it all looked — an underachieving starter in the first season of a big contract showing personal delight while his team was getting pummeled. A tsunami of criticism swelled.
Beyond that, however, Houston says he convinced himself not to spend much time thinking about the misguided dance that detoured him into a patience-testing rehab process.
“Of course people are going to question what I was doing,” he says. “But look, it was my first sack of the year. I should have had more by then. So (after) my first one I was going to celebrate regardless. People can say whatever they want. They’re not wrong to question why I celebrated and they’re not wrong to say I shouldn’t have celebrated. That’s their opinion. And it doesn’t bother me. I had reason to celebrate.”
On way back
Now down the homestretch of his rehabilitation, Houston finds himself thirsting for a return to practice at the start of Bears training camp.
Never seriously injured before last season — a minor MCL sprain with the Raiders, he says, was his previous worst setback — Houston’s heightened passion stems largely from the investment he poured into his recovery and the belief that somehow this whole ACL ordeal was a blessing in disguise.
Start with the assertion of strength coach Ben Velazquez, part of Houston’s rehab team in New York, that the defender’s knee was bound to give out eventually. As Velazquez and Dr. Keith Pyne began working with Houston last winter, their physical assessments and evaluations into Houston’s own complaints convinced them his ACL had been worn down over time as it compensated for other deficiencies.
Houston admitted to Velazquez that through much of 2014, he lacked his usual spring, feeling tightness around his hips and unable to get his usual push off his right leg.
“Without having seen him immediately before the injury, I would theorize that part of his quad was shut down and the muscles in his pelvic girdle were shut down,” Velazquez says. “And that was putting unnecessary stress and responsibility on the ACL. So it didn’t take much.”
Since his rehab began, Houston has focused on stabilizing his alignment while studying the mechanics of his movements on video. He also spent significant time this spring strengthening his core at Pilates Center of the North Shore.