GREEN BAY – Davon House knew the reality of his situation as soon as the Packers cornerback left the field on Jan. 11, 2015.
The Packers, having just defeated the Dallas Cowboys, were bound for the NFC Championship Game in Seattle. A free-agent-to-be, House took a break from the excitement and jubilation to recognize what might have been his last game in front of nearly 80,000 fans at Lambeau Field.
“I walked off the field with Tramon Williams and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to miss this,’” House recalled on Saturday.
Green Bay is where House grew up. Those first four NFL seasons taught him not only how to be a better cornerback, but also a better man. He developed work ethic, character and even learned how to overcome a lifelong battle with dyslexia under position coach Joe Whitt Jr., who battles the disorder himself.
In the end, House was half right about his future on that winter day more than two years ago. The 6-foot, 195-pound cornerback signed a free-agent contract with Jacksonville in March 2015 and set a franchise record for passes defensed in his first season with the Jaguars before jumping at the opportunity to return to Green Bay earlier this spring.
House, meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, dropped everything when his agent told him of the Packers’ possible interest in a reunion. One year, two years, the contract length didn’t matter. He wanted back in.
That’s why this season, through all its ups and downs, has been meaningful to House. Returning to Green Bay brought on a feeling of nostalgia and reunited the former fourth-round pick with several coaches and players he considers close friends, especially Whitt.
“Massive. He was huge,” said House earlier this season when asked of the importance of Whitt in re-signing with the Packers. “I don’t think I would’ve said no to Pittsburgh if he wasn’t here. He’s a role model. He teaches the group. We both share some common disabilities with dyslexia so we connect on a different level.”
Dyslexia was a cause of anxiety for most of House’s childhood. As a senior in high school, House said he read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. He’d read a page, but the words wouldn’t compute in his mind. If he couldn’t get it down in high school, he’d often wonder how he’d ever survive college.
House’s solution was to memorize paragraphs before reading aloud in class, but even that idea wasn’t foolproof. One time, he got tripped up and lost his place standing in front of his teacher and classmates.
“I remember one time there was a part where I couldn’t read it and the teacher was like, ‘Ah, Davon,’” recalled House, exasperation in his voice. “I’m trying to read it, stuttering, pausing and not knowing the word. Everyone is laughing because they don’t know. It kind of hurt.”
Dyslexia taught House an important lesson – be patient, take your time before speaking and be who you are. House credits his wife, Leatricia, for helping get him through school at New Mexico State, but Whitt also played a pivotal role once House was drafted to Green Bay.
House opened up to his position coach during his first year in Green Bay. Whitt shared his own journey with dyslexia, providing articles and literature to House. It helped the young cornerback better understand the disorder and also opened his eyes to other successful individuals who overcame it.
The two share a tight bond today, though that doesn’t mean Whitt didn’t test House. He always had the size and athleticism, but needed someone to light a fire under him. That’s where Whitt were came in.
“If you ask Davon, I was as hard on him his rookie year as anybody because he wasn’t getting it done,” said Whitt in an interview earlier this season. “He wasn’t where I wanted him to be. I saw the talent. So if there was anybody here that would hate me, it would be him. But he’s such a good guy and he understands everything I did was coming from a place of trying to get him better, and then it came to a point where he was just a really great kid.
“He’s my daughter’s favorite player. When he left here the first time, she cried. The bond we have and the bond you have in the room as players, the closer you are, the harder you play for each other.”
The light came on for House entering his fourth NFL season in 2014. He spent that offseason working out with nine-year veteran Jarrett Bush. Everything changed when House returned for camp, part his workouts with Bush and part years of learning under Whitt, Williams, Sam Shields and Charles Woodson.
In his return to Green Bay, House has provided a similar brand of leadership for Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, Kevin King and the other young cornerbacks on the Packers’ roster. He leads drills and sets the tone every time he steps on the field.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s practice or a game.
“It’s night and day,” said Whitt comparing House’s work ethic from 2011 until now. “He’s on the front end of drills. He talks it. He’s calling people out. And don’t let House (fool you) because he’s quiet, meek and a Godly man – he is a man now. They know that. If they want to get sideways with him, they have their hands full because he is a man now. He’s 100 percent. If he needs to handle himself that way, he can. That’s what I respect about him.”
On the field, this year has been a challenge. When House has been healthy, Whitt has been pleased with the veteran cornerback’s performance, but a medley of leg, shoulder and back injuries have sidelined the veteran for four games and limited him in others.
The scariest incident came earlier this month in Cleveland. Listed as doubtful with the shoulder, House surprised everyone when he started the game. He played well before a downfield collision with Browns receiver Josh Gordon resulted in House being carted to the locker room.
The injury could’ve stopped House in his tracks. Instead, he missed one game before returning last Saturday against Minnesota. Although the Packers were technically eliminated from the playoffs, good luck telling House that.
“Why not? Last year during this time, I was wishing I could be back here,” said House, who’ll again be a free agent at the end of the season. “Now that I’m here, I’m glad I played. I don’t regret anything that I’ve done. Some people said, ‘You should be smart out there.’ It’s hard to put my pride to the side.”
The situation was reminiscent of earlier this summer when House hitched an overnight ride with two Packers fans to Green Bay after missing a connecting flight. Whitt told House he didn’t have to be there for the technically voluntary OTA workout, but the cornerback didn’t listen.
House enters Sunday’s regular-season finale against Detroit with 43 tackles, six passes defensed, one sack and one interception. He’s pleased with what he’s put on film this year, meeting one of his preseason goals to improve his tackling this year.
Like 2014, the 28-year-old cornerback walked off Lambeau Field last Saturday uncertain of whether he’ll return. While he doesn’t know what the future holds, House has no regrets about the decision he made nine months ago.
“It’s been a good ride, man,” House said. “Like I was telling a buddy of mine, if I had a chance, do I accept the Pittsburgh offer or come to Green Bay? I said, ‘No, if I had to do it again, I’m coming back here.’ One of the reasons why I came back is for the group of men we have in the locker room – men like Ha Ha (Clinton-Dix), Joe (Whitt), of course Aaron (Rodgers), Clay (Matthews), Morgan (Burnett). I love this organization. If I had to do it again, I’d do it again.”