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Toy story: Former Auburn walk-on debuts musical game
A walk-on running back at Auburn from 2003-06, Alex Howell, left, earned his degree in industrial design.
Dec. 27, 2017

By Jeff Shearer

ATLANTA- Alex Howell knew he was in trouble during practice for the 2003 Music City Bowl. Auburn's scout team running back with a frame similar to Will Hastings, the 5-9, 161-pound Howell looked across the line of scrimmage and braced for impact.

Waiting to collide was Brandon Jacobs, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound tank of a running who was trying a new position, linebacker.

"Brandon had no idea how to be a linebacker and pretty much destroyed me on every single drill," Howell remembers.

Auburn's veteran linebackers, future pros like Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas, and current linebackers coach Travis Williams, knew the drill. Jacobs, not so much.

"It's not that you wouldn't go full speed and hit somebody in these drills," Howell said. "It was more for form tacking, and wrapping up. Brandon really just didn't care. He just ran through me. It was so funny. I wasn't used to it. I was used to Travis and a couple teammates wrapping up and pushing me backwards. Brandon pretty much knocked me back about five yards."

When Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown returned for their senior seasons in 2004, Jacobs transferred, seeking a school where he could return to running back. Howell stayed, investing four seasons as an Auburn walk-on, from 2003-06.

"Just having the opportunity to play at Auburn was a dream," Howell said. "I played with the greats, Carnell and Ronnie. They were incredible to watch."

After earning an industrial design degree from Auburn University, Howell obtained a master's in video game design from UCF in Orlando.

"Every single time I tell somebody that I got a graduate degree in video game design, they just don't believe me," he said.

An internship at EA Sports led to a full-time job working on EA's NCAA Football game for three years. Howell's time as an Auburn student-athlete helped him bring real-world experience to the project despite his lack of playing time.

"That was always the running gag at EA," Howell said. "I never touched the field."

When EA discontinued the NCAA Football franchise, Howell landed at Hasbro, Inc., the world's third largest toy maker, in Rhode Island.

Working in what Hasbro calls "integrated play" -- the fusion of physical and digital toys -- Howell serves as the senior product designer for DropMix, a music mixing game.

"It's so weird to describe, but as soon as you see a video or you try it out in person, it's pretty mind-blowing," he said.

Having demonstrated DropMix at internal meetings and external conferences, Hasbro picked Howell to represent the company on NBC's Today show before Christmas, where he delivered Hasbro's $250,000 donation to the show's toy drive.

"Those nerves always are still there, like going out to Jordan-Hare Stadium right before a football game," Howell said of his television appearance. "You expect the best is going to happen, but sometimes you never know what's going to happen."

The bright lights and cameras did not faze Howell, who grew up around a TV station. His father, Bob Howell, was the main anchor at WSFA in Montgomery for 30 years.

"Growing up, seeing Daddy being on television, it was always interesting seeing him on the news," Howell said. "I don't think I've one-upped him, but I don't think I would have been on the Today show if it weren't for all of those times that we did our fake recordings acting like him when we were growing up. It was really funny living up to his legacy."

A talented high school receiver, Howell visited with then-coach Tommy Tuberville before walking on in 2003.

"I said, 'I'd love to get to play," Howell recalled. "He told me that to get where he was, he had to play college football. He said, 'I didn't play college football knowing I was going to touch the field. I played college football because I wanted to be a football coach.'

Hasbro is giving $250,000 worth of toys to the TODAY Toy Drive, with Howell

"I took that to heart. I knew the opportunities that would come from playing football were going to be much bigger than me touching the field. It really has worked out that way. Everything I learned on the field in terms of hard work, stamina, teamwork, leadership qualities most importantly, and sacrifices. Those really have kept me on this path to where I am right now."

Even though Howell holds degrees from both schools that will meet in Monday's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, he says his loyalty remains undivided.

"As much as I loved going to grad school at UCF, my heart will always be with my Tigers."

Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:



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