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In west Africa, Natasha Howard realized how dramatically different life could be.
She found that Senegal was dramatically different from how she grew up in Toledo. She had the constants of going to school every day, playing basketball, having a roof over her head, and having a circle of coaches and educators to help nurture her talents and her path.
She had never seen the poverty she saw, where children lived in orphanages and ran barefoot on dirt roads to greet her and her Florida State University basketball teammates each day. They had no home, and no family to support each of them.
The Waite High School graduate wanted to reach out and help every child she had met. She wanted to show them how to properly dribble a basketball, and to tell them that, yes, there was a better life for them.
As she looked outside of herself, her first trip outside of North America resonated within her.
“It really opened my eyes,” Howard said. “I went to the Bahamas my freshman year, for a tournament, but this was way, way better than the Bahamas. Going to Africa, I was like, ‘wow, we as United States citizens, we have so much.’ But we went there, and it was good that we went there and we gave back.”
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Now a senior at Florida State, Howard, 22, is considered by many to be the top girls basketball player Toledo Public Schools has produced. She led the Indians to the Division I state championship game in 2010 and was named Ohio’s Ms. Basketball, and a McDonald’s All-American that year.
At Florida State she continued her torrid pace.
The 6-foot-3 forward is an All-America candidate, a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, an All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection, and a potential WNBA prospect.
She set a school single-game scoring record with 40 points in an 83-59 win Feb. 13 at Syracuse and leads the Seminoles (17-9) with 19.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. She also it tops in blocked shots (65) and second in steals (48). Florida State plays at Clemson today at 2 p.m.
“I’ve seen her go from being someone who was shy and somewhat insecure to someone who is extremely well spoken, who takes initiative and who is a leader,” Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. “That comes from the way she has attacked her college career. She had the courage to take a jump and come to a state where she’s never lived, where she didn’t know anybody. She left her family to finally find an experience that best fit her. It’s how you attack things when you come here, from an academic, athletic, and a personal standpoint, and she has never, ever shied away.”
One incident interrupted a life-changing trip for her — and it could have changed her senior year at Florida State.
Howard returned to Toledo to be with her family during a crisis, after her younger brother, Bennie, was shot.
“There was a lot of uncertainty with that,” Semrau said. “Her courage in handling that also showed her vulnerability, but she had trust in us to show that hurt and her strength, and to go back and to be of support to her family. She left behind an amazing experience to take care of her family.”
While she doesn’t say much about the August incident, her mother, Latasha, said that Bennie is “doing real, real good,” and that her daughter calls home at least three to four times a week.
Howard said she drew strength from that crisis.
“It was a struggle,” Howard said. “I stood up. I stayed strong. I did what I had to do. I came home from Africa, and I spent time with my family. I made sure we were okay.”
When Howard returned to Tallahassee, she made a vow.
“That’s my only brother," Howard said. “Every day, I play for him. I play for my whole family.”
Path to success
For Howard, each step she has taken has been surrounded by people who helped her follow a path to success. Raised by her mother, Howard began playing basketball when she was 7, after she watched her uncles play the game.
“Basketball,” Latasha Howard said, “brought Natasha to life. She became so interested in it, and it’s something in her heart.”
Howard’s surrogate family began to form after she took her first steps into Waite High School.
A teammate, Shareese Ulis, took Howard under her wing and showed her what it meant to embrace being a selfless player and the value of a strong work ethic.
When she reaches out to her former coach, Manny May, they don’t discuss basketball.
“The main thing we talk about is God,” May said. “We talk about scriptures. We talk about the word of God."
Carolyn Yenrick, a dean at Waite, recognized Howard’s humility and her value to the school community as a role model and a citizen. When Waite made the Division I state tournament in 2010, Yenrick organized a school bus trip to Columbus to watch the Indians.
“She has overcome some tremendous obstacles,” Yenrick said. “She could have made choices that would not have put her in this position. She had to work as hard as can be to get her grades, but it was enough to prove that she had what it took to take her to the next level, academically and athletically. And she listened to the people who told her, ‘you have a talent, and not everyone has that.’ But there was never a threat of arrogance.”
A guidance counselor, Jeff Griffith, mentored Howard academically and became a proverbial gatekeeper when the colleges began to court Howard.
First came Ohio State, which inquired about Howard as a ninth-grader who led the City League with 16.1 points a game. Michigan pursued her. Geno Auriemma, who built a dynasty at Connecticut, was also among those suitors. So was Oklahoma, fresh off an NCAA Final Four appearance in 2009.
Howard took the recruiting process in stride. But she also wanted to find a program that didn’t just regard her as a basketball player or judge her as a piece in their championship pursuit. Howard needed a place where she could create a home.
The atmosphere at Florida State appealed to her. So did the emphasis on academics — she was given a road map to determine how she would earn her degree in social science.
“She felt comfortable and at peace in Tallahassee,” May said. “She believed in the people around her. The coaching staff showed her a family atmosphere. At that time, one of the assistant coaches and coach Sue [Semrau], they showed that they cared about her. And that’s the biggest thing about Natasha, she responds to people who care about her and who show that they care about her. She needed that environment.”
She had a similar circle at Waite.
“Her family,” Yenrick said, “is Waite High School."
At the end of Howard’s senior year, she was invited to play in two prestigious showcase basketball games — the McDonald’s All-America game at Schottenstein Center in Columbus, and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-America game in San Antonio.
Yenrick and her husband, David, left the birthday party of a family friend in Dallas and drove six hours to San Antonio to watch Howard play.
Through the trip, Yenrick worried as if Howard was one of her own children.
“I told my husband at the game, ‘I don’t know if I could have put my own child all the way out here,’” Yenrick recalled.
Then, she thought of something that sent her into a mild panic.
“Dave,” she asked, turning to her husband, “does she have enough underwear to last her through this trip?”
Four years later, Howard admits that leaving Toledo for Florida State had its difficulties, but basketball came easy.
Her freshman year, she started in all 32 games, scored 10.6 points a game, and was second on the team in four statistical categories.
As a sophomore, she earned All-ACC third-team honors, led the conference in double-doubles (12), and averaged 12.2 points and 9.1 rebounds a game.
Last season, she was an All-ACC selection who averaged 12.7 points and led the Seminoles in rebounding (7.5) and blocks (1.5).
“The one thing I didn’t know about her was how willing she was to play any role that she needed to play,” Semrau said.
“She did all the little things, and she never wanted to be a superstar, but she did everything that she needed to be a superstar. She’s on so many watch lists, and she’s broken records here at Florida State.
“But she never set out to be individually rewarded.”
Howard plays in her final home game next Sunday against Virginia. Her mother, Latasha, will be at senior night in Tallahassee.
“I see something great for her,” she said of her daughter. “She’s always been a bright child who loved to help people, in any shape and any way. I can see her moving into a big world.”
When basketball ends, Howard, who is majoring in social science, already projects herself in another role: she wants to work with children.
“The WNBA might be a goal, but the biggest thing Natasha wants is to make the people around her better,” May said. “She’s going to achieve the best she can. Every kid wants to go to the NBA or the WNBA, and it’s about getting there. But it’s also about giving back.”
That, May said, is Howard’s greatest attribute.
“Our coaches are always telling us that it doesn’t matter how good we are as an athlete, but it’s how we leave as a person when we leave Florida State,” Howard said. “I’ve gotten to do community service, and I’ve opened myself up to other people. It’s just about giving back.”