From Punter to Patient Care: Former U.Va. Footballer Now Knee-Deep in Nursing

Football chose Jimmy Howell, the University of Virginia's nationally ranked former punter, because of his love for the sport, athletic prowess and stature. But it was Howell – who graduated from U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences last spring with a degree in psychology – who very purposefully chose nursing.

"Nursing is my first choice," said Howell, who enrolled in the School of Nursing's Clinical Nurse Leaders program and is currently in the midst of his labor and delivery rotation. "It's what I really want and love to do."

The son of a nurse and a perfusionist – a member of a cardiac surgical team – Howell grew up in Florence, S.C., the elder of two boys. After beginning his athletic career playing junior varsity soccer in middle school and excelling in football throughout high school, Howell came to U.Va. on a football scholarship in 2008.

A punter, kicker and quarterback since adolescence, Howell was a four-year starter at punter for the Cavaliers and last year was listed as a preseason candidate for the nation's top punting award. After wrapping up his collegiate career, Howell was geared up for the National Football League draft, but believes now that "God had other plans" for him.

"I did the whole progression toward the NFL – going to the camps, pro days, going to the all-star games, and though some teams showed interest, I didn't get drafted," he said. "I was disappointed, sure, but my mentor, U.Va. football team chaplain George Morris, said something to me.

" 'When you're on the football field, you impact people's entertainment for two hours,' he said. 'When you're a nurse, you impact them for life.' That'll always ring in my ears. As soon as I heard that, it was decided."

Even as he sought a pro football career, Howell had won entry into the Clinical Nurse Leader program – a two-year program for those who come to the field with at least a bachelor's degree from another background – and became the first football player to enroll in U.Va.'s Nursing School. He hasn't looked back since.

These days, Howell is learning the intricacies of the obstetric rotation, getting used to scrubs, sensible shoes and the feeling of a stethoscope slung about his neck. That's despite a few hindrances he encounters related to his size – he's 6-foot-6 and weighs 240 pounds – and being in the thick of a female-dominated profession.

"I've had a little bit of difficulty feeling comfortable being able to do some procedures, especially if it's a female patient, doing the things a woman might be able to do more easily – a breast exam, a cervical exam, that kind of thing," he said. "And being a bigger person, I don't want to impose on anyone."

Still, he said he is finally feeling at home in his chosen profession.

"It's absolutely a good fit," Howell said. "What's that poem? 'The Road Less Traveled'? I don't have to impact the whole world, though that's my goal. Ultimately it's my patients who'll decide if I make a difference. Helping people is just what I want to do.

"And maybe the next football player, the next basketball player, will have an easier time because of me," he adds. "I know I have a lot to offer."

– by Christine Phelan Kueter