Despite setbacks, Houshun gains respect

Boston College Virginia Tech Football-4

Houshun Gaines (11) is shown during a game against Boston College. He tore his ACL on Saturday against Pitt.


Sports Writer

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Two years ago the name Houshun Gaines meant nothing to me, Nash Central wasn’t a school I had heard of, and Virginia Tech was just another team I’d see pop up on TV here and there.

Now, the three are entangled in my mind because of Gaines and his tenacity to overcome unavoidable lows and self-inflicted mistakes.

I won’t forget how Gaines, a Nash Central grad and current Hokies defensive end, spoke about his mother following a win over Duke this season. His words are seared into my brain, no matter the fact they are archived on my recorder.

Tardra Hilliard was ill, and would die days after that game. And Gaines, who still had his mother’s initials written on his face in block letters, said that the relationships he made at VT is what helped him get through the pain.

As he sat in that small interview room crammed with reporters and TV cameras holding a tight shot of his face, Gaines spoke with a clear mind and thankful heart. It was football — a game to some, a job to others, and an escape rope from the real world for many more — that helped him endure that life-changing event of losing a parent.

“My mom is dealing with some health issues right now,” Gaines said that night. “It’s been tough, but the main thing is coming out and being around the guys, being around the team. Being able to play football, it gives you a moment to get away from everything because you can get swallowed up into a whole different world. Without these guys, I don’t know if I would be sitting here, acting the way I am.”

On Saturday against Pitt, football was taken away from Gaines in the form of a season-ending injury.

His breakout season was cut short after he suffered an ACL tear during the Hokies’ 52-22 loss.

The injury is a blow to an already reeling VT team that has endured a number of injuries while in the midst of a three-game losing streak. And for Gaines, the injury ends a promising season that saw the athletic pass rusher take command of the Hokies defense.

And while his on-field actions as a football player stand out in the stat sheets, his journey is what makes those performances memorable.

Gaines didn’t shy away from letting this reporter take a peek under the football helmet when we first spoke back in June.

During ACC media days ahead of the college football season I remember circling Virginia Tech’s press availability time slot. I wanted to attend in hopes of talking with coach Justin Fuente about the former Nash Central athlete who was in line for a starting gig entering his redshirt junior season.

I had my headphones in and was writing a story when I looked up at the clock. I had missed the Hokies’ press conference in the large banquet hall, and was cutting it close on making it for the scheduled 1-on-1 time with players and coaches.

I raced into the room to hopefully catch the tail end of interviews and soon realized I wasn’t late at all. The room had cleared out except for Fuente, who sat at a table surrounded by a small huddle of lingering media types.

The next wave of coaches and athletes would soon take over the room, and two VT media handlers were counting down the number of questions Fuente had time to answer, but the coach didn’t seem, or care, to hear them.

He was set to answer every last question. So when I asked a personal question about Gaines’ rocky start to his time as a Hokie — a team suspension as well as lack of playing time over the first three years — Fuente smiled.

The response that followed was clearly about a guy that had earned the respect of his coach.

Fuente spoke about growing up and how the young man from Nash Central has evolved as both a player and a man. It didn’t seem like hyperbole, either, as Fuente never broke eye contact when explaining that ‘House’ cared deeply about his football team and his teammates.

Fuente seemed proud that Gaines didn’t waste his second chance, and instead used that lesson to mature and find his footing in a new state with a new team with added responsibilities. Fuente’s stoic question-and-answer facade gave way to a lighter side — at least as light as a no-nonsense, lunchpail-awarding football coach could muster.

“House and I, in my short time here, have had our differences about some other subjects away from football,” Fuente told me. “But I do believe that he loves playing the game and the team is important to him. ... He will be a guy we count on quite honestly.”

That stuck with me. As soon as I left the interview room I called Gaines, and despite never meeting me, we spoke for nearly 20 minutes about various topics: How he accepted what turned out to be fake offer to play at Florida; his team suspension early in his career; his preparation for a season where the Hokies tapped him to be a regular starter.

He attacked that opportunity with a ferocity that appeared on a national TV win against Florida State in a game that kicked off the college football season. He continued, for the next eight games, to lead a VT team that looked like it was for real.

The former Bulldogs star started nine games this season and was the top pass rusher on the team. He led the Hokies in sacks (4.5), fumble recoveries (2) and quarterback hurries (6), and was tied for first on the team with two forced fumbles. Gaines also recorded 22 tackles.

During his Monday press conference, Fuente confirmed Gaines’ injury and expects him back next season.

“House plays extremely hard and will be missed,” Fuente said. “But he will very quickly be on the road to recovery and look forward to him being out next year.”

That makes two of us.