There were days when Stephen Houston wanted to quit.
After he failed to qualify academically at Ole Miss out of high school and to gain admission to North Carolina out of junior college, Houston constantly wondered if things would ever go his way.
“It’s long. It’s a real long journey,” Houston said. “You have your days when you think that nobody’s going to call. You have your days when you think that you just want to quit school. But you have to have that drive not to give up and do what you gotta do to make it out.”
Houston, a 6-foot, 228-pound running back from Ohio, enrolled at Independence Community College in Kansas when he left Ole Miss. It wasn’t necessarily what he had in mind, but it was Houston’s only option.
While playing at Independence for coach Steven Carson, Houston ran for more than 1,000 yards and tortured defenses with his downhill running style and surprising speed.
But more important than his on-field production, Houston learned what it would take to be successful in the classroom, something that helped him land at IU.
“I had to do it on my own,” Houston said. “Grades weren’t given to me. I actually had to take notes. Notes weren’t sent to me.”
Carson saw Houston mature off the field, too.
“He really buckled down and got his grades up,” Carson said. “He went back and took some classes that he didn’t need to graduate but to get into Indiana. He really made an effort to do that.”
Still, it was something of a long shot that Houston would see the field for the Hoosiers this season. He needed an extra class to get into IU, and he didn’t arrive on campus until early July.
At the time, it was hard to tell who was taking a bigger gamble.
IU was giving a scholarship to a guy that had no other offers and had already been turned away from two other schools because of academics.
Houston was coming to a school seemingly stacked at the running back position. With Darius Willis, Nick Turner, Antonio Banks, Matt Perez and D’Angelo Roberts on the roster at the time, Houston looked like the odd man out. Willis, Turner and Banks have since left the team.
That didn’t bother Houston. He had been in a similar situation at Independence.
“The person in front of me was better than me, and I just learned from him,” Houston said. “That’s what I did when I got here, and that’s what I’m still doing now. I learn something from Perez or D’Angelo that I use in the game.
“Waiting through that first year (at Independence), not able to play, made me realize I’m not the best player I thought I was.”
Houston played well in the season opener against Ball State but sat out against Virginia. IU Coach Kevin Wilson went with Perez and later Roberts as the starter, and Houston was forced to wait his turn.
Something finally clicked for Houston before a road game against North Texas. Running Backs Coach Deland McCullough said Houston started preparing better than the other backs.
The next week against Penn State, Houston was the starter.
“The thing about Stephen is he’ll take the things we talk about, and after practice, he’ll come talk to me. He’ll come and see me during the day,” said McCullough, who recruited Houston. “He wants to know what he needs to do to get better, and he puts those things in play immediately.”
Houston has never looked back. He’s started every Big Ten game and eclipsed 100 yards against both Wisconsin and Northwestern.
“He probably gets better as the game goes on. That’s what he did for us,” Carson said. “You finally found out who wanted to tackle a guy in the fourth quarter when you’ve got a good running back running downhill.”
A player who wasn’t even supposed to be in the mix has become the Hoosiers’ offensive leader.
This is Houston’s team.
“He’s just kind of been a good leader to me, keeping me where I need to be,” Roberts said. “He keeps me going. Sometimes it’s not going the best for me, and he keeps me going on the right path.”
Maybe this wasn’t such a gamble for either side — maybe IU just believed in Houston as much as Houston believed in IU.
“God brought me here,” Houston said. “Coach Wilson gave me a home.”
And Houston gave Wilson his running back of the future.
Michigan State is playing for a spot in the Big Ten Championship game. IU is, well, not.
The Hoosiers have played well against one-dimensional offenses, but Michigan State is anything but. Quarterback Kirk Cousins will lead the Spartans to touchdowns early and often, and Tre Roberson will struggle against the best defense he’s seen to date.
Michigan State 41, IU 10