Right tackle Eric Winston (73) is a leader on and off the field for the Texans
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine on Oct. 25, 2009, for Houston's showdown at home against the San Francisco 49ers. Click here to view a JPEG of the Gameday magazine cover.
There's talk that Eric Winston, the Texans' studious right tackle, could be reaching Pro Bowl status.
As long as you understand that team goals come first, Winston says the idea has a fine ring to it.
"If you take the team equation out of it, you always want to be noticed as one of the best guys around," he said. "That's never going to change. That would be really neat if it happened one day, but if it comes, it comes, and if not, I don't need that to validate my career."
That's a very logical answer to a question most players avoid. The fear of being labeled selfish leads most players to stick with the team concept. Winston isn't most players.
He's articulate and open. His "no comment" responses are rare. He has a website that contains an "Ask Eric" section. He's tuned in on and off the field.
Winston gives a preview and wrap-up of each game on his website, ericwinston73.com. He blogs and posts messages on Twitter regularly and appears on a weekly radio show. His wife, Jenny, even writes periodic diary entries for HoustonTexans.com.
"I like to stay up with current events, check out the rumor mills and see what's going on," Winston said. "I love the sport. I love playing, being a part of the whole machine. I can't get enough of it. That helps me stay dialed in, I guess."
Does he get a lot of comments from fans on his blog?
"It's alright for an offensive lineman," he said, smiling. "I talk in-season, give a preview, something I think a fan would like to hear about. On Twitter, I don't put things like what I'm doing during the day. I put any funny thoughts or quotes that come to mind. When I'm watching Monday Night Football, I might make fun of (Ron) Jaworski."
Winston keeps track of his varied interests on his own time. He's much more attuned to his chosen profession.
"On the field, he's really smart," center Chris Myers said. "He's a master at his craft. He likes to know the routes and all that has to do with the offense in football. He likes to understand the game. He's always staying out there asking questions about anything that has to do with the game of that week."
Winston devours game film. He actually enjoys the study time.
"I've always been a big fan of the game," he said. "I've been willing to learn and dive into anything, new concepts. That's always helped me. I generally love being around football. I watch it when I go home; I put the TV on NFL Network.
"It's in my blood. I always played a ton of sports when I was little – football, baseball, basketball. It never stopped."
Winston's climb to prominence is a little bit luck and a whole lot of work.
He went from Midland Lee High School in West Texas to the University of Miami intent on becoming the best tight end in football history. Of course, Kellen Winslow was there already to complicate the issue, and Winston's coaches saw more potential for him on the offensive line.
Myers, Winston's close friend and fraternity brother at Miami, remembers the scene.
"I think it was a mixed reaction," Myers said. "He knew he had the frame that allowed him to put on some weight, but then again, he knew that he wouldn't be catching any more touchdowns and running more routes and being a pretty boy. He took it in stride and ran with it."
Winston recalls his decision-making process.
"I was getting to the point that I wanted to play," he said. "I knew Kellen was coming back for another year, and I wanted to be out there as much as possible. It was hard to keep the weight under 270, lifting every day. It was probably something that naturally was going to happen. It dawned on me that it was the most logical progression of my career.
"I'd like to think I could have made the league as a tight end, but I'd have probably been a blocking and special teams guy. So being able to play tackle has allowed me to move my career forward."
Winston spent three seasons as Miami's starting left tackle, earning first-team All-America honors after his senior season in 2005. The Texans drafted him with their second pick of the third round in 2006.
Texans offensive line coach John Benton was impressed by Winston's athleticism, but he wasn't quite sure what he had in Winston. Eight games into the 2006 season, Benton found out.
Starting right tackle Zach Wiegert was sidelined by an injury in the fourth quarter of a close game against Jacksonville. That propelled Winston into the lineup, and he's started every game for the Texans since.
"We were excited when we drafted him, but he's such a thinker and not a vocal guy that when he came in, we probably didn't notice him as much," Benton said. "When they get thrown into the fire, you notice them, and he responded quickly.
"He came in and worked hard. Really, he was forced into playing when Zach got hurt. He just blossomed into a very technically sound football player and has been very good for us ever since."
Benton could see the light coming on for Winston as he settled into his starting role.
"As is true with a lot of young players when they start out, they realize the intensity out there when there's live bullets and how important every aspect of your game is," Benton said. "You can't just go out there and make it up as you go, as sometimes you think you can if you are a superior player in college ball.
"You get out there and realize your steps better be perfect, your hands better be perfect, every technique you have better be perfect. It didn't take him long. By the end of the season, he was one of our better protector guys, and he's upped his game in the run ever since. He's a leader of our group. He leads the room. We couldn't ask for more."
The Texans have lost starting guards Mike Brisiel and Chester Pitts for the season, leaving Winston (fourth year) and Myers (fifth year) as the old men of the line.
"He's definitely one of the leaders in there to rally the guys," second-year starting left tackle Duane Brown said. "He's a guy who stays level-headed and keeps us together. He tells us no matter what, stay together and play together. That's very encouraging on Sundays in the heat of the battle to have someone like that out there. He calms you down."
Winston has become a confidant for Brown.
"He likes to see things before they happen and play off that," Brown said. "He helps me a lot. Last year, I had Ephraim (Salaam) here; he showed me a lot. Now, Eric is the one in practice and middle of the game to get some pointers from on footwork or hand placement."
Statistics that mark a good offensive line belong to the running backs, quarterbacks and receivers. Last season, the Texans became the second team this decade with a 3,000-yard passer (Matt Schaub), 1,500-yard receiver (Andre Johnson) and 1,200-yard running back (Steve Slaton). Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels earned trips to the Pro Bowl.
"Those are things we take ownership in," Winston said. "We are a big cog in that happening. Even though we're not the ones throwing or catching the ball, we like to think we had a small part in it. I definitely look at the stats after the game and want to see those guys putting up big numbers."
The Texans' running game is still under construction this season. But the passing attack has flourished, with Schaub ranking at or near the top of the league in most passing categories. Against the Arizona Cardinals, the offensive line didn't allow a single sack in 50 pass attempts by Schaub.
The more successful the Texans become, the more Pro Bowl talk will find its way to Winston. But on an individual level, Winston most looks forward to receiving accolades on a much smaller scale.
"The handshakes after the game, the pats on the back, people saying you're a helluva blocker – that's the little stuff, to me, that's awesome," he said. "That's what it's all about, when the guy in front of you says, 'Hey, great job, you're a helluva player.' That's good to hear. To get those every now and then is nice because you know you've got the respect of your peers."
Winston would like to spend about 15 years in the league and then take the next step in his life. He hopes it will be as easy as his progression in football so far. Until then, Winston plans to follow the advice of his old college coach, Larry Coker.
"Coach Coker used to say, 'Don't worry about the end of the journey, just enjoy it while it's going on,'" Winston said.
"You don't really understand that until you start looking back and saying, 'Wow, that was a lot of fun, the struggle we went through and what we did to get here.'"
Winston already has come a long way from his days as a standout tight end at Midland Lee. His arrow is only pointing up from here.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky., Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro teams.