Teenager Whitney Mercilus decided to watch his high school football team's practice one afternoon in Akron, Ohio. His cousin convinced him and a friend to show up to the field.
"Just talk to the coach," his cousin told Mercilus. "I'm sure he'll put you in. He'll love your size."
Bob Sax, Garfield High School's head football coach, did. So much so, that he wanted to suit Mercilus up right away.
Mercilus clearly remembers that first introduction to football. He had never played a down, studied a playbook, and he didn't even understand the plays on offense where he lined up as a tight end.
"I couldn't catch the ball worth anything," Mercilus said, laughing.
When asked if he had to put in a lot of hours to get up to speed with the game, Mercilus gives a low whistle and suddenly gets serious.
"So ever since that day, the first time I ever suited up, I just put in the extra time, extra work, always talking to the coaches, how do I do this, how do I do that in order to become a better player," Mercilus said Nov. 11 on Texans Radio. "I was just so determined."
The hard work is paying off.
On Thursday, the fourth-year outside linebacker was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for December for the first time in his career. Mercilus compiled 17 tackles (10 solo), 5.5 sacks for 23.5 yards, seven quarterback hits, three tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and one pass defensed in five games. He finished the 2015 regular season tied for sixth in the NFL in sacks (12.0), a career-best for him.
"I was excited," Mercilus said when he heard the news. "To win something like that is a great honor and it just shows my peers how hard I have worked to receive that type of accolade. It is pretty cool, no doubt."
Head coach Bill O'Brien attributes Mercilus' success to his work ethic, whether it's in the weight room or the practice field, his attitude, as well as his coaches.
"He's done a good job for us," O'Brien said, "He's one of our most-improved players in the two years we've been here and he deserves a lot of credit for that."
The son of Haitian immigrant parents, Mercilus always had a strong sense of work ethic. He clearly remembers his parents work multiple jobs to give their three children a better life in the United States. Both were assistants in a nursing home. His dad was also a supervisor at GOJO, a local company that manufactured soaps and hygiene products, and eventually picked up a third job as a bus driver in Akron. His mother folded clothes and cleaned at a department store, in addition to her nursing home duties.
"My parents were strict with me and my siblings," Mercilus said. "They always instilled that they came over here for us to have a better life and all that, for us to succeed in life. That's what they wanted. They wanted us to have a dream and succeed in that dream as well. So that's pretty much what was instilled in us, hard work, determination, things like that and, man, I'm here now."
Mercilus is part of a defense that finished third in the NFL this year third in yards allowed per game (310.2), third in pass yards allowed per game (210.4), fifth in sacks (franchise-record 45.0), tied for third in passes defensed (90), and tied for seventh in points allowed per game (19.6). Houston closed the season going 7-2 in their last nine games and allowed an-NFL best 12.7 points and 263.0 net yards per game in that span. Mercilus is part of a talented group, making his recognition even more extraordinary.
"I'm really happy for him because sometimes guys fly under the radar a little bit," defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said. "He's one of those guys who has been flying under the radar but I've seen his improvement, his work habits, since I've been here and I'm really happy that other people see it as well."