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Originally published Sunday, April 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Seahawks new wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is out for recognition

Falling to the seventh round of the 2001 draft, Houshmandzadeh has had to work to earn his place as one of the elite receivers in the NFL

Seattle Times staff reporter

Impressive numbers

T.J. Houshmandzadeh, right, has caught more passes in the NFL over the past four seasons than any other player.

93

Average number of receptions over past four seasons by Houshmandzadeh

1,021

Average total yards over past four seasons by Houshmandzadeh

877

Average total yards over past four seasons by leading receiver for Seahawks

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T.J. Houshmandzadeh sat on stage in the auditorium at Seahawks headquarters, about to be introduced as the team's $40 million man. ¶ It was the kind of moment he'd spent more than a decade working for. But none of those years had prepared him for the situation because he didn't quite know what it was like to feel coveted. ¶ Not like this, anyway.

Seahawks president Tim Ruskell sat on his right, coach Jim Mora on his left, and they introduced their free-agent prize who had been the premier wide receiver available. Houshmandzadeh looked out at a crowd that included reporters, half a dozen television cameras and at least 50 employees, and he found himself searching for words.

"First of all, it's good to see that all of y'all came out here just to see me," Houshmandzadeh said. "I don't understand why."

Introductions have never been this auspicious. Not for Houshmandzadeh.

He's more accustomed to being an afterthought, overlooked and underestimated. He left high school without a diploma and headed to junior college. He entered the NFL as a seventh-round pick, spent his first three seasons in Cincinnati and was so buried on the Bengals' bench he wanted to be traded.

He's not used to being given anything, but during the past four seasons no receiver has caught more passes than Houshmandzadeh. No receiver was more coveted on the free-agent market than Houshmandzadeh, and no one has waited longer, or worked harder, to reach this point than him.

So now that Houshmandzadeh is here in Seattle, the marquee offseason addition, what title would he give his path from poverty in Southern California to riches in the upper left corner of the country?

"The unbelievable journey," he said.

Making a name

His last name could have been Johnson.

In fact, T.J. Houshmandzadeh doesn't really know why it's not. That's his mom's last name, but she named him after the father he's never met: Touraj Houshmandzadeh.

He was an Iranian exchange student, and it was a turbulent time then in the late 1970s, and he was called back to Iran by his family.

"He wanted to be around," T.J. said. "He sent money, he sent things for the first few years in my life, but she didn't want to go [to Iran], and he wasn't coming here."

T.J. called his father two years ago. He'd heard Dad had wanted to talk to him for a number of years, and something finally spurred him to make a call.

"I don't know why I was curious," Houshmandzadeh said, "but I was curious and so I called him."

They talked a couple of times, and his father was very emotional, crying at one point as he asked if he could continue to call.

" 'Yeah, if you want to,' " Houshmandzadeh remembered saying. " 'It doesn't matter. I don't care.' And I think he might have took that the wrong way, like 'don't call me.' "

Houshmandzadeh is a lot of things. He is intense, he is charismatic and he is unflinchingly honest, but he's not the type who leaves his feelings hanging out there.

"If he calls me, that's cool," Houshmandzadeh said. "And if he doesn't, it doesn't bother me if he doesn't."

There is no ambiguity about his feelings. Houshmandzadeh is straightforward, he can be blunt, and he's transparent as glass when it comes to speaking his feelings.

"If we're cool, we're cool," he said. "And if we're not, I'm not going to act like we're cool. I'm just not going to talk to you no more. That's just how I am."

Houshmandzadeh didn't grow up with all that much money in Barstow, Calif., which is best known for being a pit stop on the drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. He has never worked a cash register or held a job other than football. He always had one thing, though. His word, which helps explain why it is so incredibly valuable to him.

"He's one of the most accountable players I've ever been around," said Dennis Erickson, who coached him at Oregon State.

Keeping his word

T.J. Houshmandzadeh talks.

There is no subject so touchy it prevents this from happening, no issue that is off-limits. He's never at a loss for words — they tend to come spilling out in a voice so rich and deep it would make a DJ at a jazz station jealous.

"Nothing's that sensitive," he said.

OK, well how about failing to earn that high-school diploma?

"I just didn't go to school," Houshmandzadeh said. "I would be out all night. It's hard to get up and go to school when you're out all night."

So what did he do for the two years he took off between high school and community college?

"I survived," he said.

Two years after his final high-school football game he ended up at Cerritos College, a two-year program, following his former high-school coach and two friends. Glenn Pope is the player the team was really interested in. He was a highly recruited receiver whose grades didn't measure up.

Houshmandzadeh was the caboose hitched to that train.

"It wasn't really a matter of finding him," said Frank Mazzotta, Cerritos College coach. "He kind of found us."

His high-school coach in Barstow, Junior Monarrez, had joined the staff at Cerritos, and he brought Pope and Charles O'Neil with him.

Houshmandzadeh hadn't graduated on time, had sat a year, but a high-school diploma isn't required to enroll at a junior college, and he eventually earned a GED.

"Somewhere along the line, he got himself focused," Monarrez said.

Football was never a problem, and it wasn't long before he was pulling arms and bending ears, trying to talk himself into an opportunity to return kicks.

"I feel somebody tugging on my shirt, tugging on my shirt," said Mazzotta. "He said, 'I can do it. I'll just run it back the whole way.' "

Darned if he didn't do just that, one of two kickoff returns of more than 100 yards during his two seasons playing for Mazzotta. He also established himself as a dependable receiver.

"He's just such a tough guy," Mazzotta said. "He's not the fastest guy in the world, but that sucker will catch the ball and he doesn't care who's around him."

He left for Oregon State in 1999, recruited by Erickson and his pro-style offense, and became the leading receiver on a Beavers team in 2000 that went 10-1, then beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

"He's a warrior, probably is the best way to put it," Erickson said.

Holding pattern

A chance. It's all Houshmandzadeh ever really expected. All he ever really needed, in fact, which is what made his first steps in the NFL so very difficult.

He caught 48 passes in his senior season at Oregon State, including six in the Fiesta Bowl. In the 2001 NFL draft, teammate Chad Johnson was chosen in the second round by Cincinnati, but Houshmandzadeh slid to the second day.

Bob Bratkowski, a Bengals assistant coach who previously worked for Erickson, called his former boss before Cincinnati picked in the sixth round. He asked if the team should choose Houshmandzadeh.

"You should have taken him with your last pick," Erickson said.

Instead, the Bengals waited one more round before Bratkowski convinced them to pick him in the seventh.

"There's no way you can explain why I got drafted where I got drafted," Houshmandzadeh said. "There's no way."

Six wide receivers were chosen in the first round that year, and four of those players are not currently on NFL rosters: David Terrell (No. 8), Koren Robinson (No. 9), Rod Gardner (No. 15) and Freddie Mitchell (No. 25).

Houshmandzadeh was chosen with the 204th pick, the 25th wide receiver chosen.

"From that point forward, it's an uphill battle," Houshmandzadeh said. "Because the NFL is not always who's the best, it is who did we draft higher?"

He started only six games total his first three seasons in Cincinnati. He was injured, true, but Cincinnati had already invested a boatload of money in Peter Warrick, the No. 4 overall pick one year before picking Houshmandzadeh, and Warrick got the bulk of the time from 2001 to 2003.

"To me, that's like coaches not wanting to win," Houshmandzadeh said without naming other players. "Because you know I'm better than this guy, just because he was the first-round pick and I was seventh round ... I had a problem with that, and I let 'em know I had a problem with that, and that's why I didn't play as much as I should have."

When Hue Jackson arrived in 2004 to coach Cincinnati's wide receivers, he offered a blank slate and the unequivocal promise he would adhere to the revolutionary concept of playing the best players.

"T.J. is not very trusting of men," Jackson said. "I think that our relationship grew because I said what I meant and I meant what I said.

"I was going to play the best players."

Houshmandzadeh established himself as one of those. He has caught more than 70 passes in each of the past five seasons. He has caught 90 or more in each of the past three.

"For the last three years in Cincinnati, they knew I was underpaid," Houshmandzadeh said. "But that's how they get down. I can't fault them for that, but that's just how it is."

"It's not a sense of accomplishment. It's a sense of not even, 'You made it.' It's a sense of recognition." — T.J. Houshmandzadeh

Houshmandzadeh put on a blue suit for the news conference introducing him as a Seahawk.

His hair was pulled back to a ponytail that draped to his shoulders. He wore an orange shirt and the million-dollar smile he's always had, even back when he was broke. As he stepped on stage, he looked out toward Kaci — his wife whom he's been with since junior college — and smiled at their two daughters who wore matching Burberry outfits.

He's got a charisma that is tough to describe and impossible to replace. He's the kind of player everyone knows they can trust, which is a big reason the Seahawks were willing to offer a contract that included a $15 million signing bonus and significance that's written into every check.

"If you're paid to the level of your peers," Houshmandzadeh said. "It's that respect that you have and the recognition that you get."

He has arrived, this contract a culmination of years of work, but he sees it as the next step in a journey that began back in California when he was a high-school football player who missed too many classes. Now, he is 31, a marquee free agent the Seahawks signed to buoy what was their weakest position last season.

"But the thing about the NFL is — any professional sport — you've got to prove yourself every year," Houshmandzadeh said. "It doesn't matter what I did last year. You've got to prove yourself every year so that's the beautiful thing about sports, period."

So a new chapter awaits in that incredible journey Houshmandzadeh has taken.

"It's like you're rewriting a book every year," Houshmandzadeh said. "Or you're adding to it because if you're not doing it every year, it doesn't matter what you did last year."

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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