Ken Houston recalls signing a $13,000 contract with a $6,000 bonus as a rookie with the Houston Oilers in 1967.
The deal, which also included a gold Dodge Polara with a black vinyl top, seemed surreal to a man who had picked cotton in Texas alongside his sharecropping grandparents years earlier.
Houston, now 63 and enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said he deferred most of his football income and lived off the equivalent of a teacher's salary. The philosophy seems appropriate given that Houston -- the 214th player chosen in the 1967 AFL-NFL draft -- works as an academic counselor for at-risk, special-education, homebound and hospitalized students in the Houston Independent School District.
He retired from the NFL in 1980, before players routinely earned seven-figure salaries.
"One of the philosophies that I always use is, 'The person who is the wealthiest is the one who needs the least,'" Houston said, "so, if I can hold my emotions or my wants down to be within the range of money that I have, then I have a certain amount of peace because I'm not stressed out. I try to teach my kids that way, and biblically, that you can be in the world but not of the world, and I think that's where I am."
"Mr. Houston," as co-workers called him during recent interviews, coordinates academic testing for the 200 to 300 general- and special-education students in the district's special education/community services program.
"He is a real compassionate person, a very beautiful person,"' said Brenda Griffin, secretary in the office where Houston works. "Some of the students leave and they call just to talk to him. We have children who are repeat offenders with drugs in the program, and they always call him when they need someone to talk to."
Houston, who ranks No. 5 on ESPN.com's 50 best draft steals list, signed with the AFL's Oilers in 1967. He played for the Washington Redskins from 1973 to 1980, after George Allen acquired his rights in exchange for five players. His goal-line stop of Dallas' Walt Garrison in the final seconds of a Monday night game in 1973 ranks among the plays fans remember.
Houston appeared on two AFL all-star teams and 10 Pro Bowl teams and returned 49 interceptions for 898 yards and nine touchdowns. Hall of Fame voters enshrined him as part of a 1986 class that also featured Paul Hornung, Willie Lanier, Fran Tarkenton and Doak Walker. Not that Houston revels in past glories.
"I never bought into that life because it wasn't real to me," Houston said. "I would go to work, I enjoyed doing it, it was beneficial, but I always kept it in the proper perspective."
Houston's annual celebrity golf tournament raises money for Texas Children's Hospital. Those who work with Houston say he makes his biggest impact on kids in need. His career in education has spanned almost two decades.
"He goes out and speaks with the kids and he motivates them, he talks to them about right and wrong," principal Marilyn Weakley said, "because a lot of our kids are in drug-rehab settings and adjudicated settings, placed there by parents, judges, Children's Protective Services.
"Once people who do not work for the district see what a good job he has done with them, they often ask him to speak at their [functions]."
Houston laments the lack of vocational opportunities available to students who might not be suited for college. Even if every student tested well enough for college, many couldn't afford to attend, he said.
"What has happened, basically, is you see a different kind of America because of the kinds of kids we have on the street," Houston said. "And those kids become adults. They have to take care of us. To me, if we don't invest a lot more time into them, we are going to pay a terrible price."
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.