Ryan Mallett's long road

Even without much hope their son would play, Debbie and Jim Mallett attended several of Ryan's games with the New England Patriots.

A concern arose, though, when the Patriots faced the Houston Texans in 2012. It was about that game-wrecking beast on his way to defensive player of the year who played for the opposing team.

"I always hoped Ryan would get into the game, except that one, because I didn't want J.J. Watt to hurt him," she said.

This weekend will offer more hope -- and safety, as her son is now Watt's teammate. He'll finally get to play meaningful snaps in an NFL game, for the first time since being drafted in 2011. And he'll get to do it before the end of a rookie contract that expires after this season.

His chance of playing grew more likely after a preseason trade to the Houston Texans, a team with a much less settled quarterback situation than what the Patriots have. It grew further as Texans starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick struggled through the first half of the season.

At 4-5 with seven games remaining, Watt and his teammates will now be counting on Ryan Mallett. In doing so, they're giving him the opportunity to realize a lifelong ambition.

It's been a long road.

Back to his roots

Something pulled Ryan Mallett back to northeast Texas this summer.

He called about a month in advance, though he knows he can show up at the Surratts' home unannounced any time. As if he were still the gangly high school kid who could throw the ball 88 yards, his mother drove him the 99 miles up Highway 59 from Texarkana to Carthage and deposited him with his old coach, Scott Surratt, for a week and a half.

His occasional offseason visits with Surratt, the offensive coordinator at Texarkana's Texas High School during Mallett's time there, had ceased after the Patriots drafted him in 2011. But this summer, Mallett dug back into his past.

Three years of waiting his turn matured him beyond most quarterbacks in their first NFL start. He had more work to do, though.

"I just wanted to work with him and get back to my technique, my fundamentals," Mallett said. " ... It'd been a little bit since I'd worked on stuff we worked on a long time ago."

He trusted Surratt, who'd worked with him one-on-one from eighth through 12th grades.

Mallett didn't have wheels, so at about 7 a.m., they'd hop into Surratt's 2008 Toyota Tundra and depart for their workouts. Mallett would throw with the kids at Carthage High School, Surratt said, and get treatment on his arm and shoulder at the school. They also worked on footwork and mechanics.

Surratt and Mallett, now more like brothers than coach and pupil, played golf. They took a mini-vacation at a nearby lake for the Fourth of July, which fell during his visit, and stopped by the casinos in Shreveport, Louisiana. Mallett took Surratt's 7-year-old son, Jett, fishing a few times. Surratt's son and 12-year-old daughter have known Mallett since they were babies.

These were calm moments, in a comfortable place, as an eventful fall approached.

Student of the game

Jim Mallett pulled away from the phone for a moment to ask his wife, Debbie, what their son's best subject was in school.

"She said football," he said.

He loved studying football. He'd do it constantly, even when relaxing with friends.

They were home for the holidays seven years ago when Will Middlebrooks swung by the Mallett's house. Ryan was home from the University of Michigan, where he played for one year before transferring to Arkansas after a coaching change. Middlebrooks, who spent more time growing up at the Mallett's home than at his own, had been drafted in the fifth round by the Boston Red Sox earlier that year. They spent the whole day sitting on the couch watching football.

Taped football. They watched recordings of Mallett's games at Michigan.

"He was looking at defenses, telling me about their offense," Middlebrooks said. "We were just hanging out. It wasn't as serious as it sounds. He really studies the games. I feel like he's a football genius when it comes to reading defenses."

A little of that comes naturally. He'd been able to do that since about seventh grade, to the surprise and delight of his coaches.

He's proud of his football IQ and thinks it's something others overlook.

"If people think I'm a dumb player, fine," Mallett said the day he was named the Texans' starter. "That's my advantage there."

He and Middlebrooks were ball boys for the high school football team that both of their fathers coached. They'd compete at just about everything and dreamed that one day they'd both play in the NFL, live next door to each other and raise their kids as friends -- just as they'd grown up.

Middlebrooks, now a third baseman for the Red Sox, could never throw a football farther, nor could he top Mallett in passing yards once they both moved on to being quarterbacks at separate high schools.

If Mallett lost at something?

"He would want to do it again," Middlebrooks said. "He would want to do it until he beat me."

The competitiveness and willingness to study were both part of what makes Ryan Mallett. That big, strong arm, though, has always been his most flashy attribute.

"I remember in the backyard, playing catch with him, even when he was in high school, I made sure I had my gloves on," Jim said.

The bullets Ryan threw were too much for his bare hands.

In high school, he threw the ball 88 yards at an Elite 11 camp. Many assumed the wind must have aided him. A few days later, throwing for a magazine story, he made it 86 yards. That time there was no doubt. Middlebrooks has seen him kneel at midfield and shoot the football through the uprights of the goalpost 60 yards away.

That arm was part of what caused Surratt to invite Mallett to throw with the varsity team when he was in eighth grade.

"He was tall, clumsy and just had to grow into his body, but you knew he had a chance to be a great one," Surratt said. "He was always fun. He was always joking around. He didn't know the seriousness of it at first, but being around me, he figured it out pretty quick."

Ryan's eighth-grade practices with his dad finished around 4:30 or 5 p.m., then he would cross the street, still in uniform, to go through another set of quarterback drills.

"That's where it started for him," Jim said. "Reading defenses, going through progressions. Even film work."

It was a useful base for when he entered a profession that required a lot of study. Mallett didn't know how much, though, until he spent three years toiling in the background.

Waiting and learning

Ryan did enter that game against the Texans two years ago and Watt didn't hurt him. He played when the Patriots had a 42-7 lead. He handed the ball off three times, threw an interception on the only pass he attempted and kneeled three times on the final possession.

That was typical of his playing time in New England. After all, the Patriots didn't need a quarterback. Tom Brady had years left of being one of the best in the league. And Ryan knew that going into New England.

Despite what many considered first-round talent, off-the-field concerns and questions about his attitude caused Mallett's draft stock to plummet below that of Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder, all of whom got a chance to be a starting quarterback but no longer are.

"People don’t realize, things that were said, the untrue things that were said, they don’t understand the people that they hurt," Jim said. "Not only Ryan but his family, his mom and dad. It was tough on all of us. He walks the straight and narrow. That's his job. He knows that. He said, 'Dad, I'm fine. I'm a good person. I do what I'm supposed to do.'"

Playing for a coach in New England who made it clear he wouldn't tolerate any slip-ups, Mallett's off-the-field behavior was never a problem in New England.

In his three seasons with the Patriots, Mallett threw only four passes. He never played a meaningful snap. It instead became a time of personal growth.

Middlebrooks, then in the Red Sox's farm system, saw it up close. He and Mallett saw each other when they could and lived together for a time while Middlebrooks played in Triple-A.

"I don't know if it's just time or if it's being with [Bill] Belichick and Brady, but he's matured a lot," Middlebrooks said. "Our conversations are completely different. ... I bet a lot of that has to do with having to take a back seat and having to be a backup."

Said Debbie Mallett: "It was probably the best thing that's ever happened to him. He got such great coaching, and he learned so much from Tom. I think that took the pressure off of him, too, as in having to be the man. He'd been like that since high school. ... It's been kind of nice, being in the background, not a public persona and just learning."

And so he arrived in Houston via trade Aug. 31, more mature than the player Texans coach and former Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien remembered as a rookie. It was obvious to O'Brien this was a man who paid attention to Tom Brady's process.

'It's show time'

Early in the morning on Nov. 5, O'Brien told Mallett he was the team's new starting quarterback. Surratt had texted Mallett that morning, wanting to know if he was still coming back to Carthage for a hunting trip during his bye week. Those plans had been shelved already, but there was more to tell.

"He said, 'I won't be coming because I just got named the starter,'" Surratt said. " ... He just kind of said, 'It's show time.' And it is."

That morning, Debbie's texts from her husband and daughter piled up on a phone that sat, unattended, in her jacket pocket. Finally, her husband showed up at her classroom in the middle school where they both teach.

"I'm thinking something bad happened," she said. "Then he had a big smile on his face ... and we were yelling in the hall. The kids were like, 'What's going on?'"

The moment they awaited for nearly four years had arrived. They got their tickets to Cleveland almost immediately.

"We loved New England, but it was time for Ryan to play," Jim said. "... Yeah, we were excited [about the trade]. Hey, closer to home. We can jump in the car, and four-and-a-half hours later, we're in Houston. We're school teachers and coaches. We're the middle class, and sometimes it's hard to [travel to games]. But now we get in the car and go."

Usually the Malletts get together for fishing trips in the summer, right before Ryan has to head to camp. Their next few get-togethers will be for Texans games.

Debbie and Jim, of course, will go to Cleveland this weekend. Ryan's older sister, Lauren, her husband, their 4-year-old daughter who calls her uncle "Ry-ry" and another daughter who's less than a year old will, too. Lauren told her dad she couldn't miss Ryan's first start. One of his uncles and even friends from Lincoln, Arkansas, the town where Ryan spent the early part of his childhood, are planning to make the trip.

His first home game will feature an even bigger Ryan Mallett cheering section filled with his fans from home. Some of them believed, even when Ryan sometimes didn't, that he'd eventually get his chance.

Settling in

The quarterback position has been an enigma for the Houston Texans since their inception. They tried to draft one first overall (David Carr), then traded for their next one (Matt Schaub) and gave him a big contract a year-and-a-half before releasing him. Last year, they took a shot with a once-undrafted player who set records in college but wasn't quite suited for the NFL game (Case Keenum).

Nine players have started games at quarterback for the Texans. Seven of them won their debut.

"Now I'm getting a little nervous again," Debbie Mallett said Friday. "I'm nervous for that first game. I'm nervous for that first pass. I just want it to be a completion, whether it's 5 yards or 50 yards. I'm just ready for him to get settled and get into the flow of the game."

After an off-weekend of preparing by watching film, Mallett arrived Monday sounding eager for his first start to arrive.

"I'm ready for Sunday to get here," he said. "I'm ready to play."

His coach is eager to see him, too. What Mallett will do in an NFL game that matters is a mystery. It's a mystery he'll get to solve.

Sunday will mark 1,297 days since he was drafted into the NFL. He's waited long enough.