Tri-Cities Fever

Journey far from complete for Fever's Lillard

KENNEWICK — Houston Lillard got a taste of success last season playing for the Tri-Cities Fever.

But it wasn't enough. He wanted to be better.

That's what happens when you're making up for lost time. It's hard to be satisfied.

Injuries had sidelined the quarterback too much in his college career. His knee. His heel. It had made it hard for him to find a place to play after college.

So much so, in fact, basketball might be considered again.

After all, Houston was a standout basketball player in high school. And his brother Damian stars for the Weber State basketball team.

But football is Houston's game.

"I love being around a big family, and that's what football is," Lillard said. "Basketball is not like football. Basketball, one guy can dominate. But in football, you can have so many guys with different talents and put them together as a team."

Lillard didn't get drafted

in 2009 by an NFL team out of Southeast Missouri State. He had to have surgery on his heel. When he was finally healthy last year, he was able to get workouts in Los Angeles for two Arena Football League teams -- the Spokane Shock and the Utah Blaze.

Nothing came out of it.

But Fever coach Adam Shackleford had one or two of his bird dog scouts down there.

"One of them called me and said, 'You need to look at this kid,' " Shackleford said. "I watched his films, and I liked what I saw. So I brought him up here."

Lillard signed with the Fever sight unseen.

"This is the highest in football I've been," he said. "When I went to college, I was never healthy. I talked to coach Shackleford on the phone, but I had never met him in person. I just felt I'd rather come into a new situation."

Besides, Lillard wasn't expected to start. That was Andy Collins' job, while Lillard would do the holding for kicker Brett Jaekle.

But the 24-year-old didn't come here to sit on the bench.

"It was real frustrating at the beginning," Lillard said. "How come I'm not playing? I had to get through my ego, and when it was my time, I'll take advantage of it."

Shackleford has theories about the backup QB situation.

"There are two ways to go," he said. "You can either fold your tent and accept the backup position. Or you can prove me wrong."

Lillard did the latter.

Collins went down with a shoulder injury in the middle of the 2010 season, and Lillard stepped in.

He finished the regular season completing 109 of 169 passes for 1,082 yards, 30 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His QB rating was 104.8 while he led the Fever into the Indoor Football League playoffs. Those were good numbers for a first-year guy.

"I wasn't really surprised," Lillard said. "I was comfortable with the situation. I've never been a nervous type. Some-times I stay too calm."

Lillard went home to Oakland, Calif., for six months but was back in the Tri-Cities in January to get ready for the season.

He has lost about 20 pounds and has taken jobs with Famous Dave's and security at Toyota Center.

"There is a lot of free time," Lillard said. "Last year, I just came in here happy to be playing. We had a lot of free time with nothing to do. This lessens the possibility of getting into trouble."

But Lillard is here to play football, to improve his game.

"I feel like I want this team to develop into my team," he said. "I need to be a leader on and off the field."

Shackleford likes what he sees.

"His leadership skills have gotten better," he said. "He came into camp in great shape. He knows he's gonna be pushed. I think there is a maturity you have to have to be a quarterback, and he has it. He's got great touch with the football. He's got tremendous accuracy."

Fever wide receiver Joey Hew Len, another returner, agrees.

"Houston throws a nice, catchable ball," Hew Len said. "He's a good guy, a good leader. He's a great quarterback."

And while the starting quarterback job might not be Lillard's just yet, it's probably his to lose. And he doesn't want to let his football family down.

"I love the team atmosphere in football," he said. "And I love this family."