Justin Britt endured being isolated from football for a year, embracing a grueling routine of strengthening a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
As frustrating as it was for the Texans’ new starting center to be away from the game during the coronavirus pandemic, the former Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl alternate and second-round draft pick maintained a positive approach. He got to spend more time with family and he and his wife, Alicia, celebrated the birth of their daughter last summer.
“It’s definitely a blessing,” Britt said Thursday during a Zoom video call from NRG Stadium where he’s lifting weights and acclimating to the Texans’ playbook. “Last year was the longest probably year of my life, but the most enjoyable at the same time. I missed football like crazy, but I had time to take care of my body, let my body fully heal, give my knee the attention it needed.
“I had my third child, my daughter, during COVID in August, so I got to be there for that and really experience having a newborn because in this football work you don’t really have that time. It was a blessing, but definitely towards December, January when things start heating up, I’m sitting at home itching for it. As soon as I started getting calls, I was happy, excited.”
Signed by the Texans in March to a one-year contract with a maximum value of $5 million after previously working out for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers, Britt is being counted on as the replacement for former starting center Nick Martin. Martin, now with the Las Vegas Raiders, was cut by the Texans one week before they signed Britt.
Britt joins a rebuilding team coming off a 4-12 season. The Texans’ roster has undergone a massive overhaul overseen by general manager Nick Caserio and coach David Culley with ambitions set on building a winning culture. Being wanted by the Texans, who gave him a $500,000 signing bonus and a $1.5 million base salary as well as up to $1.2 million in per-game active roster bonuses plus incentive clauses, was significant to Britt.
“Whenever I got cut from Seattle, it definitely hurt,” Britt said. “I knew it was coming, but, I mean, it hurt. The hardest part was feeling unwanted after giving so much time and effort and giving my ACL to them and feeling unwanted. So, to get a call and come down here to Houston where maybe at first I didn’t initially intend to sign right then, but coming here and visiting with the coaching staff -- (offensive line coach James) Campen, (offensive coordinator) Tim Kelly, coach Culley, seeing Nick (Caserio) and (executive vice president of football operations) Jack (Easterby) -- and what they were about and trying to do this year .. it was an easy call. I wanted to sign the papers before I left town.”
The Texans’ offensive line, except for Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil, had its share of disappointing performances last season. Britt is hoping that the presence of several new players and Campen, a former Green Bay Packers center and assistant coach who worked for the Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns the past two seasons, will be agents of change.
“We understand that it starts up front and we understand that we are the heartbeat of the offense and we take that pride,” Britt said. “I told my friend this, I said, ‘I’m getting up at 5:00, 5:30 every morning, willingly, happily, sometimes before my alarm.’ That wasn’t always the case in my career. I’m just excited, the newness of it. Being out for a year, so I know what it’s like not to have it, I’m hungry and I’m going to play my butt off this year.”
At 6-foot-6, 315 pounds, Britt has started at offensive tackle and guard in the past. He’s regarded as a natural center, though, because of his blocking skills and a nasty streak honed by his wrestling background as an undefeated (45-0) state high school champion growing up in Lebanon, Missouri.
Britt has started 86 of 87 career games played, lining up at center his past four seasons after initially playing right tackle and left guard.
When Britt tore the ACL in his left knee against the Atlanta Falcons in 2019 and missed the remainder of the season along with last year, it ended a run of durability after missing just two starts in his first five NFL seasons.
Healthy again, Britt is eager to prove that the Seahawks were wrong to give up on him. While he’s not bitter about parting ways, it’s definitely a motivating factor for him.
“In the back of my mind, I was hopeful that I would still have a job last year,” Britt said. “But at soon as they cut me, it was kind of like, ‘All right, screw you. I’m going to get right.’ I took that approach every day, rehabbed out of my garage during the first part of the pandemic. I feel like I had the right approach and I knew how to attack it.”
The Texans struggled to run the football last season, ranking 31st overall. The Texans retained running back David Johnson and signed Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay to try to have a better running game.
“You can pass all you want, but a really good pass game comes with the run game,” Britt said. “I think the guys we have up front are all kind of tough, mean guys and they want to run the ball and be aggressive as big guys do. It doesn’t matter what happened last year. This is a whole new team. It’s, ‘What are you going to do now?’ We’re hungry and ready to go out there and see what we can do.”
The Texans’ offensive line is expected to have Tunsil and Tytus Howard as the offensive tackles with Marcus Cannon operating as the swing tackle. The Texans hope that Max Scharping can rebound from a rough season and be the starting left guard. Justin McCray, Lane Taylor, who’s coming off a torn ACL, and Hjalte Froholdt are expected to compete at right guard.
“I think we’re already jelling up front,” Britt said. “Everyone in the room is sharp. It’s going to be a fun room. It’s going to be a competitive room, a smart room, one that can and will do what it can to lead this team to victory.
“I understand my job at center. I’m ready to compete. There’s a reason they brought me here. I’m going to bring an attitude, an aggressiveness. I’m going to play smart at the same time.”
With his wrestling background, Britt has the requisite physicality, balance and understanding of leverage.
There’s also a strong element of grit evident in his relentless style of play.
“If you play o-line, go wrestle and if you don’t want to put on the tights, then go play basketball,” Britt said. “It’s not a team sport, and so all eyes are on you. Are you going to get pinned or are you going to pin them? Are you going to win or lose? There’s no draw, at least not in my eyes.
“Wrestling, I’m very grateful for it. I miss it all the time because I think it trained my mind to be competitive and to block out the outside noise and just focus on the task at hand. You can sit here and say wrestling helps with leverage and hand placement and all this grappling stuff, which it does, but the biggest takeaway for me was mentally what it did to me.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Previously at The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun, Wilson is on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.