Austin Howard fought for every breath those first days of his life.
He weighed eight pounds at birth but was premature -- born at only 27 weeks to parents Jamie and Elston.
Austin's lungs had not fully developed, the doctors told them. His survival rate was only 50 percent. Mother and father had no choice but to fear they would lose him.
"Since the day he was born, nothing has been easy for him," Jamie Howard said Saturday from their home in Thornton, Colo. "He's had to work for everything he has gotten. And that is an absolute, 100 percent truth. Everything that Austin has achieved, he's achieved it on his own."
Little did the Howards know on that March day in 1987 that their son would not only survive but thrive. They never could have imagined that 25 years later, Austin -- the youngest of five -- would grow to be a 6-7, 330-pound offensive lineman in the NFL.
On Sunday night, all eyes will be on Howard, who supplanted Wayne Hunter as the Jets' starting right tackle last week. And his challenge will be proving to the MetLife Stadium crowd that he can handle the Carolina Panthers, particularly 6-2, 285-pound defensive end Charles Johnson.
It also is an opportunity for the Jets' offense to break out. The unit hasn't found the end zone this preseason, producing three field goals in two games. Though the Jets outrushed the Giants 65 yards to 58 last week, they struggled in short-yardage situations. And the Jets' offensive line has given up 12 sacks in two games.
But Howard learned long ago how to cope with the sting of scrutiny. His measured responses to probing media questions are the byproduct of years spent living in "a glass house," his mother said.
Before she and her husband moved to Colorado, she was involved in local politics in Howard's hometown of Davenport, Iowa, as the school board director and a city council member. She also unsuccessfully ran for mayor.
Throughout her political career, the family was subjected to negative comments, either on the radio or in person. Such as the time Howard went to a local meeting and heard someone say his mother "should stay home and bake cookies."
"Because of that, they've always had to be on guard, if you will," Howard's mother said.
So as Howard prepares for his new role, he isn't the least bit concerned about the spotlight or his detractors. He simply wants to do his best for his teammates, the coaching staff and Jets fans.
"It's definitely my mindset when I go out there to show what I can do," he said after Friday's practice. "And prove to them that I belong here."
When his mother spoke to him on the telephone later that night, she asked if he was going to be the starting right tackle on a long-term basis. Howard told her he didn't know and didn't care. "He said, 'Mom, I just know that when I go out there, I have to do my best at right tackle,' " she said.
The Jets have made it clear they will seek roster help via trade, free agency or waivers. That means Howard's reign could be fleeting, depending on what general manager Mike Tannenbaum secures within the next week. But Howard has never shied away from a challenge or hard work.
When he was growing up, because of his height, people assumed that athletics would come easy. But Howard -- who, like his siblings, was taught to be a student first and an athlete second -- played the cello and worked part-time jobs during high school.
He mowed his neighbors' lawns in the summertime and shoveled their snow during the winter. And while he took summer courses at Northern Iowa, he did yardwork for some of his professors and doubled as a security guard at a bar and grill on weekends.
Howard went undrafted in 2010.
"He never perceived it as 'I got it,' '' his mother said. "So it was a struggle."
Howard's older brother, Marcel, also made it to the NFL as an offensive tackle, but his stay was short-lived. Marcel suffered five concussions, according to their mother, and also suffered a wrist injury and was cut by the Lions during their 2002 training camp.
Austin Howard is determined to make it past the preseason. His three-year journey -- which has included practice-squad stops in Philadelphia, Baltimore and with the Jets -- has been an example of patience and perseverance. But the hard work has just begun.
"They always said, 'Hey, you have so much potential,' " he recalled of his conversations with the Jets during the offseason. "To me, that's one thing that says, 'Hey, you're still not there yet.' And that was really the motivator to me because I don't want to be the guy who has all this potential. I want to be the guy who exceeds expectations with my own potential and exceeds other people's expectations . . . I had to attack this role and make something of myself."
Notes & quotes: The Jets waived G Terrence Campbell, LS Derek Chard, DT Matt Hardison, CB LeQuan Lewis, S Marcus Lott and WRs Dexter Jackson and Raymond Webber. The roster currently stands at 80 and will need to be trimmed to 75 by 4 p.m. Monday . . . Veteran Panthers wideout Steve Smith (foot infection) will not play.