Veteran traffic cop Jeff Howell flipped on his blue lights and zoomed down Interstate 75. It was fall of 2017. A wreck had been reported on the freeway’s northbound lanes at the south end of Bibb County.
Howell passed the wreck and began making a U-turn at a cut-through in the six-lane highway’s median. He was doubling back to the crash scene, and as he steered left toward the median from a center lane, a Ford Explorer smashed into the driver’s-side doors of Howell’s Dodge Charger patrol car.
The SUV, which Howell figures had come up behind him, was doing at least 60 mph. The impact, for a moment, knocked Howell unconscious.
“It was like one of those Nascar things,” Howell recalls. “My car actually came up off the ground for a minute and then slid to a stop.”
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Howell’s door caved in, crunching his seat, pinning his legs and lower body beneath the steering wheel. By the time he made it to an emergency room, his legs had swollen and turned, as he puts it, “purple as eggplants.” Doctors thought he may have suffered a broken femur.
“The doctors,” Howell recalls, “while they’re doing all their stuff in the trauma room, said, ‘Mr. Howell, you ever had any kidney problems?’ I said, ‘No, not that I know of.’”
After his wreck wounds were tended to, he was taken to a hospital room.
“I didn’t have any broken legs or anything,” Howell says.
That was the good news.
“They got me back to my room,” he says, “and they came in and said, ‘You’ve got a huge tumor on your right kidney that’s like 6 inches in diameter. It encases the kidney and the adrenal gland.’”
In an hour or so, he had gone from surviving a bone-jarring crash to being hit with a cancer diagnosis. Howell, 57 at the time, was told the cancer was treatable but not curable and that he probably had two years to live.
Howell, now 58, had grown up listening to the crime-fighting exploits of Bill Howell, his father, a Bibb sheriff’s deputy in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The work appealed to the younger Howell as well, and for much of the 1990s he patrolled the city as a Macon police officer. He specialized in catching drunken drivers. In four years, he caught hundreds.
“I think it’s more like a niche that most officers find,” he says.
In 1996, Howell spotted a man at the wheel of a ’72 Chevy pickup rolling back and forth and revving his engine at a stoplight on Pio Nono Avenue. The driver eventually slammed the truck into gear and took off, soon hitting speeds near 70 mph. When he finally pulled over, grinding the transmission to a halt as he snatched at the gearshift, the driver, who later proved to be intoxicated — more than twice the legal limit to drive — grinned and giggled. The guy kept on cackling as Howell arrested him.
“Some of the more pitiful alcoholics would soil themselves en route to the jail,” Howell recalls. “Some would cry and some would curse you all the way.”
Howell gave up policing a year or so later to build houses and cabins for a living. But after his children were grown — his son is a detective in Alabama and his wife and daughter are kindergarten teachers at Vineville Academy — the allure of police work led him to return to the road as a lawman. In 2014, he became a Bibb sheriff’s deputy.
In 2016, he and two fellow deputies were named ABC News “Persons of the Week,” a salute to them for buying a 9-year-old boy some new Nikes when they learned that older kids had bullied the boy about his tattered sneakers.
“I was enjoying myself,” Howell says of his midlife return to law enforcement. “I made a lot of friends with just regular old people. ... I had grown a bunch from 30-something to 50-something.”
About two weeks after the wreck, Howell’s right kidney was removed. He had little choice but to retire. His adrenal glands have also been taken out, but beyond that, his tumor doesn’t appear to have spread. A cancer-treatment regimen, for now at least, seems to have held the renal cell carcinoma at bay.
“But it’s a real tricky cancer,” Howell says. “It could show up anywhere.”
Coping with the prospect of his own mortality has in some ways been less difficult than turning in his badge.
“I’m a Christian,” he says, “I don’t have any super-big fear of death. ...That part was not a terrible thing. The police work [was]. ... I went into going back [to policing] almost as a semi-retirement. ... I wish I felt good enough that I felt like a could give them a good, honest day’s work.”
Though his cancer was diagnosed as Stage 4, there were treatment options. He considers the crash, in some ways, a blessing.
“It depends on how you look at it,” Howell says. “I really do feel like [the wreck] saved my life. At least for a little while. ... It just brings everything into real sharp focus. It makes you love everybody. Even strangers. You just treasure moments that normally you wouldn’t even think about.”