Motivated by Tragedy, Da'Quan Bowers Pushes for No. 1 Pick in NFL Draft
In 2008, Da'Quan Bowers had arrived at Clemson as the nation's top overall recruit, one of the Tigers' most hyped prospects in recent memory.
Entering his junior season, Bowers had become a starter, but had fallen well short of expectations, making only four sacks in 17 career starts. A knee injury hampered him as a sophomore, but his poor work ethic didn't help. He cut corners in the weight room and on the field, and it was time for that to stop.
"He told me to stop playing around," Da'Quan recalled recently. "Stop being a kid. Be a man."
Dennis Bowers would be proud of what his son has become.
When the NFL scouting combine begins next month in Indianapolis, Da'Quan Bowers will enter as one of its top prospects, fueled by a quest to become the draft's top overall selection, and Clemson's first No. 1 overall pick ever.
He declared for the NFL Draft in early January following one of Clemson's best defensive seasons ever; 15.5 sacks (second on the school's all-time single-season list) and 26 tackles for loss. It earned him unanimous All-America honors, the Nagurski Award, given to college football's top defensive player, and the Ted Hendricks Award, given to college football's top defensive end.
Now, he is training to earn a high draft position while honoring the memory of Dennis -- who died suddenly last August -- and two other key mentors who died in the last year.
Clearly, Dennis Bowers' words sunk in.
"It's still a dream," Bowers said. "I'm thinking about how far away I was a year ago. Not having 15 sacks, still being a kid, wanting to play around all the time.
"I think this year about how serious I got about the game, how I took a job approach and it affected my career. If you come in with a working mind, a working attitude, how it pays off for you."
That hard work could come with a major payoff indeed. Although 2011 rookie contracts could be slashed by the NFL's ongoing labor negotiations, Bowers is projected as a very high selection.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.'s first mock draft has Bowers going fourth overall to the Cincinnati Bengals. But fellow draft guru Todd McShay has a higher opinion of Bowers. He projects the Tigers' star junior defensive end as the No.1 overall selection of the Carolina Panthers.
FanHouse's mock draft has Bowers going fourth.
"Anywhere you get drafted would be a plus, but if you go No. 1 it's a great opportunity, " Bowers said. "I'd love to help Charlotte, play for the Panthers, help them get to a championship game, and it's close to home. It's two hours from Charlotte, two hours from (my hometown of) Bamberg. It'd be a great opportunity to play in Charlotte. I'd give my all in terms of hard work, work ethic and leadership."
Even if Bowers only goes in the Top 5, it'd be a remarkable conclusion to a tumultuous year.
Following the 2009 season, former Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams -- who had become good friends with Bowers -- told him it was time to mature and realize his potential.
On Jan. 17, 2010, Adams died in his Greenwood, S.C.., home; the diagnosis was an undiagnosed enlarged heart.
His father's and Adams' words motivated Bowers; he lost 20 pounds in the offseason and got into the best shape of his life, priming himself for a breakout junior season.
In early August, though, his world was rocked again.
Dennis Bowers was an accomplished gospel singer. He was lead singer for the Legendary Singing Stars, a group that traveled nationally and globally. During breaks from football and classes, Da'Quan traveled with them as their lead guitarist, and by all accounts, father and son were exceptionally close.
Before a show in Augusta, Ga., Dennis collapsed and was rushed to a hospital. Da'Quan drove two hours from campus to be by his father's side; his condition stabilized, and the two talked all night.
The following morning, however, Dennis' condition suddenly worsened, and he died.
Da'Quan spent a week mourning his father. Clemson chartered three buses so players and coaches could attend the visitation.
Making matters even worse, Eric Bamberg, one of Bowers' mentors in the Calhoun County school system, died suddenly shortly afterward.
"It's been a tough summer, not going to lie about it, it's been very tough on me and my family," he said in late November. "Though my teammates, my coaches are a great support group. The Clemson family has been unbelievable for me, they've been with me every step of the way. I'm thankful to have a supporting cast like I do, to get me through the tough times."
Throughout the season, Bowers honored the trio on his uniform.
Each game, "GA" went on Bowers' left cleat. "DB" went on the right. And "EB" went on the right side.
"It's a great deal of motivation with those guys I lost," Bowers said. "I think about them every day, and I say that every down, I play for those guys."
Soon, he'll have the chance to do so in the NFL.
Adams was the No. 4 overall selection of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2007 -- tying for Clemson's highest selection ever -- but never lived up to his lofty status. After two-plus seasons of lackluster production, the Bucs cut bait in mid-2009, trading him to the Chicago Bears for a third-round pick.
He never had a chance for redemption, but in Bowers' eyes, it can happen now.
"It was my father's dream to play in the NFL, and I can live his dream," Bowers said. "Gaines Adams didn't have the career he wanted before his passing, so I can let his dream live in my mine. I had the opportunity right now, and you're not promised that opportunity ever again in life, so I had to take it."
Although the labor situation is uncertain, other factors made this the perfect time to leave early. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck was considered a consensus No. 1, had he declared.
His decision to stay in college creates a wide-open competition for the top slot.
"At the college awards in Orlando, I talked to Andrew and asked him what he was thinking," Bowers said. "He didn't tell me what he was thinking, but I said if you decide to stay, thanks ahead of time.
"I was out driving and someone texted my phone, saying Andrew Luck was staying. I was surprised. I thought he'd leave; he opened the door for me."
Bowers' biggest competition could be another dominant defensive lineman -- Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who Kiper projects as the Panthers' choice. FanHouse has Fairley going fifth.
"He's at the No. 1 spot on some boards, I'm No. 1 on some boards," Bowers said. "It's competition; he's going to push me and I'm going to push him. On draft day, we'll see who's the winner, but it's a great opportunity to be on the draft board as a junior."
Some might worry that with the collegiate honors in his grasp, Bowers might be tempted to backslide into old habits, become the 2009 Da'Quan, not the 2010 version.
No chance, he said. His father's words hold meaning. Now, Bowers is determined to fulfill a dream.
"It's every college athlete's dream to be drafted and put in a situation like mine," he said. "If you have the chance, why not take advantage? I'll do everything in my power to make sure I'm the No. 1 pick. Working out, living right, good character."