Meeting Coach Bowden
Yes, I went to Florida State for graduate school, but while I was spending endless nights pouring through library resources, the same library where students were shot years later by a random nut with an egocentric cause, co-eds were drinking, whooping it up, and chopping air and chanting at Doak Campbell stadium for our Seminoles. Charlie Ward was quarterback, Warrick Dunn was a running back, and Coach Bobby Bowden and staff led the team on a winning streak toward a national championship.
I had played football a couple of years when I was in middle school and quickly learned my talent was running. That was it. I couldn’t throw, catch, and I was too little to block. The best position and one I played well was bench warmer. I was eager, however, and Coach Sonny Rogers, a great man who later played against cancer and lost, took pity and gave me a chance. In return, I caught a ball, got disoriented and ran the wrong way, scoring a touchback for the other team. I should have run track, but where I came from, you were only running for two reasons: you were trying to get away from the law because you’d done something wrong or you were running from someone who was after you trying to break a law. Either way, running was a defensive, not an offensive, move.
I actually had the fantasy of going out for football in graduate school at twenty-four. I figured I wasn’t any better than I was when I was young, but I could be affiliated, and literally worshipped by students, faculty and staff, and thousands of fans. I thought it would be cool to be on the field when Chief Osceola came out on the field riding a horse and threw the flaming spear into the field to start off the game, and I thought it would be even better to be there for homecoming court when the king and queen were literally crowned by the Seminole Indian tribe of Florida in native headdresses, feathers draped to the ground. Alas, my fantasies got lost among the dust bunnies in Strozier library and I continued to do research, read, and churn out papers on literature: Greek, Russian, French, Spanish, and American, particularly Southern Americans like Faulkner, O’Connor and Welty. There was no room for football in my schedule, but once in a while if I could get a ticket, I went to a game with other graduate students and got into the spirit. To me, it was cool being a part of something larger than self, something that seemed even greater than my studies, something that was certainly more in the moment than the dead writers I read and wrote about on a weekly basis.
One day, walking in the Civic Center in Tallahassee, just across the street from the Florida State Law School, and just down the road from my one-bedroom apartment in a turn of the century clapboard cottage that had been chopped up to maximize profit, I ran into a fellow in the hallway. He said, “Good morning. How you doing?” I smiled, told him I was fine, and kept on walking to my room where I was to judge a high school Beta club competition. I turned and thought he looked so familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Later, it dawned on me that it was Coach Bowden, in street clothing. I felt more like a high school freshman than a graduate student and for years, I regretted it.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine invited me and my wife to sit with he and his wife at a fundraiser for the Catholic school and shared Bobby Bowden was the guest speaker. I heartedly accepted, told him I had gone to school at Florida State. My wife didn’t much care about going, so I took my son who is an aspiring football player. I watch him throw, catch, and run, and he’s built for it and good. It’s like he got a different set of genes, maybe from one of my wife’s relatives or one of my own who had played and done well. He was excited, especially after I gave him a lesson on the Seminoles and Bowden’s record of winning, second only to Penn. State’s Joe Paterno.
We later learned that not only would we be attending the banquet, along with 300 or so others, we would be sitting at Bowden’s table in a private dining room with a handful of other supporters. I’d bought his books for family members and he autographed them, but as usual, I didn’t know what to say and babbled on about being there in 1994 when we were national champions, when Charlie Ward won the Heisman. It had been twenty years. Bowden was polite, kind and generous, offering to answer questions.
I felt I needed a question, and the only thing I could think to ask him was this: “Coach, I noticed all those years I was at FSU, and then later as I watched you on TV, you always chewed gum. Furiously. Did you chew a particular brand?” The other guests looked at me, smiling politely, and I imagined they thought I was nuts. Bowden laughed and without missing a beat said, “Man, I tell you what. We were all chewing gum. They just brought it in by the truckloads and we didn’t care. We were just so nervous all the time. And my wife didn’t like it one bit and told me to stop it, but I just didn’t.” Everyone chuckled, and I felt redeemed somehow, but what struck me about Coach Bowden was not the idle chatter made during dinner or even much of his talk at the banquet, but how he served God through football and helped others, football players and coaches like Mark Richt, find God along the way. In all of his glory years, his fame and fortune, he had remained a humble servant of a much greater Coach.