After some very dark years in the 2000s, the San Francisco 49ers returned to their accustomed status as one of the elite teams in the National Football League.
One of the players who played a key role in their resurgence was linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He helped the Niners establish one of the league’s strongest and most hard-hitting defenses during the early 2010s.
But before he made it to the pros, he would have to endure plenty of personal adversity.
Growing Up Near The Nation’s Capital
Bowman was born on May 28, 1988 in District Heights, Md., which is located in Prince George’s County, a suburban area near Washington, D.C.
From a very early age, Bowman was athletically inclined. He excelled at both basketball and football, especially at the District Heights boys and girls club, where he started to discover that he had a gift for both sports.
When he went to Drew Freeman Middle School, he played the point guard position on the basketball team, and one of his teammates was Kevin Durant, who would go on to become an NBA superstar.
Bowman remembers urging Durant, the winner of two NBA world championships and Finals MVP awards, to be more aggressive offensively.
“Can you believe we had to tell him to shoot?” Bowman recalled years later.
“Yeah, we had to tell him to shoot. We knew that he could play the game and he would eventually get better, but how tall he was, back in the day if you were that tall you would be in the post or you would be in the paint.”
Their friendship would remain strong years later when both were in the pros.
Bowman excelled both on the hardwood and gridiron, and he was recruited by DeMatha Catholic High School, but being on a campus that banned co-eds didn’t appeal to him, so he went to Suitland High School instead.
There, he continued to play both sports, but it was evident that football was his gift. Playing both linebacker and running back, he emerged as a star by his junior season.
That year, he not only recorded 165 tackles, 9 sacks, and 3 fumble recoveries, but he also gained 1,200 yards and scored 22 touchdowns out of the backfield. It earned him Maryland Defensive Player-of-the-Year, first-team all-state, Washington Post first-team All-Met and first-team all-conference honors, and he also led Suitland to its state championship in 2004.
Unlike the stereotypical jock, Bowman was also a committed student who had a 3.5 GPA, despite putting in lots of time towards getting better as an athlete.
“Sometimes you have a kid that is a two-sport star, but they don’t have the commitment when it comes to academics,” said a former high school teammate. “That wasn’t the case with NaVorro. He excelled in both sports and his studies. There was never any down time with him.”
Unfortunately, a shoulder injury cost him most of his senior year, but it didn’t hurt his recruiting profile. College scouts were interested in him as a two-sport athlete; in fact, several elite colleges recruited him to play basketball for them.
But by now, Bowman had committed himself to playing football, and he chose to go to Pennsylvania State University, one of the most famed football programs in the nation.
Big Lion On Campus
When Bowman arrived at Penn State in the fall of 2006, the Nittany Lions were coming off an 11-1 season that culminated in a win in the Orange Bowl. Head coach Joe Paterno already had a strong squad, and it didn’t hurt that Bowman redshirted his freshman year.
Like many future stars, he had to pay his dues early. In 2007, his first season in uniform, he recorded just 16 combined tackles (four solo) in nine games, as a sprained ankle sidelined him for two contests.
But in 2008, Bowman rose to the forefront with the departure of All-American linebacker Dan Connor. Playing in 13 games, he blossomed with 106 tackles (61 solo), 16.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.
In the fourth game of the season, he was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time, and he tallied 11 tackles, five of them for loss, plus three sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. He powered Penn State to a 45-3 wipeout of Temple University, and he ended up earning Big Ten Co-Defensive Player of the Week honors.
But it was around this time that Bowman would be hit by a tragedy that would lead to a serious revelation. He learned that his father Hillard died, and it hit him so hard that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep playing football.
Once he decided to stay on the gridiron, his mother told him that Hillard, who had raised him from birth, wasn’t his biological dad. His actual father was a man named Tracy whom Bowman’s mother had met a while back before she reconciled with Hillard.
That handful of earth-shattering news would’ve likely sent many other men spiraling downward, but Bowman continued to try and focus on the task at hand.
With his help, the Nittany Lions were eighth in points allowed, and they registered an 11-2 record. They made it to the Rose Bowl, but right before the big game, he would receive some more news that would rock his world.
“I was alone in a Los Angeles hotel room, asleep in my bed,” wrote Bowman. “It was New Year’s Eve, the night before we played in the 2009 Rose Bowl. It was almost 4 a.m. when I heard a knock on my door.
“… I hopped out of bed and swung the door open, and I saw Mr. Larry Johnson Sr. He was our defensive line coach, and also the man who originally recruited me to Penn State. He was standing there with his head down, and his hands were folded.
“He didn’t say anything at first – just came in, sat me down right away and told me the news.
“‘Coach Lynch was in an automobile accident earlier tonight. He didn’t make it.'”
Nick Lynch was Bowman’s high school coach, and the two had more than the standard relationship between coach and high school athlete. Although Prince George’s County is by and large middle-class, District Heights is a rough town, and Bowman felt that Lynch helped him avoid the fate that some of his classmates fell prey to.
The Nittany Lions lost the Rose Bowl to the University of Southern California, 38-24, despite Bowman’s eight tackles, five tackles for loss and one sack. He ended the season with ESPN.com 2008-09 All-Bowl team and first-team All-Big Ten honors.
His 2009 season would be nearly as stellar. His 93 tackles (52 solo) helped Penn State to another 11-2 record and a 19-17 win in the Capital One Bowl over the Louisiana State University Tigers, where he contributed nine tackles (seven solo).
By now, he felt like he had matured and was starting to move past the dual tragedies of ’08. He had a child prior to the start of the 2009 season, and it seemed to change the complexion of his life.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” Bowman said of becoming a father. ”My girlfriend, she supports me and I support her whenever she needs me, so it’s all within the family.”
Heading To The Bay
Bowman skipped his senior season to become eligible for the 2010 NFL Draft. The San Francisco 49ers took him with the 91st overall pick in the third round.
In 2010, the Niners were in the midst of a long dry spell. It had been about a decade since the departures of Jerry Rice and Steve Young, and the team had failed to gain any real ground towards returning to prominence after winning five Super Bowls from 1981 to 1994.
San Francisco had stars Alex Smith at quarterback, Frank Gore in the backfield and Vernon Davis at tight end, but it needed more pieces, and Bowman would be one of them.
Although he started just one contest in 2010, he flashed his promise by recording 46 tackles (38 solo). Although the Niners finished with a dismal 6-10 record, change and hope were in the air.
For the 2011 season, the team hired Jim Harbaugh as its new head coach. Harbaugh looked to make the Niners an old-school-style defensive-minded, physical team that pounded opponents with its running game.
As part of his 3-4 defensive scheme, Bowman got the start at left inside linebacker. Along with Patrick Willis, the team’s other inside linebacker, the Niners would become a feared defensive team.
On the strength of their defense, which was second in points allowed, San Fran surpassed nearly everyone’s expectations by putting together a 13-3 record, which was first in the NFC West, making it the first time since 2002 it won its division and made the playoffs.
Bowman was a huge reason why. In just his second season, he became one of the best at his position with 143 tackles (111 solo), 13 tackles for loss and three fumble recoveries, leading to him being named to the All-Pro First-Team.
— Jeffrey Walizer Jr (@JWalizerJr) June 4, 2019
The divisional round saw the 49ers go up against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Bowman had 11 tackles (10 solo), and Smith’s clutch touchdown pass to Davis with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter gave San Fran a thrilling 36-32 win at Candlestick Park, their beloved home arena.
For the NFC Championship, the 49ers would take on Eli Manning and the New York Giants, one of their old conference rivals. Bowman again played well with 14 tackles (eight solo), but his team would suffer a heartbreaking defeat in overtime when Lawrence Tynes kicked the game-winning field goal to send New York to the Super Bowl.
The Giants would go on to defeat the New England Patriots for the world championship, while the Niners were forced to lick their wounds and figure out how to get over the hump.
Getting To The Big Game
Hopes were understandably high for the 49ers heading into the 2012 season. They were 6-2 heading into Week 10 against the St. Louis Rams when a big piece of adversity turned into a blessing in disguise.
Smith suffered a concussion and was forced to leave the game. Backup QB Colin Kaepernick, who hadn’t ever started a regular-season contest to that point, filled in and did well.
The next week, after a 32-7 blowout of the Chicago Bears and 243 yards and two touchdown passes from Kaepernick, Harbaugh decided to stick with him for the duration.
Bowman was outstanding again with 148 tackles (96 solo), plus an interception in the team’s Week 1 win at the Green Bay Packers. As a result, he got another First-Team All-Pro nod while getting named to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
The Niners again won their division with an 11-4-1 record, and for the first time in well over a decade, their fans had visions of a sixth Vince Lombardi trophy as the postseason opened.
After beating the Packers easily in the divisional round, San Francisco fell behind 17-0 early in the second quarter of the NFC Championship game to the Atlanta Falcons. But with the help of Bowman, the Niners staged a historic comeback and came out on top, 28-24, sending them to Super Bowl XLVII.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) January 20, 2022
Their opponent there would be Joe Flacco, Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens. The 49ers were favored by four points over their opposite number from the East Coast.
However, things quickly went awry for San Francisco, as it fell behind early and trailed 28-6 early in the third quarter. Kaepernick was having some jitters, and the Niners’ offense was off-kilter.
A partial power outage delayed the game for about half an hour, but after that, San Fran started to find itself, scoring two touchdowns and a field goal to pull to within 28-23 at the start of the final quarter.
Baltimore scored two field goals of their own sandwiched around a Niners touchdown in the fourth quarter, and with about four minutes left, San Francisco got the ball back with a chance to take the lead.
On fourth down, Kaepernick looked to find wideout Michael Crabtree in the end zone, but the pass was incomplete. It appeared that Ravens defensive back Jimmy Smith made illegal contact with Crabtree, but no pass interference call was made, and with that, the Niners came up short in the end.
Yet again, Bowman shone brightly for San Fran during the 2013 season, amassing 145 tackles (120 solo), along with five sacks and two interceptions, one of which he took in for a touchdown in Week 16 against the Atlanta Falcons.
That touchdown was the last one ever scored at Candlestick Park, and it became known as the “Pick Six at the Stick.”
On this day in 2013, NaVorro Bowman helps lead the #49ers to an epic finish to the final game at Candlestick Park.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) December 23, 2021
For the third straight year, he was named to the All-Pro First-Team, and for the second year in a row, he got a Pro Bowl nod.
After the 49ers started the campaign 6-4, they won their last six games to finish the year at 12-4. They finished second in the NFC West right behind their division rival Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks possessed star QB Russell Wilson and a strong defense of their own, and they were developing a strong antipathy for the Niners, as were their fans. Most pundits expected a slugfest between the two teams in the playoffs.
San Fran managed a nail-biting win over the Packers in the wild card round and an easy 23-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers to set up its anticipated showdown against the Seahawks for the NFC Championship.
Things looked good early for the 49ers in Seattle, as they took a 10-0 lead. But the Seahawks bore down and went ahead 20-17 early in the fourth quarter when disaster struck for San Francisco.
On third down at the Niners’ 10-yard line, Wilson found wideout Jermaine Kearse, who took the ball to the 1-yard line and was tackled by Bowman. Kearse fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Bowman, who then appeared to be down by contact, but the play continued and the Seahawks took the ball away from him to retain possession.
As Bowman made the play, his left knee, due to contact from Kearse, inverted at an unnatural angle, and Bowman ended up tearing both the MCL and ACL in that knee. He was forced the leave the game, which his team lost 23-17.
The play was not reviewable under NFL rules, since it occurred during a loose ball situation. That offseason, owners across the league approved a change in the rules that would allow referees to review plays involving the recovery of a loose ball, a rule change that is sometimes known as the “NaVorro Bowman rule.”
Although Bowman couldn’t finish the NFC Championship Game against the Seahawks, he did well in the contest with 14 tackles (six solo). For the playoffs that year, he recorded 35 tackles (21 solo), four of them for loss, in three contests.
Due to his multiple torn knee ligaments, Bowman missed the entire 2014 season. It was a painful one for the Niners, as they won just eight games and missed the playoffs.
The team’s struggles that year resulted in something of an overhaul. Harbaugh left the team and was replaced by Jim Tomsula, who had previously been the squad’s head coach late in the 2010 season.
Bowman returned for the 2015 season, and there were the usual, understandable concerns about his knee holding up and whether he would be the same force he was before.
During the preseason, he admitted that he had to put a lot of work into being able to play post-injury that he never had to deal with before.
“About two hours,” Bowman said when asked how long it takes to get ready to play or practice. “The massaging and the bending, the flexing of the knee. Once I do that I have a five-minute period where it just needs to relax and then I’m ready to go.”
He eliminated any doubts about his efficacy by playing all 16 games in 2015 and tallying 154 tackles (116 solo). He was picked for the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro First Team.
By the end of the season, he was ranked 61st in the annual NFL Top 100 Players list, which is voted on by fellow players across the league.
Unfortunately, it didn’t translate into wins. The Niners did even worse than they did the previous year without Bowman, finishing just 5-11, as the departures of Gore and Crabtree made them one of the NFL’s worst offensive teams.
Tomsula was fired as a result and replaced by Chip Kelly. Things looked good to begin the 2016 season, as the 49ers blanked out the Los Angeles Rams 28-0.
But San Francisco lost its next three games, and in Week 4 versus the Dallas Cowboys, Bowman suffered another catastrophic injury when he tore his Achilles tendon, ending his season. Without him, the Niners’ losing streak ballooned to 13 games, and they finished at 2-14 for the year, leading to Kelly being fired.
Once again, Bowman was determined to come back and play well. He said that his experience with his severe knee injury a few years earlier helped him in his rehab from his torn Achilles.
— Courtney Cronin (@CourtneyRCronin) January 28, 2017
“It’s much more easy to deal with,” Bowman said. “(I’m) not spending those long hours warming up, trying to get my workout in. It’s definitely more easy to deal with than my knee. I can definitely see a positive light at the end of the tunnel.”
He returned for the start of the 2017 campaign, and if he wasn’t dominant anymore, he was still an effective player. But the Niners lost each of their first five games, and that fifth loss was jarring for Bowman.
New head coach Kyle Shanahan took Bowman out for several series against the Indianapolis Colts, and the linebacker wasn’t happy.
“I don’t know, man,” Bowman said. “We had a conversation, and I don’t know. They’re doing what they want to do. I don’t know. I don’t like it. No one likes coming out of the game, but I’m a team player.”
He asked to be traded shortly afterward, and when a deal didn’t materialize, the Niners released him less than two weeks after the loss to the Colts.
The Oakland Raiders picked him up a few days later, and he would finish the campaign with them. In 10 contests on the east side of the Bay Area, Bowman had 89 tackles (58 solo) for the 6-10 Raiders.
After not playing during the 2018 season, he announced his retirement in June 2019. Weeks later, the 49ers were able to sign him to a one-day contract so he could retire as an official member of the team.
“NaVorro gave his heart and soul to this team for the last eight years, and for that we are all extremely grateful,” San Francisco general manager John Lynch said in a team press release. “During that time, NaVorro was a key component of one of the best teams in the league, and his passion for the game allowed him to quickly become a favorite of our faithful fans.”
Legacy and Post-Football Life
During his time in the NFL, Bowman was something special. Although he decided to cut his career short, his numbers speak for themselves, and he should have a real shot at getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame once he’s eligible.
The season after he officially retired, the Niners returned to prominence under new QB Jimmy Garoppolo, making it to the Super Bowl again, where they competed hard with the Kansas City Chiefs before losing.
Some wondered if Bowman had wished he had stuck around as a result, but he insisted he was content with his decision to retire.
“I don’t have any hard feelings about it,” he said just days before the big game. “I just wish I was still there because I know I can still help. But when I gave it up, I said to myself ‘I have no regrets,’ and that’s still [true] to this day.”
Bowman talked about what he may want to do for a second career shortly after he retired, but said there was one thing that could get in the way.
“I do want to get into media, but the problem with that is I’m back at home seeing the family,” Bowman said of returning to his native Washington, D.C. area. “If I can do it on this side, I’ll definitely do it on this side. But right now I just want to stay home and see what’s open for me over here.”
With a new era of high-quality 49ers football just starting, Bowman’s heart is still in San Francisco, but today he enjoys watching his son, who is coming of age, play basketball. The elder Bowman can be content knowing that his place in Niners lore is secure for eternity.