DeKALB — When first asked by the Northern Star in August about why he chose to transfer to NIU from University of California – Berkeley, senior quarterback Ross Bowers met the question with humor.
“First and foremost, my favorite food is corn, so I figure NIU was the place to be,” Bowers said.
The reasons Bowers actually came to NIU were no laughing matter to the Bothell, Washington native. The path that lead Bowers to DeKalb was one that tested his positive outlook, his body and his will to continue playing football.
Bowers isn’t a stranger to the Midwest. John Bowers, Ross’ father, has coached for several midwestern college football programs, including several Mid-American Conference schools as well as Eastern Illinois University and Illinois State University.
Ross warmed to playing football as a kid in part by being around the game when seeing his dad coach.
“[My dad] had a huge influence on me,” Bowers said. “Being around [football] so much, I just got comfortable and started to enjoy it. The one thing I’ll always respect him for is he never forced me and never pushed it on me.”
With guidance from his father, Bowers spurred himself into other sports early on in his life. While playing both basketball and baseball, it was the sport he learned from his mother Joanne that separated Bowers from most football players.
Joanne Bowers is among the elite coaches in college gymnastics, having coached the University of Washington gymnastics program to five Pacific-12 championships during her 10 year tenure. Joanne Bowers began coaching at San Jose State University last year, becoming the sixth coach in program history.
Ross said growing up in a gymnastics gym helped him develop body control and a deeper appreciation for his mom for teaching him about the sport.
“I think all the days my buddies and I got to go and work with my mom, getting to hang out in her gymnastics gym, playing on trampolines, doing flips and stuff,” Bowers said. “I think it really helped me get comfortable in the air, knowing my body, being more explosive and overall agility. I think all those things helped. I think just having her as a mom gave me a new perspective that she brings from her sport.”
It’s the comfort in the air and explosiveness that took Bowers from being a highly recruited pro-style quarterback at Bothell High School to a top playmaker.
Late in the 2014 Washington State 4A Championship Game, Bowers leapt over a pair of defenders and landed on his feet in the endzone for a touchdown. An upload of the play by MaxPreps on YouTube has more than 53,000 views.
Bowers said practice made perfect, and not just practice on a football field against defenders trying to lay him out.
“I use [to practice] as a kid,” Bowers said. “I’d set up a bunch of safe landing pads and jump off the trampoline over them. Getting that type of work, I was always comfortable doing it. I never really had that chance until I got to high school, my senior year. At the end of the day, I’m just trying to make a play.”
Bowers went to California and became the starting quarterback during his redshirt sophomore season. In his sixth game as the Bears’ starting quarterback, Bowers pulled off another acrobatic dive over defenders for a touchdown to seal an upset win over then eighth ranked Washington State University.
After throwing for over 3,000 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2017, a hand injury saw Bowers’ starting job come under pressure at the start of the 2018 season. At halftime of the Bears’ season opener against North Carolina University, he was benched and replaced by Chase Garbers, a redshirt first-year quarterback.
Bowers admits that the move to the bench made it hard for him to have a positive outlook on playing the game.
“That first week when they went with the other quarterbacks, I was kind of down about it and didn’t have a good attitude,” Bowers said. “The next few weeks I was practicing hard, trying to get my status back and trying to rebuild the reputation I had built up. I wasn’t going to try and let it affect me negatively because at times I let it defeat me for sure.”
The end was spelled out for Bowers after not being given an opportunity to play after a blowout 42-24 loss to University of Oregon where Cal quarterbacks committed five turnovers.
“I figured I might get thrown back into the mix of things and the next day, nothing really changed,” Bowers said. “That’s when I was like ‘wow. The [quarterbacks] played about as bad as [they] could play, and I still didn’t get a chance.’ It was pretty clear then that I was done [there]. I was so unhappy, and I hate to admit that because it feels a little selfish.”
Later that year, Bowers faced another hurdle when an MRI revealed the hand injury he’d been nursing all season was a broken thumb. Bowers decided a change of scenery would help him best to get back to having a positive outlook and entered the NCAA transfer pool at the end of the season.
“I grew a lot and learned about myself, But I didn’t want to be a negative impact on the team, especially when things weren’t going my way,” Bowers said. “Deciding to transfer kind of felt like a weight off my back, to be honest. It felt like I wasn’t fighting those feelings and emotions everyday, having to hold my tongue whenever a coach walked by.”
Bowers initially received plenty of interest from schools like Florida State University, Virginia Tech University and Oregon State University. Some eventually went in a different direction or were concerned about Bowers’ recovery from hand surgery.
Throughout the process, one new head coach made getting Bowers into his offense a high priority.
“I think for us to build a balanced offensive attack, we were looking for a guy to distribute the ball and make plays,” NIU Head Coach Thomas Hammock said.
NIU continued to push hard for Bowers even through injury, and Bowers rewarded it with a commitment to the school in the spring.
“It just kind of worked out at the end of the day,” Bowers said. “I was happy that this coaching staff that stuck with me even while I was getting ready for thumb surgery.”
After graduating from Cal with a degree in American Studies, Bowers joined the Huskies at the start of summer training camp and had to start from scratch building up a reputation. One of the first barriers Bowers had to break down was between him and his new teammates.
“There’s a process with everything, especially relationships,” Bowers said. “You can never speed it up. It definitely took time for guys to know me.”
The competition for the transfer was stiff off the bat, as he had to beat out redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Childers, who had just led the Huskies to a Mid-American Conference championship.
While Hammock never announced publicly who the starting quarterback was, Bowers was informed he would start 10 days before the Huskies’ season opener against Illinois State University.
“These coaches over the few months I’ve been here have gained so much respect from me and the team,” Bowers said. “I just want to do right by them, and I know how much an opportunity means especially having lost one before. I value it more now than my 20-year old self would.”
In his return to a college football field and his first game with NIU, Bowers threw for 299 yards and two touchdowns in NIU’s 24-10 victory against ISU. Bowers has now thrown for 1,056 yards through the Huskies 1-3 start to the season.
Through being benched, getting hurt and having to start from scratch at a new school, Bowers doesn’t look back at his past in anger. Instead, the Huskie speaks of appreciating the chance to overcome adversity and better himself – not to mention finding a new home.
“The stuff after the benching was just icing on top of the cake for presenting a little adversity in my life,” Bowers said. “It was good for me and I’m happy that I’m here, that’s for sure.”