In his first year as the junior varsity football coach at Suitland High School, Ty Woodby was preparing his team for a scrimmage against Gov. Thomas Johnson. It was 2002, NaVorro Bowman’s freshman season, and the late Nick Lynch, Suitland’s varsity coach at the time, told Woodby to take Bowman with him on the junior varsity squad.
“I looked at him like he was crazy,” Woodby said. “I was like, ‘What do you want me to do with him?’”
So the hulking Bowman played for Woodby. For about four plays, anyway.
On the second snap from scrimmage, Bowman knocked Thomas Johnson’s quarterback out of the game with a helicoptering hit along the sideline. Two plays later, Bowman sent Thomas Johnson’s starting running back home early.
“After that, the other coach walked around to our sideline and asked me if I could take him out so he can get a look at the rest of the kids,” Woodby said.
“Needless to say, he never played another down on J.V.”
Now Bowman, a 2006 graduate of Suitland, is preparing to play in football’s biggest game on Sunday when the San Francisco 49ers face the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
Bowman, 24, has developed into an elite linebacker in the National Football League in only his third season with the 49ers. He has been named to back-to-back All-Pro teams and this season, he made 149 tackles in 16 regular-season games.
Of course, that’s nothing compared to the 165 tackles, 1,200 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns he accumulated during Suitland’s 2004 state championship season.
“We always say that certain kids have the ability to go to that level,” said Suitland assistant coach Eric Wade. “He’s not the first kid we’ve had who we thought could achieve it, but very seldom do they actually achieve it. The ability alone is not the indicator. It’s the desire, the work ethic, and doing the little things to compliment his physical attributes.”
Wade said Bowman, who grew up in District Heights, and LaMont Jordan, who also made the NFL from Suitland, were the only two players who contributed significantly to the team as freshmen.
Wade, who was responsible for calling in statistics to various news organizations during Bowman’s tenure at the school, said he often had to double- and triple-check his work because the numbers were so unbelievable. He also found himself transported back to 2004 while watching a game between the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks earlier this season. Bowman sprinted through the offensive line and tackled the running back for a loss in the backfield on a 4th-and-1 play, just as he did in a critical playoff game against Charles H. Flowers. Ian Hail, another Suitland assistant coach who worked with Bowman on the defensive side of the ball, remembers the moment in 2004.
“That was to end the game and Flowers, they had to score. He was on his way to the play before it had kicked off. It wasn’t a blitz, he just knew because of the exact situation and way they lined up,” Hail said. “He hit it so well, he didn’t even look back to see what happened. That was just amazing to me that a junior was doing that kind of stuff. At that time, I knew this kid was something different than anything I had ever seen.”
After attending Penn State University and struggling to deal with the untimely deaths of both his mentor, Lynch, and his father, Hillard, Bowman was selected by the 49ers in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He stepped in for the injured Patrick Willis — another young, elite linebacker in San Francisco — and hasn’t looked back since en route to becoming one of the league’s most dominant defensive players.
“Even though we’re a successful program [at Suitland], we don’t have all the amenities other successful programs do,” Hail said. “We don’t have a stellar weight room and a wonderful, plush field. So for him to come from this and to get where he is, I think that’s something to really be applauded.”
Bowman, who wore No. 2 with the Rams, still keeps in touch with many of his former coaches at Suitland, including Vincent Clarke and Woodby. In fact, Woodby, whose oldest son is a Ravens fan and whose youngest son is a 49ers fan, sends Bowman a text before every game.
“Some people, when they start to make some good change, forget where they come from. But he texts me back after every game, even the ones they don’t win,” Woodby said.
Following San Francisco’s victory against Atlanta in the NFC Championship game, Woodby received a particularly meaningful text from Bowman.
“I sure wish coach Lynch was here,” it read.
“Don’t worry,” Woodby replied. “Him and your pops are looking down on you right now and smiling.”