Small college back puts up big time numbers

Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2000

GROVE CITY, Pa. -- He's a football player who once preferred baseball, a fullback with a tailback's mentality, a big man running up big yardage against small schools.

R.J. Bowers, who needs 149 yards Saturday against Westminster to become the all-time leading rusher in college football, seems to be as much a contradiction as he is a cause for celebration at tiny Grove City College.

He's a player with Division I-A talent hidden among the non-scholarship performers of Division III, a potential pro who has built his reputation and resume against those who don't get a dime of financial aid to play.

And the route he is taking to the record once held by another western Pennsylvania running back, one named Tony Dorsett, is unusually roundabout. It carries him now through the defenses of Wooster, Waynesburg and Washington and Jefferson, but it also took him to a number of dots on the U.S. map before leading him back home.

Bowers was recruited by Division I-A Akron out of West Middlesex High School in 1992, but baseball was his love. His younger brothers, 21-year-old Steve, at Akron, and 18-year-old Billy, at Hiram, still play the sport.

So when the Houston Astros drafted him on the 11th round in 1992, Bowers signed and spent five years in their farm system as an outfielder with potential, but not enough pop in his bat. All the while, however, something was missing.

Football. Hitting a hole. Making contact -- and not the kind a bat makes against a fastball.

''I loved baseball, but I missed football,'' Bowers said.

So, in 1997, he landed at Grove City mostly because his old high school coach, Tom Trimmer, was an assistant there. When he stepped into Grove City's wing-T offense in 1997, the records began falling for the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Bowers, who is about 25 pounds bigger than most Division III running backs.

It helped that he felt comfortable at Grove City, which several years ago challenged the U.S. government's financial aid program all the way to the Supreme Court. At a school where individualism almost is demanded, he fit right in.

Coincidentally, he is one of the rare Division III players who has a Division I-like scholarship; the Astros agreed when he signed to pay his college expenses.

''I'm not a normal college student. I don't really have a college social life,'' Bowers said. ''I grew up when I was with the Astros and I don't really mingle with the college crowd.''

Or, it would seem, with tacklers. In 1998, he led the nation with 2,283 yards rushing and 34 rushing touchdowns despite fracturing an ankle in his final game. Now, he owns NCAA all-division records with 32 consecutive 100-yard games, 84 rushing touchdowns and is tied with 15 200-yard games.

He is coming off a 266-yard game in a four-overtime, 32-28 victory over Waynesburg. He needs slightly more than half that Saturday to break Brian Shay's record of 6,958 career rushing yards at Division II Emporia State from 1995-98.

Getting those 149 yards won't be easy for Bowers and Grove City (3-3) against rival Westminster (5-1), a former NAIA power that made an unsuccessful transition to NCAA Division II and now is moving into Division III. Westminster has one of the nation's best defenses, allowing only 47 yards rushing and 154 total yards.

Already, the message is being passed among the Titans, whose campus is located only 15 miles from Grove City: Don't let Bowers get the record against us.

''I know they're going to be tough. But I've seen just about every front there is possible,'' said Bowers, who leads Division III with 1,190 yards in six games this season. ''Every team we play has eight or nine men within 2-3 yards of the line of scrimmage. We have our share of 1- and 2-yard plays, but then we break off a big one.''

Whenever he does, his mother, Debbie, cooks up a big pot of chili for his linemen. Bowers can't buy them Rolexes like an NFL star could, but, he said, ''What excites me is they're as excited about the record as I am.''

Even if Bowers doesn't get the record Saturday, he has games remaining against Bethany, W.Va.; Carnegie Mellon and Alfred to break it and add to it. Once the record falls, he will need an additional 41 yards to become the first college rusher to gain 7,000 yards.

It is Bowers' ability to sidestep tacklers and his acceleration -- he's been timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash -- that sets him apart from other small-college running backs, said Grove City coach Chris Smith.

''We've heard all the talk, that he's a big kid beating up little kids,'' Smith said. ''But he doesn't run over people as much as he makes them miss. He can go for a touchdown every time he touches the ball.''

Nearly 20 NFL teams have scouted Bowers on campus, with some returning as many as four times. He probably won't be an early-round draft pick, but could go in the fifth through seventh rounds. Even if he is undrafted, he is confident of being in an NFL camp next summer.

''I feel somebody will give me an opportunity, and then I'll have to make the most of it,'' Bowers said.

He already has with this second shot at football. He doesn't deny he wouldn't be accumulating such yardage at Notre Dame, Pitt or even Akron, but it also agitates him when the record is dismissed because of his level of competition.

''That's the knock I have on me, and it's why I would like to get a shot to play in a postseason bowl like the Blue-Gray game,'' he said. ''Maybe I wouldn't get 2,000 yards at a Division I school, but I think I would have good numbers. Those guys aren't 100 times better than me. I know I could have played there.''

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