Bowman finds way with 49ers
Remember Joe Paterno's doghouse?
Dozens of players bunked there for stretches during Paterno's 46 years as Penn State's football coach.
It was never a lock-in. More of a revolving door. When his players were in public trouble, faced scrutiny from a prying media, Paterno would invariably push back.
He's a good kid. Just going through a bad time. I bet some of you guys did some things in college you're not proud of …
Not always, but more often than not, Joe was right. Think Rashard Casey.
Think NaVorro Bowman, if you're trolling for a rooting interest in the Super Bowl.
"That kid NaVorro Bowman, man, he can run. He can bend, he can cover and do everything."
That was Bowman, getting into the spirit of Super Bowl media day Tuesday, describing himself.
He isn't as arrogant, or as colorful, as that looks in print. But the truth is, Bowman might be the best inside linebacker on Earth right now, even better than his better-known teammate Patrick Willis, and certainly better, in 2013, than Supe XLVII's biggest personality, Baltimore Ravens ILB Ray Lewis.
In his third NFL season, Bowman already has been an Associated Press First-Team All-Pro twice. He's only 24, but it hasn't been as smooth a ride as that suggests.
Bowman grew up in the tough District Heights area southeast of Washington, D.C.
He missed most of his senior year of high school with a shoulder injury, but his junior year, in which he had 165 tackles and rushed for 1,200 yards and was named Maryland defensive player of the year, was more than enough to make him a big-time recruit.
Penn State d-line coach Larry Johnson, who famously owns Maryland, was Bowman's primary recruiter. He beat Ohio State and Virginia Tech.
Bowman redshirted in 2006, understandable because Penn State's linebackers then were a fairly strong group, including Paul Posluszny, Dan Connor and Sean Lee.
Even in practice, though, "You could tell right away,'' Penn State linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden said Wednesday.
"He was such a terrific athlete and a quick learner. He was one of those guys where you didn't have to draw a road map.''
Bowman played in 2007, but was suspended, and doghoused, by JoePa after being arrested in connection with a brawl on the Penn State campus. He missed the last two games of that season and spring practice in 2008.
In 2009, he admitted to using marijuana in a probation hearing.
In the interim, he had become a great college player. But off the field he was struggling.
Bowman had lost friends, during his college years, to the drugs and violence of District Heights.
In June 2008, his father, Hilliard, died suddenly of a blood clot. A few months later, on New Year's Eve, Bowman's high school coach, Nick Lynch, essentially a second father, was killed in a car accident.
The next day, the Lions lost to USC in the Rose Bowl.
"Coming from where I come from, those two really inspired me and had a lot to do with where I'm at. I still need them,'' Bowman said Tuesday.
"I wish they could see me right now, see me shining, see me still working and remaining the person I am.
"I still have one more thing to do, and that's to win the Super Bowl. It'll be for those two men."
Bowman turned pro after the '09 season. Probably because of perceived off-field issues, he lasted until the third round, the 91st pick overall.
"He's an outstanding person,'' Vanderlinden said, "but he went through some unbelievably tough things in a short time.
"After his dad and his coach passed, Larry and I drove down to his home, and we sat in his house, with his family, and just talked for hours. Just a very sad time.''
Bowman is only 6-feet tall. He has a running back body type, if a puffed-up one at 242 pounds. The part of linebacking he does best is the simplest one: Find the ball and get the guy with it on the ground.
Only two NFL players, Washington's London Fletcher and Minnesota's Chad Greenaway, have more than Bowman's 292 tackles over the last two regular seasons, and neither Fletcher nor Greenaway have anyone like Willis, a six-time pro bowler, playing alongside them.
"I think they're the best two linebackers in football,'' Baltimore running back Ray Rice said last week.
But Bowman is no mere specialist. Expect to see him pass-cover the super-quick Rice in pass routes out of the backfield today. He'll also match up with tight ends and even wide receivers.
Consider his breakup of a fourth-down pass from Atlanta's Matt Ryan to Roddy White, a Pro Bowl-caliber wideout, a play that ended the suspense in the NFC Championship Game.
(Bowman arguably got away with illegal contact on the play, and was willing to argue it Tuesday: "I jammed him at 5 yards. I knocked the ball down. I thought it was a great play.")
This brings us to something to watch today. On offense, the 49ers are as multiple as it gets, with tons of formations and weapons and opponent-specific schemes.
But on defense, they couldn't be simpler. The linemen win the trenches. The corners cover. The safeties play centerfield. The linebackers do everything else.
In an age of specialization, the 49ers occasionally take out a nose guard in lieu of a nickel d-back. Otherwise, they play just 11, because all 11 can do everything in their job description.
"NaVorro is mobile enough to play in space, and he's tough enough, physical enough, to go up in the box against the run,'' Vanderlinden said.
"That's what separates him from a lot of linebackers. You never have to take him out of the game. I watch him play every chance I can. He's impressive. He makes it look pretty easy.''
The truth, as usual, is more complicated than that.
Email sports columnist Mike Gross at email@example.com.