I was standing next to Chris Berman when NaVorro Bowman nearly committed a colossal mistake on the Dec. 23, 2013 episode of “Monday Night Football.” The Atlanta Falcons had just successfully recovered an onside kick at the expense of Bowman, the San Francisco 49ers three-time All-Pro inside linebacker, who did not cleanly scoop up a slow-rolling ground ball off of Matt Bosher’s right foot. “Uh-oh,” Berman, the Hall of Fame broadcaster said as if he were covering the game highlights for ESPN.
Three plays after his gaffe, Bowman ended up authoring an astonishing final chapter in Candlestick Park’s storied history. With Atlanta driving to tie or take the lead late in regulation, Bowman intercepted Matt Ryan’s 40th pass of the night and ran it back 89 yards to score the final touchdown at “The ‘Stick.” It was a legendary moment for the 27-year-old linebacker from District Heights, Md. The play helped clinch a third consecutive playoff berth for the 49ers and was one of the strongest passages of Bowman’s indelible book of football moments, which also included a fourth-down pass breakup on the road in Atlanta to help send San Francisco to Super Bowl XLVII.
Bowman’s name carried star power after the interception, which was also his first career touchdown. But shortly after, the third-round draft pick’s place in 49ers lore was greatly challenged, forcing him to overcome a much more significant on-field incident to prolong his on-field legacy.
Fast forward to present day, the heart and soul of San Francisco’s 2015 squad is writing another chapter in his remarkable career. This one focuses on his comeback season after tearing two knee ligaments on Jan. 19, 2014. The injury left the 49ers Faithful stunned around the world as he was carted off the field and the defense was forced to finish a playoff game without one of its leaders and top play-makers.
To better grasp the magnitude of Bowman’s return, we chronicled everything about the injury, from the moment it occurred to the months of grueling rehabilitation to the eventual payoff.
This is Bowman’s comeback season, the ongoing story that is nearly two years in the making.
The Seattle Seahawks were leading 20-17 with 8:54 to play in the 2013 NFC Championship game. Russell Wilson took a shotgun snap on 3rd-and-goal from the 10-yard line and threw to Jermaine Kearse, who ran a quick in route from the slot to Wilson’s right. When the ball reached the receiver, Bowman found himself in position to deliver a blow along with teammate Patrick Willis. Bowman stopped Kearse’s initial progress at the 3-yard line, but the undrafted wideout was able to roll off the linebacker and lunge forward. As Kearse inched towards the end zone, Bowman reached into his chest and temporarily ripped the football free for what appeared to be an epic takeaway. But as soon as Bowman secured the ball, Eric Reid came up to deliver a jarring hit on the Seahawks receiver. In doing so, Reid’s 213-pound body pushed Kearse back and into Bowman’s left knee, which planted solidly in the CenturyLink Field turf.
“I just wanted to make sure I held on to the ball so we could get the ball back and have a chance to win the game,” Bowman said of the pivotal moment. “Unfortunately, I lost the ball and tore my knee up at the same time.”
Bowman rolled to his right, with ball in hand after Reid’s impact. Seahawks players wrestled with Bowman at the bottom of the pile and were able to recover the ball. The play was unchallengeable at the time, a rule that was later amended by the NFL’s Competition Committee. But the damage was done. Bowman had torn his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. The injury was devastating. The aftermath of the moment instantly quieted a sold out crowd and left players on both sides of the rivalry visibly shaken as Bowman was carted to the visiting locker room. The 49ers lost the game, 23-17, but Bowman’s bravery was not forgotten in defeat.
“(He is) one of the toughest players ever,” teammate Tony Jerod-Eddie later said. “It was so emotional. One of our best players on defense goes down. He’s screaming and yelling in so much pain. For him to hold on to the ball for as long as he did just shows how much he loves the game, and how much he wanted to win.”
Reverberations from the injury were felt throughout the football community, so much so that even one of San Francisco’s top rivals showed his support for Bowman.
“Praying for @NBowman53,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman tweeted after the game. “Hate to see such an amazing player go down like that... Speedy recovery.”
Bowman would not return to the field until the 2015 season, a decision that was made with his long-term health in mind. Even so, the lost 2014 campaign proved to be a valuable teaching experience in Bowman’s career. It brought out the best of him as a player, a teammate, a leader and as a family man.
“I really wanted to play more years in the NFL, so that motivated me just to work hard through it,” the three-time All-Pro said. “I have three kids and they’re young. My son’s getting old enough to understand. I’m trying to show him what his daddy exactly does (for a living).”
Immediately after the injury, Bowman began his rehabilitation. He first spent two weeks at 49ers headquarters where he kept his knee loose and flexible while combating added swelling under the watch of the team’s medical staff. Bowman then flew cross-country to Birmingham, Ala., to undergo surgery from renowned sports orthopedic surgeon James Andrews.
The recovery process was so intensely long that Bowman didn’t even begin sprinting on his surgically-repaired knee until September of 2014. But in order to run up to his standards, the football star first had to learn to walk. Bowman recalled the constant stretching after the surgery as some of the biggest obstacles he dealt with early on. Loosening his knee on an exercise bike and having nurses bend his knee to increase flexibility was quite a challenge. Bowman said minor activities like learning how to step over a small cone “was a process that I just had to take.”
For emotional support and motivation, Bowman leaned on the love of his fiancé, Mikale, and his three children, his son NaVorro Jr. and twin daughters, Stoni and Cali. Bowman also pointed to his strong relationships with his brother and mother in helping him get through the toughest points of his rehabilitation.
“Whatever I needed, my fiancé was there for me,” he said. “My kids always kept a smile on my face and got me through it. … I’m just a guy that’s blessed to have people who cared about me at that time.”
In April of 2014, Bowman attended an autograph signing in the East Bay and commented on his early strides to a local newspaper writer. "Look at me, I'm walking," Bowman told the Bay Area News Group’s Steve Corkan. "I'm always looking at the bigger picture. I'm young, and I know I still have a lot of football left in me. So all I have to do is get my knee back feeling good, if not better than it was. Then I'll be fine.”
Bowman kept fans updated on his recovery with a series of Instagram posts. The pictures ranged from him getting prepped for surgery – to months later when the two-time Pro Bowler showcased his improving strength in the weight room. The captions were also telling of his mindset during recovery. He used hashtags like, “#icantstop, #iwannabethebest, #futurelegend, #formyfans and #majorcomeback.”
On Dec. 9, Bowman gave a candid assessment of his rehab progress as the 49ers were 7-6 and coming off of back-to-back losses to the Seahawks and Oakland Raiders. San Francisco had activated Bowman off the Physically Unable to Perform List, but he would never do more than participate in walk-throughs. Days later, Bowman was placed on season-ending Injured Reserve on Dec. 13.
“It’s been hard, sad at the same time, especially when you want to take your brain and put it in the guys who are out there and allow them to see the things that I see on the sideline," Bowman said before being shut down for the year. “I understand that I wasn’t able to contribute to my team this year. It just sucks being on the sideline. That’s why I’ve been working so hard just to get back out there with them.”
“Every game has been weird for me,” he added. “I haven't even known what time to wake up or to show up to the stadium. I haven't talked about it, but it really has been hard, and sometimes I just ask, 'Why?'”
Bowman didn’t ask too many more self-doubting questions after that point. Instead, he found answers – the ones that began to provide tangible results in the ensuing months.
The 2014 season was lost for Bowman; he told reporters the experience felt “boring,” “lonely,” and, “it felt like a gut check.” February through July of the following year, however, proved to be a turning point for the 49ers leader. After Willis and Justin Smith announced their retirements, Bowman took on the leadership reigns during offseason workouts, Organized Team Activities and minicamps. Sixteen months removed from the fateful play in Seattle, Bowman shared another key update with Bay Area scribes. “The knee will get to where it needs to be, Bowman said on May, 29. “Maybe not as fast as you guys expect, but I’m definitely going to get back to that level.” Bowman’s thought process illustrated his growing confidence in early offseason workouts.
Throughout the offseason program, Bowman spent time meticulously working on his timing, his reads and his cover skills – all in contact-free drills. The 49ers coaching staff tried to protect Bowman from himself by attempting to limit his tireless work. The team kept track of his reps and gave rest whenever he needed it – no matter how much he protested.
In those pad-less sessions, Bowman showed glimpses of his former self. A certain spin move on an in-practice blitz provided a reminder to his pre-injury form.
“I knew he was back when he hit them with the ‘Old Faithful,’” Jerod-Eddie said of a move he saw from Bowman during veteran minicamp. “He did that a couple of times, so I think he’s back and ready to go. I think he’s going to have a great season.”
Putting the pads on in training camp was one of the most anticipated hurdles for San Francisco’s linebacker. When asked what he was looking forward to the most upon his first camp session on Aug. 1, Bowman said, “A hit. That's probably the only mental thing on my mind. … Once I do that, I'll be ready."
Bowman was diligent about taking proper care of his knee before and after practicing. He told Sports Illustrated’s Peter King that he spent two hours on daily prep work just to join his teammates on the field. The routine included massaging, bending and flexing of the left knee. Bowman told King it took no time for him to get ready to practice prior to the injury. In the same conversation with veteran football writer, Bowman further opened up on the emotionally-draining rehab process.
“I thought I ended my career,” Bowman said to King. “I knew how my leg was, and how my knee was going off to the side, and you don’t want to see that. Then Dr. Andrews told me there was a possibility I wouldn’t get back to the way I was. So anytime I felt pain going through the rehab, I just thought of that.”
“I don’t play this game for money,” Bowman added. “I play it for respect and ultimately to make it to the Hall of Fame. That’s what drives me. In order to be the best, this work comes with it, and I’m willing to fight through it.”
Bowman’s first game action was in Week 2 of the preseason. He recorded three consecutive tackles against the Dallas Cowboys, and that was all the coaching staff needed to see. They took him out following the three-and-out series. Afterwards, Bowman said his time away from the field and in the film room allowed him to diagnose the plays. He later shared his feelings about his first game at Levi’s® Stadium on social media: “Good to be back and doing what I love,” Bowman wrote as a caption to an Instagram post. “Thank you to my family, friends, teammates and fans for the support along the way.”
The following week, Bowman sacked Peyton Manning twice in his final regular-season tune up. The 49ers defensive captain sat out of the preseason finale against the San Diego Chargers. The countdown for his regular season return was just days away.
Adrian Peterson knew the type of player he would be facing to open the 2015 season. The star Minnesota Vikings running back and former NFL MVP, who has also dealt with multiple knee injuries in his nine-year career, showed his reverence for San Francisco’s locker-room leader in the days leading up to a 49ers-Vikings Monday night clash.
“Just watching him this preseason, man, it doesn’t look like he is coming off an ACL injury,” Peterson said. “With that, I have so much respect for him because I know how hard it is to get up every morning and push yourself to get back to 100 percent. The way that he’s playing is testimony to the hard work he has put in. I’m happy for him. "
For Bowman, family remained heavily on his mind leading up to the season opener. “They have so much support for me and what I’m doing,” Bowman told reporters on Sept. 11. “They’re so excited to see me back out there on the field. I’ve just been reminiscing about that. On Monday night, knowing that my family is watching me, I want to go out there and give them a show.”
Bowman did just that. And he wore a microphone for 49ers Studios to cover the experience. Throughout the primetime matchup, teammates and coaches came over to acknowledge Bowman’s arduous journey back. “Incredible accomplishment,” defensive coordinator Eric Mangini told his linebacker before the game. “To be where you are right now, (it’s) awesome. I’m so happy for you.”
That night, Bowman made his family proud, both on and off the football field. He recorded seven tackles and one sack in a 20-3 victory over the Vikings. And as for Peterson, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2015 could only muster 31 yards on 10 carries, his lowest single-game totals of the season to date.
"You can’t say enough about NaVorro Bowman," Tomsula said after the game. “One of the things I respect most about NaVorro is the way he plays team defense. … You see him running rubs and different things so other people can make plays off of him. That’s unselfish play and that, to me, is what I admire the most.”
Bowman logged significant snap totals in the next eight games of the regular season. San Francisco’s coaches have wisely given him a veteran’s day off each week of practice to ensure his body is prepared for gameday. Although the 49ers posted a 3-6 mark prior to their bye week, Bowman entered Week 11 of the regular season as the NFL’s second-leading tackler with 88 stops.
Perhaps Bowman’s best outing of the year was in a 17-16 win in Week 9 over the Falcons. Atlanta’s nemesis struck again with a seven-tackle, one-sack outing against Ryan and running back Devonta Freeman, who Bowman brought down in one specific instance with a one-armed tackle while being blocked by an offensive lineman. The linebacker told reporters after the game that he felt like he had turned a corner in his rehab.
“It’s getting there,” Bowman said. “That’s what I want to keep hearing – that I’m starting to look like the normal me. I told you guys it was going to be a process, it wasn’t going to happen overnight. I’m pleased with the progress that I’ve made so far. There’s still more out there for me to do. I plan on continuing to work towards that.”
Bowman’s confidence stemmed from trusting his body to respond to the physical demands of the game. No longer was he hesitant to throw his body around. “Early in the season, I don’t think I was getting to the ball or reacting as fast as I wanted to,” Bowman told 49ers Studios in a sit-down interview. “I’m just more confident, just reacting a lot faster and understanding what teams are trying to do.”
Bowman’s story can and will be viewed as motivation for anyone who followed it. The tale clearly made waves in the 49ers locker room. When Daniel Kilgore was on the mend after breaking his leg last season, the team’s starting center looked at Bowman’s journey for inspiration.
“I feed off what he’s done to get back,” Kilgore said. “I use him as an example, not just for me, but for all of the guys who have been injured in the past. He’s just a great example to follow and look up to on the road coming back to his greatness. For him to come back and to do the things he was doing before, I think that speaks volumes about NaVorro Bowman.”
Week 11 of the regular season was no ordinary Sunday for Bowman. Prior to his first game back in Seattle since his football future was put in jeopardy, Bowman told reporters, "I plan on revisiting the spot where I went down at and just thanking God for having a chance to be back out there."
The emotional scene did, in fact, take place. Bowman placed his repaired left knee on the turf as he tucked his head in prayer before Sunday’s 29-13 loss to the Seahawks. Though the game’s final score did not go in Bowman’s favor, his nine tackles and return to the scene of the injury was no less meaningful. “It’s a blessing for me to get back out here,” Bowman said after the game. “(I’m) glad that I came out of the game healthy.”
So how does Bowman’s comeback season truly end? A third trip to Hawaii as a Pro Bowl representative could be on the horizon as well as votes for Comeback Player of the Year. But with six regular season games remaining on San Francisco’s schedule, only time will tell how Bowman punctuates his journey.
Written by Taylor Price
Produced by Rusty Parker
Graphics by Ben Mayberry
Photos by 49ers Team Photographers
Video by 49ers Studios
© 2015 Forty Niners Football Company LLC