NaVorro Bowman isn't one to show his feelings often.
But when he ran onto the field for the first time in 19 months on Sunday, the typically-stoic linebacker let the moment consume him.
"I was a little emotional just being back out there seeing the fans," Bowman said. "It got me going. I missed it."
Bowman, who missed all of last year after suffering a serious knee injury in the 2013 NFC Championship game, made his preseason debut in the San Francisco 49ers victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The three-time All-Pro sat out the team's previous game against the Houston Texans, instead choosing to make his long-awaited return in front of the Levi's® Stadium crowd.
"It felt right to give the fans the first look at me because they do so much for us and we appreciate them," Bowman said. "It's the preseason, so we had a choice and I wanted to give it back to them."
Bowman didn't disappoint his audience either. Although he only played three snaps, the veteran recorded three tackles, including two for loss.
On the first play from scrimmage, Bowman levied a huge hit on Cowboys running back Darren McFadden in the hole to limit the carry to a 1-yard gain. He tackled McFadden again on second down with the help of Nick Moody for a 1-yard loss. Finally on third down, Bowman used his smarts to get the 49ers defense off of the field.
"I was just baiting Tony (Romo), making him thinking I was blitzing the A-gap and that he had the running back free on the edge," Bowman said. "I got him to throw the ball to him, and I made the play."
Bowman said he is a more intelligent player after watching from the sidelines for a season.
"I saw it from the coaches' view," Bowman said. "That's what the greats do; they find different ways to learn. That's what the year gave me. I wanted to show that I'm a student of the game, not just a player."
If the Cowboys had tallied a first down on their opening possession, Bowman likely would have been replaced from the game. Jim Tomsula set a strict snap count of five plays for the linebacker.
"I wanted to be out there longer, but it's early in the year and we have a long road ahead of us," Bowman said. "We just want to be smart with it. I knew I had five plays, so I wanted to make the best of it.
View the top photos from San Francisco's matchup against Dallas in the first game at Levi's Stadium of 2015.
"My adrenaline was rushing. It felt good to hit someone else; to just go out there and make some plays."
Bowman's teammates were predictably thrilled to see the locker-room leader back in the middle of the 49ers defense.
"Everyone here has seen how hard he's worked to get back and how hard he's going in training camp to get ready for this," Colin Kaepernick said. "To see him step out there and be his old self, that's what we've seen in training camp."
The next step for Bowman is playing more than a few snaps, but to have this first hurdle behind him represents a weight lifted off his shoulders.
"It's a huge relief," Bowman said. "I can squat down and take some contact on the knee. Now I know I can move as quick as the guy running the ball."