The opening week of the USC football season was a trying and tumultuous week for the defensive backs. Not because of anything that happened on the field, but because of everything that happened off of it.
Josh Shaw went from actual hero to suspended goat while cornerback-turned-running back Anthony Brown quit the team and called Steve Sarkisian a racist as he napalmed the USC football bridges as he walked out the door.
A secondary that had once been projected to feature four players with significant experience was down to junior cornerback Kevon Seymour, sophomore safety Su'a Cravens and a hodgepodge of inexperienced players, including a trio of true freshmen that all saw significant action immediately, playing in USC's 52-13 romp of Fresno State in the season opener and last weekend's 13-10 upset of No. 13 Stanford.
But for one veteran the entire roller coaster start to the season was just another small part of the journey.
From unrecruited to scam school to working man to junior college to benchwarming and now starter, redshirt senior safety Gerald Bowman has had quite an arduous adventure. And Bowman wasn't going to let the off-the-field distractions take away from an opportunity that's been seven years in the making.
"We just wanted to come out and play, just finally play an not worry about what they're saying about this person or that person," Bowman said after the Fresno State game. "We just came out and we played."
And Bowman has played damn well. Against the Bulldogs, he led the secondary with five tackles. He had one pass breakup and in the second quarter, he collected his second career interception. Bowman credited the pressure the defensive front put on Fresno State's Brandon Connette and the team's discipline for his big play.
"As a whole -- the whole defense -- we executed what we were supposed to do. For me, I just stuck to the technique and what I was taught."
Bowman saw a receiver in the flat and was playing high to low as his safety position dictates, anticipating a potential throw to the short receiver. But when Connette delivered a duck when trying to throw to a deeper target while fleeing from the defensive line pressure, Bowman pounced.
"He threw the ball and I made a play and just reacted off of it."
Kevon Seymour slowed up Fresno State's fastest receiver while Su'a Cravens was at the forefront of a convoy of defenders trying to guide Bowman to the end zone. Bowman raced up the left sideline, but when he looked over his right shoulder to glance at an offensive lineman that he raced by, Bowman lost his balance and stepped out of bounds after a 36-yard return.
"He got too happy or excited and ran out of bounds on accident. I had his lead block," Cravens said following the game. A few days later, Cravens joked: "He swears up and down he didn't step out of bounds. He stepped out of bounds. I saw it on film. I guess he was scared of the limelight."
"I told him he was afraid of carrying the rock. He started telling me about how he had been a running back and all the yards and touchdowns he scored," Seymour said immediately after the game. "But we going to kill him off in film study. We definitely going to kill him off."
Linebacker Anthony Sarao echoed Seymour's film room sentiments, but Bowman said while his teammates razzed him some, they mostly congratulated him and told him to get the "pick-six" touchdown next time.
Though Bowman was disappointed he didn't score a touchdown, the August 30 interception had even more meaning.
"My dad passed away last year on this day, so I just wanted to make sure I represented him," said the Philadelphia native who had written Philadelphia's area code ("215") and "DAD" on his eye black before the game. "I'm just representing for my dad and for my city."
(Shotgun Spratling/Conquest Chronicles)
Bowman's first career start for USC was a rousing success. It was also a start that had been a long time coming.
He is the elder statesman on the roster...by a hefty margin. While some of his freshmen teammates were only 17 years old when they entered USC this fall, Bowman will turn 25 years old on Halloween this year. Aaliyah once sung that "age ain't nothing but a number," but 25-year-old college football players usually only occur due to religious mission trips or a previous minor league baseball career.
Gerald Bowman's journey is instead one of fastidious belief in one's self and perseverance. Coming out of Imhotep Institute on the north side of Philly, Bowman said he wasn't highly recruited after playing safety and running back. His senior season in 2007, he rushed for 1,659 yards on 254 carries (6.5 avg.) with eight touchdowns and added 18 receptions for 220 yards (12.2 avg.).
There was a confluence of factors Bowman believes kept him from catching the scouting eye of a Division I program. He was at a relatively new charter school that hadn't established strong athletic programs and the young coaching staff hadn't created connections with many college coaches yet. Philadelphia isn't known as a hotbed of talent like Western Pennsylvania and Bowman admits he didn't really know about the camps and recruiting/scouting events that have seen an explosion in recent years.
After not receiving any Division I offers, Bowman and his best friend, quarterback Clinton Granger, decided to attend North Carolina Tech, a prep school in Charlotte, to boost their test scores and retake some courses. But the school turned out to be more of a scam than a legit academic institution. Classes were rare with the school essentially shutting down when football coach (and headmaster) Tim Newman wasn't around.
ESPN's investigative reporting show, Outside the Lines, found the school to be a money-making rouse that went after kids like Bowman who weren't on the recruiting/showcase circuit and weren't from traditional high school powers:
Former coaches say the program, which costs several thousand dollars to attend, targets teenagers in dire straits, often from backgrounds naive to recruiting and eligibility guidelines, who either don't meet NCAA academic standards or failed to attract college scholarship offers.
The NCAA Eligibility Center flagged the school's curriculum multiple times. As Bowman told ESPN's Corey Long in 2011, "the classes we were taking weren't accepted by the NCAA and in actually it was kind of a scam."
After the North Carolina Tech adventure, the prep school teammates Bowman and Granger knew dispersed across the country.
"Some guys stopped playing football. Some guys went to D1. Some guys went to D2. Some went to junior college," Granger said.
Gerald Bowman returned home to Philadelphia.
While sitting out the rest of the 2008-2009 school year and the following year, Bowman contemplated going the traditional route, just getting an education at a trade school or another school nearby. He wasn't sure if he wanted to play football again, but knew if he did that he wanted to compete at the highest level.
"I always felt I could play at a Division I level, so I wouldn't take anything less than that," Bowman said. "If I got to sit out or whatever it is, I didn't want to go play Division II or Division III."
Not wanting to start his NCAA eligibility clock (NCAA athletes have five calendar years to play four seasons once they register as a full-time student), in case a football opportunity presented itself, Bowman decided to delay enrolling in trade school. Instead, he spent time with his family, working and taking care of his mother.
Granger took his chances at a junior college in Kansas, but didn't like the rural country living. Following two of his North Carolina Tech receivers he had kept in touch with, Granger transferred to Pierce College in Los Angeles. Once at Pierce, Granger showed the coaching staff film of Bowman and tried to convince his best friend since childhood to pick up the pads and join him in LA.
"They had seen his film and just kept asking about him, wanting him to come down," Clinton Granger said. "I called him and told him what the coaches had said about him, but he was still uncertain of what he wanted to do."
For Bowman, the game changer came in the Spring of 2010 when Granger received his first Division I offer.
"They don't really have spring ball. There's no pads or anything. He was just like working out," Gerald Bowman said. "He wound up getting an offer from a Division I school and I was excited about that. I was like well if you can do it, I can do it too, so let's get it!"
With the support of Granger and their prep school teammates, Bowman made the decision to leave the comforts of home and go play football nearly 3,000 miles away. Out of shape to begin with, he had to grind. Bowman worked and worked. A new opportunity depended on it.
"From where we come from, there's not much for us to really do besides fall in love with sports or go to the streets really," Granger said. "It shows how tough he is mentally. He has drive and he has a purpose in life. He knows what he wants and he knows how to get it."
A strong freshman campaign at Pierce College (58 tackles, a sack and an interception) earned Bowman unanimous JC Athletic Bureau All-State All-Region VI first team and All-Pacific Conference first team honors. Soon after Arizona State offered the long-coveted Division I scholarship he had been searching more than three years for.
From there, things "skyrocketed," according to Granger. While Granger accepted an offer from hometown Temple, Bowman received several offers and excelled on the field for Pierce. He tallied 52 tackles, a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble as he was named Defensive Player of the Year for Region VI and the All-Pacific Conference.
Pierce head coach Efrain Martinez called him the best safety the school had ever had and Bowman was labeled as one of the hardest hitters in the nation. He was ranked as the top junior college safety in the country and Rivals named him the nation's top JUCO recruit ahead of current NFL star Cordarrelle Patterson.
With his choice of Pac-12 schools as well as a bevy of other offers from top-tier national programs, Bowman narrowed his final decision to USC, Miami and Oklahoma before selecting the Trojans. After the North Carolina Tech experience, academics played a large part in Bowman's decision.
"I've always stated education and my future success after college and after football was very, very important to me," Bowman told 247sports after making his announcement.
"He wanted to go somewhere that he had an opportunity, not in football, but an opportunity in life -- somewhere with a strong alumni," Clinton Granger said.
While Bowman's road to success seemed paved, the journey was nowhere near complete. Each time he was supposed to have a chance to prove himself and earn playing time in the cardinal and gold, an obstacle obstructed his path.
(Shotgun Spratling/Conquest Chronicles)
Instead of being able to enroll early, academic delays cost him the chance make a spring impression on his new coaches. In the fall, he got the opportunity to compete against the best on a day-to-day basis at USC, but joining a stacked safety corps that featured future NFLers T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling as well as senior Drew McAllister and junior Demetrius Wright, Bowman found himself buried on the depth chart as a backup.
He played in all 13 games in 2012, but made just 11 tackles. The majority of his playing time came on special teams and his only significant time on defense came in a blowout of Colorado. He made the most of the time against the Buffalos recording four tackles -- his only multi-tackle game of the season -- and his first career interception.
When McDonald, Starling and McAllister graduated, Bowman looked to be next in line, but Florida transfer Josh Shaw floated back and forth between safety and cornerback, Dion Bailey was moved back to the safety position and Lane Kiffin brought in a pair of five-star recruits in Leon McQuay III and Su'a Cravens. Bowman was ready to compete and make his senior season special, but he missed the 2013 spring after dealing with compartment syndrome in his calf muscle. It was an omen for the remainder of the 2013 calendar year.
Bowman was struggling to impress Lane Kiffin in fall camp. He was dealing with a lingering shoulder injury that ended up needing surgery and costing him the season after he played sparingly in only three of the first five games.
As if he didn't have enough to cope with, Bowman's father, Reginald Hunt, died in his sleep due to medication complications the day after the Trojans' season opening 30-13 win over Hawai'i. It was a sudden situation that forced Gerald to attend to bi-coastal matters. While he was trying to heal his body and play his way onto the field, he was also traveling home and trying to be there for family and friends.
"When his dad passed away, it was kind of tough on him," Granger said. "He loves his family, but he's so tough-minded and he's so strong, he does everything right. If anybody needs anything, he's always there to give a helping hand."
"It was an unfortunate situation, but that's life," Gerald Bowman said. "I tried to handle it as best I could."
Shortly after, Bowman played in USC's 62-41 loss to Arizona State. It was Kiffin's final game as the USC head coach. It was also Bowman's final action of the season. Shoulder surgery sidelined him for the remainder of the season. He was granted a medical redshirt, giving him the opportunity to come back for a final shot at football.
More importantly, Bowman finished up his undergraduate studies in the spring graduating with a degree in communications.
"Through all his obstacles and through all my obstacles I've been through too, it just shows how strong we are being young black men in society trying to obtain a goal and obtain a college degree," said Granger, who graduated from Temple in 2013. "It just shows the will to win and the will to compete and get out there and get after it."
Bowman put that will on further display this spring. While most people expected Bowman to play behind to Su'a Cravens and Leon McQuay III this season, Bowman showed he wasn't intent on being a backup. Instead, the shoulder surgery allowed him to display his hard-hitting nature.
"Gerald is probably the hardest hitter on the team, but he's smart," Su'a Cravens said. "If you had to give Gerald a quiz on the ins and outs of the playbook, the adjustments, Gerald would get a 100 on it because he's always watching film; he's always in his playbook. He's even telling me things I wouldn't even know."
By quickly picking up the playbook of head coach Steve Sarkisian and the new coaching staff, Bowman showed he could make all the correct calls. He showcased his ability to close quickly from the secondary to provide run support and brought an infectious work ethic.
"He brings a senior attitude, grateful of the opportunity, embraces every day he gets to be out here whether it's on game days or practices," Sarkisian said. "I think that that is really contagious. He appreciates the opportunity he has and he makes the most of it every day he takes the field. And I think it's a great message to send to our younger players."
The inclusion of the "Dollar" package, which moves Cravens down into the box as a hybrid linebacker-safety, opened more opportunities for Bowman. His strong practices in both the spring and fall pushed him into a starting role.
"He's been our most consistent safety making calls and doing what we ask him to," defensive backs coach Keith Heyward said. "I'm excited for him because it's been a long road, especially with last year and the personal battles that he had. This opportunity is great because he's taken advantage of every moment."
Bowman excelled against Fresno State, but how would he follow that up? Beating up on a Mountain West team is one thing, doing that against No. 13 Stanford would be a completely different deal. This was the same Cardinal program that has become known as the nation's premier power team.
With USC committing extra players at the line of scrimmage to try to stop Stanford's bread-and-butter rushing attack, Bowman was tasked with making sure the Cardinal speedster receivers Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste and Michael Rector didn't get over the top for huge gains.
"Everyone had to make sure they executed their assignment," Gerald Bowman said. "No missed assignments because one miss and they can create a big play. We just had to make sure we do what we do."
The senior did his job keeping the speedy trio in front of him, coming through with 10 tackles -- one shy of Leonard Williams' and Anthony Sarao's game high.
"I thought it was indicative of how he performed in spring and fall. Gerald's been very in-tuned in practice and meetings and I think it shows up," USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "He hadn't played a ton of football here before, but I'm not surprised how he's playing because that's how he practices."
Hard work has been the one consistent throughout Bowman's odyssey.
"I know his dad's definitely looking down on him and is proud of him. I guess the interception and everything was for him. It was meant to happen," Granger said.
"Some people's plans and journeys are different. It just made him stronger and strengthened his will to succeed."