R.J. Bowers made his NFL debut against the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field on Dec. 23. (photo by Marty Dietz)
Bowers makes jump from
GCC to NFL
GROVE CITY, PA, December 30, 2001--They've earned Ph.D.'s and M.B.A.'s, worked for USX, IBM and the FBI, been hired as V.P.'s and CEO's, and now one former Grove City College student makes a living in... the NFL.
On Dec. 23, four-year star running back R.J. Bowers became the first Wolverine to play in the National Football League, suiting up for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they hosted the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field. Bowers, wearing his familiar No. 33, carried the ball seven times for 17 yards in the fourth quarter, including a nine-yard carry for a first down that helped set up the Steelers' final touchdown in the 47-14 victory. Bowers also played on special teams in both halves, making one tackle and several key blocks.
Wolverine head football coach Chris Smith, who saw Bowers pursue his NFL dream by becoming college football's all-time leading rusher with 7,353 yards, was at Heinz Field on that historic Sunday, while hundreds of R.J. fans watched the dream become a reality on FOX television.
"Sitting in my seat and watching R.J. loosen up and pace the sideline was a very emotional experience," recalled Smith. "He had gone from being the best football player we have ever had to being a part of the most elite group of athletes in America, an NFL player. I was proud of our school, proud of our football players, both past and present, and most proud of R.J. and his family."
Bowers, a native of West Middlesex, Pa., lined up as a running back with 12 minutes left in the fourth quarter and rushed the ball three yards over left tackle on his first NFL carry.
"He really ran hard," said Smith. "He definitely showed that he has contact courage. He also made a big contribution on special teams. That will only help raise his value in their eyes. They are aware of his potential as a running back and then to be able to make plays on kicks and punts greatly increases his odds of being on the squad week in and week out."
Bowers was activated from the Steelers' practice squad on Dec. 21. He was named to the practice squad on Sep. 3 after being cut by the Carolina Panthers in late August. Bowers attended all practices and film sessions as a member of the practice squad but did not dress on game day. He would watch home games from the sidelines, but did not travel to away games. He was placed on Pittsburgh's 53-man roster to bolster the offensive backfield, which lost tailback Jerome Bettis to a groin injury against Minnesota on Dec. 9. Defensive lineman Chris Hoke was released to make room for Bowers.
"The support throughout the crowd for R.J. was really impressive," added Smith. People all around us were talking about R.J. getting in the game and making plays. When he rushed for a first down on the final drive there was a big cheer from everyone."
Bowers appeared in his first NFL regular-season road game Sunday at Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium, playing exclusively on special teams. He expects to be active next Sunday when the Steelers host Cleveland at 1:00 p.m. in the regular-season finale. Barring an injury to the Steelers' defense, which could trigger a roster move, Bowers will be active throughout the post-season.
"I have received a bunch of phone calls and e-mails from alumni about the game," said Smith. "Everyone was so excited. One of our alumni said his son wants to know where he can buy a Bowers Steelers jersey."
While Bowers is the first Wolverine to play in the NFL, he is not Grove City College's only athlete to make it to the big leagues. Gary Peters, who enrolled at GCC in 1955, was an all-star pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. Peters, a Grove City native, was named the American League Rookie of the Year in 1963 after posting a league-best 2.33 earned run average. Peters led the AL in wins in 1964 with a record of 20-1, boasted the top ERA in 1966 (1.98) and hurled three perfect innings (6th, 7th and 8th) in the 1967 all-star game. His 215 strikeouts in '67 remains the White Sox's modern-day record. He played for Chicago through 1969 before ending his career with the Boston Red Sox from 1970-1972.
Current Florida Marlins' right-handed pitcher Matt Clement attended classes at GCC in the late nineties. Clement made his major league debut with the San Diego Padres on Sep. 6, 1998. He has started 98 games in four seasons, winning 34 of 73 decisions.
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