Bobby Bowden’s passing leaves an emptiness that goes beyond football.
He did far more than creating a winning college program at Florida State. He had a folksy style and compassion that resonated with everyone he met. He knew and cared for all of his players on a personal level, and they responded with an effort that was a beautiful mix of athleticism and dedication.
He surrounded himself with success, often plucking players from the most troubling side of town and transforming them into gifted athletes who eventually went on to make a significant impact on society.
Bowden embraced his priorities of family, faith and football. He incited everyone to, first, be a better person. Then came football.
“Every single player that went through Bobby Bowden’s football program at Florida State left a better man,” former FSU quarterback Danny Kanell said.
The record books will show Bowden with 377 official career wins and two national championships. He also had 24 consensus All-Americans. But he can’t be measured by numbers. His down-to-earth demeanor made everyone smile, even when he was delivering a serious message, including this ditty: “That boy don’t know the meaning of the word fear. In fact, I just saw his grades and he doesn’t know the meaning of a lot of words.”
And toward the end of his 34-year tenure at Florida State, he profoundly admitted, “There’s only about six inches that turns a halo into a noose.”
I covered several of Bowden’s games, including his final one in Jacksonville. My job was simple and daunting: profile Bowden’s last day during the 2010 Gator Bowl game between the Seminoles and West Virginia.
It was dark, rainy and dreary when Bowden and his wife, Ann, held hands as they walked from their hotel to the TIAA Bank Field. Thousands lined the sidewalk between Adams Street and the stadium, all compelled to say goodbye in person.
Painted faces were streaked by the rain. Everyone pushed closer to see the 80-year-old coach as he weaved his way through the maze of admiration and madness. The coach didn’t smile much because each step took him closer to his final game.
As many as 300 of his former players were there. They all shouted as their mentor, their friend, passed. Bowden knew every voice. Although most had become too gray, too old and too out of shape by time, he made eye contact and waved at each.
A couple jumped the barricades to get a hug. Bowden hugged back.
Photographers surrounded Bowden during the pregame warmups until they were shooed away by security. Jimbo Fisher, FSU’s head coach in waiting, gave the pre-game pep talk in the locker room. Bowden led the team prayer.
The coach then took the flaming spear from Chief Osceola and stabbed into the soggy midfield turf a minute before kickoff. It was a moment that forever will be the perfect bookend to his legacy.
As the final seconds of the game – and Bowden’s career – evaporated from the Gator Bowl scoreboard, the roar from fans became deafening. Former players Chris Weinke and Derrick Brooks stood with their former coach. As if it mattered, FSU won, 33-21.
Bowden tossed his ballcap into the Florida State band before directing the school’s alma mater.
He eventually worked his way into the media center for the final time. It was packed. Camera flashes were blinding. He took his seat at the head table and talked about all of the “daggum” big plays that made a difference.
He answered every question with his usual wit, charm and humor. Everyone in the room knew they were going to miss that candor.
Ann appeared from a door on the left. She walked up, kissed him on the cheek, and said it was time to go home.
He smiled and walked away. There never has been a better mic-drop moment.
There won’t be another coach who affected so many lives. Bowden knew how to win – on the football field and in life.
Football – then, now and in the future – will be better because of Bobby Bowden. We were lucky to have a front-row seat for it.
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