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Flying under the radar is something new for Da’Quan Bowers.
The six-foot-four, 296-pound defensive tackle quietly signed as a free agent with the Eskimos in May and has been overshadowed on the defensive line by perennial all-star Almondo Sewell and defensive captain Odell Willis.
Bowers, who was once touted as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft and spent five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has performed well for the Esks. His five quarterback sacks are tied for sixth place in the CFL at the halfway point of the season and he has 11 defensive tackles in seven games (he basically missing two games with a shoulder injury).
“It’s probably been one of the most fun and best times I’ve had playing football in probably a long, long time,” he said. “It’s just a different atmosphere, the coaches here, the staff here, everybody is so nice and caring. Everybody takes care of everybody and that’s what makes the team and family bond enough so we’re playing at the level we’re playing.
“I feel like being up here in Canada and being away from a lot of stuff and re-prioritizing myself is helping myself, is helping my family, is helping everybody around me,” added Bowers, who will marry his long-time fiancée, Monique Adair, in December.
Bowers, 27, who also has a daughter, was a star player while growing up in Bamberg, S.C., a tiny community of around 5,000 people that would easily fit inside Commonwealth Stadium several times over. A big kid as a youth, he started playing football at the age of six and was a running back, kick-returner and defensive end during his last two years of high school. He was ranked as the No. 1 overall high school prospect by ESPN.com in 2008 while Rivals.com called him “the closest thing to Reggie White and Bruce Smith.” He then lived up to that billing at Clemson University, winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the NCAA’s defensive player of the year in his junior season in 2010.
He played in the inaugural Under Armour All-American high school football game alongside current NFL star receivers Julio Jones (Atlanta Falcons) and A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals) plus New York Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins in January 2008 and three days later enrolled at Clemson a semester early and started workouts with the Tigers.
Da’Quan’s father, Dennis, died suddenly from acute pneumonia four days after training camp started in Bowers’ junior year at Clemson and he responded with a career season, becoming a unanimous All-American selection after setting the Clemson team record of 16 sacks and ranking No. 1 in the NCAA ahead of current Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller.
“A lot of good things happened (in football) that year,” he said. “It was really a good time.”
It appeared that a lot more good things were about to happen in Bowers’ future. He was touted as a possible No. 1 overall NFL draft pick from as early as April 2010 until January 2011.
“I suffered a knee injury actually playing North Carolina State my junior year,” he said. “I remember when it happened. I actually sacked (current Seattle Seahawks QB) Russell Wilson and someone fell on my knee and I suffered a knee injury. I played the rest of the year on it.
“When I came out of school, I found out it was more serious than what I had been told and it dropped my draft stock from potentially being the No. 1 overall draft pick that year to 51st (overall). I fell into the second round.”
Instead of a minor meniscus repair, Bowers had to have microfracture surgery after the fact.
More injuries continued to hamper Bowers in the NFL. He compiled only seven sacks and 66 defensive tackles in 53 games (10 starts) with the Buccaneers.
“I don’t want to make any excuses about my NFL career,” he said. “There were a lot of things that I could have done differently, but I won’t take all the blame either. Going through three different head coaches and three different schemes in four years, it was just a lot of things that I felt like wasn’t panning out. I appreciate the Bucs and (former head coaches) Lovie Smith and Raheem Morris and everything that they did for me. I appreciate those guys for giving me an honest shot.
“It was just injuries mainly. I just felt like I couldn’t get healthy. The wear and tear did some things to my body. And then a coaching staff came in that I didn’t get along with very well and they really took the fun out of football (in the 2012-13 seasons) and I really didn’t want to play football anymore at that point.”
He was released by Tampa Bay during training camp in 2015, but was brought back late in the season and played in three games. His contract – and NFL career – expired in March 2016.
When the Eskimos offered him the opportunity to play football in the CFL this season, Bowers hesitated.
“I sat on it for a while; I didn’t accept it right away,” he said. “I prayed about it and I thought about it and then something just said, ‘Just go for it. I don’t have anything to lose. If I really love this game and I want to play it, I’ll come and play it,’ and that‘s what I’ve done.
“I had been off for a year and I felt like I could still play,” he added. “I honestly felt like I didn’t want to let somebody else ruin and take away the game I love. I felt like my body was able to do it. While I still had enough in me to still do it, I wanted to do it.”
He met the Eskimos coaches for a couple of days during their April rookie camp at Las Vegas and started to learn the defensive system.
“Of course, you have to get used to the game speed and the actual live playing,” he said. “There’s nothing that can get you ready for that. It was a big difference coming from the NFL to the CFL as far as the speed of the game, the size of the field, the length of the field, everything is different, the yard off the ball. I had to get acclimated to all of that.
“But I had great coaches and great teammates to help me get acclimated pretty quickly.”