- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2000

His name has never been tossed into the Heisman ring. You have never seen him on TV. And it's highly unlikely that you have ever heard of the school he will ink into the NCAA record books.

But over the last four years, R.J. Bowers has been in the end zone more often than Ricky Williams. He has lugged the leather farther than Ron Dayne. And two days from now, the 6-foot-1, 238-pound fullback at Grove City (Pa.) College will likely become the leading rusher in NCAA history.

"To be mentioned in the same sentence with Heisman Trophy winners is very flattering," said Bowers, 26, who needs to gain just 88 yards Saturday against Bethany (W. Va.) to surpass former Emporia State back Brian Shay as the college game's all-time leading rusher. "Quite honestly, I probably won't realize everything that has been done here until after the season, until I sit back and reflect on it and say, 'Wow.' "

Eight years ago, Bowers thought he was finished with football. In the fall of 1991, the senior tailback at West Middlesex (Pa.) High signed a letter of intent to play for Gerry Faust at Akron. But when the Houston Astros selected Bowers in the 11th round of the draft that spring, the speedy right fielder signed a contract and reported to the Astros rookie farm club in Kissimmee, Fla.

Bowers was an everyday player for Kissimmee and then Class A Quad City (Iowa) for four seasons. Coaches told him he was a potential 30-30 man in the majors, but then came the pop in his left wrist that echoes in his mind to this day.

"I had a bone chip in my wrist and a tendon tear," said Bowers. "After the surgery I tried to come back too soon. Prior to the injury, I was a pull hitter. Anything middle-in, I'd turn on it right away. But after the surgery, I just didn't have the bat speed anymore. I was 23 years old, and it was time for me to make a life decision: At what point do you give up on a dream that's not going anywhere and go back to school to get your degree?

"I asked for my release from the Astros and put in a call to my high school football coach and told him to ask around. I knew I was coming back to school, and I had eligibility left. So, I figured maybe I'd play some football. I never dreamed things would work out so well."

Bowers' football coach at West Middlesex, Joe Trimmer, had just accepted a job as the offensive line coach at Grove City. Eventually, he mentioned the Division III school to Bowers as an option. Grove City was just 30 miles east of West Middlesex. Grove City doesn't give scholarships, but Bowers had just enough money left over from his pro baseball days to cover four years of tuition as a commuter.

"Coach Trimmer brought R.J. to meet me and we hit it off immediately," said Chris Smith, head coach at GCC. "I think he could have played Division I football, but it probably would have taken longer. He was coming off a five- or six-year baseball experience where he probably hadn't lifted very much, so he wasn't in the best of playing shape when he got here. So, it would have taken longer for him to get on the field and contribute at a higher level.

"But he made an immediate impact here. Here was a kid who ran a 4.5, could make people miss, had the soft hands you would expect from a right fielder and weighed 240 pounds."

Despite sharing starting duties with senior Doug Steiner, Bowers rushed for 1,239 yards as a freshman. He briefly considered transferring to a Division I school after the season.

"But I was 23, and I would lose a year of eligibility," said Bowers. "By the time I would have been playing again for somebody else, I would be 25. You know, if you're good, they're going to find you the NFL scouts… . So, I have no second-guesses about not transferring out. This was a perfect fit for me."

And a disastrous one for Division III defenses. Bowers' statistics at GCC are downright surreal.

In 37 games for the Wolverines (3-4), Bowers has gained 6,871 yards, averaged more than 185 yards per game on 6.3 yards per carry. Starting with the fifth game of his freshman season and ending last week against Westminster (New Wilmington, Pa.), Bowers recorded 32 straight 100-yard rushing performances. He has scored 84 rushing touchdowns, just four shy of the NCAA record (also held by Shay). And he has added another 1,802 yards in kick returns and receptions.

Despite the fact that most of those numbers have come against munchkin-mobbed programs from schools like Kenyon, Thiel, Wooster, Alfred, Blufton and Bethany, NFL scouts have eventually found their way 70 miles northwest of Pittsburgh to watch the "Bull" plow toward history. What they have found is a tailback in a fullback's body a player built like Earl Campbell, but who patterned his style after childhood idol Tony Dorsett.

"We've had about 14 or 15 pro teams in," said Smith. "Three or four scouts have come back a second time, and I take that as a positive sign. Usually, when they see 6-1, 240, they think of a power back who runs over people between the tackles and isn't particularly agile. R.J. can do that, but he's much better when he's allowed to be a slashing-type tailback who makes people miss in the open field."

Said one NFL scout who has seen Bowers several times but preferred to maintain his anonymity for the sake of his team's interests: "We see R.J. as a fourth- or fifth-rounder. He's extremely mature, has good size and speed and absolutely no baggage no criminal record or anything like that. He's a very hard worker we see as a player who will probably catch on at first as a special-teamer."

At 26, Raymond Keith Bowers, Jr., will take any NFL ticket he can get.

"I'll do whatever it takes to be there," said Bowers. "I know I'm not going to be an Emmitt Smith or a Walter Payton or whatever. The way I'm going to make it is by possibly making some catches out of the backfield, making some blocks, maybe getting a carry here and there and playing special teams. You look at just about any rookie who's not a first- or second-round pick, and their way onto the team is special teams."

For the time being, however, Bowers is just hoping to earn an invite to the Blue-Gray game and concentrating on his three remaining chances to pass Shay. Last week, Westminster held him to 61 yards on 23 carries, the lowest output of his career. Don't expect Bethany, a team he has torched for an average of 215 rushing yards in three previous starts, to stifle the small-college stallion for a second consecutive week.

"The record is right there for me," said Bowers. "They pretty much know who's getting the ball the whole game, and that's the beauty of it. Then it's just man against man, smashmouth football. That's great stuff."

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