- Associated Press - Sunday, August 22, 2010

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) - Clemson’s Da’Quan Bowers won’t forget the final hour he spent at the hospital with his father, Dennis _ the one that brought the defensive end peace and resolve.

Dennis Bowers died Aug. 8, hours after collapsing before a show of his gospel group, the Legendary Singing Stars, in Augusta, Ga. Da’Quan rushed back from football camp to capture any moments he could with the father who rarely missed a down.

“Something just came to me that said ‘Straighten up and stay strong,’” Bowers recalled Sunday.

Bowers spoke about his dad as he took part with his teammates in a fan day at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium. Several people in Tiger T-shirts wished Bowers well in his grief. “We’re praying for you Da’Quan,” a woman said after catching Bowers‘ attention.

Bowers smiled politely, accepting the words of support. But Bowers said the most important lessons had been planted long ago by his father.

“I miss him, but he left me with a job to do,” Bowers continued. “He wouldn’t want me to show emotion and let that get in the way of what I’m supposed to do.”

Bowers had already entered fall camp with much to prove at Clemson. He was a high school sensation at Bamberg-Ehrhardt, a massive, fast defensive lineman rated the country’s top prospect by ESPN.

Bowers graduated a semester early and enrolled in Clemson with a hype that hadn’t been seen since William “Refrigerator” Perry ruled the Tigers defensive line a quarter-century before.

However, Bowers has yet to show the ferocity and dominance of his high school play. He’s managed four sacks through two seasons and, with NFL scouts watching closely, had hoped to dramatically improve those totals his third season.

Bowers‘ teammates and coaches had done what they could to offer solace. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney flew down to Bamberg, Bowers‘ hometown, soon after the news broke to be with his player’s family.

The Tigers canceled a practice to attend Dennis Bowers‘ visitation the Friday after his death.

“I think we all knew at the same time if it happened to one of us, we knew everybody would be there,” center Dalton Freeman said. “We’re just a big family.”

Bowers will call on that support to boost his mission to break out this year. After all, Da’Quan knows it’s what Dennis would’ve wanted.

“He always taught me to be strong because he was a strong man,” Da’Quan said. “When he died, I showed emotion by myself.”

Where Bowers and his father truly cut loose was performing in the gospel group. Dennis was the longtime guitarist until taking over as a vocalist in 2008 after the passing of singer Tommy Ellison. Da’Quan often accompanied the group for concerts, playing guitar and joining in vocally when asked.

“This was probably one of the most memorable summers I’ve had,” Da’Quan Bowers said. “I got to tour all across the country.”

Bowers was grateful for the comfort received from the gospel group, too. He says he’ll keep performing with them when possible, following his father’s legacy of song.

His father “did have a pretty voice,” Bowers said. “It was just very beautiful. I was proud to be out there with him.”

Bowers returned to the practice field Thursday and is anxious for Clemson’s start against North Texas on Sept. 4. He’d already cut his weight to a sleeker 272 pounds and has shown a consistent surge not always there in the past.

Swinney is also confident Bowers‘ mind is right for football despite the tragic loss. “I think you should worry about the offensive linemen lining up across from him,” the coach said. “I’ve visited with him quite a bit and he’s on solid ground.”

That’s partly because on those gospel tours, football was always a topic for the Bowers’ men. Father and son regularly spoke about Da’Quan’s past performance and how he’d need to reach for a higher level this fall. Bowers plans to live up to those words, too, dedicating his season to his beloved father.

“I just got to come out here on the football field and make my father proud,” Da’Quan said.

It has not been the easiest of offseasons for Bowers.

In January, ex-Clemson and Chicago Bears defensive end Gaines Adams _ who wore Bowers‘ No. 93 just before Da’Quan arrived and who Bowers called a “big brother” _ died unexpectedly. Then Eric Bamberg, a school resource officer in Calhoun County who Bowers considered a mentor, died on Aug. 15.

“Those three guys will be sitting together with the best seats in the house,” Bowers said smiling.