By Perry Lefko
Whether or not he has played his last game in the Canadian Football League, John Bowman has certainly made an impression, on and off the field.
Spending the whole of his career with the Montreal Alouettes and becoming one of the CFL’s all-time leaders with 126 sacks, Bowman’s impact was on display in a moment after his team’s final regular-season game last week against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
After he had dressed (and before he boarded the team’s bus) he spent a few minutes talking to Barb and Steve Townsend, who have been longtime Ticats’ season-ticket holders and regularly attend the team’s practices. Steve was born almost 44 years ago – needing both brain and back surgery which the doctors told Barb he may not survive. A few years ago, John took the time to talk to Barb and Steve after a game because they were acquaintances of Marc Trestman – the Als’ coach at the time. Barb wasn’t sure John would remember her and Steve this time and asked Ticats’ General Manager Eric Tillman if he could arrange for John to meet them.
I happened to be there because I wanted to set up an interview with John. It was incredibly moving.
“When we heard that John was possibly going to retire, I felt it was only right and fitting to tell him the enjoyment he gave us,” Barb told me a few days later. “Yes, he played for another team, but he played Canadian football and Canadian football is our life. John really has done something special. You look around at a lot of these players, how many players get to play for a team for five years or eight years? He’s played for 13. We thought Grover Covington was doing well because he played 10 years for the Tiger-Cats and still holds the league record for sacks with 154.”
When I interviewed John a day after I talked to Barb, he told me how much it meant to him to have her and her son reach out to him.
“That was deep, I started tearing up,” John told me. “That was a bit much, but I appreciated it. It was genuine. You leave everything on the field and people appreciate it.”
The reality is there are probably a lot of people who would like to tell John how much he has done in terms of a being a pro’s pro and embodying everything that is good about CFL players. He has given it his all since he joined the Alouettes. This year alone, he injured a bicep, and though it wasn’t torn he returned a couple games later and played through the injury. He physically recovered for the final two games of the year, both of which were special for him and his team. He recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the Als’ second-last game and contributed a steady-stream of voracious defence in the final.
John has come to appreciate the connection between fans and players in the CFL. It is not as limited as, say, the National Football League. You notice it during and after practices, which fans can watch, as well as after games of course.
“Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it has its drawbacks,” John said with a laugh. “They can get a bit personal, but it’s fun for the most part. They see players are willing to interact and engage in conversations and be personable, sacrificing a few moments of their time. For the most part for me it’s been immensely positive. I don’t have many bad stories about my interaction with CFL fans.
“Montreal fans are amazing,” he added. “They’ve stuck behind me and supported for… I’ll say about 10 years. My first couple of years they didn’t know who I was. The fact we only won a few games in the past two seasons and we were still getting pretty decent crowds has been impressive. We haven’t given them a pretty product to watch, but for the most part they’ve been out there, and we appreciated it.
“Walking through the backside of stadium and slapping hands before the game or at the pre-game, just throwing footballs in the crowd, it’s something I look forward to when we played inside Molson Stadium.”
John, who played Division II collegiate ball at Wingate University in North Carolina (and went undrafted by the NFL after he graduated) said he knew little about the CFL when we joined Montreal in 2006. He played in the National Indoor Football League, but there’s a common saying in football that if you are good enough, teams will find you. This became true for John.
“I was playing indoor football in Georgia and the year before the Edmonton Eskimos had called me, but nothing materialized from it,” he said. “But in 2006 when Montreal called me, I just so happened to call one of my former teammates, Marcus Brady, who was on the Als at the same time and he convinced me to come up to Montreal with him. I was very impressed. The unique rules and everything like that makes the game exciting – more risk/reward plays because it’s only three downs. The fans get engaged also, so that’s also a big draw to the CFL.”
John came to appreciate the city of Montreal, living for the better part of 10 months of the year there.
“I first started doing it because I made $39,000 a year when I first started playing and the team offered us an off-season program where we got to work out and train with one of our trainers and stuff like that,” he said. “It was going to take care of everything. I came back in March and I started doing that and I felt more connected to my teammates who stayed there in the off-season.
“I got to do a lot of community service work, which is something I wanted to do anyway, and they incorporated me into my community. Montreal got to know me outside of being a football player. On the field I wear a dark visor – I’m an angry, kind of aggressive player, so they got to see me outside of the field. Now, they know I’m not like that at all. I got to do different things in the community with a lot of Montreal’s celebrities. It’s a fun city to live in. It was cold at first, but I got a big coat and ever since then it was fine.”
He did community work in a program which was originally called ‘Adopt an Alouette’ and now is called ‘Together At School’, visiting as many as 150 schools in the off-season, playing charity basketball, giving speeches and hanging out with the youths. More recently he has been helping out in the GOAL Initiative Program to raise money for local charities and youth sports.”
I had to ask John the obvious question: Was the final game this year the final game of his career? In a post-game interview with TSN, he became emotional, but he said it wasn’t as emotional as when he was asked the same question after last season’s final game.
“I’m 36, next year is not a guarantee,” he said. “It could be my final game, it could not be. Fortunately, I put myself into a position where I played fairly well this year, and if the Als want me back…or another team… I can play again if I want to. That’s one positive, but you never know when you get to this stage of your career.
“After year one I didn’t know if that was going to be my last game, either. You take advantage of it and appreciate and love every game. I’ve never taken anything for granted and tearing up or getting emotional…I’m an emotional guy. I cry before a lot of games and people don’t get to see it. Maybe I’ve played my last game, but who knows.
“Me and (Als’ GM) Kavis Reed and (Als’ owner) Bob Wetenhall talked later in the year and they know where I stand. If I feel I can player another year, then come December I’ll crank it up a lot (training for another season). If I feel like I’m not going to play, I’m going to go into the gym and do my old man workout and try not to get too fast… too fast.”
This much is known about John Bowman: He won two Grey Cups, accumulated a fair share of sacks and proved his value as an ambassador for the game. He will be a first-ballot Canadian Football Hall of Famer. Unbelievably – he was never voted Defensive Player of the Year or even voted as his team’s representative for that award.
“I feel like I’ve been slighted on that and I feel a couple years where I should have won, but individual goals don’t mean much,” he said. “Winning is first and foremost the most important thing for me. We haven’t been doing a whole lot of winning (the last two years). Winning as a team outweighs those individual awards.”
He said he feels fortunate to have played 13 seasons in the CFL, all with the same team.
“Steve McAdoo, one of my coaches from way back when, came up to me in my rookie year and said, ‘what do you want to do with this?’ I said I plan on playing until I’m 30 and that’s it. He said, ‘you might as well retire now because if you’re putting a cap on it, you might as well go and walk away.’ I remember that conversation vividly to this day. I never imagined playing 13 years. I never imagined playing in the CFL period. But once I started getting a little momentum, getting a few sacks here and there and playing well I could see the light being turned on – the appreciation and everything come my way.
“As for playing in Montreal, I never wanted to leave really. We’ve negotiated contracts obviously, but I never came in too high or never came in too low, if that makes sense. It was always a fair offer initially by them and by me. It was a fair offer and we met in the middle. There was never anyone trying to take advantage of me, and I met that without greed.
“In that respect you know, I owe a lot to Bob and the brass that I always talked to … they never wanted me to leave and I appreciate them for that.
“I don’t consider myself lucky… [to have played this long with one team] because football takes way more than luck. It’s preparation, time and energy – stuff I do behind the scenes that nobody gets to see because I don’t post my workout or other little things that I do. That’s what contributes to my play and my success or being where I’m at.
“I consider myself blessed and fortunate to have played for one team and have them want me for 13 solid years. It’s been give and take. I’ve been productive on the field and they’ve wanted me. They believed in me. In 2012, I tore my knee and I was a free agent and only had seven sacks, but they still thought I was going to be bounce back and they gave me a great contract. I was productive all over again (with 11 sacks). It was a belief on their part and me taking the necessary steps to be a productive player.”
Whether or not he plays another season, John will be invested in the league. This season he became an Als’ player rep for the first time. It’s going to be a very active off-season because the current Collective Bargaining Agreement with the League ends after this season.
“Even if I’m not playing, I’m still one of them – I’m still part of that player alumni – so I’m not going to make any decision… either way… that I think is going to affect the players negatively,” he said. “At the end of the day this league employs us, but we’ve got to stick together and make sure we get a fair piece of the pie, if that makes sense.”