Isaiah Bowser stood alone in the backfield in Iowa territory, only two yards separating the line of scrimmage from Northwestern’s first-ever Big Ten West title. He took the ball on fourth-and-2 and plowed forward for 4 yards, sealing the game and the division for the Wildcats. It was an improbable moment for Northwestern, and it was an even more improbable moment for Bowser.
For one, Bowser got the ball to finish off the game, not Northwestern’s record-holding quarterback. Plus it was Bowser, thought by many coaches to be a defensive player at the collegiate level, who was in the backfield, receiving his 31st carry of the game. Not Jeremy Larkin. Not Drake Anderson or Chad Hanaoka. Not John Moten IV or Solomon Vault.
And it’s Isaiah Bowser -- the kid who grew up in a small town in Ohio where no one really leaves, the kid who was raised in a low-income, single-parent household, the kid who survived a traumatic accident when he was a toddler – yes, that Isaiah Bowser, who’s leading Northwestern to where it has never been before.
No one thought that Isaiah Bowser would get the call in one of the biggest moments in recent Northwestern history. Except maybe Bowser himself. He’s the first to credit his offensive line after a big game, but Bowser’s patented humility has its limits.
When Bowser took that fourth-down carry against Iowa, he tucked the football under his right armpit, nestled against a tattoo on his bicep that reads “Lions don’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.”
“You control you, regardless of what people think of you …” said Bowser when asked to describe the tattoo’s meaning. “There’s always going to be like people that look down on you, or haters or people that want to see you fail. So don’t worry about that. Do what you do.”
Melissa Bowser still isn’t sure exactly what happened. She had left 23-month-old Isaiah and her 5-year-old daughter Mariah in the care of her boyfriend as she ran an errand.
When she came home, Isaiah’s hands were badly burned. Melissa’s boyfriend had doused Isaiah’s hands in hot water because the child was misbehaving. The man later went to prison for the incident. Isaiah and Melissa spent a couple weeks in the hospital, and Isaiah’s hands still bear the scars of the incident from over 15 years ago.
It was a traumatic experience for Bowser, who used to tell people he hurt himself horsing around with friends.
“Growing up, I was embarrassed [of my hands],” Bowser said. “Obviously my hands looked different than everybody else’s, so at times I would try to hide them or avoid talking about it.”
But as he grew older and more confident, Bowser came to accept his scars for what they were: a representation of something he overcame.
“It’s a part of me now,” he said. “I’m used to it.”
Bowser’s hands defined him in his earliest athletic endeavors. In elementary school, opposing wrestlers identified Bowser by his scarred hands.
“They didn’t know his name, but that’s how they recognized him,” said Guy Bowser, Isaiah’s maternal grandfather.
Soon, Bowser would be known for his dominance on the mat. He was still a pre-teen when he first caught the eye of Sidney High School football coach Adam Doenges, who was at a wrestling tournament to try to get to know middle school athletes.
“I remember walking in and seeing him pretty much just dominate any kid that walked onto a mat with him,” Doenges said.
That dominance translated from the mat to the soccer pitch, the baseball diamond, the basketball court, and the football field. Everywhere Isaiah Bowser played, he was the best.
Melissa Bowser recalled Isaiah’s heroics on a traveling baseball team. Isaiah was the shortest kid on the team, but he hit so many home runs that opposing parents questioned his age.
“He was so good, I would carry his birth certificate with me because people would say ‘There’s no way that he’s that young,” Melissa said.
But Isaiah’s strongest attachment was to football, and to playing running back.
“[The] first time I ever touched the ball, I scored, and I think I really fell in love with [football] then,” Isaiah said.
While Bowser was tearing up Pee Wee leagues, the Sidney football team was reeling. The Yellowjackets went winless in both 2010 and 2011. To make matters worse, the school district was dealing with financial issues, causing many students to transfer to other districts.
“A lot of people were embarrassed to say their kids went here or they worked here ...” Doenges said. “It was kind of an ugly time around here.”
High school football is important in Sidney, a blue-collar, manufacturing town of just over 20,000 located 40 miles north of Dayton. But before 2017, the team had only made the playoffs once, in 1989.
Doenges and his coaching staff identified Bowser’s class as the group of athletes who could change Sidney’s fortunes.
Bowser’s high school career was in jeopardy before it even started, though. During the second practice of his freshman season, Bowser tore his ACL running a simple passing route. Disappointed because he was unable to play sports for the first time in his life, Bowser focused intensely on his rehab process. He lifted so much he messed up his shooting form and couldn’t play basketball again.
“I’ve never seen a kid rehab so hard, so bound and determined to come back,” Doenges said.
Something had always been motivating Bowser from a young age. In sixth grade, he wrote an essay detailing his goal of playing college football and then the NFL. Already profoundly gifted, he still found a way to outwork everyone else.
Guy Bowser remembered Isaiah practicing wrestling moves as an elementary schooler just because the young wrestler wanted to improve. When Isaiah was in high school, he would go straight to the YMCA after football practice to work out.
“He was totally dedicated to being not 100 percent, but about 150 [percent],” Melissa said.
The static on the phone line is audible for a second when Bowser is asked what motivates him. He thinks for a moment, then answers.
“I think my family does,” he said. “Growing up, we lived with our grandparents so like my mom was in school and everything. So [it] kinda motivated me to be able to help my family out financially and everything.”
The story of Isaiah Bowser, the football star, would be incomplete without the story of Melissa, the mother, and Guy and Carol, the grandparents.
Melissa raised three children as a single mother. The family lived with Melissa’s parents, Guy and Carol, for a number of years. It wasn’t always easy for Melissa to provide Isaiah and his siblings the amenities some of their friends enjoyed.
“There was times his friends would get $300 tennis shoes and obviously mom can’t afford $300 shoes right now, Isaiah, but we’ll get ‘em,” she said. “I worked hard to take care of my kids and get them things that they needed … If I had to take my last to get them something, I would spend my last whatever getting them what they needed or what they wanted.”
When Isaiah was in elementary school, Melissa went to nursing school. She’s a nurse in Vandalia now, and the family lives in its own home. Isaiah said he learned the value of hard work from his mother.
“She really made sure me and my sister, and my brother once he was born, had everything we needed to be successful and never wanted us to make it feel like we were struggling,” Isaiah said. “She did a great job.”
Guy, a Vietnam War veteran who worked in manufacturing for four decades, ran a yard service with Isaiah over the summers so his grandson could see the importance of clocking in every day. Isaiah’s primary father figure, Guy taught his grandson about selflessness, family, and hard work.
Analyzing Bowser’s ascendance through his upbringing, it’s almost easy to see why Isaiah worked so hard to get to where he is. It’s in his blood. For Guy, Isaiah’s journey to Northwestern was naturally all about work.
“[He] took care of business,” Guy said. But to Guy, seeing Isaiah at Northwestern signified something more important than simply punching the clock.
“To our family, it was probably one of the greatest things that ever happened.”
Doenges saw the monster season coming. Isaiah had followed up a 910-yard sophomore season with an 1,877-yard junior campaign where he scored 28 touchdowns on the ground. Now, months after committing to Northwestern, Isaiah was back for his senior year.
“Two-thousand was a number we kind of threw out in the back of our mind in preseason,” Doenges said.
Too low. Bowser amassed 2,617 yards in 11 games and scored 29 touchdowns. He carried the ball nearly 30 times a game, including 45 carries for 321 yards against Bellefontaine and 41 carries for 413 yards and six touchdowns against Xenia.
“He just got stronger and stronger as the game [went] on,” remembered Doenges.
And Sidney was winning. The Yellowjackets won their first seven contests, including a thrilling 34-33 victory over rival Piqua. Bowser got the ball 38 times for 186 yards in that game, but he made the game-winning play on defense, tackling a Piqua ball-carrier just in front of the goal line to seal the game. Sidney ended its season 10-2 and made the Ohio state playoffs for the second time in school history.
In the middle of it all was Bowser. The town held a pep rally for the team before the playoffs, and kids approached him asking for pictures. He was named the Ohio State Football Player of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Columbus, joining a group of players that includes Mitch Trubisky, Ted Ginn Jr., and Archie Griffin.
“As he went through our school district, things just changed and I’ll think of that period of time of him being someone that had a part of that,” Doenges said. “He was just a normal Sidney kid.”
Bowser’s award-winning season was also a message to all the coaches who didn’t think he could play running back in college. Most schools that recruited Bowser wanted him to play safety or linebacker. Northwestern originally did, too. But the Wildcats eventually offered Bowser as a running back, and he became one of a handful of Sidney Yellowjackets to play Division One football. After wrapping up the best season Sidney had seen in nearly 30 years, the town’s proudest son headed to Evanston.
Bowser arrived at Northwestern amidst a host of running backs hoping to fill Justin Jackson’s shoes. Experienced backs like Jeremy Larkin and John Moten IV stood above Bowser on the depth chart, but the freshman wasn’t fazed.
“He said he came in here not to redshirt,” NU running backs coach Lou Ayeni said. “He wanted to come in and play.”
The heaviest back on Northwestern’s roster, Bowser’s size was attractive to Ayeni. Still, it wasn’t until the Rutgers game, three weeks after Jeremy Larkin’s retirement, that Bowser got his chance. NU had managed only 64 combined rushing yards in Larkin’s absence, and neither Moten IV nor Solomon Vault made the trip to New Jersey.
Bowser burned his redshirt in Piscataway and led Northwestern to an 18-15 win over Rutgers. He racked up 40 yards on NU’s final possession as the Wildcats took the final 6:30 off the clock to escape with a win.
Melissa watched the game from Sidney. It was the first football game she had missed since Isaiah was in third grade; the cost of flying to New Jersey was too expensive.
The next weekend, she drove to Evanston to watch Isaiah rush for 118 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin, putting NU in the Big Ten West driver’s seat. With another solid performance, the running back job was Bowser’s.
“By the time we got to a point where it was his turn, he was ready and that’s what I was really excited about,” Ayeni said. “He didn’t shy away from it. He wanted it.”
Bowser’s strength and physicality has helped NU re-establish its run game and win three of its last four, even as quarterback Clayton Thorson has delivered uneven performances. Ayeni noted the importance of a runner who can “push the pile” against stout Big Ten run defenses.
The Big Ten's top grades for running backs this past weekend pic.twitter.com/KAiorzTVhC— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 13, 2018
Northwestern has put Bowser in a position to be successful with more pro-style formations and downhill blocking schemes. He’s been able to find his rhythm and minimize negative plays – Bowser has only lost seven yards on the season and he hasn’t fumbled once. The pièce de résistance was a 165-yard performance against Iowa that included a 34-yard touchdown and a crucial fourth-down carry that sealed the Big Ten West.
Every time Isaiah Bowser runs the ball, he wants you to remember it. No jump cuts, no side-to-side dekes, no spin moves. It’s north-south, right down your throat, dragging the pile.
“What I like about him, the 1-yard gains are 3-yard gains,” Ayeni said. “The 3-yard gains are 5-yard gains.”
You will remember that despite what many collegiate coaches said, Isaiah Bowser is a Division I running back. You will remember that trauma may have scarred his hands, but it made him stronger. And you will remember that Isaiah Bowser is here.
“Single-parent family. Biracial. Statistically, he’s not supposed to be where he’s at right now,” Doenges said. “Statistically, a lot of our kids follow what the stats say, but he was one of those kids that bucked the trend and said ‘I am going to be able to do something academically. I can do something athletically.’
“He’s a kid that … we can hold up and say ‘Look what he was able to do. Look at what his background was. Look at all the good things that he’s going to accomplish.’”