The air outside Welsh-Ryan Arena is freezing on this February weeknight, but inside, wide receiver Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman has the juice.
The attendance at the Northwestern-Indiana women’s basketball game is announced at 531, and Chiaokhiao-Bowman and a handful of his teammates are among the two dozen students watching Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s final regular-season home game.
Sure, Welsh-Ryan has seen louder environments, but Chiaokhiao-Bowman and his teammates stand in the front row, smiling and cheering as NU stomps the Hoosiers by 20 points.
Somewhere, Chiaokhiao-Bowman dancing. It might be a nearly-empty Welsh-Ryan Arena. Or perhaps it’s the bathroom at Ryan Fieldhouse. Northwestern fans may recognize Chiaokhiao-Bowman as the ringleader in NU’s locker room celebrations after recent bowl wins.
“He’s always got the juice,” fellow wide receiver Kyric McGowan said.
Chiaokhiao-Bowman has amassed just 24 catches for 272 yards and a score in his career. But the junior has given Northwestern so much more since he arrived in Evanston.
The redshirt junior is NU’s renaissance man: an expressive dancer, an improving barber and a glue guy on the team.
“He can fit in with everyone,” McGowan said.
Music, however, is Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s first passion. He started rapping at the age of six, spent countless hours playing the drums in high school, and interned for a promotion and artist consultation company this past spring. It keeps him grounded at NU, tying him back to his family in Minneapolis.
“Football takes up so much of all of our times that you just realized that like, this isn’t all of my life, and that you have other things that you enjoy,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “And I think just for me it has been a goal to find those other things in my life that I’m able to enjoy and things that will obviously be around for the rest of my life.”
Rhythm was all around Chiaokhiao-Bowman growing up.
His father introduced him to the grittiness of the Wu-Tang Clan and 90s hip-hop. His mother, Phet, who grew up in Alabama and has family from Southeast Asia, played traditional Laotian and Thai music as well as country music around the house, often to groans from her children. She got the last laugh, however.
”Now that they’re older, they have these songs on their playlists,” Phet said.
Chiaokhiao-Bowman also started listening to jazz music, picking up the drums as a middle schooler in southern Minneapolis. He anticipated he would matriculate along with all his friends at nearby Washburn High School, but Phet had other plans.
She wanted to send Chiaokhiao-Bowman to Breck School, a private school in the neighboring suburbs.
“All I knew about Breck was: private school and nobody that I grew up with,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “It ended up being one of the best decisions of my life so far.”
Things at Breck didn’t start so well. There were not a lot of kids who looked like Chiaokhiao-Bowman, half-Laotian and half-black, at the private school. As a freshman, Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s teammates couldn’t pronounce “Ramaud” or they didn’t want to try, so they called him “Monty.” For Chiaokhiao-Bowman, the son of a mother who shortened her own name (from Phetsakhone to Phet) to make it easier for people to say, this didn’t sit well.
“He kind of checked them,” Phet remembered. “Call me by my name.”
Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s leadership and willingness to hold others accountable stood out. That was the first thing Marcus Harris, Breck’s offensive coordinator noticed. In the early days of summer ball, Chiaokhiao-Bowman corrected a few older players. They had erred in responding “Yes,” instead of “Yes, coach.”
Harris certainly knows a good wide receiver when he sees one. Breck School’s offensive coordinator currently ranks fifth all-time in collegiate receiving yards. He was a two-time All-American at Wyoming and won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver in 1996. Harris told InsideNU that he knew Chiaokhiao-Bowman would have a chance to play college football before the freshman had played a high school game.
Chiaokhiao-Bowman made his presence felt off the field too. Like Harris, Breck band director Charlotte Wheeler observed Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s talent right away.
“There are kids who just come in and play the rhythm and play it how it is,” Wheeler said. “And then there are kids that come in and add their own spin to it and think more on a musical level […] And that’s kind of the way that Ramaud would play.”
Atlas Finch came into his first band class a rail-thin freshman sporting a massive cast on his arm. When he noticed Chiaokhiao-Bowman, reputed to be a confident football star, Finch balked.
“I really had no intention of ever interacting with him,” Finch said.
But the boys began to riff with each other, Chiaokhiao-Bowman on the drums and Finch on the bass. As sophomores, they auditioned for the all-state band and made it. Soon after, they watched “Whiplash,” the drama starring Miles Teller as a jazz drummer. Chiaokhiao-Bowman and Finch were hooked; they watched the movie over and over again, eventually performing two songs from the soundtrack.
The duo would stay late after class, encouraging their bandmates to practice on their own time so the group could continue to improve.
“Every day was above and beyond with those two,” Wheeler said.
As an aspiring college football player, Chiaokhiao-Bowman certainly didn’t have to spend all those extra hours practicing with his bandmates. His first scholarship offer did not come until May of his junior year, and it came from a Division I-AA school.
Chiaokhiao-Bowman could have dropped band to spend more times running routes or lifting weights. Sacrificing sleep and social life was worth it, though.
For Chiaokhiao-Bowman, whose first weeks at Breck were bumpy, music was a way to showcase his identity as well.
“Football was something that was always present in my life,” he said. “So I felt like walking around I was ‘football player.’ … But I wasn’t just ‘football player.’ I was also a musician.”
So Chiaokhiao-Bowman put in all those extra hours. He and Finch composed an original hip-hop-jazz piece for a school project, spending two weeks writing music for six different instruments. They decided to reimagine their “boring” school dances by devising, rehearsing and performing hour-long setlists of crowd-pleasers.
“I think it was nice probably [for Chiaokhiao-Bowman to] say ‘I’m just going to go play music for a little bit,’” Finch said. “And we’re going to play, you know, ‘TiK ToK,’ by Kesha. And it totally doesn’t matter at all and it’s just for fun. And then at a certain point we’re going to get to play it for all our friends.”
Chiaokhiao-Bowman wouldn’t be at Northwestern if his football aspirations didn’t work out. He attended a camp in Evanston after his junior year where he was noticed by former NU receiver Cam Dickerson. Two days later, Chiaokhiao-Bowman had an offer from the Wildcats.
Phet remembers tearing up when her son committed to Northwestern. “Oh my gosh, he’s about to go off to college,” she remembered thinking. “And Northwestern is getting so much more than just a football player.”
Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s alarm rings at 10:30 a.m. each Sunday. That’s when he knows it’s time to practice on his drum pad.
“Similar to when I’m dancing, it’s like this pure happiness,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said. “I got the big cheesy smile. That’s what I feel when I’m playing.”