The offseason is almost behind us, with Camp Tomlin 2012 right around the corner and a trip to beautiful Latrobe, PA being planned for most of us bloggers and sportswriters who cover the Pittsburgh Steelers. Until then, we all need our football fix. With that in mind, I decided to make my return article here at NPC the first of a series called “Ghosts of Steelers Past”. In this series, we will take a look at players who had a very short reign of relevance in the Pittsburgh sports scene. These are guys that even the most diehard, towel-waving, fanatics of Steeler Nation may have forgotten all about. They came to Pittsburgh, they played a few games, some had a shining moment…..others, not so much. But they were all Steelers – and in this neck of the woods, once a Steeler, ALWAYS a Steeler.
I decided to start this series with an article on a player who was known throughout western Pennsylvania for many years before he wore the black and gold. He was a spectacular high school player at West Middlesex High School in both football and baseball, and actually chose to play professional baseball as his profession. Raymond Keith “R.J.” Bowers was a 6-foot tall, 250 lbs. super-athlete who spent six years playing professional baseball in the Houston Astros organization after being rafted in the 11th round of the 1992 MLB Amateur Draft. From 1992-1997, Bowers worked his way up from Rookie level ball to Class A Kissimmee of the Florida State League. It seemed that his future would be spent in the batters box as opposed to between the hashmarks.
Unfortunately, his Astros career fizzled out in 1997. After giving baseball one more try as a member of the Madison Black Wolf in the Independent Northern League, Bowers gave up his baseball dreams and returned home, where he enrolled at Grove City College. It was there, at the tiny college just 30 minutes from his childhood home that Bowers would begin a career that would redefine the entire college football landscape. Over a four-year career as a running back for the Grove City Wolverines, Bowers would become one of the most prolific running backs in college football history, breaking the records for All-time rushing yards and All-time scoring. By the time he finished his run at Grove City, Bowers had amassed 7,353 total yards rushing, surpassing the totals of such D-1 talents as Ron Dayne and Ricky Williams – as well as a guy named Tony Dorsett. While those players competed at the highest level of college athletics, Bowers accomplishments occurred at the Division-III level. That fact did not stop the national media from picking up on his story, and by the end of 2000, R.J. Bowers had become a certified celebrity in football circles.
The media attention that Bowers received from ESPN was not enough to get the small-college RB drafted in the 2001 NFL Draft. However, the Carolina Panthers signed Bowers as a rookie free agent and was invited to camp. In late August, the Panthers released Bowers, and he was once again a free agent. The Steelers, looking to shore up their practice squad depth and add a local product to their team, signed Bowers to a contract on September 3, 2001. He spent the entire first four months of the NFL season on the practice squad, attending all practices and team meetings and learning the offense. He was permitted to watch home games from the then-brand new Heinz Field sidelines, but was not permitted to ravel to away games. For a lifetime fan of the Steelers to be dressing in the same locker room with Jerome Bettis was unreal, and Bowers took in every bit of it that he could, all the while thinking that the whole thing could end at any moment.
Then, on December 21, something amazing happened. Injuries began to take their toll on the Steelers, who were well on their way to another playoff run and needed to keep their veteran players fresh for the final few weeks of the regular season. It was on December 21 that Boers learned he had been activated from the practice squad and placed on the 53-man gameday roster. On December 23, the Steelers welcomed the Detroit Lions into Heinz Field for a lopsided 47-14 victory. Late in the fourth quarter, fans in the stands caught a glimpse of #33 putting on a helmet and heading out onto the field. R.J. Bowers was officially an NFL player.
In that game against Detroit, Bowers rushed the ball seven times for 17 yards, including a nine-yard carry that helped set up the final Steelers touchdown of the game. He also contributed on special teams, making several key blocks and one tackle.
The next week in Cleveland, Bowers jumped another hurdle. As the Steelers blew out the Cleveland Browns on the road, the Grove City product enjoyed an expanded role in the offense. With the Steelers resting many of their key players, Bowers rushed the ball 11 times, racking up 67 yards on the ground. With 7:37 left in the fourth quarter, Bowers took a Tommy Maddox hand-off right up the middle of the field – and all the way to his first National Football League touchdown. For all the his family, friends, coaches, and the people who had helped him overcome so much to get to that point, this was a special moment. For Steelers fans watching the game, we all knew that we had witnessed something that we would remember forever.
The story of R.J. Bowers as a Pittsburgh Steeler ended after that Week 16 game. Bowers would not be back in Pittsburgh in 2002, and signed with the Cleveland Browns. After not playing a down in the 2002 season for the Browns, Bowers was with the team late in 2003, scoring a touchdown in a game against Kansas City. His run with Cleveland turned out to be his swan song in the NFL.
While there have been many players over the years who have defied traditional logic to make an impact in the NFL, few did so with the courage and determination of R.J. Bowers. From local boy to professional baseball player, to college student, to all-time rushing leader, and finally to scoring a touchdown as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It is one of the great stories in recent Steelers lore.
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