Lynn Bowden, Jr. was the man of the hour this weekend at Clark Field, home of the Somerset High School Briar Jumpers. But it might have been his buddy Josh Ali, who came with Bowden along with current University of Kentucky linebacker Marquez Bembry, who felt most at home on the beautiful new field decorated in a brilliantly bright shade of purple.
“It’s great, man,” Ali told the Commonwealth Journal of his Somerset surroundings. “Purple is my favorite color.”
It’s dressed in blue, however, that Ali and Bowden made their biggest impact — most unforgettably in the final moments of the Kentucky Wildcats’ 2019 football season in the Belk Bowl. Bowden had excelled all year long at the quarterback position after being thrust into the spot following a rash of injuries to the other QB candidates on the roster. But it with his legs that Bowden was known for doing his most damage, breaking rushing records and helping UK overcome a potentially disastrous campaign to reach the postseason. Throwing touchdowns through the air was something Bowden did far less frequently.
Yet on the biggest stage of the season, with the game hanging in the balance, Bowden threw what many might have considered an unexpected pass into the thick of the end zone which fell neatly into Ali’s waiting hands. The score: 31-30 Kentucky. The Wildcats not only held on for the win but built on it, 37-30, after tacking on another defense touchdown as time ran out on Virginia Tech.
It was the fitting final touch on an amazing career at UK for Bowden, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, who spent his first two seasons at Kentucky as a receiver and return specialist before last season’s heroics at QB. Even at a position known for throwing the ball, Bowden’s wizardry was in running it. In the 45-17 win over rival Louisville to end the regular season, Bowden not only helped his team to a program-high rushing total, but broke the Southeastern Conference record for rushing yard from a quarterback, going for 284 yards on 22 carries. Bowden chewed up opposing defenses on the ground all season on his way to first-team All-America status and winning the coveted Paul Hornung Award recognizing the nation’s most versatile football player.
But throwing the absolute perfect pass at the right moment to win a bowl game in the final collegiate outing of an outstanding career? That’s the stuff of storybook legends.
“Ending my career the way I did, you couldn’t have paid me my freshman year to tell me my last touchdown was going to be a pass to Josh,” said Bowden, speaking with reporters Saturday night under the Clark Field lights at the conclusion of the Somerset Youth Football League (SYFL) camp. “It was like someone erased the whole history book, and drew that play in.”
Added Bowden, “I never really took the time to reflect on the season yet. I’m still trying to drag it on as long as I can. Every time I see these boys (his fellow UK players), that’s all I talk about with them, the (previous) season.”
Bowden is beginning his career in the NFL as a draft pick of the Las Vegas Raiders, an iconic NFL franchise moving from Oakland to a new city for the next NFL season — whenever it might be played, an uncertainty due to COVID-19 concerns. But don’t tell Bowden the season is questionable. He doesn’t want to hear that. Always a gamer, Bowden is ready to get back on the field.
“(The season) needs to happen,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but it needs to happen. It’s been too long without football. ... I haven’t played a down since Dec. 31, so it’s kind of weird.”
Bowden has spent the downtime “just running ... working out here and there,” and getting ready for his new life as a Raider under Super Bowl-winning coach and fellow Ohio native Jon Gruden.
“It’s a new city for the team, a new beginning for me, so I’ve got some goals I set for myself,” he said. “We’ve got goals for the team that we set for each other and we’re ready to get at it.”
Bowden hasn’t forgotten his old team, however, or former head coach (and, again, Ohioan) Mark Stoops. Bowden said that when he flew into Lexington to attend the SYFL camp, he stopped by to see the UK coaches but they were all out of the office. They’ll never leave his mind or heart, however.
“All of them” made an impact, he said. “They all took the time with me and got to know me, and the bond we had with them, or I had with them, is just something crazy because they know how to work with kids. They turn people like me from a boy to a man. I give them their props every time.”
Working with kids and helping them develop, both as football players and as human beings, is important to Bowden, who is a father himself (Lynn Bowden III got his own share of airtime during his dad’s miracle season with UK). Growing up in Youngstown was no picnic, and has been part of the legend that’s grown up around Bowden as his career developed. Bowden spent much of the camp just interacting with the SYFL kids, from the first-graders through sixth-grade, talking with them and throwing balls to them as they moved from station to station on a beautiful July night. At the camp’s conclusion, Bowden shared a message with the kids spread out around the field, talking about the importance of staying in school, working hard, and not getting distracted by the adversity one faces. All of those pieces of advice were key to Bowden’s own success story.
“I’ve got to come out here with the kids,” said Bowden. “I’ve got some myself, so I know how much this means to all of them.”
Bowden’s appearance was scheduled before the COVID-19 crisis hit Kentucky. SYFL commissioner Bart Williams told the Commonwealth Journal they’d understand if Bowden needed to cancel, with virus uncertainty and the camp being moved to July, with Bowden in Vegas, but Bowden wasn’t going to let that stop him from honoring his agreement to come to Somerset and reach out to the youth of this community.
“It’s nice down here,” said Bowden of Somerset. “It’s my first time I’ve ever been down here. It’s beautiful coming down here. Beautiful.”
Of course, Briar Jumper quarterback Kaiya Sheron has pledged to play quarterback for Kentucky in the future — the same position at which Bowden excelled this year — so it was a neat bit of serendipity to have UK’s last iconic QB out throwing passes on the same field where Sheron has made his mark. It will be another year before Sheron puts on the blue-and-white, but in the meantime, UK is poised to have an outstanding campaign with Ali, Bembry, and others still in the fold for the coming season — when and if it’s held.
Bowden is optimistic, and just as bullish on his former team’s prospects. “I’ve got high expectations for them,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure on them. They’ve got to capitalize off of the last two years. I’m holding them to a standard, to at least get to the record that we had, and be better and beyond.”
Ali is looking forward to his senior campaign as well. “I’m definitely excited,” he said. “I’ve been working since we played the last game. I’ve been working out. I took a week’s break and got right to it. I feel stronger and faster, more confident, and I’m just ready for everything to start.”
He also enjoyed the SYFL camp environment and working with the local youth.
“It’s been great,” said Ali. “When I was young, we had guys come out and do the same thing that I’m doing now. To be able to do it while I’m in college means a lot to me. It’s also something my dad does. ... (It’s great) to be able to come out here some place new that I don’t know and (to be) repping these kids, seeing what talent they have.”
Williams was happy with the way the camp turned out, despite all of the chaos that COVID-19 restrictions threw into the event’s organization over the past several months.
“It went really well,” said Williams. “Mother Nature was kind. It wasn’t quite as hot as what we thought it might be. A nice little breeze. The turnout was what we expected with the conditions as they are.”
Williams was also thrilled with performance of the UK contingent at the camp.
“Lynn and his former teammates were outstanding tonight with the kids, interacting with them. We literally couldn’t have asked for anything else,” said Williams. “I’ve seen camps like this, basketball and football camps, where you’ve got guys just out of college, and some of them don’t interact with the kids real well. Lynn being a father himself, he knows what it’s all about. I thought that was great. It was super to see them all interact with the kids.
“The kids loved it. That’s what it’s all about,” added Williams. “That’s why we did this.”
Bowden not only has a child of his own, but remembers what it was like to be an impressionable young man guided and helped by his coaches and mentors along the way. He said that he indeed saw himself in many of the kids he worked with this weekend in Somerset.
“All of them are hungry,” he said. “If they weren’t hungry, they wouldn’t be here today. I saw all the smiles on their faces. They all enjoyed their time out here. I enjoyed my time with them.”