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Steelers Bowers signs with Carolina after draft snub

Monday, April 23, 2001

By Phil Axelrod, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. -- R.J. Bowers spent yesterday sitting on the couch in his parents' home watching his life pass before his eyes on the wide-screen television at the far end of the living room.

R.J. Bowers didn't get the call he wanted yesterday, but he will get a chance as a free agent with the Carolina Panthers. "I'm going to make the team, I know that," he said. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

For Bowers, the NFL draft was a bittersweet experience. His day began with high anticipation at 11 a.m., turned to frustration around 2 p.m., slipped into disappointment at 3, depression at 4 and finally disillusionment at 5.

But the ordeal ended on a high.

Bowers, a fullback at Grove City College who is the all-time rusher in the history of college football, agreed to terms as a free agent with the Carolina Panthers and will sign a contract Thursday when he heads to minicamp in Spartanburg, S.C.

Bowers' agent, Eric Hall from Philadelphia, negotiated a $10,000 signing bonus and a three-year contract if Bowers sticks with the Panthers.

"I'm going to make the team, I know that," said Bowers, a 6-foot-1, 241-pounder with 4.74 speed in the 40-yard dash. "Carolina is where I wanted to go, but it's not how I wanted to get there. I wanted to be drafted."

Bowers, who won the Melberger Award as the NCAA Division III Player of the Year and participated in the Hula Bowl and Blue Gray Classic, wasn't one of the 246 players selected in the seven-round draft conducted Saturday and yesterday.

His name was never called yesterday as Rounds 4-7 unfolded with defensive players continuing to dominate the picks.

"Everybody I talked to told me I'd go somewhere between rounds three and five," Bowers said. "I have no idea what happened. The NFL draft is a finicky thing."

Most of the draft gurus had Bowers as the sixth-rated fullback prospect. Unfortunately for Bowers, only five were drafted -- Auburn's Heath Evans (Seattle, third round), Kansas' Moran Norris (New Orleans, fourth), Texas Christian's George Layne (Kansas City, fourth), Nebraska's Dan Alexander (Tennessee, sixth) and Illinois' Jameel Cook (Tampa Bay, sixth).

Although Bowers wasn't drafted, teams got into a bidding battle for him as a free agent. His cellular phone didn't stop ringing throughout the afternoon, with persistent calls from officials representing the Panthers, Steelers, 49ers, Eagles, Colts and Jets.

At 1:43 p.m., Hall called to tell Bowers that the Colts were thinking about drafting him in the sixth round. They didn't.

At 1:46, Dick Hoak, running backs coach of the Steelers, called. The Steelers had two picks in the sixth round -- Nos. 181 and 182 overall -- and wanted to let Bowers know he might be taken. Friends and family gathered for the draft shrieked with delight when Bowers told them it was a call from the Steelers.

"No, no, no, they didn't draft me," Bowers said, smiling.

The smile turned into a frown an hour later when the Steelers chose Rodney Bailey, a defensive end from Ohio State, and Roger Knight, a linebacker from Wisconsin.

Hoak called again to let Bowers know the Steelers weren't going to use their seventh-round pick to take him, but they wanted him to sign him as a free agent.

Around 4 p.m., Hall called to tell Bowers that Carolina had him as one of four candidates on the board as a choice in the seventh round.

At 4:21, Bowers leaned forward on the couch to get a closer look at the TV when Carolina announced it took Mike Roberg, a tight end from Idaho, in the seventh round as the 227th overall selection.

"Probably my last chance," Bowers sighed, slumping back in his seat. "At this point, it might be better if I don't get drafted. The chances of making a team are 10-fold better as a free agent than as a seventh-round pick.

"As a free agent, you can go to a team that has a need you can fill."

Bowers holds 11 NCAA records, including most rushing yards with 7,353 and most points with 562, but his only chance of earning a paycheck in the NFL is as a blocking fullback.

This will be Bowers' second crack at playing a professional sport. He spent five seasons as an infielder in the minor-league system of the Houston Astros after he graduated from West Middlesex High School.

"Getting to an NFL camp is one-half the battle," said Bowers, 27. "Staying there is the other half. I've been on an extremely emotional roller coaster today.

"Things worked out in the end."

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