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Steelers Bowers almost speechless after 1st TD

Monday, January 07, 2002

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

By his own admission, R.J. Bowers is not a typical Division III player. Not when he signed a professional baseball contract before playing in the National Football League. Not when he became college football’s all-time leading rusher at Grove City College. Not when he is a 27-year-old rookie.

R.J. Bowers celebrates his first NFL touchdown -- a 21-yard run in the fourth quarter. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

But Bowers isn’t your typical fourth-team running back, either.

Not after he replaced injured Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala in the third quarter and rushed for 67 yards on 11 carries against the Cleveland Browns, who are not to be confused with Westminster or Bethany. Not after he scored his first NFL touchdown on a 21-yard run to put the finishing touches on the Steelers’ 28-7 victory yesterday at Heinz Field.

“It’s a tremendous feeling,” Bowers said. “Just awesome. I can’t even explain it.

“I’ve been trying to find the right words for a half hour and I can’t. You can’t write it any better.”

Bowers had the major distinction of rushing for 7,353 yards at Grove City -- most in the history of college football -- and scoring 91 touchdowns. He also finished second in NCAA history with 9,253 all-purpose yards, which is testament to his pass-catching ability.

But to step in and replace Fuamatu-Ma’afala, who sustained an injured groin in the third quarter, and score the final regular-season touchdown for the Steelers was more than he could have imagined. Especially after spending the first 13 weeks of the season on the practice squad and serving mainly as the scout-team running back going against the Steelers’ first-team defense.

“It was a great thrill,” Bowers said. “It means a lot to get your first NFL touchdown because I’ll never have another first NFL touchdown.”

It remains to be seen if Bowers will have another NFL touchdown. He was cut by the Carolina Panthers in training camp and signed to the Steelers’ practice squad Sept. 3. He was signed to the 53-man roster three weeks ago only because Jerome Bettis (groin) was out and Amos Zereoue (sprained shoulder) was having his playing time limited.

When the Steelers play their first playoff game in two weeks, Bowers will go back to being one of eight players who are deactivated on game day. Unless, of course, something drastic occurs with Bettis or Zereoue. Or even Fuamatu-Ma’afala, who had 98 yards on 17 carries until the groin injury.

But Coach Bill Cowher said Fuamatu-Ma’afala, who started his fifth game in a row, will be fine and ready for the playoffs. Fuamatu-Ma’afala even said he could have gone back in against the Browns, if necessary.

“The first thing I thought about when I hurt it was Jerome,” said Fuamatu-Ma’afala, referring to the groin injury that has kept Bettis out for five consecutive games. “But I didn’t hear anything pop and Jerome said he heard something pop when he got hurt. I started back to the huddle, but the coaches took me out.”

That opened the door for Bowers, who gained all his yards on the final three series of the game. He helped set up his own touchdown when he carried four times for 26 yards to move the ball to the Cleveland 21. Then he took a pitch from quarterback Tommy Maddox, cut behind blocks by guard Rich Tylski and tackle Marvel Smith, and beat Browns cornerback Corey Fuller to the end zone.

The touchdown came on what the team calls its bread-and-butter running play -- Boss -- which stands for “back on strong safety.”

“I was happy for him,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “He works hard in practice. He deserves it.”

“Hometown hero,” crowed fullback Jon Witman, the first person to greet Bowers in the end zone with a leaping high-five. “That was nice. He works as hard as anyone else. To get in there and play, he deserved a touchdown.”

Afterward, while he was trying to find the right words to describe how he felt, Bowers was trying to find something else -- the football used for his first NFL touchdown.

“I gave it to someone,” Bowers said. “I don’t know who has it, but I’m sure it’s still around here.”

Bowers is glad he’s still around.

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