Imagine playing for a legendary all-time winning coach. Imagine playing on the number one rated team in the country. Imagine in the midst of all of this skipping practice.
I had always respected his coaching wizardry. I marveled at the way he handled adversity! I was amazed at his calm demeanor with the press after a heartbreaking loss. He epitomized the mantra of NEVER let them see you sweat or feel your pain.
I can still remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Monday afternoon around the time that we had to report to the Moore for practice. For us Monday practices were for corrections from the previous Saturday's game and scouting report/game plan implementation for our next opponent. This was the most important practice of the week. There were no pads and/or contact involved. This was the practice that you began the mental preparation process and started to actualize the desired outcome.
As the time got closer to go to practice the buzz started to brew. The conversations were taking place and guys were contemplating a practice boycott. Not because of excessive training. Not because of poor treatment. This boycott though had great value to many. It wasn't a protest type moment although the reason was very significant in meaning.
This was the day that the Million Man March was happening and a lot of the African American players had become very interested in this event and what it represented. Who would have ever imagined one million Black Men marching together in peace to bring about change and equality.
For my teammates and I it was decision time. Go to practice or not! As we looked into each other's eyes we had resolved that we weren't going to go to practice but we all at the time shared the fear of God of how Coach was going to react and furthermore respond. Then the inevitable happened. Our Offensive Coordinator Coach Richt showed up at Burt and asked why we weren't at practice. One of the players told him that this was history and we wanted to watch the Million Man March. Coach Richt says "Why didn't you guys talk to the man? I suggest you get some guys together and go talk to Coach Bowden because he's talking about bringing in 80 new scholarship players".
The hardest part about the whole day was taking that walk from Burt down those stairs and crossing Stadium Drive. It seemed like it was a thousand steps to get up to Coach Bowden's office! Myself along with about 25 other players were TERRIFIED!
When we walked in Coach was very calm. This made it an even scarier atmosphere we felt like we could hear each other breathing. Coach waited until all of us were in his office and then in that southern drawl said "Men what's going on"? Why aren't you guys down here at practice. The room was deafly SILENT! It was like you were feeling yourself swallow that lump in your throat over and over and over. Everybody kinda looking around like who's going to say something cause I'm not. Finally as a group we composed ourselves and said "Coach Bowden we were all at the dorm watching the Million Man March". We explained it to him and its significance to us as African American males and our desire to get a better understanding of what it would take to be a part of the the reconciliation processes that needed to take place within many of our communities.
He then said "why didn't you guys tells us as coaches you were that interested and wanted to watch it. We would have arranged to watch it as a team in the film room". Coach Bowden then spoke of an injured teammate that he had given permission to attend the event. When he said that an injured (true freshman) player in the room responded that the injured player was not a representation of all of us (this was the only time Coach Bowden kinda lost his cool). Looking back now it's really funny the way he responded but it was 1-800-Coach Bowden! He went to his high voice "hey buddy you're a freshman you're injured, your opinion doesn't count, I want to hear from my seniors"!
I raised my hand and chose my words wisely. I explained to Coach that no one in their right mind had the courage to come to his office and say Coach Bowden we are not coming to practice today (when you sit in his office it always felt like he was sitting in this elevated perch looking down on you). He kind of smiled as if to say yeah you are right to feel that way son that might not have been a good look.
Coach Bowden responded by saying well gentlemen if you miss practice today we will have to make it up at 5am. We all agreed. We said coach we understand that there will be consequences as we know a lot of the participants that are in attendance at the march may lose their jobs as a result. Without hesitation he said okay. He cancelled practice. The funny thing is we never had a make up practice and he never made us feel some type of way about that day. Oh yeah we went out that following Saturday and beat Georgia Tech 42-10.
The significance of what happened that day not only changed the lives of many it also cemented Coach Bowden in the hearts of all his African American players. Here he is already a legendary National Championship winning coach with the number one team in the country at the time chasing another title and he put all of that aside to address the sociological issues within the communities of various players on his team.
During the recruiting process one of the cliche statements made by coaches to parents is, "I'll take care of him like he's my own" Coach Bowden did.
As I look at Colin Kaepernick and his stance as well as the stance of many African American athletes to bring about awareness and change referencing the brutality within the black community, there is a common element of response from various other cultures that because they have not faced these atrocities at the rate that the black community has their understanding is not as withstanding. I remember when coach Bowden didn't quite understand the magnitude but he listened and he felt the soul of his players.
I don't remember much media hype about that day. It was one of those in-house things. That's just the way Coach was. In my many travels because of my size and stature I am often asked the question did I play football. Once I acknowledge that yes I did and where I played the next question 95% of the time is how was playing for Coach Bowden is he really the way he seems on TV. I ALWAYS respond NO! He is BETTER!