- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Navorro Bowman admits he became a bit wide-eyed when the college football awards were distributed, hoping to someday get his hands on the hardware.
He saw his roommate and Penn State teammate, defensive end Aaron Maybin, travel to Orlando, Fla., as a finalist for the Bednarik Award. Another teammate, Nittany Lions center A.Q. Shipley, brought home the Rimington Trophy.
Visions of his name being engraved on a trophy go through Bowman's mind, but he doesn't get consumed by such thoughts.
"It's everyone's dream," he said, "but I still have two years left and a lot to work on. I've matured a lot as a man, realizing that the things you have now are not always guaranteed. I'm just blessed to be playing right now, blessed to be playing in the Rose Bowl and really looking forward to playing USC."
Arguably no Penn State player will cherish Thursday's matchup against USC in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi more than Bowman, a first-team All-Big Ten linebacker who led Penn State with 98 tackles (11.5 for loss). A year ago, he stayed home when Penn State traveled to the Alamo Bowl, suspended for his role in one of the incidents that stained the Nittany Lions program.
Bowman and teammate Chris Baker were charged with felony aggravated assault after a fight at the Penn State student union. Eventually, Bowman and teammate Phil Taylor pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in May and received a year's probation.
"Motivation has been the main word for me in the last year," said Bowman, whose football suspension ran through spring practice. "The bowl game, missing that, it hurt. I was in my apartment, watching guys go to practice during those times. It was hard for me. I knew I was supposed to be playing and the reason I wasn't was all my fault, so I took responsibility for that and wanted to start a new slate this year."
A new chapter began for Bowman in Week 4, when he earned his first career start against Temple. The 6-foot-1, 228-pound outside linebacker had Happy Valley buzzing after racking up 11 tackles, five stops for loss, three sacks and an interception. Some even brought up the name LaVar Arrington, the former Penn State star linebacker who mentors Bowman.
Bowman continued to surge, recording five double-digit tackle performances and making critical plays, including a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter against Ohio State that sparked Penn State's late push. For a team that needed production at linebacker following the loss of star Sean Lee in spring practice, Bowman filled a vital role.
"He obviously has become a better football player every game he plays, because he's more alert and more comfortable and he anticipates things better," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "He's always been not a great athlete, but a very good athlete, on the verge of being really good, being better than really good. And he's matured off the field."
Bowman's time away from the team expedited his maturity, but he would face an even bigger test in June. Just weeks after his legal issues came to an end, Bowman's father, Hillard, died unexpectedly of complications from a blood clot.
Bowman's final conversation with his dad had to do with the 2008 season, specifically securing a parking pass for the RV that Hillard and Navorro's mom would drive to every Penn State home game.
"When I was a freshman and wasn't playing, he'd still come up," Navorro Bowman recalled. "I used to tell him and my mother, 'You guys don't have to come up and waste any money. I know I'm not playing.' And they still came up and supported me like they would if I was. Those little things, I appreciate."
An avid drag racer, Hillard was a tough competitor who pushed his son.
He still does.
"My dad is everything," Bowman said. "I just wish he could be here. It's still rough right now. I think about him every day. When I step on that field, I just talk to him and it all goes to him at the end of the day, the good and the bad. I'm just glad I had him in my life for as long as I did."
Bowman remembers watching his dad win drag races, cherish the victory for a day or so and then focus on the next race. He has tried to do the same thing on the football field.
A strong Rose Bowl performance against USC would cement Bowman as one of the nation's top linebackers. With Lee back for 2009, Penn State's defensive midsection looks rock solid.
"I'm looking forward to next year, and I'm excited to play with Sean," Bowman said. "We'll all be back in full effect and show what Linebacker U is all about."