Penn State's NaVorro Bowman thrives at linebacker for 49ers

NaVorro Bowman was a third-round pick.
NaVorro Bowman was a third-round pick.
Posted: January 29, 2013

NEW ORLEANS - It was probably Frank Gore who first made the mistake of misidentifying NaVorro Bowman as Patrick Willis.

The San Francisco 49ers had just drafted Bowman out of Penn State and spring practices had begun. The jury is often out on draftees that early in the process, especially for linebackers selected in the hit-or-miss third round.

But Gore, the 49ers' Pro Bowl running back, said he realized almost instantly what kind of talent Bowman had, so much so that he mistook him for the all-pro linebacker who had been chasing him in practice for several years already.

"When we first got to OTAs, I thought it was Patrick Willis on one play," Gore said. "I hit the corner and he came and beat me to the corner. I had to look. I was like, 'We got us a steal right here in the third round.' "

Being drafted in the third round doesn't necessarily qualify as a slight for Bowman, but every team in the NFL is surely kicking itself for passing on him.

The third-year inside linebacker has matured into one of the best at his position, enough that some claim he has surpassed Willis, a six-time Pro Bowler. The two linebackers have been the centerpiece of the 49ers' stifling defense for the last two years and will be a focal point for the Baltimore Ravens offense in Sunday's Super Bowl.

Bowman, 24, said he initially wondered why he had dropped into the third down of the 2010 draft.

"Of course," Bowman said Tuesday. "I've been playing this game exceptionally well, just doing just the things that it's taken to get to this level. But when things like that happen, you have to overcome it."

In June 2008, while he was suspended from Penn State's football team, Bowman lost his father, Hillard, who died from a blood clot. Six months later, after being reinstated to the team, Bowman suffered another loss when his high school coach and mentor, Nick Lynch, died in a car accident.

"I think about them every single step of this way," Bowman said. "From me coming from where I come from, those two men really inspired me, had a lot to do with where I am at."

There were mistakes along the way. Bowman was involved in a brawl at Penn State's student center along with other players in the fall of 2007. He was charged with a disorderly conduct misdemeanor and was suspended by coach Joe Paterno for the final two games of the season and all of the following spring.

He was reinstated just before his junior season. With fellow linebacker Dan Connor off for the NFL and Sean Lee out for the season with a knee injury, Bowman had a breakout year.

But during a probation hearing the following April, Bowman admitted to using marijuana before the Nittany Lions' loss to Southern Cal in January and several times in the following months. He said he was trying to cope with the loss of his father and coach.

"I was young, living my life," Bowman said. "Now I've learned from those mistakes."

He was placed on an additional year of probation and Paterno insisted that Bowman was just a young man going through some rough times. Bowman, who grew up in District Heights, Md., just outside Washington, once estimated that he lost 10 friends to drugs and violence while at Penn State.

Even though Bowman cemented himself as an all-American linebacker in his senior season, there were concerns about his character entering the draft.

The Eagles selected defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim five picks before Bowman. Bowman's Lions teammate Lee, who has become a good NFL linebacker in his own right, was chosen in the second round that year.

Bowman's big break came in the 2010 season finale when he started for the injured Willis. He recorded eight tackles, two for losses. The next season he was starting alongside the similarly-sized Willis. Both are 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds. Both can stop the run sideline to sideline. Both can defend the pass.

Bowman recorded 143 tackles, two sacks, and eight pass deflections in 2011. He was snubbed by the Pro Bowl but earned all-pro honors. This season, he was no longer a secret and the players voted him into the Pro Bowl. He also made his second straight all-pro first team.

And he further etched his name in team history when he broke up Matt Ryan's last-gasp pass to Roddy White in the 49ers' NFC championship victory over the Atlanta Falcons. He said he was being watched from above.

"I wish they could see me, see me right now, see me shining, see me still working and remaining the person that I am," Bowman said of his father and high school coach. "But I still have one more thing to do and that's win the Super Bowl and it would be for those two men."

Contact Jeff McLane at Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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