LOS ANGELES — The Nike Sparq Camps are annual gatherings of the most valuable high school football recruits in a specific region of the country. They’re a who’s who of four- and five-star talent, the fastest, tallest and most athletic players from across the country, all showing their skills in what many refer to as the preparatory version of the NFL combine.
Invite-only players will receive offers from some of America’s top college programs.
Except for one guy.
Brock Bowers showed up with a scholarship offer (from Nevada) at the 2019 Nike Sparq Camp in the Bay Area. And yet he confounded an audience of spectators, some of whom left in disbelief at his 40-yard dash time.
He ran it in 4.5 seconds. Doubting such a time from a player they didn’t know, the camp officials asked him to play it again.
He ran it in 4.5 seconds. And that without much practice. It was the first time he was timed in earnest in the ’40s. He didn’t have proper hand placement, release, or stance.
“He ran it with a linesman’s attitude,” laughs Nathan Kenion, Bower’s 7v7 coach, who got him an invite to the combine-style event. “After that, everyone started hitting him. ‘Hey who are you?'”
That seems like an eternity ago now. Two years into his Georgia collegiate career, Bowers is playing in his second national championship game, entering it, as he did in the last, as the team’s lead receiver.
Before the top-ranked Bulldogs (14-0) meet TCU (13-1) at SoFi Stadium on Monday, Bowers is surrounded by a group of questioning reporters during the team’s media day session trying to explain his meteoric rise from unrecognizable players Napa, California in 2019 to arguably the best tight end in UGA history just a few years later.
Like his performance at the Nike camp, he wasn’t supposed to be here. Indeed, without his 7-on-7 coach arguing with camp officials about including Bowers — they initially turned him down — there’s a chance he’ll remain hidden in wine country, playing for a struggling high school team (they left in his second season 0-10). ).
His 40 times, vertical jump and other metrics caught the attention of recruiters, and as his junior football season began, Bowers went from one scholarship offer to about two dozen. Welcome to college football recruiting, where a few steps of your legs can turn into a costly trip to a school.
But Bowers has much more to offer.
He’s height: 6’4”, 230 pounds. He’s got insane athletics: Have you seen him defy gravity against Ohio State?
He’s got power: he’s muscled from head to toe. He’s smart: he never got worse than a B in school.
And he has a pedigree: His parents both played sports in the state of Utah (dad Warren was an offensive lineman and mom DeAnna was a record-breaking softball pitcher).
“The 40-yard dash time put him on the map,” says Richie Wessman, Brock’s high school coach in Napa. “It caught like wildfire. One program after another became interested. They all came to school and you went through the list of their questions about him and at the end they were like, ‘How can you not want this kid?’”
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Over the past two years, the once unknown prospect has become one of the most unstoppable tight end forces college football has ever seen. Bowers draws comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, 49ers big man George Kittle, and Kyle Pitts, former Florida tight end drafted fourth in the 2021 draft.
Kenion believes Bowers is a better receiver than anyone else. The numbers prove it. In 29 games played, he has 112 catches for 1,672 yards and 19 touchdowns. His numbers as a sophomore this year are almost identical to those as a freshman (in fact he has exactly the same amount of catches).
Defensive coordinators scrutinized him in 2021, devised a strategy to stop him and appeared to fail miserably. In a line that’s sure to make opposing coaches feel even worse, Bowers says he came to Georgia with little knowledge of attacking football.
“When I got here, I didn’t know anything,” he says. “I knew, ‘Get the ball and run’.”
He’s of course had support from a stable of talented teammates. His colleague Darnell Washington is one of the most colossal characters in the game at 6’7 inches and 270 pounds. “It’s hard to defend both of our running routes,” says Bowers. “Usually one of us is open.”
That shouldn’t be the case on Monday. Washington is questionable about playing after spraining his ankle in the semifinals win over Ohio State.
That means Bowers will be left all alone. Nobody is concerned. After all, this is a kid who played every position on the basketball court and almost every one of them on the soccer field in high school. He played defensive end and outside linebacker on defense and at various times on offense, played quarterback, receiver and tight end.
In an unusual statistic for his position, Bowers opened his junior season in high school by returning a kickoff for a touchdown. “Things you don’t see,” Kenion quips, “Tight ends as a kick returner.”
Longtime NFL draft analyst Rob Rang claims Bowers is the best tight end he’s seen in more than 25 years of analyzing draft prospects. Kenion says he heralded a new era at the position.
“He paints a picture of the next wave of tight ends,” says Kenion. “You have the inline tight end and the pure receiver that cannot jam. Brock, he’s big enough to block, can take fly sweeps, can catch bubbles, can go deep, block on the edge. It can do everything receivers can and tight ends in the box can do.
No wonder a few weeks after his arrival in Athens, coaches began to distort the attacking game plan to give him the ball. Brock says he was shocked to learn about it.
It wasn’t John Cortese.
“It’s pretty rare to see someone with his combination of size and speed,” says Bowers personal trainer Cortese. “It is wonderful.”
Few know Bowers better than Cortese. He owns a training facility in Napa, where Bowers spent most of his junior and senior years of high school as the pandemic shut down much of his hometown. Cortese often took the gear outside to a parking lot to practice so he was following California guidelines.
Californians have endured strict COVID-19 protocols for more than a year beginning in March 2020, Bowers Junior Spring of High School. Parks have been closed. Gyms were closed. Soccer practice would start and then stop, start again and then stop. Finally it was finally over: His senior season was canceled.
Napa is unusual in that the community football and soccer fields are operated and owned by the school districts, which meant no one was allowed on them amid the pandemic. It didn’t matter that they were outside.
Bowers defied rules, practiced routes with friends, and was routinely chased from fields by school administrators.
“It sucked,” says Bowers flatly.
“He called me angry,” says mom DeAnna. “He said, ‘I’m going to Alston Park!'”
Alston Park is a hilly, scenic biking and hiking area on the outskirts of Napa, surrounded by—big surprise—orchards and wineries. When Brock wasn’t in Cortese’s parking lot practice or being chased off the school fields, he was at Alston, running sprints, working on agility drills, and hoisting himself up impossibly steep hills.
He would film himself and send them to Georgia coaches. They would watch her in amazement from her office.
What can’t this kid do?!
What they didn’t know is that, like many young people, the pandemic was seriously affecting Brock’s mental state. Thank goodness for Alston Park, says DeAnna. It helped her son physically, of course, but also mentally. “The hill climb was an outlet for frustration,” she says.
“He’s watching all the other guys in his class and they can have their senior season in the fall on time,” Warren says. “He didn’t get that.”
The pandemic also interrupted Brock’s recruitment. A year after running the 40 that got him attention, Brock and his parents embarked on a multi-day trip to visit six schools — a Southern swing to see LSU, Georgia and Clemson, and a Midwest swing, to see Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State.
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During the trip, COVID-19 paralyzed the country. Bowers would not have another face-to-face meeting with a coach until he enrolls with Georgia in January 2021.
It’s been quite a wild ride leading up to this fairytale ending to his sophomore year: he’s happily back in California. DeAnna was taking a break from her job as a high school math teacher. She hasn’t missed a game in Brock’s two seasons in Georgia, adjusting to the Delta flight from Sacramento to Atlanta.
The Bowers family will have at least 25 members at SoFi Stadium rooted in the boy who put his name on the map just a few hours north of here five years ago.
“I think everyone out here is like, ‘He’s finally out here!'” laughs DeAnna.
Back in Napa, Georgia is suddenly a local favorite. Cortese trains dozens of middle and high school students who have turned into bulldog fans. Dressed in Georgia shirts and hats, they go to his gym, often hoping their local hero is nearby. “They ask when he’s coming back!” says Cortese.
Well, he’s back — just a few hundred miles south, and fast approaching a second championship ring in a sophomore season in college.
“Last year in Indianapolis it didn’t seem real. This kid is playing for a national title?” says DeAnna. “And now a second one in California? It is wonderful.”