By Vince Agnew, Player Engagement Insider
Some players leave the NFL looking to discover the next phase in life and their search is brief as a result of proactive planning. Others are so deeply immersed in the game that has given them everything and never foresee life away from the gridiron. Stephen Bowen, a retired NFL veteran (Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New York Jets) is a perfect mixture of the two and is thriving because of that. Football would become everything for the seasoned professional, but his journey would remind him that it was just one piece of the puzzle.
Before playing ten years in the NFL, Bowen attended Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. There, he learned that his game would need to be elevated in order to succeed in a competitive class with the likes of guard Willie Colon (Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets) and wide receiver Marques Colston (New Orleans Saints) who each had ten-year NFL careers as well. “We always pushed each other,” Bowen said. “We never left school. We always stayed in the winter; we stayed in the summer and took a class so we could workout before training camp. We always put that extra work in.”
Unlike his other two teammates, in the 2006 NFL Draft Bowen would go unselected. He was signed as a free agent by the Cowboys and realized quickly that the speed of the game was on another level. On the field and the in the classroom, he would be required to pick up things quickly.
Understanding it was his pass-rushing ability that had gotten the defensive lineman to that point, Bowen used every opportunity he had to showcase it and gain recognition among players and staff. The skills combined with a passion for the game earned him his chance to beat the odds. He went on to play five productive seasons with the Cowboys.
However, as a free agent in 2011, Bowen dealt with some of the most trying times in his life. Football was a staple for him, but that was put on hold by the NFL lockout that summer. The delay of the lockout allowed him to spend more time with his wife Tiffany during her pregnancy, but there would be complications with that as well.
Tiffany was just twenty-four-weeks pregnant with twin boys Stephen III and Skyler when she delivered. At about one-and-a-half pounds each, they entered the world in a fight for their lives. Sadly, due to complications Skyler would pass away ten days later.
The loss put everything into perspective for Bowen. At that point in his life football was everything—nothing came before it. “This is a game that has really provided for me, but it was just a game,” he said about his realization. “Nothing is bigger than family.”
The loss gave him a new brand of inspiration. He worked with a singular focus for his son that was no longer here, and for his son that was struggling to survive. Stephen III is now five years old, in kindergarten, healthy and doing well.
Weeks later, the NFL’s extended lockout was lifted, players were able to return to the workplace, and free agents like Bowen were able to make a decision on their new location. With the nudging of Washington head coach Mike Shanahan, Stephen made the decision to bring his family back to the East Coast and sign with the club.
“It was the best decision for my family going forward,” Bowen said of his four-year tenure in Washington. With the encouragement of his wife, he also went back to school and completed his Masters of Business at George Washington University while playing for the team in 2013. “It caused me to open my mind and see things in a different way,” he said. “Football isn’t going to last forever and I needed to make the next game plan.”
Brandishing a graduate degree, Bowen reached out to Redskins director of player development Malcolm Blacken about taking a trip to the NFL’s headquarters that year. Blacken immediately connected him with executive vice president of NFL Operations, Troy Vincent, ultimately kindling a lasting relationship that later led Bowen to his post-football career.
After a single season with the Jets, Bowen retired as a Redskin this past April. Looking back on his decade-long career, he said there are too many highlights to name just one. “I made some lifetime friends playing in this league and I am truly blessed to have played at the highest level.”
Capitalizing on his resources and his love for impacting the game, retirement was not something that thrust Bowen into limbo. Instead, it is something that he had been preparing for for years. He is now deeply entrenched in the NFL in a different capacity working for Vincent in the NFL’s compliance division—a role that he has had since June.
In his transition, he admitted that he did not know what to expect, but had great forms of leadership to lean on.
Vincent is someone that has been a constant source of support, answers and advice for the newcomer. Bowen touts him as a man of character that everyone rallies behind in football operations. “[Vincent] approaches it almost like a coach. [He] knows how to motivate his team.”
Bowen is now focused learning the ins and outs of the business and striving each day to earn all that he has been afforded. In learning those details of his role, one of the things Bowen admitted is that a player’s vision may be skewed as to what the overall goals are in issuing fines for unsafe play.
At times there is disconnect between the corporate side of the NFL and the players, but all of the moving parts must work as a cohesive unit to create the product that millions of fans tune into worldwide.
“There’s a misconception that [the NFL] is out to get [the players] but that is not the case at all,” Bowen said. “In the last couple of years, fines are down across the NFL, something that elates the league office and should be noted among players. “It is showing that guys are actually cleaning up the way that they are playing, they are playing safer.”
Staying true to his passion for football and its players, in October, Bowen will speak at Malverne High School in New York. His goal is to offer the children a level of guidance that they have not been given before.
“I am looking forward to it. I love talking to the youth,” he said. “I keep it real with them—It won’t be a cotton candy talk.”
Bowen hopes to relay the message that if you really want to make it in life, you have to put in the work. “There’s no shortcuts to this thing,” he said. “There’re thousands of talented kids across the U.S. [You] have to present the total package.”
Leaving the game of football as a player, is offering new perspectives for the former player. His life has led him through lessons proving that a lasting impact can be made as long as dedication is applied. “Everyone has to realize what their strengths are, what they are really good at,” he said. “For me, I love football and I wanted to do something where I was still part of the game. Working at the NFL, I know that I will always have a lasting effect on the way our game is played.”