Defensive lineman Keith Bowers has become an indispensable source of energy for the Maryland football team, a chatty bull-rusher who can run sideline to sideline. Off the field, he has become an inspirational figure for the Terrapins, an aspiring motivational speaker who grew up around a homeless shelter his parents ran just outside West Palm Beach, Fla., called Operation Hope. Both of his parents — and 38 other family members and friends — will be in attendance Saturday when Maryland meets South Florida in Tampa.
Bowers returns to Florida this weekend not to prove to the state’s college football powerhouses they should have recruited him but rather to play in front of a family that taught him to be thankful for what he had. Growing up, that was Operation Hope.
“He would just bring all of his neighborhood friends” to the shelter, René Bowers said. “He wasn’t ashamed that we worked with homeless people or anything like that. He’s always had a big heart for people.”
Bowers never received scholarship offers from Florida, Florida State or Miami, something that “didn’t sit well with me,” he said, coming out of Dwyer High School. He arrived in College Park as a raw defensive lineman who was good enough to play right away in 2011 — and he was an honorable mention freshman all-American. But Bowers took a reserve role as a sophomore after missing the first three games with a torn knee ligament — then missed the entire spring after suffering from heart palpitations.
“It’s been an uphill battle. . . . It’s definitely been a journey,” Bowers said. “That was one of the things that helped me and got me to where I’m at now because I understood that it’s not promised. Nothing is promised.”
Bowers worked his way back into the starting lineup as a junior, when he proved durable by playing in all 13 games and notching 32 tackles. He enters his senior season carved at 285 pounds and starting alongside classmate Darius Kilgo.
“Keith is a very happy-go-lucky guy. He always has energy. He always likes to joke around. He always has a good personality,” Kilgo said.
The indefatigable nature of Bowers can be traced to his parents, who have become philanthropic fixtures in the West Palm Beach area.
Ken Bowers left his job as a probation officer in 1989 after he saw a man eating from a garbage can by a Dunkin’ Donuts, he said. It took him about a month to establish the homeless facility in Lake Park — a two-building structure that served hundreds in the area for about two decades.
“I’m always helping people,” Ken Bowers said. “That’s always been my strategy.”
René Bowers was a reporter with the Palm Beach Post when she was assigned to write a story on the new homeless shelter. Eventually the two married and worked together to grow the shelter.
Keith Bowers would often eat dinners at the shelter with the homeless. He took pride in helping out with summer camps and toy drives, his parents never shielding him from the realities of their work.
“They weren’t treated any differently than anybody else in the shelter. They played with the kids in the shelter, ate with the kids in the shelter,” René Bowers said.
The Bowers no longer operate the shelter, which closed about four years ago because of financial strain, Ken Bowers said. But Operation Hope continues to work in conjunction with another West Palm Beach area nonprofit, providing after-school tutoring and summer camps for the homeless. Ken Bowers continues to run Operation Hope despite suffering from kidney failure after having diabetes diagnosed last year.
“He’s always been in good spirits,” Keith Bowers said of his father. “He never played the victim role even though you know he’s sick and he’s in pain.”
Bowers has plenty of football left — he’s likely to have significant role against South Florida’s run-heavy attack — but he has thought more about the future recently. He is on schedule to graduate with a degree in communications this fall, and he has talked to his mother about running his own nonprofit after college. He hasn’t ruled out joining forces with his parents, either.
“When I look at those two people that have worked so hard in their lifetime,” Bowers said, “I think it’s just rubbed off on me.”