That was true last week, last month, even before he signed a free agent contract in July to move from the Dallas Cowboys to the Washington Redskins. It was true before the last five days of his life, which have gone like this: Go to bed at the team hotel prior to Sunday’s game against the New York Jets. Awaken sometime after 4:30 a.m. to a message from security: Call home. Your mother-in-law has died.
“Any time you deal with death, you just don’t know,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “It’s a question you can’t even ask. You just got to let somebody do what he needs to do.”
What Bowen decided he needed to do Sunday — after the Redskins provided him a ride home, after he spoke with his wife Tiffany, after he considered his options — was play football. The record shows he did that, getting in on a tackle and hitting the quarterback once in a loss to the Jets. How?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Bowen said. “I really don’t know. I mean, it was a hard decision.”
Thursday, the Redskins announced that Bowen would receive their Ed Block Courage Award, an honor given annually to a player from each NFL franchise who “displays extraordinary courage in the face of adversity.” The vote was taken by Bowen’s teammates.
“It means a lot,” the defensive end said Thursday, even though he very much would have preferred not to be standing in front of a microphone discussing the tragedies that have befallen him.
“It’s unbelievable to see how he’s handled everything as a person,” Shanahan said. “I mean, the guy is an excellent football player. He’s a quality guy. But for him to go through the situation that he went through with his son, to have that happen to him and his family this weekend . . . ”
It’s too much for one person. There is solace, though. Stephen III’s condition has improved drastically since his father first signed with the Redskins. In late July, Stephen III — who weighed one pound, six ounces at birth — was still in a hospital in Dallas. In September, he had grown enough to be transferred to a neonatal intensive care unit in northern Virginia. In October, he went home for the first time. Now, Stephen Bowen figures his son weighs 13 pounds. He is healthy.
“He’s just growing and being a regular baby,” Bowen said.
Still, it would seem natural for the weight of such a situation to trickle into Bowen’s professional life. Players and coaches are emphatic that it hasn’t.
“I’ll ask him every so often, ‘How’s your wife doing? How are you doing?’” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. “And he’s kind of short with it. He doesn’t let his business get out.”
Shanahan said: “It’s unbelievable that he has dealt with the situations that he’s dealt with and really hasn’t said anything to me. I’ve said a few things to him. But he just goes about his business.”
Sunday morning, Bowen had no choice but to talk about his personal business with his professional partners. Muriel Johnson, his mother-in-law, was 59 and had been battling muscular dystrophy.
“I’ve seen it deteriorate over the years,” Bowen said. “We didn’t think that she was going to go now.”
He spoke with Shanahan and Haslett in the early morning hours, then kept in touch as he spent time with his wife. Kickoff at FedEx Field was 1 p.m. He decided to play.
“Your faith and family come first, and then football’s after that,” Haslett said. “He’s a tough-minded guy, and he’s one of those guys that he’s not going to let his other family down, which is the football part of it.”
He came to the locker room and quietly shared his distressing news with a few teammates. Had he not done that, no one would have known.
“He doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve, so to speak,” defensive captain London Fletcher said, “so you’re not looking at him and saying, ‘He’s going through something.’”
Friday, Bowen will travel to New York for his mother-in-law’s wake. Saturday, he will attend the funeral. Sunday, he will play against the New England Patriots, his 13th start in 13 games this season. And again, people will ask: How?
“Just try to separate the two,” Bowen said. “Just try to clear my mind. When I’m on the field, it’s just all about football. Last game was really hard. I was losing focus a lot. But I just tried to do the best I could.”