In his first season with the Redskins, Stephen Bowen (72) posted career highs in tackles and sacks. Photograph by Flickr user Homer McFanboy.
Trying to pick an MVP for this just-concluded Redskins season is like trying to pick the smart one from the cast of Jersey Shore. If you go by the Pro Bowl balloting, the winner is: none of the above. The Skins are one of just five teams in the league that will be sending no one to Honolulu. Many have argued for London Fletcher, the 36-year-old linebacker who led the league in tackles. Others have made the case for rookie Ryan Kerrigan and even punter Sav Rocca. (How pathetic was your season when the punter is a viable team MVP candidate?)
My vote goes to Stephen Bowen. He’s a guy whose name was almost never spoken during Redskins telecasts this season, and if you’re merely a casual football fan, it’s quite possible you’ve never even heard of the 27-year-old defensive lineman—but he is a man who has redefined what it means to play through pain.
Stephen joined the Redskins this year after spending his first five NFL seasons with the Cowboys. Redskin fans were uneasy about accepting a former villain into their Legion of Justice, but when it became apparent what he could do, all apprehensions were swept aside. The defensive end was a perfect fit for Jim Haslett’s 3–4 defensive—and it showed. Stephen started 16 games for the first time in his six NFL seasons and posted career highs in tackles (41) and sacks (6). Both of those figures were team highs among defensive linemen.
Now consider the circumstances under which he amassed those numbers.
Late last June, Stephen’s wife, Tiffany, delivered twin boys, Skyler and Stephen III. They were not intended to arrive until October. Babies born four months prematurely are considered in the medical community to be on the outer limits of what is survivable. Skyler died one week after his birth. His twin brother remained in neonatal intensive care at a Dallas hospital as his fight continued.
On July 30, less than a month after losing his first son and in the midst of the uncertainty regarding the future of his second one, Stephen signed with the Redskins. Logistically the move was far from ideal, but from a football standpoint, it had to happen. The Cowboys were not willing to pay a competitive wage to keep Stephen, while the Redskins were paying handsomely (as they so often do) and offered the strong possibility of his being a starter—something Stephen had never been on a full-time basis in his career.
Stephen moved to Washington to join the Redskins at training camp, and his family remained in Dallas. “It was rough,” he says. “I didn’t really have a support system. I’d just talk to my wife to see how my son was doing. That’s all I could rely on, and as long as he was doing good, I was doing good.”
Stephen immersed himself in his new team and his new responsibilities. The young lineman compartmentalized the abject pain and anguish that could have easily consumed him, and in so doing found pockets of clarity that allowed him to play football. Really good football.
Still, thoughts of his family were never far from his consciousness, particularly before each game. “I have a picture on my phone of my son from right before he passed away,” Stephen explains. “I look at it every game and it keeps everything in perspective, just knowing that he’s watching over me and his brother, mom, and sister. I just tell him I’m going to work hard. I’m working hard for him and the family. I know you’re going to watch down below on us.”
In September, Stephen III was stable enough to move to a hospital in Northern Virginia, and the following month he was healthy enough to go home. The Bowens were reunited and were in the process of making their new home in greater Washington. Then tragedy struck again.
Stephen recalls the time being around 4 AM on Sunday, December 4—the day the Redskins would host the Jets at FedEx Field. Stephen and his teammates were asleep in the team hotel. The Redskins have made it a custom before home games to have the team spend the night at a location close to the stadium, to promote team unity and to avoid game-day traffic. Stephen was awoken by team security pounding at his hotel room door. “They had a note that said, ‘Your wife has been trying to reach you. Your mother-in-law just passed away,’” Stephen says.
Team security drove him to the northern Virginia hospital where he and his wife found themselves in an all-too-familiar position—grieving again. They cried together. And then the Bowens decided together that Stephen needed to leave. The sun had risen, and the Redskins’ game against the Jets would begin in just a few hours. Stephen would play.
“It was real hard to focus that whole game. My mind was just scrambling,” Stephen recalls. “I was just trying to take it a play at a time, and people were telling me I played good, but I just—everything was a blur out there.”
When asked what he remembers of that game now, Bowen shakes his head from side-to-side and replies, “I don’t really remember anything about it.” (That includes his sack of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.)
In the Redskins’ week-12 game against the Seahawks, Bowen suffered a tear of the posterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee. The 306-pound player says the pain was excruciating. Still, he never missed a game and rarely took off a play for the remainder of the season. “It’s just how you deal with the pain,” he explains, seemingly unaware of how broadly applicable the metaphor is to the experiences he’s endured.
It is more than one human being should have to endure. We civilians have a hard time empathizing with pro athletes because their lives are so different from ours. Their financial resources and privileged existence make them abstract figures to us. There is nothing abstract about what Stephen Bowen has lived through over the past six months. The pain and the grief were all too real. There was little to admire about his team this season, but the men who compose the team are a different story. In Stephen’s case, he deserves not only our admiration, but our compassion, our empathy, and even our gratitude.