Da'Quan Bowers has been the most talented player on the football field for most of his career. Bowers was the top-rated recruit by ESPN coming out of Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School in South Carolina. However, it took the loss of a close friend for Bowers to translate that talent into production.
For Bowers, the decision to get into football was a family matter. He picked up the sport at age 6, and became more passionate about the game as he matured.
"I had a cousin play college football at Clemson in the early 1990s and he dropped out," Bowers said. "My father told me to never be like him. If you are going to start something, make sure you finish it."
Bowers was a star as soon as he stepped on the field as an eighth-grader. Because of a quirk in the rules, there was no middle school football during Bowers' eighth-grade year, so he played on the junior varsity squad. At this point, Bowers was already 6-foot-2 and weighed nearly 270 pounds, according to Ron Duncan, his head coach at Bamberg-Ehrhardt.
The next year, Bowers immediately made his presence felt on the varsity level as a freshman.
"We were scrimmaging and we had another kid named Ricky Sapp, who was a really good player," Duncan said. "We were trying to make a receiver out of Ricky, and we ran a tunnel screen to Ricky and Da'Quan read it and just laid him out — it was a gigantic collision."
Sapp also turned out to be a pretty good player, earning a scholarship from Clemson, where he was a three-year starter at defensive end before being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL draft.
Bowers started from Day One at Bamberg, and after a star-studded prep career, expectations were high for him at Clemson.
"I was fortunate to coach in the Under Armour game with him when Da'Quan was a senior," Duncan said. "The NFL guys there raved about his ability. (They said) if they could pick two or three guys that were NFL-ready, he was one of them."
Starting as a true freshman, Bowers recorded 47 tackles and led the team with 15 QB hurries in 2008. He had another solid, but unspectacular season in '09, tallying 58 tackles and three sacks despite missing two-plus games with a knee injury.
However, Bowers was not the game changer that many had expected. Part of this was because of the out-of-this-universe expectations that had been heaped upon him upon his arrival at Clemson.
"I don't know how you can live up to the expectations of what they thought he was going to do," Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. "It's almost like they thought he was going to make 25 sacks in a season and every other tackle."
Bowers' weight had ballooned up to 293 pounds following the knee injury. He was forced to confront the fact that he was being labeled as an underachiever at that point in his career.
"Everything had come easy for Da'Quan," Duncan said. "He was a lot like any kid that had grown up, he didn't have a care in the world."
Searching for a solution, Bowers called former Clemson teammate Gaines Adams, then of the Chicago Bears and a former first-round draft pick (fourth overall in 2007) of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"When I came in for offseason conditioning, that's when I had the talk with Gaines," Bowers said. "He told me I was too big to play end, that I needed to drop some weight."
Just three weeks after that conversation, Adams died suddenly of a heart attack.
"That's when I decided to turn my whole career around and try to make the best of it," Bowers said. "Gaines was a very close friend of mine, and he basically taught me everything I know today. I talked to him prior to his death, and he was telling me what I need to do and what I need to improve to be a great player."
Duncan noticed a change in his former star player.
"I just think he realized how precious life is," Duncan said. "I think he knew he had to turn it on, that God had given him a lot of potential and it was time for him to show it."
Bowers committed himself to changing his diet, working harder in the weight room and becoming a student of the game.
"I didn't have that mentor that I could just call when I started getting down on my situation, so I just had to grow up and take what he told me and strive to be the best," Bowers said.
Bowers even ran sprints with defensive backs over the summer, in order to get in peak physical shape.
"I ran sprints with DBs, did hip work with DBs, one-on-ones with DBs, everything that could enhance my game I did with those guys because I knew that their tempo is a lot faster than the D-line's," Bowers said.
Bowers showed up for fall camp at 270 pounds, nearly 25 pounds less than his weight at the 2009 Music City Bowl seven months earlier. However, the junior defensive end had not seen the last of tragedy in his life. Bowers' father died suddenly as Bowers was going through fall camp.
"His father, Dennis, was an outstanding man," Duncan said. "The times I was around him he was always 100 percent positive and very supportive. You could tell Da'Quan idolized his father."
Bowers had more than your ordinary father-son connection, as the two of them traveled around the country and performed in a gospel group when Bowers was younger.
"Da'Quan grew up watching his father perform with them and he got where he was part of the band as well," Duncan said. "They grew and bonded over that. It was a very special thing for them."
"(His father) supported Da'Quan, so much so that it was a two- to three-hour drive from home and he didn't miss scrimmages at Clemson," Steele said. "He just loved to watch his son play and to be around Da'Quan. They were very, very close."
For Bowers, his father's death was another step in his maturation process.
"Off the field it made me grow up and be a man much quicker than I wanted to be," Bowers said. "I had to grow up and take care of things off the field that he would normally take care of."
Steele believes Bowers had proved he was ready to handle the additional adversity.
"He's such a mature young man that really you didn't have to give him advice, he handled it very well," Steele said.
Bowers played like a man possessed in '10. He led the nation in sacks with 15½, and led Clemson in tackles for loss with 25. He also had 19 QB hurries and 67 tackles. He was the recipient of the Ted Hendricks Award, given to the best defensive end in the country, as well as the Nagurski Award, given to the nation's top defensive player.
"I wasn't getting as winded as I was," Bowers said. "Everything about my game changed. I was a step faster getting to the quarterback. (I was) very explosive out of my hips, I wasn't getting as tired as fast, and it helped me in the long run."
Bowers, who turns 21 on Feb. 23, leaves Clemson with numerous records, including the single-season sack record, a record that, until his breakout junior campaign, was held by Adams. Now Bowers is making the jump to the NFL, where he is likely to be an early pick in the draft, just like Adams. Steele believes whichever NFL team selects Bowers will be delighted.
"They're going to get what they're looking for," Steele said. "Based on what he has shown to this point and the kind of person he is, he's what you want to coach."