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Archive for Thursday, October 19, 2000

Grove City fullback nears rushing record

October 19, 2000

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— He's a football player who once preferred baseball, a fullback with a tailback's mentality, a big man running up big yardage against small schools.

R.J. Bowers, who needs 149 yards Saturday against Westminster to become the all-time leading rusher in college football, seems to be as much a contradiction as he is a cause for celebration at tiny Grove City College.

He's a player with Division I-A talent hidden among the non-scholarship performers of Division III, a potential pro who has built his reputation and resume against those who don't get a dime of financial aid to play.

Coincidentally, he is one of the rare Division III players who has a Division I-like scholarship. When the Houston Astros drafted him in the 11th round in 1992 they agreed to pay his college expenses.

Bowers signed and spent five years in their farm system as an outfielder with potential, but not enough pop in his bat.

"I'm not a normal college student. I don't really have a college social life," Bowers said. "I grew up when I was with the Astros and I don't really mingle with the college crowd."

Or, it would seem, with tacklers. In 1998, he led the nation with 2,283 yards rushing and 34 rushing touchdowns despite fracturing an ankle in his final game. Now, he owns NCAA all-division records with 32 consecutive 100-yard games, 84 rushing touchdowns and is tied with 15 200-yard games.

He is coming off a 266-yard game in a four-overtime, 32-28 victory over Waynesburg. He needs slightly more than half that Saturday to break Brian Shay's record of 6,958 career rushing yards at Division II Emporia State from 1995-98.

Getting those 149 yards won't be easy for Bowers and Grove City (3-3) against rival Westminster (5-1), a former NAIA power that made an unsuccessful transition to NCAA Division II and now is moving into Division III. Westminster has one of the nation's best defenses, allowing only 47 yards rushing and 154 total yards.

"I know they're going to be tough. But I've seen just about every front there is possible," said Bowers, who leads Division III with 1,190 yards in six games this season. "Every team we play has eight or nine men within 2-3 yards of the line of scrimmage. We have our share of 1- and 2-yard plays, but then we break off a big one."

Whenever he does, his mother, Debbie, cooks up a big pot of chili for his linemen.

Even if Bowers doesn't get the record Saturday, he has games remaining against Bethany, W.Va.; Carnegie Mellon and Alfred to break it and add to it. Once the record falls, he will need an additional 41 yards to become the first college rusher to gain 7,000 yards.

It is Bowers' ability to sidestep tacklers and his acceleration he's been timed at 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash that sets him apart from other small-college running backs.

"We've heard all the talk, that he's a big kid beating up little kids," Grove City coach Chris Smith said. "But he doesn't run over people as much as he makes them miss. He can go for a touchdown every time he touches the ball."

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