Gotta have faith: Cal football quarterback Ross Bowers’ journey rooted in belief

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Habakkuk 1:5. Look at the nations and watch and be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.

Religion in secular America is most frequently regarded as a private issue, but despite this, many people ─ and especially athletes ─ are open about giving credit to their respective religious figures for the highs and lows in their own lives. For Cal starting quarterback Ross Bowers, faith guides him through his everyday life. The aforementioned Bible verse once offered more than guidance ─ on Dec. 6, 2014 in the Washington Division 4A State Championship, it defined him.

At the end of the third quarter, with his Bothell High School leading Chiawana High School 17-7, Bowers read his options as his team faced 3rd down and goal from the five-yard line. With all three of his reads covered, he took off running to his left.

“As soon as I started running, everything turned into slow motion, and as soon as I saw how short the guy was I knew I was going to jump over him,” Bowers says.

He then executed an impressive feat ─ and the No. 3 top play of the year by MaxPreps ─ as he jumped from two yards out of the endzone and front-flipped over two defenders into the endzone. Doing so put his team up by three scores heading into the fourth quarter of their eventual victory. It would have been one thing to predict beforehand that Bothell would win its first state title, but believing Bowers’ front-flip before it happened would have been ludicrous.

A number of things were particularly remarkable about that play. First, it was a designed pass, and the scramble was an improvisation on his part. Secondly, he had only intended to jump over the first defender, but it was the second defender who came into the play ─ whom Bowers didn’t expect ─ who actually caused Bowers to flip and land on his feet. Finally, the entire thing couldn’t have happened had one linebacker, Chiawana’s number three, maintained his speed and been able to tackle Bowers before he could attempt his jump into the endzone.

But beyond the external circumstances that allowed that play to unfold, what sets Bowers apart from many others is the way in which he responded to, and subsequently described, his rather miraculous stunt..

“I was just happier we scored. I could care less how it looked,” Bowers says. “That was a huge moment in the state title for us because it helped us keep pushing our lead.”

Ross credited his mother Joanne, a longtime NCAA gymnastics coach, for training him on trampolines as a kid. He also thanked God for providing him with both the opportunity and ability to play football, with good health and with the opportunity to show off his mother’s teachings. This approach of family and faith has consistently helped him get to where he is now.

Bowers’ religion, like many other aspects of his life was something that ─ although introduced to him by his family ─ was fully realized on his own path through life. While faith may be the guiding light in Bowers’ life now, it wasn’t always that way. Understandably, it took him a while to figure out the place religion would occupy in his life, and how it meshed with football and other problems he faced through his youth.

Bowers and his older brother David were raised on college sports. Joanne coached at Illinois State, Kent State and Michigan before beginning a 10-year stint as the head gymnastics coach at the University of Washington, which ended just last year. Bowers’ father, John, is a longtime football coach who focused mostly on special teams, most recently for James Madison University, helping them to an FCS national championship in 2017. Naturally, it was unsurprising to find Bowers involved in sports early in his life, but even this was mostly his own decision.

He would follow his father to and from practices, and got involved with college football culture when John coached at Bowling Green in the early 2000s. Ross insists that his father didn’t pressure him into coming to football practice, but rather that the curious kid in him asked to hang out with his father at work. Ross remembers going to see the Falcons play on the road at Wisconsin and Ohio State, and how the atmospheres of those stadiums and crowds really stood out to him.

“I watched my dad coach in a lot of games that were really big time games,” Ross says. “And just being around those guys I was like, ‘Wow, I just feel like I want to be one of these guys one day,’ and that is something that really stuck with me all the way.”

So once Bowers got to the age for tackle football, he was immediately involved, and that was when his love for the game really manifested itself.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

“I’d never experienced anything like the adversity of football and really having to overcome not just your opponent but yourself,” Bowers says. “That’s something I really enjoy because I love that internal battle. That’s what separates the good from the great, like how can you really quiet your mind or overcome adversity.”

In his eighth-grade year, Bowers and his future high school teammates had what his mom calls, “a defining moment.” In Bowers’ second year playing as a quarterback, his little league team won the championship, and despite the rather meaningless implications of a victory in a local, recreational league, the hard work of a long season together and the sweet taste of victory clearly had a lasting impact.

Bowers and his teammates then agreed to all go to high school together and play so that they could have another chance at feeling the gratification they had felt that year.

But success didn’t come easily. In his freshman year, Bowers shared starts at quarterback and the team finished 6-4 overall. His sophomore year he was named the full-time starter, but the results remained roughly the same, with the team finishing 6-5, with a loss in the first round of the playoffs. During his junior year fortunes seemed to be looking up, as the team finished 9-3, but Bowers threw an overtime pick in the state quarterfinals which ended his team’s run that year.

For the first time, Bowers felt adversity that stretched far beyond the moment, beyond the football field, having let his team down and having to deal with it all offseason. And so he turned to his faith when he most needed it.

Bowers was raised Catholic by his mother, but had fallen out of favor with religion for a while in early high school. Only when some of his friends introduced him to The City Church in Kirkland, Washington, was his religious passion reinvigorated. The pastor Judah Smith, now world-renowned with nearly 400,000 followers on Twitter, provided a new outlook on Christianity for Bowers.

In addition to The City Church, two of Bowers’ mentors, John Pfeil, one of his football coaches, and John Messner, Bowers’ American politics teacher at Bothell High School, helped Bowers reconnect with his religion when he needed it most.

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

Ethan Epstein/Senior Staff

“My junior year was tough for me. It was the first time I’d really been tested in life, the first time adversity was thrown my way, and it was because of me,” Bowers says. “So having that faith, that everything’s going to be okay and that God’s on my side and he’s always going to love me, it just brought a calmness to me that I had never felt before.”

As Bowers was able to find himself that year, his faith and family led him to bigger and better things ─ among these, his recruitment to Cal.

Ironically, Bowers ─ despite being a finalist for the Elite 11 ─ was nowhere near the top of Cal’s list of quarterback targets when he was initially approached by former Cal assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Mark Tommerdahl in June 2014. Tommerdahl had been connected with John Bowers back when John coached at Bowling Green. John had been implementing a new punt formation, which Tommerdahl had wanted to learn when coaching at Alabama. Tommerdahl told Ross that he was fairly far down Cal’s list, and this honesty, interestingly enough, was one of the main reasons Cal gained Bowers’ respect and desire to attend.

“It just so happened that Ross had a great desire to go into the Pac-12 to play and Mark was at Cal,” John says. “They liked what they saw, he kept Ross very in the loop about what was going on during the recruiting.”

Eventually Bowers made his way up the Bears’ list, and was given an offer just before his senior year. One year and one state championship later, he was sitting on the Cal bench as a redshirt, learning from Jared Goff.

Cal had its best season since 2009 when Bowers redshirted and he was able to pick up a lot from Goff about how to handle being a college athlete and a quarterback at Cal. Expecting to get a chance to start the following year, however, Bowers was somewhat disappointed to learn of the arrival of graduate transfer Davis Webb from Texas Tech, who immediately assumed the starting role after Goff’s departure to the NFL.

“It hurt sitting those two years just because I knew what I could do or thought I knew what I could do to help the team,” Bowers says.

Instead of being discouraged by not being given the starting job immediately, Bowers used his backup role to learn as much as possible so that he would be prepared when his time came.

“It felt like I kind of hit the reset button, honestly. It felt like I was a freshman in high school again just in a different location with a whole new dynamic to life,” Bowers says. “They’re both two different people but they’re both really good quarterbacks so I got to watch them very closely to see how good of leaders they were and how they operated at practice and off the field.

Bowers’ urge to get on the field was especially prevalent during a string of four consecutive games last season, when the Bears lost each one by at least 14 points, with three of them by 21 or more. But Bowers stuck to his faith, believing that it was part of God’s plan for him to wait out another full season. He got his first glimmer of hope during the last game of last season, a dominant home win over UCLA, where he was inserted on the final drive and rushed for two yards, despite not attempting a pass.

The 2017 offseason came and, with Webb being drafted, the quarterback competition became one of the most heated at Cal in recent years, with Bowers competing with Chase Forrest, Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain. The competition went down to the last week for new head coach Justin Wilcox and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, who named Bowers the starter less than a week before the their first game at University of North Carolina.

His moment had arrived.

Two weeks into the season, it’s unclear whether the Bowers experiment is working. He had a solid performance against UNC, throwing for 363 yards and four touchdowns, but also suffering two interceptions. This was followed by a subpar showing against FCS team Weber State, passing for 200 yards and no touchdowns.

But what is clear is the type of leader that Bowers is and has shown himself to be. Having been around football for so long, a lot of the most elementary ideas, such as taking care of the football and ending each drive with a kick, are second nature to him. This experience allows him to focus on his teammates and relate to his offensive line, running backs and receiver core. In two games so far, his chemistry with wide receiver Vic Wharton has been indisputable.

And his upbringing continues to push his desire to hone his craft.

“I didn’t know if I was going to have the abilities that I was going to have that God has given me,” Bowers says. “I just feel very blessed that I’ve been able to make it to the level that I’m at now.”

“It’s something that I enjoy because it makes me do every single thing that I can. I want to be great. It’s in me and it’s fun for me to have an opportunity to attack it and not have anything in my way or have anything holding me back.”


Vikram Muller covers football. Contact him at [email protected].