Tom Archdeacon: Hands down, Sidney’s Isaiah Bowser is something special

His hands now draw attention for the right reason.

They’re still connected to pain, but it’s for the punishing way he imposes it on opposing teams, not the cruel way it once was inflicted on him.

Isaiah Bowser is the most celebrated high school running back in the Miami Valley this season and a frontrunner for the Ohio Mr. Football award that goes to the state’s top prep player each year.

The Sidney High School senior — who also happens to be an honors student with a 4.2 grade-point average — has rushed for 2,389 yards and 25 touchdowns. He averages eight yards per carry and 239 yards per game. He rushed for 176 yards and a TD in Friday’s 40-8 win over Greenville.

Twice he’s had games where he’s also topped 100 yards as a receiver and caught TD passes. Against Xenia he ran for 413 yards on 41 carries and scored six touchdowns. He threw a TD pass that game, too.

It seems as if almost every time he touches the ball something special happens for the Yellow Jackets.

As he sat in the deserted team meeting room late one recent afternoon following practice, he looked down at his scarred hands after the subject had been broached and finally, after a moment’s reflection, managed a bit of a laugh:

“Yeah, now these hands are carrying me to Northwestern.”

But 16 years ago they got him carried into the hospital emergency room after a terrible incident.

Worst day of his life

“So what story did he tell you?” Sidney coach Adam Doenges asked quietly after Bowser had left the team’s quarters.

When he heard what his running back had said, Doenges nodded: “He opened up on that. That’s good. He doesn’t share that very often.”

Then again, why would he?

It was the worst day of his life.

It was Father’s Day in 2001 and he was 23 months old. The man watching over him and his 5-year-old sister, Mariah, was the boyfriend of his mom, Melissa Bowser.

“I had left to go to the store and I was gone literally 15 minutes,” Melissa explained. “When I got back Isaiah was in the middle of the room (screaming). I was like, ‘What is going on? What happened here?’ ”

Isaiah said he was so small that he doesn’t remember much of what happened: “I think he (the boyfriend) was upset with me because I was crying and he put my hands in (boiling) hot water.”

Melissa said she just remembers scooping up her son, “popping him in the car and rushing straight to the emergency room. He had second- and third-degree burns. It was very sad.”

As Isaiah remembers it: “I know I was in the hospital for a week or so and my hands were all wrapped up. It was bad.”

As for the offending ex-boyfriend, Melissa said: “The guy was bad news. I just hadn’t known it at the time. He ended up doing seven years in prison for that.”

Isaiah’s sentence lasted longer.

“At first he wouldn’t eat after that happened because he couldn’t use his hands,” Melissa said quietly.

A few years later when he went to school, Isaiah struggled with his scarred hands again.

“When he was younger, if he was around other children, he’d sit on his hands,” Melissa said. “He started wrestling when he was in kindergarten and he was really good. He was undefeated for years. But at meets I can remember people saying., ‘Oh yeah, Bowser. That’s the kid with the burnt hands.’ I would always think. ‘Why do you refer to my son like that?’ ”

Isaiah heard the comments, too:

“Growing up it was a little hard at first. Everybody would ask about my hands. Some of them would joke about it. It embarrassed me.”

Often he made up stories — like he’d been playing with kids and fell through a glass door — to explain what had happened.

“I didn’t want to tell anyone,” he said. “No other little kid had burned hands. I stood out for the wrong reason.”

Isaiah Bowser, game by game

St. Marys MemorialW, 39-32232052
BellefontaineW, 42-33453213
CarrollW, 35-7263043
XeniaW, 55-48414136
West CarrolltonW, 42-0192052
PiquaW, 34-33381863
TippecanoeW, 49-42312662
TroyL, 48-2124680
ButlerW, 55-34292453
GreenvilleW, 40-8191761

Beating the odds

The guy who hurt him wasn’t the first male figure in his life who’d let him down.

His own father has never been a part of his life.

“I don’t really talk to my dad,” Isaiah said in a voice that became flat and barely a whisper. “He hasn’t been around since I was little.”

And that’s what makes Isaiah’s academic and athletic magnificence all the more wondrous, said Doenges:

“If you look at what the statistics all say — if you look at all the things that have happened in his life — he shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be in this position. Why would a kid like that be so driven? Why would he continue to get such good grades? Why would he be such a role model for the kids in the community? It’s pretty remarkable.”

Sidney athletics director Mitch Hoying agreed:

“You could spend a lifetime in education and you’d be lucky to get one or two Isaiahs in all those years. He’s an incredibly good kid. He’s the best combination of athletic accomplishment, mental and physical maturity and academic prowess. I don’t care where you’d go, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better.”

So how did Isaiah Bowser beat the odds?

Those who best know the situation say look no further than his mom and his maternal grandparents, especially his grandfather, Guy Bowser, once a prep standout himself in Illinois, then a Marine, now a shift leader at a local factory and always a male role model in his grandson’s life.

Melissa has raised her three kids — along with Mariah and Isaiah, there’s 8-year-old Jasiah — as a single parent. For a decade she worked in a local factory and then, at 30, decided to go to nursing school. Today, she’s a nurse at Crossroads Rehabilitation and Nursing in Vandalia.

“I can’t give my mom enough credit,” Isaiah said. “I admire her work ethic. She kept a roof over our heads, fed us, clothed us. She got me to practice every day growing up and has always come to all my games. She made it so I didn’t really have to struggle in life.”

His grandparents assisted in that and for a while Isaiah even lived with them.

“His grandfather is what I call a man’s man,” said Doenges, who even had Guy Bowser speak to the team before a recent game. “He’s tough and hard-nosed and won’t coddle you, but he’ll always help you. He’s what you’d want your father to be.

“He and Isaiah run a lawn-mowing business on the side. They split it 50-50 down the middle, but Grandpa pays for the gas so it’s a pretty good deal for Isaiah.”

Doenges said it wasn’t long after he’d taken over the football program seven seasons ago that he learned of Isaiah: “He was in sixth grade. I first watched him play basketball and I said, ‘Who the heck is this?’

“He was unbelievably athletic and really driven and I remember thinking. ‘That kid has SOMETHING to him!’ ”

Just as good in football, Isaiah attended summer camps at Ashland University and Ohio Dominican before his freshman year and said while coaches there “liked my athletics, there wasn’t any real interest.”

Freshman year he tore his ACL before the season and didn’t play. By his sophomore year, he had recovered and, averaging 5.9 yards per carry, he ran for 910 yards and 11 touchdowns that season.

That summer the University of Cincinnati offered him a scholarship.

Last year Sidney had an extremely young team that lost its two top quarterbacks to injury and finished 4-6, its 11th non-winning season in the past 12 years.

Because of the Yellow Jackets’ cobbled-together lineup, opposing defenses were able to stack the line of scrimmage hoping to thwart Isaiah’s running. But he responded with a Greater Western Ohio Conference-leading 1,877 yards and 24 touchdowns in 10 games.

Off the field he pushed himself as well, taking college prep classes and becoming a leader in the school.

“He just does some things at the next level,” Hoying said. “After games everybody wants to interview him and nine times out of 10 he’ll grab a teammate — not always the best player — to do the interview with him. He wants that kid to get recognition, too.

“And too often today kids get chided for having poor social media habits. But with him he always talks about the positive. Our girls soccer team just lost a tough one in the district finals and within 10 minutes he posted a comment saying, ‘Great season girls!’

“You can count on him doing the right thing every single time out.”

Those qualities impressed Northwestern and more than a dozen other schools who made scholarship offers.

“It’s funny to say, but his backup schools were Harvard and Yale,” Doenges said. “Not many people can say those two were their safety schools.”

Isaiah Bowser, career

SeasonRushes Yards YPGTDsRec.YardsTDs
Sophomore155 910 9111112201
Junior299 1,877 187.72881552
Senior295 2,389 238.925173003

Ghosts of the past

The most glorious days of Sidney High football were nearly 50 years ago.

From 1968 through 1970 the Yellow Jackets went 30-0. But since then they’ve had 13 winning seasons and in 2010 and 2011 the program bottomed out at 0-20.

The Yellow Jackets did go 6-4 in 2015, but when they slipped back below .500 last season, Doenges gathered the players for a May meeting and said he posed the question:

“How do you think people perceive our community?”

He said the players fired off a series of negative stereotypes, all of which he said he and the other coaches were trying to write on a board:

“There were so many we couldn’t keep up. Finally, I asked, ‘Why do you think people think that?’ Well it got real quiet and then our quarterback, Andre Gordon said: ‘The past.’

“It wasn’t the answer I expected and it was kind of striking.”

The players were forever being measured against a 30-0 past that was long gone.

“They made a decision to change things and show people we can overcome adversity and play tough,” Doenges said. “We wanted to show that as a football program, but also for our community. That we’re not someone who’s just going to fold over.

“And Isaiah has done a lot to make that happen this year. He was one of the guys who had heard, ‘You can’t get a Division I scholarship out of Sidney.’ He was going to prove them wrong.”

Isaiah said before every game his grandfather tells him, ‘Keep that chip on your shoulder tonight.’ ”

And he admitted: “I do have a chip. Here at Sidney we don’t get the same recognition as the Dayton guys. They think we’re not as good or we’re soft.

“All that has done is make me work harder in the off-season and play harder this year. I’m trying to prove to people that I’m actually pretty good.”

Isaiah ended the regular season as the second leading rusher in Ohio behind Daniel Bangura of Division VII Harvest Prep who has 3,192 yards.

Besides the pinball numbers he racked up in the Xenia game, Isaiah’s had nights like the one against Bellefontaine, when he ran for 321 yards and three touchdowns and caught a TD pass, too. And there was the 304 rushing yards and three TDs against Carroll and a pair of three-score, 300-plus rushing and receiving yards games against both St. Mary’s and West Carrollton.

With a lone loss to Troy, the Yellow Jackets are 9-1 and headed for their first playoff berth in 28 years.

In the process the team has become the toast of the town.

“You can definitely tell the whole city is behind us,” Isaiah said. “It’s a good time and everybody is happy. We even have tailgating now! I’ve never seen that in Sidney. And everybody travels to our away games. A lot of times we have more people in the stands than the home team. You go in the stores, the school, and everybody is congratulating us.”

After the games Isaiah is like the Pied Piper.

“All the little boys want to take pictures with him,” Melissa laughed. “And Isaiah’s younger brother is right there with them. He loves his big brother. All the kids do.”

Because Isaiah holds such sway, Doenges said they regularly “pump him into the elementary school to talk the kids about the importance of good grades.

“Whether he’s walking into a classroom, the weight room or a restaurant in town, people gravitate to him.”

That even happens with opposing teams on the football field.

“Yeah during games, especially early on, they’ll talk stuff to me like, ‘Not today, Bowser! Not today!’ ” he grinned. “By the end of the game though, they’re not saying much. But afterward they come up to me and they all wish me luck in college.”

And he’s headed to Northwestern already in January. He’ll graduate early from Sidney so he can get acclimated to college life and take part in spring football.

“I’m sad he’s going to be leaving me, but I know he has so much more to accomplish in life,” Melissa said. “I’ve always told him,‘Reach for the stars, baby. It’s all there for you. Just keep reaching for the stars.”

He will.

The days of sitting on his hands are long past for Isaiah Bowser.

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