BAMBERG, S.C. — While his father was gone driving trucks or performing with his professional gospel group, Da'Quan Bowers would pop in a VCR tape and watch his dad play guitar for the Legendary Singing Stars.
The 6-year-old then would shut the door to his room, pull out the acoustic guitar his parents bought him a year or two earlier, and teach himself the chords.
Then his father would come home and show him how it was done.
"He'd sit here and practice and practice and practice, then his dad would go in that room and say, 'You're not doing that right,'" said Linda Bowers, Dennis' wife of 31 years until his August death.
Football came easier - almost too easy. Bowers never had to work at it as much as he did the guitar.
While following his father into music halls across the Carolinas to play lead and rhythm guitar for the Singing Stars was a cool way to spend weekends, it wasn't going to make Bowers rich the way an NFL contract would.
So in an Augusta, Ga., hospital, hours before he died, Dennis Bowers reminded his son it was time to put more energy and passion into football.
"He just told him he wasn't aggressive enough," Linda Bowers recalled last week. "He told him he needed to be more aggressive. 'This is your breakout year, and that's what I want you to do.'"
That's what Bowers did.
The Clemson defensive end led the country with 15.5 sacks, and was the Tigers' leader with 25 tackles for loss - while playing with a torn meniscus that required arthroscopic knee surgery after the season.
Bowers received the Ted Hendricks Award as the country's best defensive end, and was in Charlotte in December to accept the Nagurski Award, given to the nation's top defensive player. He won the Nagurski over Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who - like Bowers - had a huge junior year after making few game-changing plays previously.
As the Panthers consider taking Bowers or Fairley, among others, with the No.1 pick in the April draft, experts caution that both players could be one-year wonders.
But the people who watched Bowers grow up over 18 years in Bamberg - and then watched him mature in the six months since his father's death - see a changed man who takes football and life more seriously.
"Especially after Pops died, you've got to step up and be a man now," said Joe Key, a family friend. "I think he took heed to the word."
In truth, Bowers' transformation began a few months before he lost his father, who was 51. The two had several conversations after Bowers' disappointing sophomore year at Clemson in 2009.
Overweight and battling a knee injury, Bowers finished with three sacks and had critics wondering if the player ESPN rated the nation's top recruit in 2008 would live up to the hype.
Dennis Bowers was candid, but also encouraging.
"He thought this was going to be my biggest season," Bowers said in a December interview before Clemson faced South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte. "We made some goals."
One of those was getting in better shape.
Now 6 feet 4 and 275 pounds, Bowers intensified his running regimen over the summer and shed 25 pounds before the start of preseason camp.
It was the type of intensity Clemson coaches had been looking for from Bowers, whose agent says he is declining all interview requests leading up to next week's NFL scouting combine. Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said Bowers' issues early in his college career were more complex than a lack of effort.
"It was trying to get him to dominate no matter who you lined up against, because he could toy with guys," Steele said. "It was never a laziness or an effort thing."
Bowers has been the best player on the field from the first time he put on pads, at age 6.
Linda Bowers said her first football memory of her son was seeing him "running across the field and someone pulling his pants down." Bowers didn't stop to yank up his pants until he'd reached the end zone.
With her husband on the road, Linda Bowers worried her son was getting babied by his two older sisters. So she enlisted the help of Chris Franklin, Bowers' first cousin who played briefly at Clemson.
Dennis Bowers taught his son the guitar. Franklin taught him toughness.
"I would tell Chris, treat him rough, make him a boy because he doesn't have anyone here but his two sisters," Linda Bowers said. "I didn't want him to be any softie."
A star in the making
By the time he reached eighth grade, Bowers was a devastating two-way player for Bamberg-Ehrhardt's junior varsity, tossing aside opponents on defense and running them over while playing tailback on offense.
Kevin Crosby, the defensive coordinator at Bamberg-Ehrhardt at the time, remembers thinking, "We can't waste this kid on junior varsity."
During Bowers' first varsity practice the following year, coaches put him in a tackling drill opposite defensive end Ricky Sapp, who also went on to play at Clemson and was a fifth-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles last year. Crosby expected the two, who are distant cousins, to go easy on each other.
He was wrong.
"They went at each other," Crosby said.
Bowers capped a stellar prep career by winning defensive MVP honors in the ESPN/Under Armour All-American Bowl after making four tackles for loss. He graduated high school early and arrived at Clemson sporting dreadlocks and carrying the weight of expectations that came with being the country's No.1 prospect.
Bowers was a freshman All-American in 2008, when he made 47 tackles and led the Tigers with 15 pressures. But he managed just four sacks his first two seasons, and there were rumblings about Bowers' work ethic.
"He was always dominant. But he did cut corners - and he'll tell you that," said Crosby, now Bamberg-Ehrhardt's head coach.
But Steele said the expectations that accompanied Bowers' arrival in Clemson would have been impossible for anyone to meet. Steele said Bowers' title as the nation's No.1 prospect had many fans expecting Bowers "to make every play" and "have six or seven sacks every game."
He did not have a six-sack game. But a more-determined Bowers had a monster junior season. His three sacks against Maryland were the most by a Clemson player in nine years, and he fell just short of Keith Adams' single-season school record of 16 sacks.
His dad's preseason prediction was on the money.
Have guitar, will travel
Dennis Bowers was 14 when he began playing the guitar with a local gospel group called the Sensational Four. He met Linda five years later while performing with the Singing Stars at a show in Bamberg, a town of about 3,700 an hour south of Columbia.
The two were married and had two daughters before their son, Dennis Da'Quan Bowers, was born in 1990. While Dennis drove trucks for several companies, Linda worked 15 years at a local plant that made Hanes socks until it shuttered in 2009 and moved overseas.
Linda would work the overnight shift, arrive home a little after 7 a.m. and crawl into bed. Many mornings she would awaken a short time later to the sound of her son playing the drums on her pots and pans on the kitchen floor.
An acoustic guitar was Bowers' first real instrument. Finally, his parents got him an electric guitar, which he learned to play by watching his father's videotapes and getting pointers from dad.
Asked what her son enjoyed most, Linda Bowers said: "I believe it was running neck and neck. He loved football and he loved that guitar."
Bowers eventually became proficient enough to start playing with a local gospel group. When Tommy Ellison, the founder and leader of the Singing Stars, died in 2009, Dennis Bowers assumed the lead-singing duties and his son stepped into his father's guitar spot.
Joseph Ricks, the group's keyboardist, said Bowers had good training.
Key, the Bamberg resident whose son accompanied Bowers to Los Angeles, where he trained for this week's NFL scouting combine, also vouched for Bowers' musical abilities.
"He's good, bubba. He's got talent," Key said. "Football and music - that's his things."
Bowers tries to juggle the two as best he can.
Following Clemson's loss in the Charlotte bowl game on New Year's Eve, Bowers drove to Asheville to join the Legendary Singing Stars for a program that night. He flew in from L.A. last weekend to rehearse with the group in Columbia.
Ricks, who lives in Sumter, S.C., said Bowers' dedication has not gone unnoticed.
"He gives his all, I think, both places," Ricks said. "I couldn't do it. I would not be able to play a football game like he did, leave there and three or four hours later be on stage."
Bowers will be in New York's Radio City Music Hall in April - not with his gospel group, but with the other top prospects waiting to hear who the Panthers take with the first pick. At least one prominent draft analyst believes the Panthers should use it on Bowers.
Todd McShay, the director of college football scouting for ESPN Scouts Inc., concedes there are risks in picking a player who has had just one big college season. But McShay believes Bowers will be a complete NFL player.
"I'm not saying he's going to be Julius Peppers," McShay said. "But he has that type of physical ability and potential to be a big, powerful defensive end that can get after the quarterback and become a huge difference-maker."
And while some have questioned Bowers' work habits, McShay said he did not see Bowers take plays off, as Fairley occasionally did. Steele, the Panthers' linebackers coach from 1995 to 1998, said if Jerry Richardson, Marty Hurney or Ron Rivera called him to ask about Bowers, he "would stand on the table for him."
Crosby is convinced Dennis Bowers' death changed his son's approach to football.
"Life's short and if you don't take advantage of it right now, you never know what's going to happen," Crosby said. "I think that's what made his motor click when he went back to Clemson."
Bowers has grown up - and cleaned up. He sent his mother a picture from his cell phone last year showing him getting his dreads cut off.
"I always told him they made him look older than he was, anyway," Linda Bowers said. "He looks like my baby now."
Dennis Bowers' electric guitar still sits in the living room of his family's modest brick home, leaning against a coffee table covered with his son's football trophies. Bowers still plays it from time to time.
On the wall nearest the front door is a photo montage Bowers gave to his mom for her birthday. It features a picture of Bowers and his father from the All-American Bowl, a photo of Bowers pointing to the heavens during a Clemson game last season, and a quote from Ralph Vaull Starr: "Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-358-5125