From an 'addiction to ink' to surviving the mean streets of his youth to his diverse football skillset, separating fact from fiction in the legendary life of Lynn Bowden has been a complicated task for the NFL
By Chase Goodbread | Published April 14, 2020
The legend began with a laugh.
The first time Lynn Bowden ever got his hands on a football in a youth game, he broke a 60-yard touchdown run for the Northside Knights with the ball in one hand and his waistband in the other. So small his oversized uniform pants began to fall off him as he sprinted, he had to hold them up or they would've made the tackle.
The legend grew on the north side of Youngstown, Ohio.
The blue-collar town that collapsed with the fall of the steel industry decades ago, and still hasn't recovered, carries an identity as complicated as Bowden's. Deep pockets of Youngstown have remained riddled with poverty and crime for nearly two generations. Yet, they're interspersed with areas of growth; the chamber of commerce touts $284 million in local private investment last year in a town of just 65,000, up by more than $100 million from the year before.
The legend is mapped all over Bowden's skin.
Tattoos cover much of his body -- he's lost exact count, but he estimates there are around 80 of them. Some poignantly represent the most meaningful benchmarks of his life; others depict things less serious. Bowden believes they stigmatize him, yet he admits to an "ink addiction" and can't stop getting more.
The legend bloomed in Lexington, Kentucky.
What else but legendary describes a wide receiver who switches to quarterback midseason, then goes on to lead the Southeastern Conference not in passing yards, but rushing yards? One of the 2020 NFL Draft's most versatile prospects, Bowden ran for 1,369 yards in just eight quarterback starts for Kentucky last fall, and 1,468 overall to become the first QB to pace SEC rushers since Cam Newton in 2010.
Legends rely on a proprietary mixture of truth and storytelling; accepted as fact in some places, doubted with an eye-roll in others. Bowden was one in every sense, and from a young age -- before he even got into high school, men at the park would bet on how many touchdowns he would score in youth games. Four or five was his norm. A few years after that, their arguments turned to whether the brightest star in town would make it out to shine anywhere else. Some knew Bowden's lifestyle, but others only knew what they heard.
Was that touchdown at Evans Field really 60 yards? Or was it just 40?
Was the trouble Bowden found in Youngstown more about the dangerous life kids there can fall into, or was it or more about who he really is?
Are NFL clubs merely evaluating a wide receiver prospect in Bowden, or a stick of offensive dynamite that will explode on Sundays in several other ways?
And what of those tattoos?
"The Lynn Bowden story," said Vince Marrow, the former NFL tight end and Youngstown native who recruited Bowden to UK, "has a lot of sides to it."
According to Bowden, the most legal trouble he's ever been in is a speeding ticket, but he readily admits to doing things that would've eventually gotten him arrested had football not lifted him out of Youngstown.
"My mom eventually moved me so I couldn't be on the north side," Bowden said. "Me, I always found my way back to the north side. ... The stuff I was into, it was just the life here. You adapted to it."
That culture, Bowden said, rallies families and close friends into tight circles of trust, forming a backbone of support that can be counted on for better or worse, in good decisions or bad. But it also permeates distrust outside the circle, which can breed petty jealousy.
"Everybody's a hater," said Senator Johnson, whom Lynn refers to as a brother, though they are actually cousins. "If you can get out of Youngstown, a lot of people want to see you have to stay, because they know they're staying."
Bowden had known a few who stayed in Youngstown too long, legends that went the wrong way.
He'd known Darrell Mason, a star running back on a 2008 state championship team at Ursuline High. They weren't exactly close friends, as Mason was six years older, but the two were acquainted through Kevin Cylar, who coached both players and was the primary father figure in Bowden's life. Mason's football talent got him to Fort Scott (Kansas) Junior College, only to have an old ankle injury draw him back to Youngstown like a magnet. Five years later, an FBI task force had Mason indicted on multiple felonies as the alleged leader of the Vic Boys street gang.
"That hurt Lynn," said Bowden's mother, Melissa Phillips.
Bowden played his ninth- and tenth-grade seasons for Cylar at Liberty High until the coach was apparently dismissed for speaking on Mason's behalf at a sentencing hearing. Cylar acknowledges Mason's crimes demanded jail time but felt compelled to stand up for the high school-aged Mason he'd known before: "A well-mannered kid who wasn't into that life when I knew him."
Bowden returned to Youngstown when he had time off more regularly as a Kentucky freshman than he did in later years, and after a frustrating lack of playing time that season, he considered hanging up his cleats and coming home for good, just as Mason did. But everywhere he turned, from family to coaches, he heard pleas for him to stay in college. Mason had gone home and fell into the wrong lifestyle, and nobody wanted to see Bowden do the same.
"I wanted to go back to the streets, for real," Bowden said. "My (cousins) ultimately told me this isn't the life you want to live. They gave me the option like, 'You're grown now, you're going to make up your own mind, but (street life) is what you'd do for the rest of your life.' That was an eye-opener."
At the moment a 9-year-old Lynn Bowden decided he had to have a gun, he was still in his football uniform, sitting in the bleachers with teammates on a Saturday afternoon on the south side of Youngstown. It was Aug. 19, 2006, and Bowden's team had just finished playing a game at the football stadium of the former South High School, which had closed more than a decade earlier.
Directly in front of Bowden, as another youth game was ongoing, Anthony Caulton fired the first bullet into Larry Jones. According to witness testimony, an argument between the two had resulted in a scuffle near where Bowden was sitting, and after being shot the first time, Jones jumped over the perimeter fence surrounding the field and was shot dead near an end zone beside a group of cheerleaders as young as 4.
In Youngstown, not even a youth ball field was sacred from gun violence.
According to one eyewitness, after Caulton fired the two initial shots, he took a few steps as if to leave the scene, then turned, walked back, and fired several more times as Jones lay on the field. The prosecution argued against a reduced charge of manslaughter, in part, because Caulton returned to stand over a victim who had already been shot and fired more. Some in the estimated crowd of 600-800 began to scatter, but most didn't leave. They hung around, those close to Bowden say, because murder on a football field in front of dozens of children wasn't as shocking to Youngstown residents as it would've been almost anywhere else.
"I think when you're hardened at a young age and grow up in a city where you see it all the time, it doesn't hit you as hard," said Bowden's godfather, Anise Algahmee, who was coaching on the opposite sideline when the shooting happened. Jones died with eight gunshot wounds. Caulton was captured in Washington state six weeks later and, three years after that, was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.
It left an indelible imprint on Bowden.
"That was the first time I ever saw someone get killed in front of me," said Bowden, who would go on to witness a few more murders in Youngstown. "I had seen shooting before but hadn't seen anybody die until then. I never forgot that. It changed my life, like, you can't really be caught slipping no matter what you're doing."
Bowden decided that "caught slipping" -- being caught without a gun -- wasn't going to be his undoing. Months later, at age 10, he had his first.
"Just a little .22," he said. "Chrome, with a little wooden handle."
He said he never fired it during his at-risk years but has been fired upon. Asked what he paid, he admits to stealing it from someone else. Bowden doesn't conceal who he was as a youngster because he says he considers was as the operative word.
Of the dozens of tattoos covering Bowden's body, two he got consecutively while at Warren Harding High were inked just before and just after the most important event of his life. First came a Chinese symbol above his right eyebrow, representing death, at a low point in his life at which he didn't expect to ever get out of Youngstown. It was the last tattoo he got before the birth of his son -- a life-changing event for the high school senior -- and his next tattoo was Lynn Bowden III's name and birthdate on his left shoulder.
Lynn III was born April 9, 2017, and by all accounts, altered the course of his father's life before he'd even opened his eyes. Bowden was raised by a committed mother and grandmother, but never had much of a relationship with his father, Lynn Sr.
A month away from his graduation from Harding, Bowden vowed never to be an absentee father.
"I wanted my dad's love and he never really gave it to me. I wanted to make sure my son felt unconditional love from his father," Bowden said. "That's just what it was going to be, regardless of if I was with his mom or not. I was going to make sure my son never had to worry about what his dad had going on. That he would never want for anything that I used to. I had to get straight."
Bowden's godfather, Anise, had always warned him not to get anyone pregnant as a teenager, and because Lynn didn't want to tell him he'd done just that, Anise heard it first from someone else. But he wasn't as angry as Lynn had expected.
"I think he hid it from me," Anise said. "But once it had happened, I told him it was the best thing for him because now I know you're going to focus. Otherwise, he could've been going wild. It matured him overnight."
Vince Marrow, who recruited Bowden to Kentucky for much of his high school career, grew up in Youngstown himself and built a relationship with Bowden and his family long before he ever signed with UK. Marrow believes part of what Bowden needed was to simply get out of Youngstown long enough to realize the rest of the world wasn't just like it. But he, too, considers the birth of Lynn III to be what brought about a new outlook.
"Having a son kicked him into wanting to change," Marrow said. "More than anything, whether it was me putting my foot in his ass, or his mom staying on him, when he had that boy, he said, 'My son isn't going to have that type of life.' "
When the new father filled out his formal application to Kentucky's office of admissions, an essay was required. Bowden chose to write his on the perils of growing up in a crime-ridden town, and about which people in his life had his back, and which did not. Separating them on paper gave him some clarity.
Still, he faced an uphill struggle to academically qualify for NCAA eligibility.
Having skipped class frequently through his high school years, Bowden didn't have the necessary grades. But with extra work and summer classes, he qualified at the last possible opportunity, in August of 2017. His mother moved to Lexington to help his transition into both college athletics and fatherhood. She also wanted Lynn III kept out of a daycare setting to keep him in better health, so she arranged her work schedule to make it possible.
"She means everything to me," Bowden said.
Legend and truth intersect when it comes to Bowden's football versatility. It's what separates him from many other top receivers in a receiver-rich draft, such that the position designation of WR does him no real justice. The NFL club that selects him -- multiple NFL scouts said they expect he'll be chosen on Day 2 (second or third round) -- will be getting a much more diverse threat. One that can line up wide or flourish from the slot, one that can be dangerous running with fly sweeps, throwing passes on gadget plays, returning kickoffs or punts.
He was simply electric with the ball in his hands in college, joining Randall Cobb as only the second Kentucky player to amass 1,000 career yards in receiving, rushing and kickoff returns. As if that weren't enough, his career punt return average was 22 yards. But nothing empowered the diversity of his skillset like the UK coaching staff's decision to switch him to quarterback after five games last season. Injuries forced the move in October. In his first start behind center, and with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in attendance to see his alma mater Arkansas, Bowden ripped the Razorbacks defense for 196 rushing yards, including a game-winning 24-yard jaunt with under seven minutes left.
Performances like that draw comparisons like this from Marrow: "He reminds me of Deebo Samuel, but a more athletic Deebo."
By season's end, he'd accounted for 1,468 yards rushing, 403 passing, 348 receiving, and another 273 in returns. He finished the Belk Bowl with 233 rushing yards in a 37-30 win over Virginia Tech. After the game, longtime VT defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who had announced he would retire at season's end, told Marrow that Bowden was one of the three best players he'd ever coached against. Naturally, he won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player.
"He's tough, he's quick, he runs good enough but he's not a burner. But you can make him an Antwaan Randle El-type because he's so skilled," said a personnel executive for an AFC team. "A creative coordinator can do a lot with him. If you just line him up at one receiver spot and tell him to learn nine routes, he's going to struggle some. But if you move him around and feed him a little, find a way to get him some easy touches, he could make a difference right away."
His breakout season at UK surprised nobody who saw him play in Youngstown.
During his recruitment, Marrow's longtime hometown sources told him Bowden was the greatest talent to come from there in 30 years, a span that included former Ohio State star RB Maurice Clarett. He scored 57 touchdowns as a senior for Harding High coach Steve Arnold, but ultimately, legends are made not on stats but on stories.
And Cylar tells the best one.
As a sophomore at Liberty High, Bowden took a botched punt out of his own end zone for a 100-yard touchdown against Ursuline High. But was it really botched? Bowden served as the team's punter but frequently faked punts for first downs. Cylar had a simple signal for his star player on fourth downs: If he turned his back to Bowden on the sideline, Bowden was free to fake the punt and run for the sticks. This particular fourth down, however, came with Liberty backed up to its own end zone in a second-round playoff game, so Cylar wanted the ball punted. Bowden kept staring in at Cylar, with the play clock ticking down.
"I knew he wanted to run it by the way he kept staring at me, waiting for me to turn my back," Cylar said. "But he knew what I wanted, because I stomped my foot and glared at him, like, 'You better punt this football.' "
The snap was perfect, but Bowden bobbled it a bit and had to improvise, or the punt would've been blocked. He took off and forced a calamity of missed tackles on the way to a 100-yard score. Cylar adds to the legend:
"If you watch the tape, he's looking at the defense before he even picks it up off the ground. I would bet on a stack of bibles he dropped it on purpose," Cylar said. "There's no question."
Bowden insists the bobble was legitimate, but he says it with a laugh.
Legends need a little mystery, too.
SEC Media Days is known to draw more than 1,000 credentialed media and swallow two floors of convention space at its usual home at the Hyatt Regency Birmingham-Wynfrey Hotel. Held in July, it serves as a season-signaler to hard-core SEC fans and is broadcast with a reach of 60 million homes receiving SEC Network. Each coach brings three player representatives to a battery of media exposures, and from the standpoint of image management and branding, it is the equivalent of filling a 100,000-seat stadium for a championship game.
When Bowden learned Kentucky coach Mark Stoops selected him to represent UK at the event last year, he cut off longtime dreadlocks for the occasion. It didn't matter, he said, that the dreadlock hair style no longer carried the stigma it used to. He loved how well he wore a sharp suit with a new haircut, perceived value in a different look, and saw it as rebranding.
A new twist for the legend.
"My background, my history, I was a young wild guy with dreads and I wanted to clear that slate of being looked at like that," Bowden said. "I knew people looked at me like that, so I just wanted to get that image off me, cut my hair, get it better-looking."
The rebranding lasted seven months when it was time for another. Prepared to take questions from team executives at the NFL scouting combine, he arrived in Indianapolis clean-shaven and with his hair cut even shorter.
By contrast, he has no similar concerns about a tattoo canvas that includes a few on the neck and face and doesn't mind dealing with whatever stereotyping might come with that. He has regrets about a few of his first ones, not because he wants less tattoo coverage, but because he'd now rather have different art occupying the same space. A pair of wings and the brick road in front of the home he grew up in cover much of his neck, with the words "live" and "life" on either sideburn area and the initials HS below his left eye, standing for HaMoe Squad.
"Me and my cousins got that," he said. "It's just a family thing."
Although Bowden's appearances at SEC Media Days and the combine were public-facing adjustments to his image, he'd subtly begun more meaningful work on how he was perceived many months earlier. Last year's Kentucky draft class -- five selections, including first-round pass rusher Josh Allen -- was its best in decades. As UK's liaison to NFL personnel, Marrow dealt with more scouting visits than he ever had before. But when clubs would come to see the Wildcats' prospects for the '19 draft, Marrow would add a 2020 prospect, Bowden, to the mix.
"Every time the GMs and scouts would come to see Josh Allen, Bennie Snell, Lonnie (Johnson), and all those other guys, I'd text Lynn and say, 'Come up here,' " Marrow said. "And Lynn would sit down with a lot of GMs and directors of scouting in my office, so they could start to see what type of person he was way ahead of time."
Those sit-downs helped separate truth from legend.
It was a chance for clubs to see that this Bowden generated semesters with 3.5 GPAs and wasn't the Bowden who ditched classes in high school.
That this Bowden would be named a 2019 team captain and wasn't the Bowden who used to blow off team workouts.
That this Bowden skipped the college bar and party scene to stay home with Lynn III and wasn't the Bowden who nearly quit the team over playing time as a freshman.
"He basically lived a married life in college. I don't care if he plays in Miami, New York or L.A. -- he's not going to be in clubs all night. You can forget that," Marrow said. "He's going to be home with his son playing video games."
The classic line from the 1962 John Wayne film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" -- When the legend becomes fact, print the legend -- illustrates that sometimes narrative overrides truth. That perception can run past reality. Bowden arrived at the combine in late February believing his past had done just that. He knew NFL clubs have been known to grill prospects with backgrounds like his during 15-minute formal interview sessions, and he had prepared answers accordingly. Those interviews can range from the deeply personal to Xs and Os, but players with baggage tend to get baggage questions.
Yet, a funny thing happened -- none came.
Not one team asked him about the lifestyle he led in Youngstown, leaving Bowden stunned. He expected to be quizzed on every bit of dirt 32 clubs could gather through the vast resources of veteran scouts and the deep-dive background checks conducted on draft prospects. Instead, they mostly sent him to whiteboards with a grease pencil and merely explored his knowledge of the game. According to an AFC club representative who was present for one of Bowden's formal combine interviews, teams had largely satisfied themselves that Bowden wasn't a character risk before even arriving in Indianapolis.
"The bad element in Youngstown, as far as we know, didn't follow him to Lexington," the club rep said. "And he handled himself fine. His interview was a positive."
The toughest question he got was about a punch he threw at Virginia Tech's DaShawn Crawford during pre-game warmups prior to the Belk Bowl in December. Bad blood between the teams began earlier in the week, when several Hokies insulted Bowden at a bowl function, and Bowden responded by knocking a cell phone out of the hand of a VT player who was recording the exchange.
When that argument re-flared on the field before Belk Bowl warmups, Bowden lost his temper and landed a fist to Crawford's head that was captured by ESPN cameras. He wasn't ejected or flagged for the punch because it happened before officials' jurisdiction began. The NCAA rules committee has since proposed that referee jurisdiction be expanded from 60 minutes before kickoff to 90. Bowden's right jab was just one of several pre-game incidents throughout the season that compelled the proposal, but it's already been dubbed the "Lynn Bowden Rule."
Legends die hard.