High School Football

SHEPHERD’S STRENGTH

Senior LB Bowling overcomes significant injury to enjoy prominent role for state-bound Tigers

By Dennis Silva II, Sports Editor
Posted 1/14/21

There was a time when Katy High senior linebacker Shepherd Bowling thought his football career was over. A couple of times, actually.

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High School Football

SHEPHERD’S STRENGTH

Senior LB Bowling overcomes significant injury to enjoy prominent role for state-bound Tigers

Posted

There was a time when Katy High senior linebacker Shepherd Bowling thought his football career was over. A couple of times, actually.

He was told so.

Bowling’s sophomore year in 2018-2019 was an emotional rollercoaster lasting from the first game of the season against North Shore to the following July. Over those 11 months, Bowling exhaustively fought to continue playing football against all odds.

“We hung on to every little hope,” Bowling said. “We never let it cross my mind that my football career was over.”

Eventually, Bowling, almost miraculously, returned to the field. He is now a team captain and relentless playmaker for a 13-1 Katy High team one win away from the program’s ninth state championship.

The 6-foot, 210-pound Bowling is averaging 4.9 tackles per game, with 15 tackles for a loss, to go with four sacks, two caused fumbles, an interception and nine broken-up passes. Bowling’s play and potential have earned 19 NCAA Division I offers. He plans to declare Jan. 17, the day after the Tigers’ state championship game against Cedar Hill, which school he will commit to among a group of Houston, Northwestern, Princeton, Army and Western Kentucky.

“He’s been a good football player for us,” Katy coach Gary Joseph said. “The growing up part is big, the maturity of it and him getting stronger and being such a good tackler. He has a knack for finding ways to do what he needs to do to help our football team.”

A BURST OF HOPE

The week of practice leading up to that 2018 Aug. 31 season opener against North Shore, Bowling suffered two stingers to his right arm, drastic jolts that caused temporary numbness.

Bowling still started at middle linebacker against the Mustangs and had another stinger.

“I came in for an assisted tackle on a slant and dove in and hit my neck wrong,” he said.

The following week, he had another. Each stinger brought more trauma than the one before; by the fourth time, Bowling could hardly lift his arm.

The Bowlings first visited a local Katy spine specialist. An MRI was done.

“The first words out of the doctor’s mouth, before ever meeting with us, to a 16-year-old kid, was, ‘You’ll never play football again,’” said Bowling’s father, Barry. “He said it so dogmatically. We went home, shocked. Tears were flowing.”

That doctor recommended another doctor for a second opinion if the Bowlings desired. They did.

They next met with a Houston doctor located downtown near the Texas Medical Center who is a consultant for college and pro athletes. Bowling visited him for a few months and rehabbed in the meantime, enough to where he ultimately freed himself of symptoms like pain and soreness near the neck area.

Another MRI was conducted. On it, a “little white dot,” as Barry put it, appeared that the doctor said represented slight bruising on the spinal cord.

“You’re really done with football,” said the doctor, who suggested basketball and track and field as other viable sports for Bowling. “If a guy from the (NFL) combine was presented with this, they’d send him home.”

The Bowlings eventually came to understand that their son was born with a narrowing of the spine. It made him more susceptible to things like stingers than the typical athlete.

When leaving after the diagnosis from the second doctor, heartbroken and sullen, the Bowlings were given an opportunity for a third opinion. Unsolicited, the doctor recommended a peer of his, if they so chose: Dr. Andrew Dossett in Dallas, a spine consultant for the Cowboys, Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars.

The Bowlings decided to give it one more shot. Barry called Dossett, was connected with his assistant, and explained Shepherd’s story. They chatted for 20-25 minutes. The assistant said for them to send Bowling’s MRIs and she’d get Dossett to look at them.

“No in-person visit. No office visit. Just so surreal,” Barry said. “Just like that, we were getting a look from one of the top spine specialists in the country. What are the odds?”

The next day, around 6 in the evening, Barry received a call from Dossett.

“He’d looked at the MRIs and, I’ll never forget this, he said, ‘I wouldn’t throw the towel in just yet,’” Barry said.

Dossett said Bowling’s successful and healthy rehab, void of any symptoms, didn’t make sense to him, considering the dire nature of the injury. He recommended Bowling not participate in football that spring, keep rehabbing and plan for another MRI and in-person visit that next July in the summer of 2019.

“It was such a burst of new hope,” Barry said.

Bowling remained faithful.

“We just continued to pray about it,” Bowling said. “I just wanted to see, you know?”

CLEARED

During the spring, Bowling was intent about staying engaged with the football team.

He participated in offseason basketball workouts, but after school he was on the field with the Tigers during spring football practices, watching, learning and standing with coaches to soak up anything and everything he could.

At his lowest during the whole thing, Bowling was quieter, more reserved. “Processing,” Barry said. But he never was emotionally upset. He distracted himself with offseason basketball and being around the football team when possible. Barry often found him after school shooting jump shots alone in the gym.

“I felt he did do a good job of just taking it day by day,” Barry said. “Though he was really bummed, I don’t think he ever got overwhelmed by the matter.”

Shortly after July 4, the Bowlings visited Dossett. X-rays and another MRI were taken.

“That little spot was still there, and (Dossett) just looked at it and said he’d never seen anything like this in all his years of practice,” Barry said. “We do see this, and that’s a slight bruising on the cord, but to have that, he should be showing symptoms. There should be things that are not right, and he’s presenting nothing like that.”

Bowling felt fine. He had participated in offseason basketball. He was going through strength and conditioning camp with the basketball team. He was showing no symptoms despite an MRI that still showed bruising on the spine.

“(Dossett) told us he was going against what he saw on the MRI and going with what he saw during that evaluation,” Barry said. “He cleared him. He told us he wasn’t at any greater risk of any kind of terrible injury than any other kid playing football.”

As soon as he was cleared, Bowling immediately transferred back to football strength and conditioning and went to work re-earning his spot on the team.

“All glory to God,” Bowling said. “He had a plan for me and my life, and I’m just here seeing it through. I’m fine now, and I really haven’t dealt with it the last couple of years other than some minor flareups.”

PERSEVERING, WORKING

Bowling has only missed two games over the last two seasons. This season’s absence, in the fourth game of the season against Cinco Ranch, was precautionary.

Bowling re-established himself on the field as a junior in 2019. He switched back to outside linebacker, his more natural position, and emerged as a consistent, persistent contributor for the Tigers, averaging 4.1 tackles per game to go with 10 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, two caused fumbles, one fumble recovery and two interceptions.

“It didn’t take him long,” second-year defensive coordinator Gregg Miller said. “He’s been even better than I anticipated, because he’s got so much range. I knew he’d be a good stunt guy and a good tackle guy and a good fit guy, but his ability to cover and man up on guys … in my time here, we haven’t had a SAM (strongside linebacker) at that position who can do a lot of that stuff. He can man up on a (running) back and keep teams from throwing it to him. I have no problems when he has to lock a guy down.”

Prior to this season, Bowling was voted as a captain by his teammates, a role Miller said comes naturally because of his strong communication skills and command of message.

“Shepherd is a great player, but an even better person and teammate,” said senior defensive back and fellow captain Dalton Johnson, friends with Bowling since they were at Cimarron Elementary School. “His leadership style is like the guy who you know does right and always will, so he makes you want to be like that as well.”

On the field, Bowling is still aggressive and physical. He loves to hit. But he is smarter in going about it.

“Rather than running around, trying to make plays, I’m more sound in my gaps and my fits have been better,” Bowling said. “Whether I’m making plays or not, I’m more comfortable and confident that I’m doing my job. That’s what I’ve been trying to do all year.”

Bowling does spinal decompression treatments once a week on his neck area to help relieve some minor disc herniations. He consistently visits with a massage therapist. He does cryotherapy, the use of extreme cold to freeze and remove abnormal tissue. He is taped differently before games than he was before, for better support and cushioning.

He has sacrificed to compete for a championship-caliber program. But it’s been worth it.

“You have to persevere,” Bowling said. “Things can be thrown at you that you have zero control over, and there’s nothing you can do except do what you’re able to and keep moving forward on your own and as a team. Regardless of what happens, you just have to keep working.”

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