There was no fracas when Keon Stowers’ father was arrested. He didn’t burst out of a screen door at the back of the house, or leap from a window into an adjacent alley. He went calmly into the custody of federal agents in dark suits.
It was 2009, and the day before school let out for the summer when Keon Stowers last saw his father. Desmond Stowers was later convicted on drug trafficking and weapons charges. He is serving 20 years at Tucson Federal Correctional Institution in Arizona.
That day was a seminal moment for Keon. At 17 years old and his life already forked in front of him, two disparate paths beckoning, each equally tempting for very different reasons. It was time to choose.
“That was one of those things that has stuck with me ever since,” Stowers said. “Seeing that showed me I didn’t want that life.”
Desperate for change
Stowers graduated, barely, from Northwestern High School in 2010. He was expelled for marijuana possession as a freshman, and he “was still trying to run with all the wrong people” during 10th grade, leaving him far behind academically.
The arrest of Stowers’ father during his junior year was the culmination of a difficult childhood. Desmond Stowers had been in jail the first 10 years of Keon’s life, serving time for separate charges, but had finally begun to foster a relationship with his son when he went to prison for a second time.
“That was pretty hard,” Stowers said.
The numbing event led Stowers to the office of then-Northwestern football coach Jimmy “Moose” Wallace.
“You see a big strong guy going into the 11th grade, you say ‘wait a minute. We need him involved in the program,’” recalls Wallace, who retired after the 2010 season.
“When you get older, you figure out a lot of times they need you more than you need them. I don’t use that cliché lightly. In today’s world, all kids need to be attached; all kids need to be engaged; and all kids need to be part of a family.”
Stowers’ family was fractured. His mother was also involved in drugs and is currently serving a nine-year sentence at Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood. Stowers was eager to change, but he needed an avenue and a push in the proper direction. Wallace and his football program were the answer.
“He saved me, he pulled me out of the streets,” Stowers said of Wallace. “He told me this, and I’ll never forget it: ‘If you do everything I say and stay away from those streets, you’ll be a successful man.’ I did it, and it paid dividends for me.”
The metamorphosis didn’t happen overnight, but football gave Stowers a distraction from the streets.
Living with his grandmother, he took extra online classes so he could graduate from high school on time, while earning All-Region honors his senior year on the gridiron. With the help of mentor Larry Shaw, a business teacher at Northwestern, Stowers became eligible for junior college and accepted a scholarship from Georgia Military College to play football.
“He was very nervous,” Shaw said about the first trip to Milledgeville, Ga. “He was not used to being away from home like that.”
But the spartan Georgia Military experience did the trick.
“It was a big shock and huge change of culture,” said the 6-foot-3 Stowers, who went to Georgia Military as a 240-pound linebacker and is now a 300-pound lineman. “But I took it full stride. ‘Yes sir, no sir’ and everything. That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, going to military school.”
Stowers injured his back and redshirted his first season, but that proved to be a blessing. He then played the second fall, leaving him with three seasons of football eligibility to use at the NCAA level.
Solid grades and the three years of remaining eligibility made him an enticing prospect, and he received scholarship offers from Kansas, South Alabama, Indiana, Iowa State and Louisville.
Stowers chose Kansas partly because of head coach Charlie Weis’ NFL connections, and also the athletic department’s focus on academics. Each football player receives a one-on-one tutor. Ready for the next step, Stowers left Georgia Military stronger in more ways than just physically.
“I think his time here helped center him and get him to understand the things he needed to do to move forward in his life,” said Georgia Military head football coach Bert Williams. “He certainly came up in a difficult situation and despite that he was always a pretty good young man while he was here, and had a good work ethic.”
The stark negative from Stowers’ stint in central Georgia came courtesy of a phone call from his grandmother in the spring of 2012. She told Keon that with warrants looming, his mother had surrendered to police and was headed to prison. There was no tearful send-off, no bittersweet final embrace. Just the phone call.
Looking up in blue
Used to making decisions on his own, Stowers adjusted to the independence of college life at Kansas.
Unfortunately, his first season on the gridiron in Lawrence last fall couldn’t have gone much worse. The Jayhawks, just five years removed from an appearance in the 2007 Orange Bowl, won the season opener before losing their next 11 games in Weis’ debut campaign.
Stowers played in eight games in 2012, making seven tackles, but wasn’t at full strength because of a high ankle sprain suffered against Kansas State in early October. That limited his ability to pivot and get leverage, vital in the trenches.
“I was really battling that injury the whole season,” he said.
Stowers’ struggles were symptomatic of the entire defensive line, as the Jayhawks ranked 116th nationally out of 120 teams in sacks.
For some perspective, Texas’ Alex Okafor, the Big 12’s sack leader, had 12.5 by himself; the Jayhawks mustered 12 as a team, including just 5.5 from the defensive line. With little pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Kansas ranked in the NCAA’s bottom 10 in pass defense and pass efficiency defense.
The Jayhawk defense allowed 36 points and more than 480 yards of offense per game last season.
Bolstering a Swiss cheese defensive line was Weis’ first offseason recruiting move. Kansas added five defensive linemen from junior colleges, including Marquel Combs, the No. 1 junior college prospect, according to some rankings. Despite the influx, Stowers is currently listed at the top of the depth chart at one of the defensive line spots in the Jayhawks’ newly installed 3-4 set-up.
He justified that status with a solid spring game, making four tackles and forcing a fumble, helping the Blue team to a 34-7 victory over the White team.
“I just worked my butt off even harder to get back in the loop because I didn’t really have a strong season before,” Stowers said. “I was just trying to show the coaches what I was really about.”
A story in the Lawrence (Kan.) Journal-World from late May quoted Weis as saying Stowers continually “ruined practice” by getting into the offensive unit’s backfield so often. The Rock Hill native can play all three defensive line positions. He’s fast enough to rush the edge, but strong enough to line up over center too, a versatility that he could parlay into professional football.
“It was a dream, something I wanted to do as a little kid,” Stowers said of playing in the NFL. “But now that I’m here and actually playing and training every day, it’s become serious. It’s actually become something that’s very attainable for me if I do the right things this season and next season.”
Kansas coaches were unavailable last week for comment. But Stowers’ former Georgia Military coach agreed the NFL is a possibility.
“Does he have a skill set to do some things? Absolutely,” said Williams. “Will it all come together? He’s got a chance for things to happen, and that’s all you can ask for, is an opportunity.”
On or off the field
Kansas defensive line coach Buddy Wyatt told reporters at a March 7 media gathering that Stowers “has really stepped up as a leader on the d-line and that's something we were in great need of.”
That’s no surprise to Stowers’ supporters back in Rock Hill. Shaw saw a natural leader in his classroom back in 2009.
“He had a lot of potential but no support from home,” said Shaw. “Very likeable young man; just needed some guidance and motivation.”
NFL or not, Stowers will be able to affect others by sharing his journey. He’s spoken to classes at Ebinport Elementary, York Prep Academy, Westminster Catawba Christian and Northwestern in the last year, encouraging children who in some cases may be mired in a socioeconomic rut just as he was.
Stowers is studying sociology at Kansas, which has strengthened his understanding of his own childhood.
“It was really exciting for me to get to learn stuff like that because we learn about families and kids growing up in poverty,” said Stowers. “Me coming from that and then being able to sit in a well-structured educational environment and learn about that has really opened my eyes up to a lot of stuff.”
Wallace was one of the first to open Stowers’ eyes. After the teenager traumatically witnessed his dad getting hauled off, he was racked by helplessness, his self-worth flattened, according to Wallace. But the coach and others were there to build Stowers back up, let him know he could break free from what seemed like invisible chains yoking him to the hustle game in Sunset Park.
“He’s an incredible young man,” Wallace said. “Totally dedicated; totally committed to doing what’s right.”
It may be hard, but continuing to try to build a relationship with his incarcerated father was right. Despite a history of hurt, Stowers talks with his dad every two weeks.
“We’ve developed a great relationship over the phone,” said Keon. “He gets to watch me on TV, and he’ll call me and give me some pointers, or just tell me I had a good game or something like that.”
Stowers bench presses 455 pounds and squat lifts 580 pounds, and says he has the thickest neck on the Kansas team, a full 20 inches around. His future prospects are just as strong.
But even a young man seemingly chiseled from granite can’t completely shake a painful childhood. Stowers tweeted last Thursday. “Id (sic) give anything so my pops could see me. Smiling, telling everybody bout his young soldier”.
Bret McCormick • 329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T