With a surgical cap on his head and a snarl on his face, 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman took a cell-phone selfie on Feb. 4, 2014, and captioned it, “Time for surgery.”
Just off camera was his partner in overcoming his grisly knee injury, his wife Mikale, on whom he leaned – literally – to recover from that operation and from the Achilles injury that cost him most of the 2016 season.
Mikale may not have had the same look of defiance on her face, but she quickly adopted her husband's attitude: There’s no time for self pity.
“We’re kind of alike, for good and for bad,” she said with a laugh. “There wasn’t a lot of, ‘Are you ok? Are you ok?’ I don’t do too much of that. I get straight to the point and get whatever he needs. He was ready even before going into surgery. It was, ‘Let’s get the ball rolling and knock this out so I can get back on the field.’ ”
The Bowmans recently spoke about their ordeal and the role families play in the recovery from major injuries.
The couple met in Washington, D.C., when Bowman was a sophomore at Penn State and Mikale was a recent high school graduate. When Bowman’s knee tore apart in the 2013 NFC Championship against Seattle, they had a 5-year-old son, NaVorro Jr., and 2-year-old twin girls, Cali and Stoni.
During trips to the grocery store early in 2014, Mikale found she had a fourth dependent – one who weighed 242 pounds.
“It was like carrying a fourth baby,” NaVorro said.
“I replaced his knee,” she said.
Bowman has had minor injuries and the routine aches and pains that come with being a professional football player. But he was classically stoic, never letting on when something was bothering him.
The knee – Bowman tore multiple ligaments that attach his left knee to his lower leg – was quite different, and Mikale admits it shook her.
“I know NaVorro,” she said. “Most of the time he’s in pain, he’s not going to show it to you. I knew he was in the most severe pain he could be in because it showed. His facial expressions. The way he would move around.
“There were times he’d tap me in the middle of the night. I mean, several times. ‘Could you move my leg?’ Sometimes I’d cry without him seeing me because it was such a gruesome injury.”
Even after surgery, Bowman said he could feel how loose the connection between knee and leg was. “Just lifting my leg and rolling out of bed – I couldn’t do it,” he said.
But their determination was greater than the doubt.
Most patients who have that type of surgery will spend the first few days in bed. Bowman was in the rehabilitation room one day after the procedure. He only could move miniscule amounts of weight at first. But over time, the weight grew, and so did his confidence.
“Once I was able to stand on two feet, that’s when I really realized I was going to prove everyone wrong,” he said.
Another impetus were his kids, especially NaVorro Jr., who was old enough to know his father was a successful athlete but didn’t comprehend the toil and determination it took to get there. Bowman’s rehabilitation served as a lesson.
“That was the drive and the motivation,” he said. “If I had just thrown in the towel and not been able to get back, they wouldn’t have understood what I did my whole life and how hard I worked to get to this point. That was the intention, why I worked so hard to get back.”
On Oct. 2, Bowman suffered his second major injury to his left leg, an Achilles tendon tear, something that can cost a player his career. Compared to the knee injury, however, it’s merely been a blip.
“I don’t want to say it was a breeze because it’s a serious injury,” Mikale said. “But it was almost close to a breeze. … I remember he walked into the family room with his (orthopedic) boot on after it happened and was like, ‘It’s OK, I’m fine.’ ”
Kyle Shanahan also has been impressed with Bowman’s recovery. The 49ers coach watched Bowman work out early in the spring, thinking because Bowman was just six months out of surgery he’d find him taking tentative steps. Instead he watched the three-time Pro Bowl player going full bore.
“I thought it would take him some time, I didn’t think he’d really be looking to himself until training camp,” Shanahan said on KNBR radio early last month. “But man, when I go out there right now and watch him work, he looks a lot better than I was expecting this early. He’s put the time in, he’s put the work in, he didn’t just start here when we got all the players here. He started way before that.”
Bowman hasn’t missed any of the current OTA sessions and has been lining up in his usual spot, in the middle of the defense. “I’m ecstatic to see what the season brings for NaVorro,” Mikale said.
During the offseason, Mikale and the children live in Miami while Bowman trains in San Jose. But if he ever needs a reminder why he works so hard to recover or that he's not alone in his rehabilitation, he finds it each time he checks his phone.
He gave a cell phone to NaVorro Jr., now 7, so he can keep in touch, but Cali commandeered it.
Bowman said it’s not usual for him to find 30 or 40 messages – voicemails that are converted into texts – from her.
“Daddy, how’s your foot?”
“Daddy, are you alright?”
“Daddy, when are you coming home?”
“The theme is that I’m crossing her mind every single day,” Bowman said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Cali, I can’t talk right now. I’m at work.’ ”
And Cali recently discovered emojis.
“Now every day I get like 50 emojis,” Bowman said with a laugh. “It’s funny just to see that she’s thinking about me every day. It’s a great thing that she misses her dad.”