San Francisco 49ers

49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman: ‘I feel like the eye is on me ...’

San Francisco 49ers' NaVorro Bowman prepares for NFL football practice in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Bowman has taken on an added leadership role this year after the departures of Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith.
San Francisco 49ers' NaVorro Bowman prepares for NFL football practice in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. Bowman has taken on an added leadership role this year after the departures of Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and Justin Smith. AP

NaVorro Bowman’s jersey was 14th overall in sales for the month of May and was the second-best seller among NFL defensive players behind Houston’s J.J. Watt. Why would someone who didn’t play a snap in 2014 be such a hot item in 2015?

“I did a lot prior to my injury, and I think the fans see how hard I worked to get back to where I am today,” the 49ers linebacker, who is returning from an ACL injury, said Wednesday. “I think that the jersey shows their appreciation of me working hard and not giving up.”

Another explanation could be that with long-time star players Frank Gore, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis no longer on the team, 49ers fans are seeking a champion and Bowman is a natural choice.

Bowman, entering his sixth season, acknowledged the added responsibility. He’s taken on the media duties – the de facto spokesman for the defense – that Willis handled in recent years. On Wednesday, Bowman was raising money for his new 4th & Goal Foundation with 13 teammates in tow.

The foundation hosted a dinner in downtown San Jose – Bowman and teammates donned aprons and served as waiters – to raise money for building playgrounds in the Bay Area.

Jeff Ginn, the foundation’s executive director, said many elementary schools either have no playgrounds or facilities that are so old that they have become unsafe and need to be torn out and replaced. Each costs as much as $25,000, and Bowman’s foundation hopes to build eight in the next two years.

“I wasn’t too privileged growing up,” Bowman said. “I had to scratch and claw and find things to do as a child. And me being where I am today, I’m able to provide something, especially for kids ... who don’t have as much as the next kid. So I really want to provide inner-city, low-income students in the Bay Area with a safe place to play.”

Bowman was a third-round pick in 2010. While his play matched – and often surpassed – Willis’ in recent years, Willis handled many of the leadership duties in the locker room. Now Bowman notices the younger players taking their cues from him.

“I appreciate that,” Bowman said. “I feel like the eye is on me a little bit more. Those guys were the vets of this team and I was the young guy. Now it seems like I’m the veteran of the team. I never shy away from leadership. I think ... if you want to be a great player, you have to have some type of leadership in you.”

Two multiyear year veterans, safety Antoine Bethea and wide receiver Torrey Smith, helped Bowman serve food Wednesday, but the bulk of his staff was younger players Kenneth Acker, Quinton Dial, Bruce Ellington, Kendall Gaskins, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Marcus Martin, Kyle Nelson, Quinton Patton, Mike Purcell, Michael Wilhoite and Ian Williams.

Said Bowman: “Just trying to steer them down the right road and understanding we’re blessed to be in this position.”

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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