“It’s time to go,” NaVorro Bowman said to his three kids, who badly wanted to go back to the 49ers practice field and play, as children do.
The moment was symbolic. The former All-Pro linebacker announced Tuesday he was stepping away from football and talked with reporters inside Levi’s Stadium. Tuesday marked his official retirement – and he wanted to make sure it happened in Santa Clara, where he practiced to become one of the NFL’s best defensive players.
“I feel like the 49ers is my home and it’s the place that loved me from the start,” Bowman said, “so I wanted to come back and retire as a Niner. They welcomed me and I’m glad it happened.”
His plan for the afternoon involved going to Patrick Willis’ house to “talk about retirement and have a beer or two,” he said.
Bowman, 31, was joined by his agent Drew Rosenhaus, his wife and children at the team’s headquarters. Though he wasn’t officially given a one-day contract because the roster was full, the 49ers welcomed Bowman back after spending 2010 through 2017 with the team, playing in three straight conference title games from 2011 to 2013, and Super Bowl XLVII following the 2012 campaign. He was named a first-team All-Pro four times and three Pro Bowls as a core member of San Francisco’s elite defenses during the Jim Harbaugh era.
Bowman’s best season might have come in 2013, when he was snubbed in defensive player of the year voting behind Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly. Bowman didn’t receive a first-place vote despite 120 solo tackles, two interceptions, eight pass break-ups and six forced fumbles. The season included his famous “Pick at the Stick” in the final game played at Candlestick Park, an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown to seal a December victory over the Atlanta Falcons that clinched a playoff berth.
That season ended in disastrous fashion that might have cost Bowman dearly, both in terms of his football career and earning power. He snapped his left ACL and MCL on a goal-line play in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game against the Seattle Seahawks, which cost him the entire following season and hindered the supreme athleticism that made him one of the best linebackers in the league.
“I always say, ‘Should I have just let him score?’” Bowman said. “Maybe I’d be playing 12 or 13 years (and named a) six-time All-Pro. I don’t know. But I was giving everything for my teammates. That’s what happens, that’s why they say it’s a 100-percent injury rate in this game. But the fans recognize me. That’s why I play the game, to get the love from the fans and get the respect of my fellow players.”
Bowman was trying to rip the ball away from Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse at the 1-yard line. Safety Eric Reid, the a rookie, dove to keep Kearse away from the goal line. But the move pushed Kearse into Bowman’s knee, bending it the wrong direction. Bowman was in immense pain and replays showed he had the ball in his arms despite the hit. But it was ruled Seahawks’ ball because fumbles were not reviewable if they hadn’t been called on the field.
The play ultimately led to the creation of the “NaVorro Bowman Rule” which added fumbles to the review process. The play, in many ways, is one of the most famous of his career, given the stakes of the game and how much it took away from him. Bowman was never the same player, which led to his messy breakup with the 49ers in 2017.
He tore his Achilles in 2016 and spent the following offseason trying to ingratiate himself to Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, who were undertaking a roster-wide reconstruction project in the first year of their tenures. They used a first-round draft pick on Bowman’s potential replacement in Reuben Foster, indicating they might be ready to go another direction down the road while Bowman was lacking the speed and agility he had before his injuries.
Bowman became a part-time player and began getting benched in spurts during October games against the Colts and Cardinals. He wound up requesting a trade, though the team couldn’t find a partner, and instead released Bowman to allow him to join a team of his choosing.
“I never saw myself being second to anyone,” Bowman said. “When the draft happened, it kind of started moving fast, I had just come off an Achilles. And so, you need time to get back and I just thought it wasn’t given to me. But, there’s pressure too, when you’re new and you move in, so you want to start making those changes. I understood the business. But when I went to the Raiders I just wanted to know I could still play.”
Bowman finished the season in Oakland playing the final 10 games. He didn’t sign with a team the following season despite getting multiple offers, he said, though none satisfied what he was looking for.
“Tons (of offers). But the respect just wasn’t there. At the end of the day, I know who I am, I know my worth, I know what you’re going to ask me to do if I do sign this contract,” He said. “So I just wanted to get compensated for that, so I hung them up.”
But Bowman indicated his relationship with Shanahan and Lynch is in a good place these days despite the disagreement over his role at the end of his time with San Francisco.
“Bow’s the man,” Shanahan said to the team before allowing him to break down the post-practice huddle. “He’s one of the best guys of the last decade.”