“I think somebody’s hurt at the bottom of that pile.”
Those words from Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck came amid the most frantic moments of perhaps the most intense playoff game the 49ers ever played.
Midway through the fourth quarter of the 2013 NFC championship game, the 49ers, trailing by three points, were desperately trying to keep the Seahawks out of the end zone. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who had been the 49ers’ best player to that point, seemingly delivered the heroics his team needed.
The Seahawks completed a pass to wide receiver Jermaine Kearse at the 1-yard line, and Bowman wrenched the ball away, but safety Eric Reid arrived and drove Kearse into Bowman’s lower left leg.
The impact tore both the ACL and medial collateral ligament in the joint and sent Bowman, who led the team in tackles that day, on a grueling rehabilitation, and he says he still hasn’t fully returned.
The injury happened between the 1- and 2-yard lines and between the hashes on the north end of CenturyLink Field. Bowman said he will visit that spot before Sunday’s game for the first time since the injury.
“I just want to win, but, of course, some emotions will be inside of me,” he said. “I plan on revisiting the spot where I went down and just thanking God for having a chance to be back out there.”
There are other emotions at play, too.
While he received well-wishes from Seahawks players after the injury and during his rehabilitation, Bowman hasn’t heard anything of the sort from Seahawks fans, who infamously dumped popcorn on him as he was being carted off the field.
“I remember it and that’s been with me for a while,” he said. “And no matter who gets hurt, you want to make sure they get back up on their feet and show some sign of respect, and I don’t think the Seahawks fans did that at all. You can’t keep a good man down. That’s basically my message to them.”
After the play, 49ers and Seahawks players – 49ers safety Donte Whitner and Seahawks offensive tackle Breno Giacomini were the most animated – signaled to the 49ers sideline that someone was hurt.
Bowman said he knew Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman admonished fans after the incident, but he said he has not heard an apology or contrition from any fans.
“Navorro Bowman is a great player who plays the game the right way,” Sherman said at the time. “When he went down, I dropped to a knee and prayed for him. He deserves better than having food thrown at him as he’s carted off a field. All players deserve better than that.”
Sherman said he ran into Bowman in Los Angeles after the 2013 season and wished him a fast recovery. He also said it seemed the 49ers linebacker was well on his way toward returning to his previous form.
Bowman’s two most recent games have been perhaps his best of the season. He led all tacklers in a loss to the St. Louis Rams in Week 8, then sparked the 49ers’ defensive resurgence in a Week 9 win against the Atlanta Falcons, a game in which then-league-leading rusher Devonta Freeman was held to 12 yards on 12 carries. Bowman is third in the NFL with 88 tackles.
“In the Falcons game, it seemed like he was everywhere,” Sherman said during Wednesday’s conference call with reporters. “It’s just a testament to his hard work and dedication to his craft to see him get back to form like he has.”
Bowman told 49ers defensive coordinator Eric Mangini recently that one of his biggest regrets from the championship game was that he wasn’t able to hold on to the football after stripping it from Kearse. On the play, Bowman dropped to the ground in agony and was touched by several Seahawks players before losing the ball. The play, however, was not reviewable and Seattle was awarded possession at the 1-yard line.
“I wanted to get the ball and the pain kind of took over I guess,” he said. “That’s just something that I think is in a football player. The knee is already done, so ‘hold on to the ball’ is what I wish I would have done.”