Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Bowman is leader of 49ers’ defense

It was in the back of his mind, this hunch that he could become one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Penn State has churned them out for decades. Why not him? Why not NaVorro Bowman?

The 49ers’ fourth-year veteran smiles, shakes his head. There were other times – many times, he admits – that he wondered and even feared that his background would reach out and drag him home, back to the crime-infested neighborhood outside Washington, D.C.

“I went through a lot in college,” said Bowman, who earned Associated Press All-Pro honors Friday.

Devastated by the death of his father at age 52 to a blood clot and his high school coach to an auto accident several months later, Bowman reacted poorly, mostly by acting out. There was an arrest for marijuana, a fight in the student union, a suspension for failed random drug tests, several scoldings from the late coach Joe Paterno.

But Bowman quickly and proudly mentions that he got one thing right during the turbulent times that included injuries and a redshirt season: He became obsessed with earning a degree, and he completed his bachelor’s in criminal justice in three years.

“I wanted to play football, but if that isn’t going to work out, I was going to get my degree,” he said Thursday in a near-empty 49ers locker room. “That was one thing I could get and say, ‘Oooh, this is mine.’ I was always taking extra classes, asking my adviser, ‘How many more credits do I need?’ It turns out, everything worked out. I was good enough to play in the NFL and I got my degree.”

With his diploma already framed and All-America and All-Big Ten honors achieved, Bowman skipped his final year of NCAA eligibility and entered the 2010 NFL draft. He was selected by the 49ers in the third round with the 91st overall pick, and a year later, thrust into a formidable linebacking corps anchored by All-Pro Patrick Willis – a linebacking corps once anchored by Patrick Willis. Around the 49ers camp these days, it’s pretty much agreed that Bowman, a two-time All-Pro and candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, dominates his patch of turf.

He leads the 49ers in tackles for a third consecutive season and has a knack for producing dramatic, disruptive plays. His December alone was one for the seasons: three sacks, two interceptions, one pick returned for a touchdown, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery.

His coaches and teammates cite his quickness, his intelligence, his instincts. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith suggests Bowman was “born” for the position. “He’s so well-rounded,” said Smith. “He’s not just good at covering, not just a run stopper. He’s able to do both things really well, and everything he does seems effortless.”

Willis, who declined to talk during media availability Thursday until he learned Bowman was the topic, stopped and chatted for almost 10 minutes.

“NaVorro, man, he’s a dynamic player,” Willis said. “He can play the run, the pass. He’s having the kind of year linebackers dream about. And I think, the way the game is changing, with so much passing, you’re going to start to find linebackers who are a little more athletic, like him.”

Bowman, who is 6-foot and a deceptive 242 pounds, with a full beard he hopes enhances his image as a fierce, even ferocious competitor, never wanted to be anything but a linebacker. He wanted to be Ray Lewis. He played running back briefly in high school, but after suffering a few injuries, talked his way back to the defense.

“I’d rather give the hit than take it,” he said, laughing. “I enjoy taking over the game, and linebacker is the only position you can take chances and still be backed up by your teammates. You take a chance at cornerback, you make a mistake, you could give up a touchdown. On the defensive line, they could give up a run. Linebackers are protected, and if you’re flying around, you’re having fun. That’s the way it is. You have to love playing linebacker if you want to be good.”

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers rates Bowman “one of the top guys in the league. He pops out every time you turn on the film.”

The Atlanta Falcons probably feel like they’re seeing double: In the NFC Championship Game last year in the Georgia Dome, Bowman deflected Matt Ryan’s fourth-down pass to wideout Roddy White in the red zone in the final minutes. Two weeks ago in a rematch at Candlestick Park, Bowman killed a potential game-winning drive with an interception and an 89-yard touchdown return.

“You have to be the smartest, the leader, whatever the coach wants, you have to get across to your teammates,” he added. “I love the attention. I love being in the center of things. And I love to win.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee