Undrafted to NFL Starter

Stephen Bowen – Undrafted to NFL Starter

Stephen Bowen played defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Commanders and New York Jets during his 10-year NFL career. Bowen excelled at both football and basketball in high school before focusing on football at Long Island’s Hofstra University.

The odds of making it to the NFL are already a long shot. And the odds of making the NFL from a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I, Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school are even longer. Most pros are found in Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) institutions.

According to NFL draft data, 254 players were selected in the 2019 NFL Draft — of the 254 players, 238 were from a Division I FBS school while only 11 came from a Division I FCS school. Bowen defied the long odds and earned a roster spot as an undrafted free agent, turning his opportunity into a successful NFL career.

From his early college days through his rookie season in the NFL, Bowen recounts what it took to make it to the game’s highest level.

Early college years

Attending college was important for Bowen. Coming from a blue-collar family, Bowen’s father Stephen Bowen Sr., let him know that going to college would mean taking out loans to pay for it. The best way around that was a football scholarship. Bowen earned that scholarship from Hofstra as a two-way player at both linebacker and running back.

“It was scholarship or bust.”

During Bowen’s freshman year, coaches saw his strength, size and agility and moved him to defensive end — a position he had never played. Bowen learned on the fly and excelled by combining the newly acquired techniques and his raw talent.

“Finding NFL talent from Division-One schools can be like discovering a diamond in the rough. Just be sure you shine brightly.”

Junior and Senior seasons

Success on the field meant that Bowen’s dream of making the NFL was closer than ever. NFL scouts visited Hofstra University to get a look at Bowen and fellow future pros, Willie Colon and Marques Colston. Typically, finding NFL talent from Division I FCS schools is a long shot, but Bowen would not be deterred.

After piquing the interest of several scouts, Bowen knew there was no room for slacking if he wanted to play at the next level. The summer between their junior and senior seasons, Bowen, Colon and Colston were dedicated, polishing their respective crafts and working hard every day, not only on the field, but in the film room, too. Bowen embraced film study and used what he learned to outsmart his opponents before he ever put his hand in the dirt.

Bowen left everything on the field in his quest to achieve his ultimate dream — to make it to the NFL.

Shortly after his senior season, Bowen learned he wasn’t invited to the 2006 NFL Combine.

He used the rejection as motivation to prove doubters wrong. Bowen hired an agent and continued to prepare for the NFL draft.  

“You can’t second-guess yourself. You must believe in your ability and what you bring to the team.”

Bowen worked out at a facility in New Jersey to prepare for Hofstra University’s Pro Day. At the time, Hofstra hosted a yearly Pro Day for all the schools in the northeast. At his pro day, Bowen weighed in around 280 pounds and had strong performances in the 40-yard dash, bench press and vertical jump; attracting the attention of several NFL scouts.

The NFL Draft

Stephen Bowen signed his first NFL contract as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys.

Stephen Bowen signed his first NFL contract as an undrafted free agent with the Dallas Cowboys.

Following his impressive pro day, Bowen was projected to be drafted in Rounds 5-7. During the draft, several teams showed interest, but Bowen went undrafted.

“Hard work always pays off.”

In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise. Bowen was now a free agent and able to choose a team where there were opportunities at his position rather than being drafted to a team that was stacked at defensive end.

“I remember I was sitting next to my family when I got that phone call that would change my life forever.”

Rookie Minicamp

AP/Kathy Willens

AP/Kathy Willens

After signing his contract with the Cowboys, Bowen attended the Cowboys’ rookie minicamp along with their 2006 draftees, other undrafted free agents and players on their practice squad.

The competition was intense among Bowen and the three other defensive linemen. In a span of 15 or 16 plays, an undrafted free agent may only get two or three chances to show what he can do. Bowen knew he had to make the most of every rep. He stood out in pass rush drills, catching the eye of his coaches.

Next stop: Training camp with the Cowboys’ full roster, including veterans.

“Coach Parcells is still one of the most intimidating and smartest coaches I’ve ever met.”

Training Camp and Meeting Coach Bill Parcells

AP/Matt Slocum

AP/Matt Slocum

Bowen flew to California where the Cowboys held their training camp. He met his roommate, Jason Hatcher — a third-round pick who also played defensive end. Bowen and Hatcher would become best friends over their careers.

The first day of training camp focused on conditioning tests, which Bowen passed; however, coach Bill Parcells and his staff cut 10 players the following day. Shocked, Bowen realized that he had to show what he had, or he could be among the next cut.

Bowen was determined to get the coaches’ attention. He was locked in, constantly watching film and studying the playbook. As an undrafted player, he knew he had to work twice as hard as the drafted players to avoid getting cut before the start of the season.

Preseason and Practice Squad

AP/Tony Gutierrez

AP/Tony Gutierrez

Bowen got some reps in the first two preseason games of the season. These games are when roster decisions are made. He was competing to impress the coaches and earn a roster spot.

To make it in the NFL, Bowen believed that it wasn’t always the most talented player who succeeded, but the player who was willing to give it his all on and off the field. Hard work always pays off, and Bowen used that as motivation.

“You can be good at hitting people, but how do you react when you get hit?”

Parcells talked to Bowen before the fourth preseason game. This is the part of the preseason where rosters are finalized, and Bowen did not know if he was being cut.

Parcells informed Bowen that he was being placed on the Cowboys’ practice squad. While he didn’t make the team outright, he had done enough to stay in the NFL and continue to fight for a roster spot. He would have another chance to make the most of his reps.

“When you’re grinding and everything is being evaluated, you have few opportunities to impress. You must make the most out of them.”

the 2006 NFL Season

Going into Week 5 of the 2006 NFL season, the St. Louis Rams contacted Bowen’s agent. They wanted to claim him off the Cowboys’ practice squad. Bowen’s agent let the Cowboys know of the Rams’ interest. This forced the Cowboys into a decision; let the Rams sign Bowen or sign him. The Cowboys signed him to the 53-man roster.

Bowen appeared in one game during the 2006 season — a season-ending loss to the Detroit Lions. By January, Bowen and the other rookies were exhausted. They hit the “rookie wall.” The NFL season is a longer grind than the college season. Rookies aren’t used to playing and preparing for 20 games (four preseason & 16 regular season).

Stephen Bowen recording his first-ever sack during his rookie season.

Getting ready for next year

AP/Erich Schlegel

AP/Erich Schlegel

Transitioning from college to the pros is an adjustment for any rookie. Bowen recalls finally giving his body a rest after a long season. During the first month and a half of the offseason, Bowen let his body fully recover. By late February, he gradually started working out until he was finally in decent shape and ready for organized team activities.

“Now that you know how the script goes, you understand how much time it’ll take to get ready in the offseason.”

With one year under his belt, Bowen was prepared and ready for another NFL season.