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CASTING A LONG SHADOW : Overlooked by Recruiters, 5-10 Dowis Is Walking Tall at Air Force

Times Staff Writer

Royston, Ga., is hardly more than two quick pumps of the brake pedal along Highway 29 heading into South Carolina. If you choose to pause at either of the town’s stoplights, you will notice the mural of Ty Cobb on the water tower, the statue of Ty Cobb at city hall and the Ty Cobb Memorial Hospital near his birthplace.

Soon, folks in Royston might have to erect another water tower. Another native son, Air Force Academy quarterback Dee Dowis, is gaining acclaim, to the mild surprise and immense pleasure of locals who remember him as a scrawny kid running the streets from the time he was, well, knee high to Ty Cobb’s statue.

Dowis, 21, has grown--numerically and emotionally, if not quite physically--into a scrawny major college quarterback whose elusive running has helped Air Force post a 4-0 record this season. It also has put Dowis in the running for the Heisman Trophy along with Notre Dame’s Tony Rice, West Virgina’s Major Harris and all the other bigger names and bodies.

So far, Dowis seems to be a contender. The 5-foot-10 (wearing heels), 153-pound (after a pasta dinner) senior leads the nation in rushing with averages of 145 yards and 16.5 points a game going into the Falcons’ contest today against Colorado State at Fort Collins, Colo.

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Air Force, somewhat unaccustomed to such national attention for its football program, has nonetheless launched a comparatively restrained Heisman campaign on Dowis’ behalf. On the grass-roots level, some of Royston’s 2,404 residents already have talked to Helen Brown, Dowis’ mother, about making Dee as famous as Cobb.

“Everywhere I go, I swear, I can hardly do my work without people stopping me and saying how proud they are of him,” Brown said. “Our whole town follows him. They say to me, we’re going to have to change that sign (on Highway 29) to ‘Home of Ty Cobb and Dee Dowis’. Wouldn’t that be something?”

What makes Dowis different from the norm, and what might sway some underdog-conscious Heisman voters is his slight build, the unsullied image of a military man and the wistful fact that his football career will soon end.

All cadets have a five-year military commitment after graduation and, unlike the special consideration given to the Navy’s Napoleon McCallum and David Robinson, the Air Force has not made allowances for star athletes in the past and says it will not in the future.

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“Chad Hennings (an Air Force All-American defensive tackle in 1987) came out of here a few years ago and he probably would’ve gone number two or three in the draft, and he couldn’t go pro,” Dowis said. “I guess that answers that question.”

Dowis said he would not mind giving professional football a try--as a wide receiver, not as a quarterback. But he accepts the inherent circumstances, says he only plays football for fun anyway. Next year, Dowis probably will pursue a master’s degree in business and perhaps serve as a graduate assistant coach for Air Force.

Dowis has an ability to elude tacklers--juke and slither are football writers’ favorite descriptions--and has led the team to the second best total offense average in the country. It is the whole package that attracts inordinate attention. People are suckers for men in uniforms.

It has reached the point that this chronic overachiever is dealing with overexposure. The national media has found its way to the Academy and done so in droves.

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Introverted and occasionally embarrassed around strangers, Dowis does not find talking about football nearly as fun as playing it.

He arrived unavoidably late for an interview Wednesday in a storage room adjoining the sports information office at Air Force. He looked tired and confirmed that he was “worn out.” A publicist sat Dowis down and told him that his 3 o’clock interview would be rescheduled, to which Dowis replied, “Cool.” It already was after 3 and this was Dowis’ 2 o’clock appointment. Practice would be at 4, and Dowis also needed treatment on his left knee, which was injured last week against Texas El Paso.

He is unfailingly polite and speaks with a soft Southern drawl. However, he’s easily distracted by the same unimaginative questions about his Heisman prospects, his height and the structured military life.

He sat through a 20-minute interview without making eye-contact and bided time by tightening a stray string of athletic tape around his left index finger. He watched the tip turn from red to blue with steady pressure, then released the string. He repeated the process throughout. At one point, Dowis rubbed his temples so hard in trying to hold back fatigue that red marks appeared.

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It is consistent with Dowis’ accommodating nature, however, that he has yet to turn down an interview request. His reticence is more from bewilderment than cynicism.

“It gets to me at times,” Dowis said. “Like right now. I’m just worn out. The last few weeks, there’s been a lot (of interviews). But it brings attention to the school, and that’s good. I understand that.”

Dowis also seems to have been born without an ego. By most accounts, he is a modest and serious kid who never asked for all this attention.

His standard response to Heisman speculation: “I think it’s an honor just to be mentioned. I don’t even think about it.”

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Jay Mariotti, a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News, has written that Dowis’ only Heisman drawback may be that he does not care if he wins the award. A recent conversation between columnist and quarterback:

“You mean you don’t have any thoughts at all about the Heisman?”

“That’s right.”

“Doesn’t your family talk about the attention you’re starting to receive?”

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“I haven’t talked to them about it.”

“What about CNN? Was that (interview) a thrill?”

“They’re nice people.”

“Didn’t they ask you about the Heisman?”

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“I don’t remember.”

“Dee, I gather you don’t want to talk about the Heisman.”

“Exactly.”

There is more about Dowis to explore than hyped awards and the complexities of the wishbone offense. Dowis has an abiding love for football and family, common among Georgians.

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Dee was 3 when his father, Leonard, died of a heart attack. Leonard Dowis had been a local football hero who would have played halfback for the University of Georgia, 30 miles south in Athens, had World War II not intervened. Leonard, in later years, had coached high school football in Royston but quit shortly before his only son was born.

Dowis’ mother, who married local businessman Harold Brown when Dee was 7, said her son’s physical attributes, determination and mannerisms resemble Leonard’s.

“He was little, like Dee,” Helen Brown says of her first husband. “I never saw (Leonard) play ball in high school, but I’m told he ran just like Dee. That cutting and juking, you know. There, he definitely takes after his father. They both hate to lose.

“The day before (Leonard) died, he wanted Dee to go to Y-camp if he wanted to learn football because he didn’t want to coach him. It was as if he was giving me a message about how to raise Dee, like he knew he was going to die. A premonition or something.”

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Leonard Dowis never played for his beloved Georgia Bulldogs. Neither did Dee, but for a different reason. They did not want him.

Normally, Vince Dooley, former Bulldog coach, would not let a prospect leave the state without an exit visa. But in the big pond that is Georgia high school football, Dowis apparently was too small a fish. Despite impressive prep rushing statistics, other schools also ignored Dowis. Recruiters from nearby Clemson, Duke and Furman visited Royston and left after seeing Dowis in the flesh.

Jeff Davis, Dowis’ coach at Franklin County High School, described many recruiting visits in a recent interview with the Rocky Mountain News: “I’d go get (Dowis) out of class, and then I’d watch (recruiters’) eyes when they saw him walk in. You could just see it in their eyes. They’d be thinking, ‘This is the guy?’ ”

Dowis said he was not particularly military-minded when he applied to Air Force, but he wanted a quality education as well as the chance to play football in college.

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Perhaps an indication of the culture shock to come was the reaction from townspeople when they first heard Dowis had received a scholarship to the Air Force Academy.

“They all asked,” said Dowis’ mother, “what base Dee’d be stationed at. I found it funny. They really didn’t know.”

It turned out that Dowis didn’t know all that was involved at the Academy, located at the base of the Rampart Range north of Colorado Springs. They gave him a heavier course load than he would have received at most civilian universities, which he had trouble handling.

Dowis’ longing for Royston almost led him to transfer after his freshman year. His mother remembers emotional evening phone calls home that first year. She said Dee occasionally knelt at the Cadet Chapel and prayed for guidance.

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“I didn’t know anything about the military,” Dowis said. “They just gave me the chance to play football and get a great education at the same time. This is definitely one of the top academic places in the country. People on the outside see this as pretty prestigious.

“It was tough (the first year). I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, so I was kind of shocked when I got here. I didn’t have my mind made up to stay here the whole time when I first got here.”

He had all but signed transfer papers to Georgia Tech after his freshman year, but his mother, his high school coach and Cal McCombs, an Air Force assistant coach, talked him out of leaving the Academy.

“I was really close,” Dowis said. “I’d gone to Tech and talked to them, and I just came back (home) to get my stuff. But I just couldn’t quit (the Academy) when it came right down to it. Also, I went to coach McCombs’ house and talked to him for three hours that night. I decided to stay.

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“Now, yeah, I like it here. I think a lot of it has to do with being a senior.”

Dowis’ quiet demeanor turns aggressive when on the field. His running style is similar to that of former Oklahoma quarterback Jamelle Holloway. In fact, former Sooner Coach Barry Switzer said Dowis could have started for him at Oklahoma.

Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry has said Dowis is a more talented option quarterback than Notre Dame’s Rice. Irish Coach Lou Holtz will not say that. But, after watching Dowis and reading his statistics, Holtz deemed Dowis a Heisman contender.

If Dowis maintains his prolific statistical pace, he will be hard to discount when ballots are cast.

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As a sophomore, Dowis rushed for 1,315 yards, a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. record for quarterbacks. Last season, in a more balanced attack, he gained 972 yards. The Falcons pass sparingly, but Dowis is capable of going to the air for the Force. Last season, he tied an NCAA record when he completed 11 straight passes against Northwestern.

Dowis’ prowess, however, is running. He has rushed for 2,869 yards in his career, only 430 short of the NCAA record for career rushing yardage by a quarterback, held since 1974 by Freddie Solomon of Tampa. Dowis only needs to average 53.8 yards per game in Air Force’s final eight games to break Solomon’s record.

There is an outside chance that Dowis might break the record at home on Oct. 14 against Notre Dame. Of potentially more significance in that game would be a matchup between Dowis and Rice on national television. Each team’s potentially unbeaten record, and hundreds of Heisman votes, could be in the balance.


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