The first day of school produced a lot of bad news for Minneapolis South coach Lenny Sedlock. He considered how a handful of ineligible starters would affect his Friday game plan against Roosevelt.
Stomping by with a big grin on his face, 14-year-old Payton Bowdry changed the coach’s mood.
“The good news is Payton is still here,” Sedlock said.
The 6-foot-1, 170-pound freshman is the type of athlete who has eluded South during Sedlock’s 13 years as coach. Not only the running back’s powerful long legs and toned upper body, but his willingness to learn and commitment to lead.
In a pre-season scrimmage Bowdry triggered the first sideline eruption of the season when he hurdled a defender and landed in the end zone. The move was illegal, but that didn’t stop players from erupting in cheers.
“This kid, he is special,” said Sedlock. “Of all the years I’ve been here, I’d say this is first kid who has a real shot at playing D-1 [college football].
“He’s a guy we never thought would be here. He’s the next generation.”
Bowdry impressed sophomores Anthony Hockett and Billy Hollie even before they met him. The pair sat in front of Hollie’s computer watching YouTube highlights of Bowdry running over defenders.
“I had heard he was really good,” said Hockett, who became the team’s starting quarterback. Hollie predicted Bowdry would start varsity.
He was right. Bowdry carried the ball 16 times and scored a touchdown in the Tigers’ first win of the season.
He also pushed teammates to improve, not backing down even when the upperclassmen pushed back.
“It just happened. I just be working hard,” Bowdry said about his ability to lead and succeed. “I have the heart to not quit, no matter what.”
Three weeks into the season, Bowdry’s mother, Belinda, saw her son in a South uniform for the first time.
“How you get on varsity as a freshman?” she asked, before teasing that all of his speed and talent came from his mother.
Sedlock regaled her with all the good that her son had done for his program.
“That’s good,” Belinda said. “We brought them up here, for a better life.”
A rough edge
The bright smile on Bowdry’s face wasn’t always there.
Ten years ago, Southside Village Boys & Girls Club director Mark Graves met what he described as the toughest little guys you could ever see.
Every day, it seemed, there were behavioral issues. Payton or older brother Pierre found a way to argue, often to the edge of physical alterations.
As the boys grew up at the club, athletics became a big part of their routine. Graves remembers the day he realized Payton, then 10, would be a special athlete. He watched as the lanky boy on the basketball court scrapped and dove for any loose ball he could get his hands on.
“I remember telling my staff, 'Man, that dude has got a different type of motor,’’’Graves said.
Payton and Pierre became a pair of the club’s best athletes and students. The lifestyle changes filtered into the Bowdry home, where the environment also began to improve.
“Their family came from one of the roughest public housings in Chicago, so they just had a rough edge to them to be able to survive where they lived,” Graves said. “This family has made a turnaround. And you can see from the top, down, the results that it is having. You can see that big smile on Payton. Every time I see him, he’s happy and comfortable.
“It’s such a beautiful thing to see a young man that started off really rough work on his rough edges. You can’t put a price on it. There’s not a lot of success stories of people that get it at a young age.”
Dudes from the hood
Walking undistracted past men in tuxedos and women in gowns amid the fancy surroundings of Target Field’s Legend Club, Bowdry snapped his fingers, puckered his lips and began to sing. He and the other three members of The Romantics, there to perform for a benefit, used any opportunity to prepare for it.
They were the second act at the black-tie event, held to raise money for the Minneapolis Boys & Girls Club. Waiting for a chance to impress the hundreds of donors in attendance, Bowdry considered what it would be like to sit at one of the adorned tables.
“I hope to be there one day,” he said. “But we’re here to show people where we come from. We’re four black dudes from that 'hood that can sing. I think we’ll surprise them.”
For the past several weeks at their Southside club, Bowdry and his group mates, Semaj Okongwu, Rio Jones and Maurice Brooks, endured plenty of teasing from teenagers for their oldies song choices and dance moves, Now, Bowdry told them it was their time to shine.
Bowdry wore a pair of Jordan sneakers, his black Dickies with a lanyard hanging from a pocket, and two red bracelets with the message “Shine God’s Light.” On stage he bobbed his head, swayed to the rhythm of the music and smiled.
Retreating to warm applause, The Romantics huddled to celebrate the moment. Graves embraced them and took note of how they ignored their peers’ ribbing.
“All the guys in the group said, 'This is what we like.’ To me that is the sign of maturity,” Graves said. “[Bowdry] is willing to step out and not follow, and exercise that leadership that has been roaring, waiting to get out of him.”
A full course load
Bowdry raised his hand and waited patiently for his fourth hour English teacher to address him. The topic was the Mayan temple Chichen Itza. Bowdry elaborated on what she had already explained to the class.
Some classmates squirmed in their seats, itching to be done. Bowdry sat up straight, eager to answer more questions as the topic changed to Oedipus.
On the way to his next class, he pulled a container of peanuts from his bulky green backpack and poured handfuls into several friends’ hands before grabbing his own share.
Then it’s on to new French vocabulary words. His pronunciation needs work, but he at least tries. Most of the class does not.
His final period of the day is a freshmen course centered around social interaction. Here the vocal Bowdry is in his element.
At his first homecoming dance, it was Bowdry who moon-walked and taught people how to Dougie, the electric slide of his generation.
Freshmen Sydney Dynneson, who went to middle school with the running back and shares the same English class this semester, says Bowdry has always been well-liked.
“Everybody knows Payton,” she said before watching the Tigers play Southwest. “He has confidence, which is good.”
Placing an importance on school and caring about his peers is important to Bowdry. He’s seen talented athletes disregard these areas of their life and as a result forfeit the potential of their abilities. These observations have kept Bowdry focused, he said.
“Basically like stay off these streets and don’t be like a park legend,” Bowdry described his motivation to stay focused. “I want to advance and take it further.”
Dealing with a setback
The promise offered by Bowdry’s on-field performance early in the season was nowhere to be found on the sideline of South’s game at Eden Prairie last month.
The opening kickoff squirted through his arms. Later in the first half he fumbled again. He gained few yards rushing. Missed blocks and penalties.
Trailing 28-0 at halftime, Bowdry sat motionless, with a blank stare.
He moped back to the sideline until assistant coach Chris Barrett intervened.
The coach, sensing defeat in Bowdry’s body language, chirped into his safety’s ear and asked for more.
After the game coaches took turns consoling him. Maintaining the same blank look, he listened and said little.
“He’s a young kid,” Sedlock said. “Everybody has to go through it at sometime. He’ll come back. It might be next week. It might be in two weeks. But he’ll come back.”
A week later, he did. The freshman realized he wasn’t mentally strong enough for the challenges the state’s top team threw his wasy. He also admitted to being a selflish player that night.
“That’s where mental toughness comes in,” he said after handling a 43-0 loss to Southwest in a much more positive fashion. “I grew up.”
Jason Gonzalez • 612-673-4494 Twitter: @JGonStrib