It was 4th-and-goal at the 2, Kentucky’s last chance to beat Tennessee on the line. The quarterback rolled right on an option play, but it was doomed. The blocker failed to seal the edge. Bowden’s turn upfield was met with immediate resistance and he was driven back. Even the magic man at quarterback, the quarterback who really wasn’t a quarterback but a bolt of lightning personified couldn’t pull away from the defense, couldn’t dart out the other side in a disappearing/reappearing act. He couldn’t invent a way to grab victory from defeat on this night. Lynn Bowden was stopped, Kentucky had lost. But failure? Failure left the equation a long way back.

Troubled roots

Failure was abandoned somewhere around Youngstown, Ohio. Once a hub of the steel industry, Youngstown sits halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, a land out of its time. When Bruce Springsteen wrote a song about the city in the 1990s, his working-class narrator chastised the steel bosses, “Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name.” If Youngstown was remembered, it was for massive amounts of crime, enough to earn the city a nickname, Murdertown, USA.

Into that environment came young Lynn Bowden, Jr. He was an elite athlete, a do-it-all quarterback and a great basketball player at Youngstown’s Warren Harding High School. He was also a very questionable student, a soon-to-be-father, and an imposing young man, covered by tattoos and hidden under dreadlocks. Whispers followed Bowden. He’d never qualify academically. He was a gang member. He would never amount to anything.

Those rumors mattered on the recruiting trail as well. Like most talented Ohio athletes, Bowden expected interest from the Ohio State Buckeyes. The interest that came was belated and somewhat grudging. On the other hand, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow are both from Youngstown, and Kentucky football was hardly a stranger to the area. The Wildcats recruited heavily in northeastern Ohio, and had just snagged the player who would become UK’s all-time leading rusher, Benny Snell, from under OSU’s noses at Westerville, a couple hours down the road from Youngstown.

Other coaches reached out with interest. Famously, Bowden claimed to be sick and missed the school on the day when Ohio State came calling just before Signing Day. He had decided the day before that he would be a Kentucky Wildcat, the first of several reinventions that would change Bowden’s life.

Growing in Lexington

He was late to report to campus because of his academic concerns, and new to playing the wide receiver position. Bowden’s freshman year at UK was marked more by on-field trash talking and off-field Twitter rants than by production between the lines. He caught 17 passes for 210 yards, and showed himself to be a threat in the kick and punt return games. But Bowden was inconsistent, still a figure of more potential than proof.

He had to get serious — about being a wide receiver, about being a teammate and a student, and about being a father to his new son, Lynn Bowden III.

“I think from his freshman year to his sophomore year, he saw that it wasn’t just off his talent, it was off his paying attention to details,” UK wide receivers coach Michael Smith said. “Lynn got better and better, each week.”

By his sophomore year, Bowden had changed. No longer a receiver in training, he took to the position, grabbing 67 receptions for 745 yards and 5 touchdowns. Yes, Kentucky’s defense had plenty to do with the team’s 10-3 season and No. 11 final ranking. But Bowden was at the center of most of the season’s scoring highlights, catching a 54 yard touchdown bomb in The Swamp as part of Kentucky’s first win over Florida since 1987, nearly single-handedly leading UK to a road win at Missouri with a punt return touchdown and 13 catches for 166 yards. And then in the Citrus Bowl, he again struck, boosting Kentucky’s struggling offense with another punt return touchdown.

Bowden’s reinvention continued into his junior season. There he was at SEC Media Days, hair neatly trimmed, nattily attired in suit and tie, the face of a program, the most outstanding of a group of component parts that has led a rebirth of Kentucky football. He’s an honor roll student, he’s an involved father to his son. And oh yeah, he became a quarterback.

Another reinvention

After Kentucky lost starting QB Terry Wilson to injury in Week 2, the Wildcats soldiered on with backup QB Sawyer Smith, until he assembled multiple serious injuries by the team’s 5th game. With 3rd-string QB Nik Scalzo out for the year with an ACL injury, Kentucky, 2-3 on the season and facing backlash for falling from 2018 glory to 2019 struggles, tried another possibility — Bowden.

Never shy about his abilities, Bowden often reminded those around the program that he’d been a quarterback in high school. But being a quarterback in high school and being one in the SEC should be very different things. Right?

“People do not understand how hard it is,” Stoops said of his new field general. “The way he directs things, the way he understands things, there are so many moving parts.”

Foremost among the moving parts has been Bowden himself. Admittedly, he has been spotty as a passer (27-for-54, 317 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception). He has a strong arm and can deliver a nice pass. But he’s absolutely deadly in the running game. Whether it’s called plays or last-second improvisations, Bowden is basically unstoppable as a runner. “It’s like a homecoming,” he deadpanned to the media after his first start, a 24-20 win over Arkansas that saved Kentucky’s season.

With the ball in his hands, Bowden is now 7th in the SEC in rushing, with 822 yards on the ground. In 5 starts at QB, he has rushed for 196, 99, 204, 114, and 110 yards in each week. He has carried the ball between 17 and 26 times in each game, has taken a massive amount of punishment onto his 6-1, 199-pound frame. He even returned a punt in the Arkansas game.

“There’s a lot of tough players out there nationally,” Stoops recently commented. “But I’d like to see one that’s tougher than him.”

More important, Bowden took the helm on a 2-3 Kentucky team that had struggled to put up any points at all. He promptly led the team to 3 SEC wins, and to the cusp of a 4th consecutive bowl appearance. How impressed are those around him at UK? Well, John Calipari joked about needing Bowden for his hoops squad, if it could be arranged.

The future and the legacy

That possibility aside, what’s next for Bowden, other than 2 more regular-season games and (probably) a bowl appearance? Mel Kiper previously indicated that Bowden could be a late 1st-round draft pick. Whether the quarterback play helps or hurts in that area is hard to say, but the NFL possibility is there whenever Bowden chooses to pursue it. For the time being, Bowden can savor the journey. The baggage of negative expectations lessens on every QB run that he breaks, every class he aces, every post-game father/son celebration with little Lynn III.

“He has that alpha dog in him,” Stoops said of his quarterback. “He’s going to want to make plays, he’s going to be impactful on the field. But everybody’s watching him off the field as well.”

It’s fitting that Kentucky took a chance on Bowden, because with his team’s season in dire straits, Bowden took a chance on his ability to go back to those Youngstown days at quarterback. Bowden had never forgotten where he came from, figuratively or literally. Now, he combines the old skills with the new maturity and lives his best life, secure in the knowledge that he might lose a game here and there, but he long ago defeated failure in favor of a legacy of rebirth at Kentucky — his and his team’s.