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Football takes backseat for Bowden family

Published September 9, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - There's never been a loss like this for the first family of college football. Dropping five straight games to Miami was nothing compared with the pain Bobby and all the Bowdens felt five days before his Seminoles get their next chance against the Hurricanes.

In life, there's nothing worse than seeing your child die, or a grandchild. Nothing. If you are a parent, you know. No debate. Suddenly, excruciatingly, the broad-shouldered Bowdens are sharing the worst.

Bobby and Ann Bowden, in their 56th year of marriage, are the pulsating heartbeat of a huge, close, loving, religious and famous family. Four sons, two daughters, 21 grandchildren.

Every summer, Bowden masses gather at Panama City for a week of fun on the beach. There are lots of cookouts. Plenty of storytelling. Joking. Recollections from FDR to GWB. Football and family. Enjoying a wealth of grandkids.

So it was Bowdens as usual, five days before FSU-UM, mini-convening for a birthday party after Sunday church, honoring grandson J.J. at the Tallahassee house where Bobby and Ann have lived since 1976. J.J. is 18, a freshman at FSU, where his granddad is a legend. Where his father, John, was a football center during Bobby's early years. Eight months ago, Bowden daughter Ginger, an Okaloosa County prosecutor, was divorced from 45-year-old John Madden after 22 years.

Family pain, but nothing like now.

Despite the split, John drove over from his home in Shalimar, near Fort Walton Beach, for J.J.'s party, bringing along another son, husky 15-year-old Bowden Madden, an offensive lineman at Choctawhatchee High School.

"Among all the grandchildren, Bowden Madden was the most in love with playing football," said Jeff Bowden, Bobby's son and FSU's offensive coordinator, from his office late Tuesday. "He was the favorite cousin of my two children. A really terrific, spirited young man."

It was a stormy weekend. Hurricane Frances was slackening but nonetheless abusive. After cake and punch, John and Bowden Madden headed west on Interstate 10, driving into the Panhandle, as visibility faded. Not far from Quincy, around 10 p.m., there was a terrible crash.

According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Madden's car collided with a van when he attempted to pass on the wet, slick road, sending it across the median and into the path of a Texas utility truck on its way to restore power after Hurricane Frances.

Father and son were killed.

"Bowdens have experienced so many wonderful times, also a few trying moments, but there has never been a tragedy like this," Jeff Bowden said. "Nothing in football comes close to the sadness and hurt over such a family loss.

"Dad doesn't show his emotions to a heavy degree," Jeff said, "but it has been difficult for both of us to concentrate at times. ... I don't think our team has been affected a great deal. Our players know what has happened. Nothing needs to be said.

"It's tough on all the Bowdens, but life doesn't stop. I've tried to block out the tragedy for a little while, allowing thoughts to be on my football challenges. But it's really hard. I can see Dad going through the same."

Football is the family game/business.

Son Tommy coaches at Clemson University. Son Terry coached at Auburn and is now a TV commentator. Jeff is in his 11th season of working for his dad. Daughter Robyn is married to Clemson assistant coach Jack Hines.

No major college football coach has won as many times as Bobby.

Two months from his 75th birthday, Papa Patriarch is about to try for his 343rd, Friday night against a Miami monster that has frequently dampened otherwise extraordinary seasons of two-time national champion FSU.

It's big stuff, but Bobby always has said football is third in his life, behind God and family. He preaches it, they live it. Like any family, they have differences. Fusses. Healing. Bowden togetherness is never in question. Walk among them, you feel the warmth and strength.

Bowden children have suffered through divorces. A son, Steve, who is not in coaching, has battled charges of stock sales fraud.

Whatever, the flock is majestically strong.

"I've got my football job, which pays our bills, then I play some golf for fun," Bobby said years ago. "But when it comes to family, Ann is the one in charge.

"She handles the planning. She runs our house. I am married to a very strong woman."

Strength that is now being tested.

"This is especially difficult for Mom and Ginger," acknowledged Jeff. "We've got to spend as much time as possible comforting them. Football is football, which is big with us. But this family is far bigger. Bowdens have been really lucky people. This is the hardest thing ever."

Together, they move on.

Bobby and Jeff will fly to Fort Walton Beach for the grandson's funeral today at the First Baptist Church, then continue to Miami for Friday night's game. Bowdens have known such pain this week, mere football has been slammed into proper perspective.

[Last modified September 9, 2004, 01:09:20]

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