At Growing Bolder, we make it a point to highlight stories of “ordinary people living extraordinary lives.” You might not think of one of the winningest coaches in college football as an ordinary person. But that’s how legendary, yet humble former Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden saw himself. He had the kind of genuine charm to say, “You’re from Huntsville?! I’m from Birmingham!” when introduced to a colleague’s girlfriend for the first time. He was the kind of “ordinary person” who answered a sportswriter’s knock on his hotel room door after a game in his boxer shorts with a warm, “Whatcha need, boy?”
Robert Cleckler Bowden died Aug. 8 at the age of 91. It was a long life that wasn’t always a given. As a young boy he contracted rheumatic fever.
“We don’t hear much about rheumatic fever nowadays,” he said. “Back when I was coming up, it was a dangerous disease because it is a heart disease. And the doctors had told my mother that I might not be able to make it past 40. I was 13 years of age, now. They said, ‘With this heart ailment you got, you might not be able to make it.’ They told her that, didn’t tell me that. She told me that, though.
“I had to drop out of school, I had to stay in bed flat on my back… I think I probably went at least six months without walking. Nearly had to walk again, learn to get my strength back, you know? And, so I went through that a year, had to drop out of school. But, when I was 13, that’s when I made the decision to God that if he will heal me, I will try to serve him the rest of my life. That was a commitment I made back in 1943.”
It is a commitment Bowden honored by becoming a coach and a father figure to many of the players who came through his programs.
When Growing Bolder visited the Hall of Fame coach in May, 2021, we didn’t realize it would be one of Bowden’s final in-depth interviews. It was just weeks before the announcement of his pancreatic cancer diagnosis. At 91, Bowden was sharp and upbeat. The second winningest football coach in NCAA history was still an amazing motivator, willing and even eager to pass along his thoughts about what really matters in life. We offer this extended interview in his memory.