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Penn State Football: Football Decision Or Not, Bowen Back To Earn One Final Shot

on August 05, 2018 12:00 PM

Before the news of linebacker Manny Bowen's departure from the team was ever official last season, Penn State fans could have guessed his future with the program was in jeopardy.

He had once again been suspended, sitting out multiple games for the second straight season. He had missed both bowls, and no matter how skilled, he was making headlines for violating team rules more than he was for making big plays.

And if you wanted evidence that James Franklin was almost certainly going to put his money where he is mouth is, you needed not look farther than the moment in 2016 when he suspended defensive end Garrett Sickels for the first half against Ohio State.

So it was something of a surprise when rumors surfaced that Bowen might join the team this fall.

In a vacuum his return would have been an ordinary tale of a coach not giving up on a player. In fairness, Bowen is by all accounts a good kid who suffered from the same kind of dumb decisions kids in college make. This wasn't a matter of a violent crime or something beyond the scope of team rule. Nevertheless, the issues were piling up.

Which is why the announcement on Saturday that Bowen would rejoin the team was so unexpected. In the grand scheme Sickels is only one disciplinary action around the program to consider. Take for example former cornerback Da'Quan Davis, who returned this spring to talk to the team about how quickly a career can be taken away. His nearly seven minute long speech a retiling of how he was removed from the roster following a minor drug-related charge. It was a mistake that cost him everything.

It's outside that vacuum where the debate begins, in a world where Penn State is desperate for linebackers. A world where freshman standout Micah Parsons is learning the ropes and the players around him are not that much farther ahead. It could look like, without much mental gymnastics, that Bowen was allowed to return because Penn State needed him to fill a hole on the field.

So was this really just a football decision? 

Not so, says Franklin, who seemed to be expecting that reaction as he answered questions during his media day press conference on Saturday.

"I know this is one of these questions that you guys are going to ask me, and however I answer it, I don't know if you're necessarily going to believe it," Franklin said. "But you know, really, I don't want any decisions that we make be a need-based. I also don't want decisions that we make be an influence because of the perception of it. I want to do things because they are the right things to do. Does that make sense? So we created some stipulations for Manny to achieve from the time he left the program and if he lived up to his end of the program, then he would have an opportunity to earn his way back on the roster."

"I think probably the biggest part of that is Manny graduates in December, and we felt like this plan was going to give him the best opportunity to graduate in December and leave this way and we didn't make it easy on him. I was surprised when he said, "I'm going to try to grind this thing out." Because the easiest thing to do would have been just to transfer."

Franklin's answer is believable, even if most of what any coach says must be taken with a polite grain of salt. There is more evidence than not to suggest this was a plan set in action long before it actually came to light. If true, Franklin finding a way to help a kid who shouldn't be given up on is a worthwhile cause. Would it have happened if Bowen was an average player at a different position? There's no way to really know, and that's where each must make their own decision.

However it is fair to ask how much this conflicts with the speech Davis gave and how players grapple with both truths. He saw his career end over something relatively small and never received, at least in any public capacity, a second chance. Who are younger players to believe, Davis' words and story or the path Bowen has taken to join the team again?

Enter senior quarterback Trace McSorley, whose voice will carry as much weight, if not more, than his own coaches. 

So does he deal with it?

"It's their rules and what they've set aside for him to be able to get back on the team," McSorley said on Saturday.

"I think he can offer perspective that a lot of guys can't necessarily offer that perspective and I think it's extremely valuable to the young guys to understand that this can be taken away from you at any time. You come in as a freshman getting into college football, you're the big man on campus in high school and you might feel invincible but to see someone who can tell you that you're not."

"I think as a leader on the team to be able to be the guy to tell everyone else "Hey, he's had to go through a lot of things and there were strict rules for him to be able to come back. So being able to bridge that gap (between players and coaches) and think he's just getting a second chance and a second chance and he's had to earn this to be able to come back. I think that's been more of a role I've had to try and play in this whole situation that these young guys don't think you just keep getting second chances, that Manny had to do a lot of things to get back to where he's at."

Of course this all comes down to Bowen himself as he will either prove his coaches right for giving him this chance, or make them look unwise for giving it to him in the first place. As he ran the field with his teammates on Saturday evening he seemed as earnest as anyone can months removed from his last meaningful snap, eager to prove his worth yet again.

It's easy to imagine this was all for the sake of football, that heading into a crucial season, Franklin made an exception to those rules for the sake of the product on the field.

But it's also not hard to imagine Franklin means what he says, that allowing young men to earn the right to redeem themselves while still holding them accountable for their actions is a very real objective for his program.

And you don't have to look far for evidence that it is.

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