FOOTBALL WAS SMALLEST OF BOUWENS’ BATTLES

There are days when the blood runs down their noses and the mud gets in their helmets and their arms and legs scream: “Rest! We need rest!” — just as another 300-pounder comes charging in.

On days such as this, there can’t be anything worse than being an offensive lineman.

Unless, maybe, you are Shawn Bouwens.

For a while there, Bouwens, 24, was the most unpopular guy in a Lions uniform. The team was losing, the line seemed most responsible, and Bouwens, as much as any of them, was missing blocks that cost his team yardage. Never mind that he was thrown into the starting role after the death of Eric Andolsek. Never mind that it usually takes a young guard several years to blossom, and that he was being asked, football-wise, to go from first grade to fifth grade and pass all the tests.

Bouwens was an easy target. Heck, you couldn’t miss him. When they showed a replay on TV, there he was, big No. 66, flailing desperately, as a defensive lineman tackled Barry Sanders or flattened Rodney Peete.

“Look at No. 66!” fans would scream. “Get him out of there! No. 66!”

That’s all most people knew of him. No. 66. Get him out of there. One time, I wrote a column mentioning a block he missed. I later learned it was a teammate who missed it. I went to apologize. I walked up to his locker. I looked Bouwens in the face. And I saw something that shot through me.

He was bigger than I, so it couldn’t be fear. He was too old to cry, so it couldn’t be tears. Yet his brow was sadly creased and his body seemed tight. When he spoke, the voice died before the words.

What I saw was pain. And I soon learned why.

From a happy beginning . . .

For most of his life, Shawn Bouwens followed the standard biography of a football player. Grew up in Nebraska. Played high school ball. He was a tight end — linemen always start as something else — and one cold Friday night caught a touchdown pass that won the game. His teammates roared. His folks cheered. It was the last time he scored a touchdown.

In college, they made him a guard, and life in the pits began. Still, he was content. He was playing. His family came to see him, and when he was drafted, they celebrated. A Division III kid, taken by the NFL? Wasn’t that something?

He floated around his first season, but when the Lions picked him up, he seemed to find a home. He impressed his coaches and was accepted into “Road Crew,” the tight offensive line that ate dinner together once a week, rain or shine. The Lions were winning. People were happy. Life was good.

Until the day Mike Utley went down and never got up, Shawn Bouwens — who ran in to replace his fallen teammate — had never had anything terrible in his life. Utley’s paralysis “was such a shock. One minute, you’re OK, next minute, something awful.”

That, of course, is life. And life was just getting its hooks into Shawn Bouwens.
. . . to avalanche of tragedy

One month after Utley, he learned his mother had lung cancer. She never smoked. She was 45. In the horrible weeks that followed, she lost her hair to chemotherapy and her body to a hospital bed.

“We were all in the room, listening to her breathe,” Bouwens says, “and all of a sudden, she took this deep breath, like she was saying good-bye.”

And she was. Bouwens wept. His mother — who had told him, “No matter what you do, Shawn, I will always love you” — was dead.

Life, he felt, could get no crueler.

Two months later, the phone rang.

There had been an accident. Andolsek, his friend, his locker-mate, the guy who was helping to guide him in the NFL, had been killed by a truck. Killed? Eric? He’s dead, too? The funeral was the next day in Louisiana. Bouwens thought about his mother, her casket, the tears. He apologized. He stayed home. Maybe, he thought, if the horror doesn’t see me. . . .

Seven days later, the phone rang again.

“Shawn,” said his uncle, “I’ve got bad news.”

And next thing he knew, Bouwens was at a funeral, anyhow. His grandfather, who had always taken him hunting, was dead. Heart attack. Bouwens was numb. In 100 days, he had lost three loved ones.

And then it was time for football.

Had he been a quarterback, you probably would have heard this story by now. But Bouwens is a lineman, a big slab of flesh — “No. 66, get him out of there!” — and so the pain stayed within him. And when the season started, and

all the criticism began, he felt so much pressure he could barely move off the snap. “My arms were tight, my legs were cramped. I told myself, ‘I know I can do better.’ “

He thought about football. He thought about quitting. Maybe last year, he would have phoned his mother, or his grandfather, or Andolsek, just to talk. But they were gone now.

And one day, because life simply demands this of you, something snapped, and he decided, “I have to beat this” — and he has gotten better ever since.

Is there a moral to this story? I don’t know. It is still Bouwens’ job to make the blocks. And there will still be those who yell if he doesn’t.

But we ought to know, before we do, a little more about the man behind the helmet.

“I think,” says Shawn Bouwens, in that deep, sad voice, “I can probably take anything now.” And I think that he is right.

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