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TOMS RIVER - Flashing a brilliant smile and joking with fellow campers at Saturday's Shore's Best Football Camp, Barnegat senior linebacker Manny Bowen looked every bit the part of a player living the dream after committing to Penn State earlier this month.

A year ago at this time, Bowen was a relative unknown, a player just trying to put his life and football career back together while attending his third high school in three years. That wide grin is the smile of a survivor, someone who came out the other side of an ordeal that threatened to derail his career and turned it into 32 FBS scholarship offers from some of the nation's top programs.

"In the whole high school process up until last year, I wasn't comfortable,'' Bowen said. "I wasn't doing the right thing until I got on track with the right people."

(Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

Bowen grew up in Barnegat, attending school there from first through eighth grade. However, circumstances soon took him away from that home, and it took him three years to get back.

A Difficult Time

When Bowen was in eighth grade, his mother, Monica, was diagnosed with breast cancer. That touched off a chain of events that forced Bowen and his two younger brothers, Josh, now a junior in high school, and Livingston, now 12 years old, to face situations that would crumble many adults.

With his mother unable to work as she battled cancer, the family faced financial hardship. It resulted in a move from Barnegat into the sending district for Southern Regional, where Bowen played on the freshman team in 2011.

"My main concern was my mom and taking care of my brothers and making sure we always had food on the table,'' Bowen said. "She couldn't do anything because she was sick.

"We actually weren't paying our bills. That's why we had to move. We had nothing. We actually lost our house and there would be times when there was nothing to eat."

As Bowen's family struggled, so did his performance in the classroom. He was just trying to help his family survive.

"Stuff like that, it really distracts you from your schoolwork,'' he said. "When you're going through a hard time like that, and you see your mom going through that and you don't have a dad around and you're the oldest, you really have got to step up. I shunned my schoolwork and put my family first because that's what really mattered to me."

By his sophomore year, his family had moved again, resulting in a transfer to Central Regional. He had 27 catches for 278 yards and a touchdown as a wide receiver during a 3-6 season for the Golden Eagles in 2012. More importantly, his mother was in remission from her breast cancer by the middle of his sophomore year.

Heading into his junior season last year with his life and career at a crossroads, a crucial arrangement was made thanks to the generosity of an old friend. Bowen transferred to Barnegat and moved in with the family of Bengals quarterback Cinjun Erskine, whose parents became his legal guardians. Bowen's mother signed paperwork authorizing it, as she was still recovering from her illness and wanted to give Bowen stability in a pivotal year for him academically and athletically. It was difficult to separate from his mother and younger brothers, but it was a chance to get some solid ground underneath his feet after years of living day to day.

Erskine and his family had known Bowen for years going back to elementary school, and he had previously lived with them for a stint when he was younger. For Bowen, it was simply a chance to go back to the place he felt he belonged all along.

"Transferring from school to school, every year I'm having to come in and make new friends,'' Bowen said. "It also took a toll on my grades. Barnegat has always been home for me. These guys have been my brothers, and I was going to be back home."

Making His Mark

Before Barnegat head coach Rob Davis even began to daydream about the potential impact Bowen could have on the field for the Bengals, he had a much bigger concern.

"Academically, it was atrocious,'' Davis said. "I told him we're not going to fool around with what his goals were as far as wanting to play Division I until he straightened out his act in the classroom and stayed out of trouble. He did that big time, and he changed his lifestyle to build himself into a recruitable athlete. You won't hear a negative comment about him in our hallways, and our teachers love him."

Before Bowen could step foot in the weight room every day, Davis made sure he worked with his tutors first. Erskine's parents, Bob and Lisa, then made sure to stay on him about his schoolwork when he got home. Cinjun, who is an honor roll student being recruited by several Ivy League schools, also was there to help.

Manny Bowen went from a relative unknown heading into 2013 to one of the state's top recruits by this spring. (Photo by Cliff Lavelle)

"My dad did a great job just keeping him under his wing and just giving him a good foundation,'' Erskine said. "He just wanted to be around family and have something to fight for. When he has something to fight for, when he has guys looking out for him in school, he's a great football player and person."

"Being back home in Barnegat with my family, coach Davis, Cinjun, everybody, these are people that took me under their wing,'' Bowen said. "Being here with coach Davis helped me get offers and get recruited by all these colleges that might not have known me, but most importantly, it helped me excel again in the classroom. It's not that I'm not an intelligent kid, it's just that there were a lot of distractions going on outside the classroom, and it was hard to concentrate. With everything back on track, I've been able to do a great job."

With a stable home and a solid support system, Bowen flourished. He was named the Class B South Defensive Player of the Year for the South Jersey Group III finalists and Class B South champs. He made 78 tackles with 15 for a loss, recorded 2.5 sacks and had 22 quarterback hurries, and he also intercepted four passes, forced four fumbles and had three fumble recoveries. On offense, Bowen caught 25 passes for 479 yards and seven touchdowns, and also ran for two touchdowns.

He also got back on track academically, and recruiting-wise it didn't hurt that Barnegat already had plenty of college coaches watching the program because of senior offensive lineman Sam Madden, who verbally committed to Wisconsin this summer, and Erskine, who has multiple FBS and FCS offers.

Once Bowen's transcript improved and his film started to circulate, offers began to roll in. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds with great lateral speed and instincts, he was a playmaker all over the field for the Bengals and the prototype hybrid safety/outside linebacker that teams covet at the FBS level.

Bowen was also motivated by one of his future teammates. Recently graduated Southern senior Mike Gesicki, one of the Shore Conference's top all-around athletes in recent memory, is an incoming freshman tight end at Penn State this fall. He was one of the state's most highly-recruited players from the Class of 2014.

"I had no recognition before this season,'' Bowen said. "All you would hear is 'Mike Gesicki this, Mike Gesicki that.' I was like, 'Forget that, you're going to hear Manny Bowen one day.' Seeing Mike being recruited by all these big schools showed me you didn't have to go to (a high school in) Florida or Texas or Georgia to get recruited by big schools.

"When I saw him doing his thing, it made me realize that he's working hard, and it's paying off. That's when I started doing the same thing, and you started hearing my name on Friday nights."

"His confidence level has just gotten so high in a good way, where he wants to be the hardest worker ever, and he wants to be the Penn State recruit that no one will forget,'' Erskine said. "He's going to kill it this year."

How much Barnegat meant to him became apparent when he started taking college visits. South Carolina was high on his list, but when he was there, he felt it was just too far from home compared to the four-hour drive to Penn State from Ocean County.

"Moving to Southern and Central and not doing so well, and then finally moving back to Barnegat helped me and was a big reason I ended up committing to Penn State,'' Barnegat said. "Penn State felt like home to me. My family can come see me play, and I'm comfortable with those coaches, so I know that they're going to help me excel. They put me graduating and getting a degree over football, so them putting my necessities over theirs made me feel like it was the right place."

Bowen said Penn State envisions him as a linebacker who can rush the quarterback off the edge and play over the slot receiver. He has been working hard on his coverage skills and being disciplined off the ball in addition to tackling in space. His competitiveness and thirst to improve were evidenced by his mere participation in Saturday's camp in Toms River, considering he already is committed to an FBS school and had nothing to prove.

"It's awesome see him just progress and see his maturity level of going from a kid to a young man and making one of the best decisions you possibly can make,'' Erskine said.

Bowen has since moved back in with his mother in Barnegat, right down the street from the Erskines' home. His younger brother Josh, who played at Toms River South last year while living with his mother, has transferred to Barnegat. With the hard times behind him and the community around him, Bowen has his focus set on a return to the NJSIAA sectional finals to finish the job and win the program's first state title after losing to Delsea in last year's championship game.

"There are going to be a lot of expectations,'' he said. "I have no problem saying that I know we're going to go back to the state championship. I think we needed to get slapped around by Delsea to understand what it means to play in a state championship. We're going to come back way harder this year."

After what Barnegat has given to him, Bowen would love nothing more than to repay the favor by helping the Bengals hoist that championship plaque in December and flash his beaming smile for all to see.

"Barnegat has always been home for me,'' he said. "And that will never change."