Normally, the sequence of events leading to a former NFL player becoming a football coach goes like this: collegiate coach, NFL position coach, NFL assistant coach, NFL head coach.
That's not what former Chicago Bears safety and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen has done. Taking the road slightly less traveled, Bowen is currently a defensive backs coach at IC Catholic Prep high school in Elmhurst, Ill. And it's the perfect fit for Bowen and his family.
"Coaching high school ball gives me a great balance in life: family, football and my writing career," Bowen says. With four kids, he and his wife were looking to avoid replicating the movement and grind of Bowen's NFL career, something that comes with the territory of a college or pro coaching career. They want to provide stability while also helping Bowen satisfy the thirst he has for competition.
"The high school level allows me to maintain that balance in life while still getting back on the grass to teach the game -- and experience competition. I needed that. Most former players do. It's hard to leave the game. You miss it."
That's not to say the job isn't fulfilling and challenging or that Bowen is settling.
"Working with a group of young men that want to learn and develop," Bowen says when asked what he enjoys most about coaching high school players. "So cool to see your players win with technique and develop on the field. It's super rewarding."
For Bowen, part of the appeal is the community and players. It's different to walk onto the field as a coach, he says, but when his team competes and strives to win, it's rewarding.
"We won a game last year to clinch the conference title in three overtimes. Guys were gassed, banged up and to see them battle all the way to the end was special. There were so many adverse game situations that night. We had to put together a two-minute drill to tie it in final minute. Great win, yes, but the effort, the toughness, the dedication? Awesome. That's so rewarding as a coach. It really is. I will always remember that one."
The challenges don't just involve the kids either. For Bowen, coaching is a new thing and a learning process. He says that, just like a player, he has to constantly learn and adjust. How he prepares for a game, how he explains technique or plays to his athletes changes on an almost player-to-player basis.
Technique and the game itself has certainly changed since he played high school football back in the early to mid 1990s. With concerns about the long-term effectives of concussions on young players, youth football numbers are down and could continue to drop.
Bowen says there are a few things coaches and those involved in youth football can do.
"I teach 'Hawk Tackling' techniques every single day. That's how we tackle now, which is a major change from when I played. Take the head out of play," Bowen says.
While some fans have complained that the way players tackle now has changed the game and removed some of the toughness and physical play, Bowen disagrees.
"You can still be physical while protecting yourself and your opponent. Plus, the game has changed. The high hits and leading with the helmet are always called at our level. That stuff isn't tolerated anymore. Play the right way."
Just being aware that these injuries exists and have a long-term impact is a step forward, and Bowen points out that the changes have been positive.
"Concussion protocol is excellent. Awareness is at an all-time high. Coaches, players and parents are more educated on head injuries. Those are great things for the game."
Of course, there will always be some risk. Bowen says that while you can't remove all head injuries, if proper technique is taught and coaches are aware, there are tremendous benefits to playing high school football.
"High school ball is one of the greatest teaching tools. Learning life skills, how to deal with adversity, how to respond to negative situations, and how to be accountable to a team. There are so many positives to this game that need to be discussed more and more. The overall impact can prepare young men for the real world. It's not about wins and loses at our level. It's about developing character that lasts."
These days, that involves more than just conducting yourself well on the field, doing well in classes and being a good representative of your team in public away from the field. The internet and social media have become a big issue for some coaches who have to deal with players raised on the internet.
Considering how often college and pro athletes make bad choices, trying to control high school kids online is no easy task. The consequences can be severe, though, and kids don't often understand what they can risk with a simple tweet.
"I keep it very simple with social media when I talk to my players," Bowen says when asked how he conveys the gravity to his players. "'If you have to think twice about hitting 'send,' it's probably time to delete that tweet.' Be professional and show respect on social media at all times."
While there are a lot of challenges facing youth and high school football today, Bowen also points out that there are some signs things will improve. Flag football has been actually growing, especially in the area where he lives near Chicago. His four kids play flag and will put the pads only if they choose to play in high school.
"I love the development provided in flag football leagues. Tons of technique, proper angles to the ball, proper tackling position, and schemes," Bowen says. "It's a great developmental tool in my opinion. For parents that want to wait on the contact, playing flag football can help with getting young kids ready for high school ball without the risks involved."
Learning that technique, even in a non-contact manner, is the key. Not just because proper technique can help cut down on concussions and other injuries, but because good technique is vital to a winning team.
"Whether we are talking about Sundays or Friday nights, technique still wins. That will never change," explains Bowen. "Defensive backs at our level still have to use vision, footwork, angles and more to make plays. That will never change."
Bowen stresses that technique to his players every day, no matter the position.
"I love teaching the technique. I believe in it. Heck, it's the only reason I was able to survive seven years in the league."
For Bowen, high school coaching affords him a chance to make a real impact on the lives of young men who will soon be going out into the world.
"The way I see it, high school football is really the 'last line of competitive innocence.' That changes in college and the NFL will always be the 'business of winning.' It's more than wins and losses at our level."
That's not to say Bowen doesn't want his team to win. Just that there are greater things on the agenda for him and his charges.
"Do I want to win? Heck, yeah I do. But that's just being competitive. At the end of the day, I want to see my players go on to college and become successful in life. And I can have an impact on that."
It's clear Bowen is enjoying his time as a football coach at the high school level and while he might one day like to have his own program or be a high school head coach, he's content to stay where he is and learn.
"I love the high school game. Love it. There is a sense of community here. I coach in the town I live in. I'm five minutes from school. That's special to me."