As former Florida Gators defensive lineman Dante Fowler prepares for the NFL Draft, we here at GatorCountry take a comprehensive look at the young man and explore just what kind of person and player an NFL team will be getting in the Gator alum.
This two part series will look at both sides individually, with Part 2 examining the player beneath the pads.
Nearly every aspect that Dante Fowler Jr. possesses as a person is amplified ten fold on the football field. There the player, this larger than life entity of flying mass, comes to life on a stage for thousands to see. He is the gladiator stepping boldly into the coliseum, and the warrior that always seems to have a score to settle.
It’s been that way his whole life, with much of the lessons and traits learned taking place in his own backyard; which brings us to the next level of Dante Fowler’s Inferno, and what this player will be bringing to an NFL team.
Lanora Fowler can still remember it like it was yesterday. As the men in her family gathered to take part in their favorite past time, she stood watch as her little boy learned the nuances of the game that would eventually become his life.
At three years old, he should’ve been doing nothing more than playing around, still a baby in his mama’s eyes.
And then Dante Fowler Jr. did something that opened everyone’s eyes…literally.
“We used to have some of his cousins come over,” Lanora remembers fondly, “and they used to tackle and at age three we stopped Dante from tackling because he hit his cousin so hard that you would think his eyes were going to pop out of his head. He leveled him to the ground and I was like,” she stops here to show a completely shocked face.
“We knew then that he would be able to tackle and I think that’s when my husband knew that he was going to be a defensive player. Because he will level you to the ground.”
For Dante, it was nothing more than an intrinsic action.
Asked why he tackled his cousin so forcibly, he answered simply, “that’s the only way I knew.”
It also meant, no more flag football for the toddler.
“The way I tried to pull their flag off was too aggressive”, he explains, meaning it was time to move on to the big boy league. A move that he’s made many a time, thanks to his talent preceding his age.
His former Florida Gators head coach Will Muschamp knows that adds an extra ripple to whatever offense is tasked with stopping him.
“You turn the tape on and No. 6 is flying around. He’s a guy you have to account for on every snap,” Muschamp says.
As all of that talent grew with experience over the years, it created an opponent who others dreamed of beating.
When someone is that good, and especially when he or she knows it, there becomes a sense of impermeability.
Thus was the case with Dante Fowler Jr.
After that tackle on his cousin at 3 years old, he advanced quickly, often times before his age could catch up.
His parent’s big back yard was the site of many of Fowler’s exploits and where he learned the vein of nastiness needed to be an accomplished defensive lineman.
“Everything I’ve seen him do, we did in the backyard,” recalls his father, Dante Fowler Sr.
“A lot of his moves and stuff right there, that’s just his gift that God has given him.”
Seeing that, his two younger brothers Donterio and Cam’Ron wanted nothing more than to beat him, as is the way of brothers. And as is the way of an older brother, Dante took great pleasure in always winning those battles…until one day.
Both Dante and Terio can recall the moment vividly, each with differing emotions flitting across their face as they retell the story.
Terio, for starters, lights up, voice raising louder than it has for any other subject.
“It was my 10th grade year, it wasn’t at home, it was actually at football practice. He came in and I was at running back so I had check blitz and I just hit him and he fell. [I still get excited about that]. He still remembers it too.”
Albeit, with a little less enthusiasm.
“Oh yea I remember it. I remember it just like yesterday. He did do it. He caught me slipping really”, Dante gamily explains.
“I underestimated his power and you know his strength and explosiveness I guess. And I had came and he was blocking me and I was like ‘this is my littler brother. I’m gonna just toss him around’ and he ended up knocking me on my butt. So I know he felt good.”
With that long coming occurrence behind them, it was back to the yard with dad, learning spin moves and how to adjust on the fly.
While he continues to play like he’s still in that backyard, his tenaciousness grew ten fold on the larger college stage; and it got a mascot.
Following the injury of then senior lineman Dominique Easley, Fowler (who was a sophomore at the time) picked up Easley’s precious Chucky doll.
Hoping to embody the freakish nature of the Child’s Play character, Fowler began carrying Chucky around with him, even bringing him to the press conference room following a 30-10 win over Arkansas in 2013.
“Oh chucky always be with me 24/7”, he explained at the time, grinning from ear to ear.
“He gotta come back to the room with me so I brought him with me.”
Fowlers tackle production increased by 50% after he began carrying around the Chucky doll following the Kentucky game, September 28, 2013.
That was only the beginning though.
After three years at the University of Florida as the Gators hybrid linebacker, Fowler leaves with a stat line that reads 140 total tackles (73 unassisted), 34 for loss, 14.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and 25 quarterback hurries (including 17 this year when he was being accounted for).
By comparison, Missouri’s Shane Ray, who is considered by many draft experts to be the best, next best or equal to Fowler, finished his Tigers career with 16 QBH, five of those coming in the 2014 season.
One thing that Dante Fowler (both father and son) has made sure of though, is that with each passing year, his stats will grow with his talent.
Ask any football coach what is one of the most important things to do as a player and chances are they’ll tell you film study.
Players will spend countless hours in the dark, pouring over every game, every play, and every step. It can be a grueling and boring task but necessary.
In the Fowler home, it was just a part of life.
“That was the standard in our house,” Fowler Sr. explains.
“My wife, she was the video recorder. So at the games, she’s recording, I’m sitting in the stands critiquing, and she’d have to tap me a lot of the times because I get kind of rowdy a little bit if I see [Dante] do a false step or something didn’t go right. So we get home, we go to get something to eat, we come back in and we watch the game, then we wake up the next morning and watch it again.”
After Dante left St. Petersburg for Gainesville, the hour-long father son film study didn’t end, just merely adjusted a bit for the new geography.
“We’d DVR all the games and talk about it at the end of the season”, says Father Fowler, before adding, “but I watch it on Mondays. He’ll get a phone call from me and I’ll tell him, ‘Hey this is what you could’ve done better’ and [he responds] ‘I know’. But then when he comes home on a break or something, or the bye week, we’ll sit in there and watch and go over some of his plays.”
With a bevy of coaches already in his ear, Dante still chooses to listen to one voice in particular.
“I always listen to him because like that’s my father and he’s always been my coach and he’s the one that helped me get to this point so I’m gonna keep listening to him.”
Luckily for Fowler, his dad’s advice and teaching points are not contradictory to that of his coaches.
“It’s from a coaches point of view because he was a coach”, Dante explains, “so that’s why I can relate so good to coaches and I can relate with him because I’m really kind of advanced in the game already just because of it growing up as a kid and how he trained me.”
One of those coaches that Fowler could easily relate to was Will Muschamp, who saw first hand the evidence of that teach ability Dante’s father instilled in him.
“He’s a guy that takes coaching”, Muschamp explained in season.
“He wants to be coached hard. When he makes a mistake, he wants to know what he can do to get better. He’s just a very coachable player. That’s what makes him a really good player.”
There’s one more aspect that makes Fowler “a really good player” and that’s his acceptance of the fact that it takes a lot to be a really good player.
He knows there’s too often a drop off that happens from college to the National Football League, but he’s also pretty sure he knows why.
“It’s not just about pure athleticism anymore. Everybody’s good and then just as the generations go on, they get better and better and better each year. You really have to be on you’re A-game…Sometimes some guys they played [football] for a certain amount of years and just were fortunate and talented and athletic enough to get to the NFL, but in the NFL you really have to be dedicated to the game. You really have to have a passion for the game because everybody’s good there. And when you go against everybody that’s good, you eventually have to beat them off technique because they’re just as athletic as you. So you have to be able to put in that time and really dedicate yourself to perfecting your craft and you have to take it seriously and want to be great.”
That want to is what turns realism into dreams. It gets some help from the natural talent which is embodied in his inventive tenaciousness and all comes out in some sweet dance moves. These are all just words when on paper, but for one NFL team, they are going to get them all combined into one person, one player and their own version of Dante’s Inferno.