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When Bobby Bowden came to Decatur in 1989

By David Elwell

Bobby Bowden
Bobby Bowden

Alabama meant a lot to the late Bobby Bowden and the coach meant a lot to his home state. On one particular visit to Decatur, the Hall of Fame coach made an impact that continues today.

It was June 25, 1989. It was the first Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet and Bowden was the guest speaker.
The Boys and Girls Club of Morgan County organized the Hall of Fame as a fund-raising event. A committee of community leaders mapped out a plan to make it happen. Part of the plan called for a guest speaker, who could help push ticket sales.

The biggest draw for the banquet was of course the eight inductees. They were Marve Breeding, Bobby Freeman, Joe Jones, H.L. “Shorty” Ogle, Ray Pepper, Truett “Rip” Sewell, Randolph Ryan and Don Whitmire. Jones and Ogle were deceased. Sewell was in bad health and could not attend.
The key was getting a speaker that wasn’t directed at Alabama fans or Auburn fans. It needed to be someone down the middle that supporters of both schools would like.

Bowden was a wise choice. By June of 1989, Bowden had long been a national figure and this was before FSU joined the ACC. His Seminoles were coming off back-to-back 11-1 seasons. The 1987 team finished ranked No. 2. His 1988 team came in at No. 3. It was in the middle of a 14-year undefeated bowl run.

“We needed somebody big to make sure we got off to a great start,” said Phil Garrison, who was on the Boys and Girls Club board of directors at the time.

“There’s no doubt we hit a home run with Bobby Bowden.

“We knew the inductees would bring a lot of people, but we needed a big draw for a speaker, who could make it even bigger.”

A sellout crowd of around 475 filled the banquet room at what is now the DoubleTree by Hilton. A dais at one end of the room was where Bowden, the inductees and other guests sat.

Each inductee had two seats. Dean Jones, Joe Jones’ widow, asked her grandson to sit with her at the dais. Then 12-year-old Jake Miles ended up sitting next to Bowden.

“I was excited and he was so nice,” said Miles, who now teaches and coaches at Hartselle. “I remember he gave me his chocolate cake we had for dessert.”
When Bowden spoke, he talked about football and Florida State, but he also made a point to reflect on what brought him to Decatur that night.

“I’m asked to speak at a lot of functions during the year,” Bowden said. “I try to do the ones that are the most special and this is certainly a special occasion.

“I think it’s really nice that you are honoring these men for what they have accomplished in their careers.”

Also seated in the audience that night was a man named Kris Stowers. He was there with his father-in-law Johnny Atkins. Stowers was nearing the end of a sports medicine fellowship in Cleveland, Ohio. He had grown up in Florida as a Florida State fan.

After the banquet, Stowers introduced himself to Bowden and explained his situation. A few months later Stowers was one of the Florida State football team doctors. He will soon be starting his 31st season with the football program. His son Landon is also part of the team’s doctors.

Stowers was back the Hall of Fame banquet in 2013 when Atkins was inducted. He gave the invocation at that banquet after sharing his story about meeting Bowden at the 1989 banquet.

“Working for Florida State and with one of the greatest football coaches ever has been an incredible experience,” Stowers said. “It’s pretty amazing how it all came together and it started that night in Decatur.”

Since 1989, Bowden visited the area many times to speak, mostly to faith-based groups.

The Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame has continued to grow and evolve since that first banquet. The banquet no longer has a guest speaker. The eight inductees usually create enough of a ticket demand that the current location at the Ingalls Harbor Pavilion is always close to full. A golf tournament helps raise even more funds.

Each year the Hall of Fame committee makes a sizable donation to the Boys & Girls Club of North Alabama. The money helps fund many of the organization's projects. A lot of people have had a hand in that success story that started with a big help from Bowden.

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