Sitting on the porch of his lake home in Wauconda, Illinois, 32-year-old Henry Rowengartner doesn't wear his story. He retains a youthful appearance despite the many lives that have been compressed into his past 20 years, and his demeanor is as still as the Bangs Lake water that's spread out in front of us. Every indication is that the man is truly at peace, which is arguably the most remarkable achievement of someone whose life to date has been defined by remarkable achievements—albeit ones that were thrust upon him.
In 1993, the 12 year-old Rowengartner underwent arm surgery that inadvertently left him able to throw a baseball with MLB-spec velocity. After being discovered while in attendance at a Cubs game, he became a starting pitcher for the team and led Chicago to its first World Series title since 1908. He was named Rookie of the Year and NLCS MVP, but then abruptly retired from the game to finish grade school. Though he regularly returned to Wrigley for “Cubs Legends” events, Rowengartner spent his early teen years pursing a normal life in suburban Illinois. He focused on his studies, hung out at his family's Bangs Lake home with his friends, Clark and George, and was a fourth outfielder for the Oak Park High Eagles. That one unforgettable year with the Cubs behind him, his life reassumed the trajectory of a typical suburban boy.
Then in 1999, during halftime at an Oak Park football game, Rowengartner was showing off for his girlfriend, Becky, when he stepped on a football and mangled the ACL in his right knee. His subsequent surgery was again performed by Dr. Kersten, the orthopedist who had set his arm when he was 12. During the tests that followed his rehab, Rowengartner's kick reflex caught Dr. Kersten in the groin—and propelled him across the examination room.
“I couldn’t believe it happened again,” recalls Rowengartner. “It turned out my body has, like, this freak healing ability.” Had it occurred at any other point in his life, Rowengartner might not have capitalized on his newly-empowered leg. But as so often happens with gifted athletes, he was swayed by financial considerations. “I was a senior in high school and wanted to go to college,” Rowengartner explains. “I didn’t want my mother and stepdad, Chet Steadman, to be saddled with tuition costs, so I went to work on my kicking game.”
Within a week, Rowengartner was kicking 75-yard field goals for the Oak Park Eagles. By the end of the month he had been recruited by nearly every major college football program in the country. The rest is history: He decided to stay close to home and attend Northern Illinois University, and as a key cog in their "three-shots-downfield-and-then-a-long-field-goal" offense, Rowengartner led the Huskies to their first-ever NCAA title in his junior season. The next spring the Chicago Bears made him the only placekicker ever selected No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft, though it would prove to be a disastrous pick when Rowengartner caught a toe in the turf during mini camp and his leg suddenly lost its remarkable kicking ability.
“Honestly, when my knee went back to normal, I was hoping that was it,” Rowengartner says. He looked forward to graduating from NIU and going to work for Phil Brickma, a former Cubs assistant coach who quit baseball to open a grief support and counseling center near Wrigleyville. But as Rowengartner was helping Becky pack up her Wicker Park loft in preparation for her relocation to Los Angeles, a bowling ball rolled off a closet shelf and dislocated his shoulder. When the injury showed no signs of healing on its own, he returned again to Dr. Kersten.
“Doc took every step possible to assure a normal healing process," says Rowengartner, "but when he took the sling off, my arm kinda shot upward and caught him in the chin.” Despite having knocked the doctor unconscious with the blow, Rowengartner didn't comprehend the significance of his new ability until later that week, when a group of friends gathered to bowl at Lucky Strike Lanes in Evanston for Becky's going away party. In his first frame of the night Rowengartner rolled a ball that shattered the front two rows of pins, scattering fragments into neighboring lanes. He shot three consecutive perfect games that night.
Word quickly reached the Professional Bowlers Association, which enlisted Rowengartner as the face of its new Extreme Bowling League. The circuit's inaugural season was capped by a thrilling championship showdown between Rowengartner and Pete Weber, with video of Rowengartner's perfect game and Weber's ensuring meltdown becoming a YouTube hit. The popularity of that Finals broadcast catapulted the league into the national consciousness, where it remains today despite the unfortunate lane-oil accident that cost Rowengartner his bowling ability and the league its star.
"To be honest, Weber always kinda concerned me," admits Rowengartner. "I was happy to move on and leave the league to him before his behavior toward me got too out of hand." But that left Rowengartner in a decidedly atypical position: At only 24 years of age he already had won a World Series and an NCAA football championship, and had helped pioneer a new sport. How do you follow those acts?
“Let’s face it. I peaked early. And for a while there I was kind of lost,” he says. “I considered intentionally breaking my wrist in the hopes of becoming a champion Bassmaster, but that seemed really desperate.” On the verge of bottoming out, Rowengartner was saved by Becky's return to town. “We drove out to the lake together and my future became clear,” Rowengartner says. The next year he and his childhood sweetheart married and opened a boat rental business on the lake.
“That's when the real miracle happened,” Rowengartner says—and then, as if on cue, his seven year-old son, Ernie Banks Rowengartner, emerges from from the house with a ball and mitt. “Wanna have a catch, Dad?”
Rowengartner turns to me with a smile. “Sorry, dude," he says, clearly not at all sorry, "but this interview is over.”
Writer-director-producer-whatever Sam Harper just finished his first novel, "The Shadow Union".
While the SI magazine editors were busy catching up with for-real former players, we turned our attention to those athletes of yesteryear who actually made an impact on the world: the fictional ones. Over the next week Extra Mustard will learn the whereabouts of six other iconic sports-movie protagonists, as told by those characters' creators. Here's who's coming soon.
Wednesday, July 3: Adam McKay on Ricky Bobby, from Talladega Nights (2006)
Friday, July 5: Sam Harper on Henry Rowengartner, from Rookie of the Year (1993)
Monday, July 8: Mort Nathan on Roy Munson, from Kingpin (1996)
Tuesday, July 9: Gurinder Chadha on Jess Bhamra, from Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Wednesday, July 10: Aaron Mendelsohn on Buddy, from Air Bud 1-5 (1997-2003)