SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) NaVorro Bowman intercepted a pass in the end zone by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and even in a late May practice it meant plenty. Even with his speed not quite the same thanks to a bulky brace he still wears to protect his surgically repaired left knee.
''We're going to have to check the tape. Did it look good?'' a grinning Bowman said Friday. ''That's my first one, so it gets me back in playmaking mode. It felt good.''
After spending the entire 2014 season rehabilitating a gruesome injury from the NFC championship game loss at Seattle in January last year, the 27-year-old Bowman is certain he can and will return to the form that earned him three straight All-Pro selections from 2011-13.
''No doubt,'' he said. ''Maybe not as fast as you guys expect, but I definitely want to get back to that level.''
Bowman practiced all three days this week, and said if there had been something scheduled for Saturday it would have been his first go a four in a row.
''It hasn't been consistent. I go out there some days and I feel great then there are some days I have to fight through it,'' Bowman said. ''That's part of the process, I understand that. Mentally it messes with me sometimes. Just to get out there and do something is always good for the knee, and as long I keep doing that it will get used to knowing I want to get back out there playing football.''
As soon as he can rid himself of the brace, Bowman ''might just light it on fire.''
In sunny conditions Friday, he threw his arms up at one point trying to swat a pass and yelled, ''Boom!'' He shouted to direct the defense and took a leadership role the will be even greater without close friend and linebacker Patrick Willis, who retired from the NFL in March at age 30.
''It's strange,'' Bowman said.
The two figured they would be playing together for at least part of last season, but Bowman never returned as planned and Willis was lost for the season with a strained muscle in his left big toe. He was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Nov. 11 after getting hurt in the third quarter at St. Louis on Oct. 13.
Now, it's the 27-year-old Bowman helping lead the defense through another transition under new coordinator Eric Mangini.
''It's NaVorro first of all, so it's great having him back out on the field, but then also the road he's traveled here in the last year and a half,'' coach Jim Tomsula said. ''It's just awesome to have him out there, and I think he's really enjoying himself.''
Jeff Ferguson, the 49ers' director of football operations and sports medicine, has watched Bowman's long haul to return.
''I'm very proud of him. He looks good,'' Ferguson said.
And that bulky brace, everybody knows how Bowman feels about it.
''They are not friends,'' Tomsula said.
Next Wednesday, Bowman and about six teammates will be waiters for the linebacker's Celebrity Steak-Out dinner at the San Jose Fairmont to raise money for his ''4th & Goal Foundation'' that builds handicap-accessible playgrounds and supports low-income and at-risk children with encouragement and resources.
A couple of the other waiters? Colin Kaepernick and Michael Wilhoite.
The 49ers have another session of optional workouts next week.
Safety Antoine Bethea can't wait to play games alongside Bowman at last.
''Him coming off that terrible injury, it's just great seeing him out there, moving well, commanding the huddle and leading the defense,'' Bethea said. ''I'm happy to see him out there and I know he's happy to be out there.''
While other teammates head off on vacations following a mandatory minicamp the week of June 9, Bowman will keep working.
''I'm a professional. I've got to enjoy my life at the same time,'' he said. ''What we're facing these next few months is way more important than fun.''
NOTES: Tomsula said he isn't concerned about the absences of RT Anthony Davis, RG Alex Boone and others. ''No, sir.'' TE Vernon Davis had been in practice all week but was gone Friday. ... Earlier this month, a section of about 23,000 square feet of synthetic turf was used around the outer part of the Levi's Stadium field, reducing water use and protecting high-traffic areas. Turf could be an option in the future. ''We've studied it hard and made the decision we're going to stick with grass at least through the Super Bowl,'' said Jim Mercurio, vice president of stadium operations and general manager of Levi's Stadium.
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