As he walked off the field following the best game of his NFL career, Dante Fowler had one thought on his mind: I need to call my mom.
The Jaguars, and Fowler himself, were among the biggest surprises on Sunday, defeating the Texans, in Houston, with a commanding 29-7 win. Fowler forced a fumble and recovered another that he ran back for a touchdown, and the self-proclaimed mama’s boy knew no one would be more excited than his mom, Lanora.
But that wasn’t why he was so anxious to call.
“I’m pretty sure she’s going to go crazy,” Fowler said as he walked into the locker room, talking on the phone to a reporter (he was using a PR staffer’s phone and hadn’t yet gotten back to his phone). “But I’m going to be concerned and make sure she’s alright.”
This was around 4:30 p.m., and as Fowler spoke a breaking news alert hit mobile phones across the nation: “Category 3 Hurricane Irma makes second Florida landfall on Marco Island; expected to hit Tampa later tonight —The New York Times.” The 23-year-old defensive end is from nearby St. Petersburg, and he said his family members—mom, dad and siblings—were there riding out the storm. There are about 200 NFL players who were born in Florida, and many of them played on Sunday the same way that Fowler did, with thoughts of Irma and his family’s safety. “My mind was a little bit all over the place the past few days,” Fowler said, “because my family is still in the St. Petersburg/Tampa Bay area, and the eye was supposed to hit that area. That’s where I grew up, we never left St. Pete, so we really don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Playing in Houston only served as a warning as to what a worst-case scenario could look like. The damage wreaked two weeks ago by Hurricane Harvey is still apparent throughout Southeastern Texas: shredded buildings, debris-lined streets, and piles of abandoned cars and trucks. “As soon as I stepped off the plane, you could just tell the vibe and the atmosphere, and seeing some of the damage that was done,” Fowler said.
Because of Irma, the Dolphins and Buccaneers postponed their Week 1 matchup in Miami and instead took their bye weeks, and the Jaguars made provisions to stay in Houston an extra night to wait out the storm. No matter what was happening back home, Fowler knew his family would be able to watch him play. “They’ve got the generator,” he said. For many reasons, he was eager to put on a show for them.
Fowler, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, had a bumpy start to his career. He tore his ACL on the first day of rookie minicamp and missed his first pro season. Last year, he played all 16 games but started just once, drawing more attention for picking up penalties than sacks. Off the field, he’s been arrested twice since entering the league: In March 2016, in Miami Beach, for alleged assault against a police officer/EMT and resisting arrest (charges were dropped after he completed a pretrial diversion program); and this past July, for misdemeanor charges of simple battery, mischief and petit theft after a confrontation with a man in a parking lot. (Fowler was scheduled to be in court for arraignment on those charges in Clearwater, Fla., today. He said his legal team is handling that and, given the storm, he thought it would be rescheduled).
When Fowler reported to training camp earlier this summer, he issued a public apology and vowed to do better, on and off the field. At NRG Stadium on Sunday, Fowler looked like the player the Jaguars thought they were drafting two years ago. His scoop-and-score TD, in which he returned a forced fumble by teammate Yannick Ngakoue for 53 yards, extended the Jaguars’ lead to 19-0 before the half. Fowler, who’d been a running back at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, channeled those old skills to take the football to the house. The Texans subsequently yanked QB Tom Savage, who’d lost the football two times, for rookie Deshaun Watson.
Then, early in the third quarter, Fowler made one of those mistakes he’s been trying to eradicate. An illegal hands to the face penalty negated a red-zone interception by teammate Myles Jack. The Texans got the ball back, and Watson threw a touchdown to DeAndre Hopkins on the very next play. Fowler vowed to redeem himself. He didn’t have to wait long.
On Houston’s next possession, Fowler forced a fumble with . . . his foot. He bull-rushed right tackle Breno Giacomini and pushed him back toward the QB, but Watson ducked and stepped up in the pocket in an effort to avoid Fowler’s swiping right arm. So Fowler extended his right leg, too, kicking the ball up and out of Watson’s grasp. “I saw him getting ready to scramble, but I still kind of had him, so I had to do whatever I had to do—scratch, claw, kick—to get him down,” Fowler said. “That was pretty different. I’ve been playing FIFA a lot, so maybe that’s where I got the idea to do it.”
It was one of 10 sacks for the Jaguars defense, a club record that prompted the team to change its Twitter header name to #Sacksonville on Sunday evening. Ngakoue recovered Fowler’s forced fumble, and the Jaguars were on their way to sealing their first win of the season—and showing an elite talent level that the defense wants to sustain. “We want to keep having this feeling, and change this team around, and win,” Fowler said.
As Fowler spoke, you could hear the celebratory buzz of a winning locker room in the background. But there was still uncertainty ahead that had nothing to do with football: Irma hadn’t yet made landfall in Fowler’s hometown, and after that, the storm would hit the city where he currently lives. On Monday morning, the National Weather Service put out an alert that the St. Johns River in Jacksonville was at a record level.
The Jaguars knew only that they’d be staying in Houston for at least one extra night—but not when they’d be returning home, or what they’d see upon returning.
“Hopefully everything goes right,” Fowler said. “All you can do is pray.”
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