The bright midday sun of early fall is splashing everything at the United States Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, bouncing most dramatically off the 17 spires of the chapel. Looming ahead, as the football player walks toward his room, are the magnificent Rockies. The greens of summer are giving way to the yellows of autumn, and flags are snapping in the breeze. It's all so spectacular that it's a little unreal—just like the player himself, Air Force quarterback Steven Michael Dowis, who's known as Dee.
He looks up at the vista before him and says, "Pretty, isn't it?" For Dowis (rhymes with prowess), that's a speech. Dowis, a junior, is a throwback to the days when athletes didn't tell us how good they were, they showed us. Indeed, with Dowis, it's all show and no tell. He leads the nation in total points scored, with 78; he leads in total rushing yards with 802; and he's first in the nation with short answers to long questions. Usually he says, "Yes, sir," except when he says, "No, sir."
Dowis's young life could be the inspiration for a Frank Capra script: He's a straight arrow ("Why would I drink? All I ever wanted was to play ball," he says) from rural Royston, Ga. (pop. 2,500), who didn't want to wander far from all that red clay because he loves his family and his home on Pine Valley Drive, but did so to play quarterback at the Air Force Academy. Never mind that Air Force is the only school, other than West Point, that made him an offer. Dowis would have much preferred Duke, Georgia Tech or Vanderbilt, but they had zero interest in a 5'10", 153-pound quarterback. "I would have played wide receiver, anything," he says, "just to be on one of those teams."
The summer before his senior year in high school, Dowis went to a quarterback camp at Furman. Because of his size, he was ignored. When he returned home, he slumped in a chair and said, "Mama, they didn't even look at me. Why can't they see my heart?" Fortunately for Dowis, Air Force, which because of its stringent entrance requirements has no choice but to believe in heart, had heard about him through a Georgia high school coach. Every year the Falcons field a team of players who are too small, too slow and not talented enough—but with hearts as big as Pikes Peak. Jim Bowman, Air Force's recruiting coordinator, says that only 12 of this season's Falcons attracted interest from even one other major school, which is not to say they were offered scholarships. Never in the 35-year history of Air Force football has one of its players gone to the pros. "Our job is to recruit future second lieutenants and, while they are here, develop them into football players," says Bowman. "The taxpayers like it this way."
When he first arrived at the academy, Dowis struggled with his books and with the demands of military life. He also struggled on the football field with the intricacies of the wishbone. To make matters worse, he was desperately homesick. In fact, when Dowis returned to school from spring break of his freshman year, he intended to pick up his personal belongings and quit. But today all is in order, especially his football playing, which could, by the time he is finished with his college career, firmly establish him as the best, the brightest, the quickest wishbone quarterback ever. Better than Jack Mildren, Jamelle Holieway or any of those other Oklahoma guys. Every week, Dowis produces a moment to remember, another highlight, another "didyaseethat!"
For all his ability, Dowis is meek and mild. He has a sweet smile that plays across an angelic face and a breathy voice that's difficult to hear, which is fine with him. When classmates chose him to give a speech at his junior high school graduation, he mumbled and spoke so softly that nobody heard it. "He had written such a good speech too," says his mother, Helen Brown (Dowis's father, Leonard, died in 1972, and his mother married Harold Brown in '75).
Ask Dowis about his exploits, and he acts as if what he's doing is as common as pig tracks. Press him a bit and he'll put his head down and commence shufflin' and then praising his offensive line, his fellow backs, the defense, the coaches, the pizza delivery man. "Just lucky," is how he ultimately explains his many starry performances.
At the least, he's the most consistently exciting player in college football. With Dowis making every snap an adventure, the 6-0 Falcons have soared to first in the nation in rushing offense, with 449.0 yards per game. And he's arguably the player with the most marquee value, which is stunning considering that he plies his trade not in South Bend, Miami or Ann Arbor, but in Colorado Springs.
After Dowis set an NCAA single-game record for quarterbacks, scoring six touchdowns, in a smashing 52-36 win over San Diego State on Sept. 2, Aztecs coach Al Luginbill said, "That's the best performance I've seen by an individual player, ever." Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry says, "He's a four-star general." Lou Holtz, whose Notre Dame Irish will face Dowis on Saturday, says, "I like him." What's not to like?
Certainly the folks at Air Force can't find anything to criticize. After the Falcons beat Wyoming 45-7 on Sept. 10, sports information director Dave Kellogg began putting out a flyer extolling Dowis's heroics. At first, he thought he would call it Dee Weekly Flyer. Then he got a grip on himself and named it The Dowis Weekly Flyer. Of course, once he gets past the numbers, Kellogg has his work cut out for him in the quotes department, as this reporter can attest from his own interviews with Dowis.
Any individual goals, Dee?
Oh, and what might they be?
"For the team to win, sir."
Do other teams underestimate you because of your size?
"I don't know what other teams think, sir."
Why do you play football?
"I like to play. If I didn't, I wouldn't, sir."
Are you a good guy?
"Sir, you will have to make that judgment."
Who is Dee Dowis?
"I enjoy sports, sir, and I care about people."
"Sir, talking about myself is not me."
Tom Ratterree, a Colorado state legislator who from time to time opens his home to cadets needing a break from the military grind or simply a home-cooked meal, says of Dowis, "He's not at ease off' the football field." Cal McCombs, an assistant coach who recruited Dowis and was instrumental in keeping him at Air Force, says, "He doesn't say much to anybody."
But his actions speak volumes on the football field: Dowis thrilled a nationwide ESPN audience when he carried 21 times for 201 yards and two touch-downs in the win over Wyoming, the defending WAC champion. Afterward he said, "The defense was great. This was their game tonight." Having had a chance to watch Dowis make a shambles of the Cowboys, Northwestern was determined not to let him beat it by carrying the ball. So, on Sept. 16, the Wildcats held him to 40 yards on eight carries. Those who don't understand the wishbone expressed disappointment over Dowis's performance. They could not have been more wrong. All he did was hand off to the fullback eight times for 57 yards and pitch to the halfback 24 times for 190 yards and two TDs. Air Force won 48-31. Disappointing?
For the wishbone really to get cracking, the quarterback must be able to make rapid-fire decisions under extreme pressure. That's Dowis. To begin with, 50% of the time Dowis calls an audible to change the play at the line of scrimmage. Then, in most cases, a defensive tackle is left unblocked. If the tackle goes for Dowis, Dowis hands off to his fullback. If the tackle goes for the fullback, Dowis keeps. Then he either takes the ball up the middle or sprints out, turning inside the end, forcing that defensive player to take him or go for the trailing pitchman, the halfback—the end goes for Dowis, Dowis pitches; the end goes for the halfback, Dowis keeps. A ton of quick decisions. "I just react to things, sir," Dowis says. "There's no time to think." His special gift is that his mind is as quick and nimble as his feet.
Because of those quick decisions and all those handoffs and pitches, the wishbone is a high-risk offense. And a high-opportunity offense. Oklahoma has run it with great results but little discipline, so while the Sooners score a bunch, they also fumble a lot. Air Force brings discipline to the 'bone. Tell Dowis and the other Falcon backs not to fumble, and they take it as an order. So far, Air Force has lost only six fumbles in six games.
It helps that Dowis makes the correct decision on his reads about 90% of the time, according to Falcon quarterback coach Charlie Weatherbie. The goal is 85%. If Dowis becomes the first quarterback ever to lead the nation in rushing, that achievement could obscure the fact that all of Air Force's yards are directly attributable to his knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it.
Every team the Falcons play is frightened to death that Dowis will get out on the corners and do them in. Which is what enabled Dowis to burn UTEP 43-26 on Sept. 23 with a 35-yard quarterback draw straight up the middle, making the score 31-7 at halftime. Two weeks ago, against Colorado State, Dowis carried the ball a mere 10 times, but gained 147 yards, which included touchdown runs of 38 and 41 yards, as Air Force won 46-21.
Given these kinds of stats—and the likelihood that the Falcons will finish no worse than 8-4 this season—the Air Force Academy may soon no longer be the only major service academy without a Heisman in its trophy case. Dowis started the season at about 200 to 1 for the Heisman; the odds have shortened considerably since then, and should the Falcons upset Notre Dame, he would have to be seen as the favorite.
So, Dee, how does the prospect of winning that coveted award strike you?
"Sir, that stuff just clutters your head and gets you focused on the wrong things. So I don't think about it. It's a team game, sir."
Naturally, with fame comes scrutiny, and observers have been critical of Dowis's passing ability. In fairness, the wishbone normally allows for only two receivers, which makes passing difficult even for a strong-armed quarterback. Weatherbie says of Dowis, "He's more of a thrower than a passer." Still, last season Dowis went 11 for 11 against Northwestern, tying the NCAA record for consecutive completions in a game. And last Saturday, while Navy was looking for him to run wild, he carried the ball only nine times and gained 73 yards but completed six of 12 passes for 116 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-7 Falcon win. It truly is hard to attribute a single weakness to Dowis—other than his size.
When Dowis is asked about his shortcomings, he is reduced again to shufflin': "Gee, a lot. I don't know where to start. Too many to mention." We'll wait. He looks desperate. "Well, sir, I daydream in class sometimes."
The turning point for Dowis's career came when he nearly left Air Force after his freshman season, in which he rushed 24 times for only 39 yards. He visited Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. Tech was interested, sort of, in Dowis as a wide receiver. But to his credit, Tech coach Bobby Ross encouraged Dowis to hang in with the Falcons. It didn't hurt that Ross's son, Chris, is a 1984 Air Force graduate. True, had Dowis been 6'4" with a rifle arm, it's possible Ross would not have taken such a high road.
"But I wasn't listening to anyone at that time," says Dowis. He called Royston from Atlanta and told his mother. "I'm coming home and goin' to Tech." Said she, "That'll be fine."
Upon returning to Air Force to pack his bags, Dowis paused long enough to talk with DeBerry and McCombs, and he says. "I just couldn't quit something that I knew I could be successful at. And I knew I'd be perceived as a failure."
Dowis told DeBerry, "If I come back, I will be your quarterback." DeBerry made no promises. "I'll give you that chance," was all he said. Dowis took that opportunity and, well, ran with it.
What further burnishes this quarterback tale is that Dowis is one terrific college player. Pro football he doesn't even daydream about. What Dowis does is play the game for the joy of it. Typically this fall, he rises at 6:30 a.m., goes to classes, practices and then goes back to his sixth-floor room in Sijan Hall to tackle two books: Principles of Microeconomics and Engineering Thermodynamics. Early in the school year, Dowis got rid of a stereo and a television, because they interfered with his studying.
Says roommate Pat McNelis, a starting defensive tackle, "The biggest thing Dee has is his desire to do well—in everything." Dowis's grade point average is a respectable 2.53 at one of the nation's more demanding institutions. Not bad for a product of Franklin County High School, where not only was the football program mediocre but also where, on average, only 27% of the graduating seniors went to college.
For now, Dowis isn't clear what he wants to do in the future. Maybe a doctor. Perhaps a lawyer. Or, given his surroundings, a pilot. The lure of being at the controls of an F-16 screaming across the horizon is growing. "I'm not sure exactly what, sir," he says.
Immediately after the game against UTEP, Dowis and teammate Randle Gladney drove to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs to visit Jason Feyh, 8, who survived the July 19 United Air Lines crash in Sioux City. Jason's mother, Brenda, was killed, and Jason was in critical condition. Dowis has become devoted to the boy. This day, Jason, in a cast from his waist down, asked to play catch. He was wheeled into a parking lot and did so. When somebody said he threw better spirals than Dowis, Jason immediately offered to show Dowis the proper grip for better results. The joy on the child's face was indescribable. As was that on Dowis's face.
Says Air Force athletic director John Clune, "Dee projects us to the nation, and more important he projects us the way we want to be projected. His story is Americana, which is what the Academy is." And it's easy to see, maybe 10 years hence, Dowis back in Georgia, spitting sunflower seeds and talking about the soybeans, a zillion miles from the hoopla and the crowds and the jet roar.
So what are you thinking now, Dee?
"That I'm just happy, sir."