John McCann Column: From hardcourt to gridiron

Aug. 14, 2014 @ 01:54 PM

The first day of high school football practice around here and across the state was Aug. 1.

But Aug. 7 was when coaches could allow their players to knock the fool out out each other — the first day of hitting, when face-masked winners get separated from pretenders.

Over at Hillside High School, Hornets defensive lineman Deshawn “Hammer” Scott looked toward the bleachers and saw one of his teammates not dressed for battle. Scott told that guy, a basketball player, that he all of a sudden was punking out because it was time to hit and not just run around in shorts and T-shirts.

Which is why I was there. Hillside senior Marcus Bowling also plays basketball for the Hornets, and he's got game. But Bowling told me weeks ago that he was going to be a wide receiver on the football team. The issue, though, was the last time somebody lowered shoulder pads into Bowling's chest was when he was in eighth grade, and the physicality of middle school football is way different from high school and guys like Hammer talking noise and getting inside your head.

So Aug. 7 was circled on the calendar in my mind. I had to see if Bowling would bring it.

And there Bowling was at Hillside, although he wasn't dressed to hit. He was wearing his helmet, shoulder pads and No. 17 jersey. Yet for whatever reason, the young brother didn't have on football pants, so he couldn't pop pads.

But don't mistake that as Bowling chickening out of contact drills. That dude actually was on the sideline asking the basketball player whom Hammer was harassing if he could borrow some gear so he could go out there and hit somebody, get hit by somebody.

In other words, Bowling wasn't scared. No surprise there, because last year in a summer-league basketball game at Durham School of the Arts, Bowling took Denver Nuggets forward Quincy Miller to the hole and then talked junk to him.

At the beginning of Hillside's football practice that day, there was a guy on the field who just kept yapping, yapping, yapping.

It was Bowling.

“He's got a mouth like mine,” Hillside assistant coach and former Hornets wide receiver Geovonie Irvine said.

But Bowling had no pants. So he couldn't hit.

Next thing I knew, Bowling was running past me.

A while later, I heard footsteps. It was Bowling, who — wait a minute! — was returning from the locker room wearing football pants.

“This is how they're supposed to look, right?” Bowling asked.

Spoken just like a basketball player.

Bowling went out there on the field and bumped heads with the other guys. Hillside coach Antonio King had to get on him for missing a block, but the young man more accustomed to setting screens on basketball courts was holding his own.

Irvine, who a few seasons ago was a devastating playmaker for N.C. Central University, said Bowling has potential as a wide receiver.

King had Bowling working with the first-team unit during a scrimmage against Chapel Hill High School on Wednesday. Bowling didn't pluck any passes out of the air, but he played OK on a muddy field, King said.

Bowling has caught on fast, and it would have been nice to have had him in Hillside's football program long before now, King said.

Former Hillside basketball coach Crasten Davis said he used to tell Bowling that he belonged on the football field.

“He will be a really good football player,” Davis said.

If Bowling had started playing high school football when he was a freshman or sophomore, he might have been a 3-star college prospect, Davis said.

Toward the end of Hillside's football practice, King had the Hornets doing cartwheels. Literally. Cartwheels. But those movements had nothing to do with player development. King said his guys had been grinding hard, and the cartwheels simply were a way to take off the edge.

King has produced a small army of Division-I talent, so it would be out of place to question his cartwheels and their place in turning guys like Bowling into legit football players.

Herald-Sun sports writer John McCann is on Twitter.