Something to Play For

Shaq Rowell was in his room, attempting to relax after another long day while still adapting to his new surroundings at Iowa Western Junior College, when his phone rang. It was a call from a number he didn't recognize.

He was taken aback when he picked up to hear his mother on the other end of the phone.

A phone call from your mother isn't necessarily something too out of the ordinary for most college students. This situation, however, was anything but ordinary.

Raymonda Rowell had been in a coma for almost three months.

"Shawn, are you in school?" Rowell recalled his mother saying.

"I had to hang the phone up on my mom, because I didn't know who it was," he said. "I didn't know if I was ever going to get to talk to her again. I never expected to pick up and hear her on the other end of the phone."

His mother, who was known as "Mondie" by her friends and family in Maple Heights, Ohio, worked as a nursing assistant and raised her three children by herself. Rowell's mother had always wanted him to go to school at West Virginia University.

"Right before I made up my mind to go (to Iowa Western), she went into the coma," Rowell said. "When she came out of it, that was one of the first things she remembered."

To understand what eventually led Shaq Rowell to Morgantown, it's important to get to know the road he took.

First, you have to get to know Shawntel Lewis Rowell.


Shaq Rowell grew up in a poor neighborhood in East Cleveland. Once he started to get older, thanks to the constant threats of drugs and violence and wanting to do whatever he could to stay away from trouble, Rowell's days would consist of school, football practice and then straight home to do homework.

Rowell had friends who were killed before they graduated high school, and without a father around the house, he needed a male role model to look up to in order for him to not get mixed in with the wrong crowd and end up living a similar fate.

Luckily for him, he had his older brother Chris.

"Everything I did as a kid, I did because of my older brother," Shaq said. "Everything my brother did, I just followed him. He was my role model."

From a young age, Chris knew there was something special about his younger brother. It was around the time when Shaq was in eighth grade and Chris was a senior in high school that he started pushing his younger sibling to his limits. The younger Rowell kept himself busy at baseball and basketball games, but he always stood out on the football field.

"He'd come to all of my games, and I would always tell him to come out and practice and hang around with our high school varsity team," Chris said. "He had a big growth spurt that year. He shot up from about 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-2 or something like that. I would just be like, ‘Come on and come practice with us. You're better than a lot of these freshmen.'"

Chris, who played at Iowa and helped the Hawkeyes win an Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech in 2010, knew firsthand how much work it took in order to earn a collegiate scholarship. Like a lot of student-athletes across the nation, getting to play major college football didn't just represent a chance to keep playing but a way to leave their rough neighborhoods in their rearview mirror.

It was a chance to let them live up to their true potential – as football players and as people.

Knowing how good his brother could be, Chris wanted to see Shaq succeed. And he set that example for him early on when Shaq would watch his brother work and prepare for his chance.

"You don't ever want to stay there and become a product of your environment and become a statistic," Chris said. "I never wanted to see my brother end up being one of those kids who were really talented but didn't go anywhere and they have no motivation to do anything with their potential."

As he went through high school, playing for the great Ted Ginn Sr. at Glenville High School, Shaq had offers from every Big Ten and ACC school and LSU. He could have picked wherever he wanted to go to school.

So he followed his brother to the Big Ten, committing to play at Ohio State.

He was going to get to play major college football at a school just two hours away from home. It looked as if things were getting ready to take off for Shaq Rowell.

He was finally going to get his way out of Cleveland, away from everything he wanted to stay away from.


Rowell was in Columbus for three months.

He got to go through summer conditioning and workouts with the team, took summer classes and was getting ready to start camp. Then, he got word from the NCAA Clearinghouse that his ACT score wasn't good enough for him to be eligible to play. After working so hard to get to Ohio State, the opportunity was yanked away from him.

"I'm not going to lie, it broke my heart. I cried," Shaq said.

"I didn't even know if I wanted to play football anymore. I worked so hard just to get that scholarship, but once it got taken away from me, I just thought that was it. I thought I had lost everything."

After thinking about it, he wasn't going to let that one roadblock stop him.

As far as he knew, his journey was just beginning.

"When they made me go home, it was hard, but I had to accept that it was the end of that story," Shaq said. "It was the beginning of the real Shaq Rowell."

And just like any flawed hero, Shaq's next journey wasn't the easiest road to navigate.

Once he left Ohio State, he made the decision attend Fort Scott Community College in Kansas where he ran into trouble when he got to campus for his involvement in a fight.

Kicked off the team and forced to leave school, he had yet to play a down of college football but had already made stops at two schools.

Chris knew the potential his brother had, and he was tired of seeing Shaq waste it. Using his ties at Iowa, Chris talked to a former Hawkeye teammate who played at junior college powerhouse Iowa Western before making the jump to play for head coach Kirk Ferentz.

The coaching staff at Iowa Western found a spot for Rowell. Even if it wasn't at a big school like Shaq had originally planned, he was going to get his chance to make good and earn a spot in major college football someday.

"When he had to leave Fort Scott, we actually had a little fight, because I told him flat-out that he wasn't putting his best effort into this and that he needed to step it up. You never know when people are going to stop giving you another shot," Chris said.

"After that, when he went to Iowa Western, he kind of woke up. It was one of those deals where he needed to realize that he needed to learn from his mistakes instead of blaming everyone else when something went wrong."

Rowell played his first – and only – season at Iowa Western and quickly realized a change on the recruiting trail the second time around.

"Everybody wanted me (out of high school), but then it's amazing how slim that list gets when you're coming out of junior college," he laughed. "Apparently nobody needs a nose guard coming out of JUCO."


Before he got his chance to start at Iowa Western, Shaq was faced with even more trying times.

In March 2010, before he went to Iowa, his mother – who was a diabetic – saw her health began to rapidly decrease. Her diabetes began to get worse, causing her to be in and out of the hospital. A few months later, in May, she went into a coma.

"We were just sitting there shocked, like how did this actually happen?," Chris recalled. "For us, we just sat there and just wondered how someone who was always up and going around working and taking care of her business to make sure we were happy becomes this person who is just laying there, not moving with her eyes closed and not responding to us at all.

"Me and Shaq told the doctors to just do whatever they had to do to give our mom a chance to live a good life. They gave us options, but they told us there was a good chance that – if she ever got out of it – she was probably just going to be a vegetable. It hurt more than anything I've ever experienced in the world."

A few months later, against the odds, she awoke and was able to call her sons – just as Shaq was getting adjusted to his new home at Iowa Western.

Still, she wasn't out of the clear.

Shortly after she came out of the coma, Mondie had to get her left leg amputated after an infection had spread up to her quad area.

After a couple more years of battling with the disease, she passed away on May 19 at the age of 47. Shaq, who is the middle child of the three Rowell children, spoke with his mother for the last time a couple days before her death shortly after a procedure she had done.

"She went into the surgery, and she was already warned about it and what could happen, but she went through with it," Shaq said. "I talked to her two or three days after she had the surgery – which turned out to be a couple days before she ended up passing away – and she told me she was feeling a little sick.

"Then, just like that, I found out that she didn't make it."


After his only season at Iowa Western, his mother's declining health made his decision of where he would continue his college career much easier.

Keeping what his mom had always told him in mind, Shaq chose West Virginia over the likes of Ohio, Miami (Fla.), Baylor and New Mexico as a way to stay as close as he possibly could to home.

"(Junior college) was a grind. Everyone is playing for their chance to come to a school like West Virginia" he said. "It's like how people say that when you go to the NFL you're playing for a job, but you're playing to get that scholarship because everyone is doing whatever they can to get out. It's a matter of just being hungry.

"I'm very humble about the fact that I'm here. I appreciate everything, because I have a lot of old teammates who weren't able to make it this far, and I still think about them to this day. I've got friends who died and didn't even get to graduate from high school. I never forget where I came from and all the work and dedication it took me to get this far."

When he got to West Virginia, Rowell was asked to play nose guard, a position he had never played. Unlike a lot of junior college transfers who are expected to come to their new school and play immediately, he got the opportunity to take the 2011 season to learn and get better behind more experienced nose guards Josh Taylor and Jorge Wright.

"It made me a better player, but I was a little disappointed," Shaq said. "The more the season progressed, I realized that this was just going to get me better for the next two years, and I'm glad that it happened the way it did instead of me getting thrown in."

That role grew in his junior season, as Rowell started 12 of WVU's 13 games.

He finished that season with 42 tackles and two tackles for loss, but it finally clicked to him what the nose guard position was meant to do. Much like what made former Mountaineer Chris Neild so successful at the position, Rowell realized that he was never going to have the stats or glory. But, if he's not doing his job, the entire defense fails.

"It's the dirtiest position on the field. At the end of the game, nobody knows who you are, but they'll know you real quick if that ball gets run up the middle," he said. "I don't need the glory though. If we get that ‘W', that's all that matters.

"The NFL scouts know what's going on when they look at the film. At the end of the day, I couldn't care less about (having great stats), as long as I go out and do my job, I'm satisfied with that."


After making a big leap that resulted in him getting more playing time as a junior, seeing the Mountaineer defense struggle the way it did last season made him realize he had to do even more.

He has become the unquestioned leader of a West Virginia defense that seems to be improving every week.

"Since my first day of being here, he might be the most changed person on the field from a work ethic and a leadership standpoint," said Mountaineer defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. "He affects everyone in a positive manner. That's what we want to focus on. Sometimes people mistake leadership for yelling and trying to encourage people by being negative. That's not what he does."

Rowell leads vocally and by example, letting his play on the field do a lot of the. Even though, once again, his numbers aren't going to blow anyone away, he has 17 tackles through the first four games of his final season.

"Every game I come out on that field, I have to go all out, because you never know when it's going to be your last game," he said. "They only give you 12 every year. It means so much to me to be a Mountaineer, but being a senior is a little added pressure.

"I'm not going to sit back and let these guys be lackadaisical."

It's not just his senior season that is pushing Rowell to be even better. Before every game, he remembers his mother. He remembers the lessons she instilled in him and his siblings growing up, and he remembers how badly she wanted him to live up to his true potential.

Every time he steps on that field, he's playing for someone.

He's doing it for Mondie.

And that's the message he relays to the team before every home game as he leads the Mountaineers into the stadium.

When WVU finished the Mountaineer Mantrip and met at midfield prior to its season opener against William & Mary, Rowell stood tall in the middle of all of his teammates in the huddle – taking the time to look at all of them to make sure that they were all paying attention to every word he said.

"My mom isn't here to see me play today, but I'm playing for her," he started. "Pick somebody to you want to play for, and go do it. And if you don't have no one, play for me. Play for all of your teammates."

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