Rowan has professional-caliber physical tools — when healthy. Unfortunately, that caveat has defined his career. Rowan has played in 21 games the past two seasons, but nearly all of them have been a struggle through pain.
On the Badgers' first day of fall training camp this year, Rowan beamed hopefully: "I've got one year to put up or shut up and I just feel that it's time for me to step up and be a leader around here and that's what I'm going to be."
Rowan had reason to be optimistic. He came into camp in terrific physical condition, ready to put his sprinter's speed and 6-foot-1, 191-pound frame to work in a revamped secondary.
A difficult year was in the past….
In 2004, Rowan overcame back spasms that were the result of a track injury and played very well in spring football practices. He was supposed to start at corner that fall but a plantar fasciitis injury to his foot suffered shortly before fall camp put a wrench in those plans. He missed most of camp, lost his starting spot and struggled all season to recoup playing time and his health.
"That was painful," he said. "I couldn't jump. I couldn't run. It's almost like I had a broken foot. I couldn't do nothing."
To help ward away injury, Rowan reduced his level of participation on the track team and spent the offseason working into top condition.
Five days into camp this year, however, a freak injury derailed him. During UW's first full-pad scrimmage, Rowan chased a teammate down from behind to make a tackle.
"I jumped on his back like to bring him down and I came down on the screw on his cleat, and it just ripped my knee open," Rowan said. He needed surgery to remove pieces of turf from the gash and more than 30 stitches to close up the wound.
"It was craziest thing I ever seen," Rowan said. He watched the injury on film. Over and over again. Even in slow motion.
"Just to see like, what really happened," he said. "To see if I could have avoided it."
The verdict: the injury was not avoidable. Because of it, Rowan missed most of fall camp yet again. He then lost his starting spot after the season opener and soon fell behind fellow senior Brett Bell and redshirt freshmen Jack Ikegwuonu and Allen Langford on the depth chart.
"I was kind of upset because I wasn't playing, but we were winning games. So how upset could I really be?" Rowan said.
Rowan smiled and let loose a slight laugh as he pondered the injury this week.
"It's like it's destiny," he said. "Didn't it seem like there is no way I could get away from that happening?... I was expecting to… have a big year. But everything happened for a reason, so I just want to finish up strong."
Rowan began the process of finishing strong last week. Though UW lost 35-14 at Penn State, Rowan played one of the best games of his career. After Bell was beaten for a long touchdown on the game's opening series, Rowan received his most extensive playing time since week one.
Rowan is expected to start on senior day Saturday, when No. 19 Wisconsin (8-2 overall, 5-2 Big Ten) hosts Iowa (5-4, 3-3) for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff.
"I still (have) the opportunity to leave a nice a legacy…," Rowan said. "Cause they always say they remember your last game."
Bell, Bernstein also hurting in senior season
Rowan's is not the only senior season that has been shoved astray by injury.
Last Saturday, tears welled up in Bell's eyes as he spoke with reporters following a game in which PSU's Deon Butler had sprinted past him for touchdowns of 43 and 47 yards.
"I was sitting down," Bell said softly. "I was just sitting on the route."
Each time Bell had expected Butler to run a shorter route. With his initial read off the mark, Bell was caught. Maybe last year he would have had the catch-up speed to run with Butler. But not this season. Not with a knee that is still recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Not when that now-arthritic knee still swells up painfully.
"I'm sure there's a mental aspect there of his knee not being there," said junior linebacker Mark Zalewski, who was hampered by injury his first two years on campus. "You know first couple years here, my hamstring, every time I'd step on the field, maybe subconsciously, just maybe you just feel different, that you weren't really capable of playing your best. I'm sure it's got to be real frustrating."
In the Badger locker room following the Penn State loss, Bell offered his defensive teammates a heartfelt apology.
"Basically he said he was sorry for how he went out there and played," senior linebacker Dontez Sanders said.
Lee understands what Rowan and Bell are going through this season.
"I cracked my leg my junior year and came back my senior year and it was a struggle," said Lee, who played defensive back at Washington State. "… As a competitor you want to get out there but you don't want to hurt the team."
"They'd like to be all-conference this year if they could," Lee said. "They probably thought about that coming into this year…
"And it's hard. You know you are a senior. You waited for this chance and now you have a bump and a bruise here and there and you see these younger guys (Langford and Ikegwuonu) going in. But those younger guys look up to them. They are just like second coaches out there."
At least Rowan and Bell have been able to play. Senior fullback Matt Bernstein has not been so fortunate. He played through the North Carolina game and part of the Michigan game with an undisclosed injury that kept him from running full speed. That injury has forced him to miss the past six games and there is doubt as to whether he will play again as a Badger.
Bernstein, a four-year starter, rehabs the injury during practice, to take the edge off not being able to play.
"It's mentally frustrating," he said. "So I've kind of tried to take a step away from it and just do my rehab during some of the periods of practice and just go to the individual meetings just so I don't have to go crazy with doing everything and then just not playing. Just going nuts."
Like Bernstein and Bell, Zalewski is a team captain. He is also Bernstein's roommate.
"(Matt's) just the type of guy who would do anything for this team," Zalewski said. "I'm sure he would try to play through this but he knows it would ruin the rest of his career.
"He tries to shy away from it. But if I bring it up he just, you know, he tries to be positive about it. He tries to say he's getting better, he's doing his rehab. But I think it's just so hard for him to sit there and watch other people when he wants to be on the field so badly."