Four years ago, Romena Bowie was living at his home in Saint Mary, Jamaica, where he could walk just 60 paces and feel his feet hit the sand of the island nation’s northeast shore.
Now a senior midfielder for the VCU men’s soccer team, Bowie has long-since traded Jamaica’s gorgeous beaches for the indoor pool at Cary Street Gym, where he swims laps regularly. This trade-off is one of many that Bowie was willing to make when he came to the United States in pursuit of a college degree and a soccer career back in 2010. The sacrifices are paying off.
Not only is Bowie closing in on a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, he is likely four months away from becoming the second VCU player in as many years to be a first round pick in the Major League Soccer Draft.
“Every MLS club knows who (Bowie) is, and there are scouts at every game,” VCU head coach Dave Giffard said. “Everybody knows who Bowie is, and there are no secrets about how good he can be.”
Bowie’s former high school teammate, Jason Johnson, was picked 13th overall in last year’s draft by the Houston Dynamo. Johnson, also a native of Saint Mary, played three years at VCU before signing a Generation Adidas contract to begin his pro career a year early.
Generation Adidas is a U.S. Soccer and MLS program that offers contracts to about 10 of the top college players in the country each year, guaranteeing them two-year salaries above the league minimum and full scholarships for if the players decide to return to school.
Bowie was on the short list of candidates for a Generation Adidas contract last season, but ultimately did not get an offer and stayed at VCU for his senior year. Coming off a season in which he was named First Team All-Atlantic 10, and having already led VCU to No. 8 in the national rankings this season, Bowie could match or beat Johnson’s draft position.
“(Johnson getting drafted) showed me I can achieve the same thing he has, I just need to put in the work,” Bowie said. “Thinking as an adult, I’m just trying to go get a job.”
Given that he is ranked highly, well within the top 20 on most draft boards, it is a safe assumption that Bowie will land a job in MLS. The difficult part for him will be keeping it. Bowie said that he has talked with Johnson several times about the differences between the college and pro games, and that the key words are speed and effort.
“As a young rookie going in, it’s crazy competition because the older guys see you as dangerous,” Bowie said. “That’s the only difference, because here at VCU, it’s a competitive environment and it’s the same drills. For MLS and other top leagues around the world, it’s just focus and the speed of play.”
For now, Bowie’s future professional career is on hold as he finishes his college career with the Rams. Despite working through early season aches and lingering injuries from the summer, he has helped VCU to its highest national ranking since 2004.
“Right now he’s just focused on the season, improving as a player, getting his sharpness back, having a great semester in the classroom and we’ll see what happens when December rolls around,” Giffard said of Bowie’s professional prospects. “My experience is those things have a way of taking care of themselves.”
Talent Meets Passion
Early in the second half of VCU’s 1-1 draw against then No. 9 New Mexico on Sept. 6, Bowie stood at the end of the sideline, chatting and keeping his younger teammates loose.
He didn’t start the match because of ongoing soreness and fatigue issues that had carried over from the summer. However, his guidance from the sideline and eventual play on the field would prove critical as VCU held the dangerous Lobos offense scoreless for the last 47 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods.
Bowie entered the match in the 64th minute after redshirt freshman Dakota Barnathan was injured in an awkward collision with a New Mexico defender, and anchored the midfield the rest of the way. Although VCU did not find a game-winner against New Mexico, Bowie made several key plays on both sides of the ball that would keep the game level and give VCU chances to win.
It wasn’t a glamorous performance, as they almost never are for Bowie, but it was an effective one, as they almost always are.
“He’s a leader based on how he plays,” said Nate Shiffman, a senior midfielder and four-year teammate of Bowie. “Everyone respects him off the field as well, they know what he’s going through and they know his background.”
Through more than three quarters of his college career, Bowie still has just four assists and no goals to his name, but is still referred to by Giffard as one of the “top 15 or 20 players in the country” when healthy. Giffard attributes this to Bowie’s diverse technical and athletic abilities, which allow him to do a lot of the “dirty work” that doesn’t show up in the box score such as winning balls on defense and dribbling or passing the ball through the midfield on offense.
“If you want the game to go your way, if you want to keep a rhythm and keep the fans happy, I’m the guy you give the ball to: I keep it going,” Bowie said. “That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here, keeping the game going.”
“I’m not the best defender and I’m not the best attacker, but if you put me against either one of those guys, I’m going to destroy them because I have a mixture of both of their talents,” he continued.
Because Bowie had not played as much organized soccer as most others when he got to VCU, Giffard evaluated him more on his raw talent. It took about a month for his experience to start catching up with his talent level, a process that according to Giffard is still ongoing.
“The last three years he has really grown leaps and bounds, and what’s scary is there’s so much more growth potential ahead of him,” Giffard said. “He’s only scraping the tip of the iceberg on what he can do, and what’s possible for him.”
Bowie stands 6-foot-1 and is listed at just 165 pounds, which allows him a rare combination of length, power and speed. However, his most important asset on the field is his passion for the game of soccer, which he discovered while playing at Manchester High School in Jamaica. Bowie said games at Manchester often attracted more fans than the top Jamaican pro league.
“Here, people don’t love it as much,” Bowie said. “Division I (college) soccer, it’s not really a factor in the country, so that’s probably the biggest letdown.”
In addition to his time on the high school field, Bowie learned even more about passion from his neighborhood friends. While growing up in the parish of Saint Mary, he and his neighbors of a range of ages and social groups would play daily 5 p.m. soccer games.
“It was the one true passion that all of us had,” Bowie said.
All the passion from those neighborhood soccer games has stayed with Bowie, where he has developed into one of the highest energy players in the country. The senior leadership role is one that he has embraced, and is not afraid to make clear what his expectations are of his teammates.
“Don’t suck,” Bowie said. “If you’re going out there and you’re not trying to be a part of something big, something that’s going to affect a large group of people, don’t be a part of VCU Soccer. We’re here to help build you on the field and in the classroom, and that builds your character and leads to success.”
A New Home
While Bowie’s heart and roots will always be in Jamaica, he has carved out a promising future. After he earns his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from VCU, he hopes to one day work toward an MBA if his professional soccer career were to be cut short.
“He’s a good student, he’s worked hard,” Giffard said. “He came from not a privileged background at all, so I think everything’s been a big adjustment for him.”
When Bowie arrived in Richmond in 2010, he spent almost every waking hour with members of the team, but quickly branched out and got accustomed to the new culture. Many of the new aspects of life were improvements for him, like a lower crime rate and better economic conditions around the city. Parts of Saint Mary are known for violence, high dropout rates at schools and widespread drug use.
“It was a hard time adjusting but the guys on the team made it very easy for us,” Bowie said. ‘We call ourselves a family because that’s what we are to each other. We’re each other’s brothers.”
Shiffman has been Bowie’s partner in the midfield for the last four seasons, and has witnessed his growth on-and-off the field first-hand. Bowie spent his first month in the U.S. living at Shiffman’s home in Midlothian, because the team had preseason practice before the dorms opened.
“He’s changed a lot, I can’t really relate to the (change he made) culture-wise, but it must have been pretty tough for him,” Shiffman said. “For him to come here, and to grow as much as he has as a person is pretty special.”
Despite the radical cultural changes that Bowie has gone through, Shiffman said he has always been impressed with the upbeat demeanor he brings to the field.
“He’s always the funny, goofy guy,” Shiffman said. “He’s passionate whenever we’re playing and he’s always smiling. It doesn’t matter what the score is, Bowie is always having fun.”
Behind soccer, cooking is Bowie’s greatest passion. He takes pride in being versatile in what he makes, and tries to bring his own flare to every dish.
“Americans seem to have this special dish, like maybe you make a good casserole,” Bowie said. “No, give me something, and I’ll cook it. It’s just meat; all you got to do is season it differently and make it your own.”
He also frequents The Jamaica House, a restaurant on Broad Street in downtown Richmond. His favorite item there is the Jamaican fried chicken, which is cooked in a sweeter, milder sauce than the popular jerk chicken.
Beyond his culinary endeavors, tight-knit group of friends and teammates, and frequent trips to the gym for lap swimming, Bowie is the first to admit there’s not much to his life other than school and soccer.
“If I’m not with the team I’m probably home, just watching some T.V. and trying to stay out of trouble,” he said.
The blog “Soccer By Ives” recently ranked Bowie as the No. 19 MLS prospect in college soccer today, and projects him to be a lock in the first round of January’s draft. Bowie has played in all seven of VCU’s matches so far, but has started only twice as he continues to be eased into the lineup after a physically tumultuous summer.