TODD BOWLES never knew fear.
Not in the dangerous projects of Elizabeth, N.J.; not as a lightly regarded Temple defensive back; not as an unlikely NFL Cinderella, or as a young starter on a Redskins' Super Bowl champion team, or in Green Bay's hallowed front office, or at the golden feet of Eddie Robinson and Bill Parcells.
"The only time I was scared was when I looked down and saw my mother on her deathbed," Bowles said. "She was my best friend."
Joan Bowles was 65 when the cancer finally won. That was almost 3 years ago.
Her four children are so close that they seldom speak of the disease and how it robbed them of her. So terrible was the ordeal that they will not identify where the tumors attacked.
It left her family exhausted. It left her baby boy bereft.
"That was very hard," said Kenny Bowles, at 49 older by 1 year. "He was always very special. He was Momma's boy, very close to her. He's come a long way. He deals with it better now."
And so, when the Dolphins went 0-7 to start 2011, Bowles, the defensive backs coach and assistant head coach, didn't flinch. When Tony Sparano's head rolled after Game 13 and Bowles got the interim tag, he simply bowed his back and coached the Fins to a 2-1 finish.
Now, after the Dolphins and Raiders passed on him as a head coach, he is in Philadelphia, the Eagles' obvious insurance policy against another 1-4 start. He will coach a corps of defensive backs either overpaid or inexperienced.
He will look over the shoulder of second-year defensive coordinator Juan Castillo, who, along with head coach Andy Reid, will forever serve as the scapegoats for the lost Dream Team season of 2011.
Bowles does not fear this, either.
"I'm not trying to come here to be a defensive coordinator or a head coach. I'm here to coach the secondary," Bowles said yesterday. "All the other stuff, I'll let everybody else figure out."
The Eagles reportedly were denied permission to interview him for their vacant defensive coordinator's position after the 2010 season - but, Reid said after he hired Castillo, the job was always Castillo's to lose.
Bowles was available this season. Castillo remains, despite his defense's struggles in the first half of last season. So, ostensibly, Bowles would not have been hired last year, either.
He seems fine with that.
"They have a great staff. Coach Reid's been doing this for a long time. And Coach Castillo's been here for a long time," Bowles said. "I'm here to do everything I can to help this team win the Super Bowl - from a defensive backs' standpoint."
After 10 days on the job, Bowles understands Castillo's scheme and is digesting the terminology.
"I'm familiar with it. I like it. Football hasn't changed too much. You're not going to reinvent the wheel," Bowles said. "The scheme is great. We're running a lot of the same things. They played good football. People just get confused with a few plays here and there."
Reid contacted Bowles about 2 weeks ago, while Bowles was weighing his options: Oakland's defensive coordinator, Cincinnati's assistant head coach/secondary, and returning to Miami's staff as the DBs coach under Joe Philbin. He flew to Philadelphia late in the week, interviewed with Reid and Castillo, and was hired Jan. 30, 2 days later.
"All three of us were on the same page. Wanted the same things," Bowles said. "I just looked at the defensive backs, and what I have to work with."
He has eight Pro Bowls among current corners Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (though Samuel, an expensive player, might not be in the ranks when the seasons starts).
He has a total of 42 starts among young safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Jaiquawn Jarrett, a fellow Temple product.
He has a lot to work with, and a lot of work to do. He also has a chance to raise his profile higher, with a potent offense and a team that ended 2011 on a four-game streak, finishing a game behind the eventual Super Bowl champions.
"Philly's near home. They have a very good team. They have a very good staff," Bowles said. "I think they have a very good chance of getting to the Super Bowl."
It is where Bowles has tried to get back to since he won it as the Redskins' starting safety in 1987.
Emmitt Thomas, Bowles' position coach in Washington, warned Bowles to leave the game completely for at least 2 years before he tried coaching. So, Bowles did when he retired in 1993.
"You'll teach the guys to play exactly the way you played," advised Thomas, with whom Bowles continues to seek counsel. "You won't have an open mind."
Bowles owned a gym in Rockville, Md., and a construction company, but that life was not for him: "It was kind of boring after playing in the NFL."
After the requisite 2 years, he sold his interest in both businesses and took a job in Ron Wolf's scouting department in Green Bay in 1995. There, along with future top execs Ted Thompson, Reggie McKenzie, John Schneider and Scot McCloughan, Bowles learned from Wolf how to handicap talent and how to run a club with equanimity.
In 1997, he joined former Redskins teammate Doug Williams, the 1987 Super Bowl MVP, at Morehouse College as defensive coordinator. With the Packers' front office already on his resume and a career of talent evaluation a possibility, Bowles first wanted to dip his toe into the coaching waters.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to coach," he said.
Morehouse proved to be a perfect crucible. After a 3-8 season - the eight losses consecutive, after a 2-0 start - Bowles was hooked.
"Morehouse didn't have a lot of athletes at that time," Bowles said, chuckling. "A lot of the guys weren't very athletic. It tested your patience. Your teaching skills. Your motivational skills. It tested whether I wanted to do it or not.
"It let me know I wanted to be a coach."
Bowles followed Williams back to Grambling State in 1998, where Eddie Robinson Sr. had freshly retired after cementing his legend.
"I had a lot better athletes. I felt like a football coach," Bowles said. "It was outstanding."
The extra perk: Stoop sessions with the winningest coach in football.
"Eddie had just retired, but he came back. He would sit out on the stoop and he would just tell stories," Bowles said. "You would sit there in amazement. He'd been through eras of football."
And then, in 2000, he landed in the NFL with Al Groh at the Jets, a team then run by Parcells, as the secondary coach. Groh fled to his alma mater, Virginia, after one season and Bowles landed in Cleveland for 4 years.
He rejoined Parcells, head coach in Dallas by then, in 2005 and in 2008, he moved to Miami, where Parcells rebuilt the Dolphins.
If Jean Bowles made her baby a good man, Parcells - a fellow Jersey guy - made Bowles a good coach.
"He has taught me so much. How to handle things in the building. How to talk to people. How to bring people together. How to coach coaches. How to coach players. How to look at players. How to manage the game. How to see the game. What coordinators are trying to do to you," Bowles said. "He's been outstanding, from a friendship standpoint, from a mentor standpoint.
"If you don't know Bill, you don't know how bright he is."
Parcells has long stumped for Bowles to be a head coach. But even Parcells can't get Bowles that job.
Bowles went through the head-coach interview process in 2009 with Detroit, Denver and Kansas City. He got the sniff from Oakland this season, and interviewed twice with the Fins.
Bowles also is black. Every time Bowles is interviewed for a head-coaching vacancy, that franchise falls into compliance with the NFL's Rooney Rule, which mandates that every team with an open head-coaching position must interview at least one minority candidate.
In his case, is the Rooney Rule effective?
"You wouldn't even get looked at," Bowles said. "That helps."
As it turns out, Bowles now is in a place where he could quickly ascend - a place that pioneered the hiring of minorities in key positions throughout the organization.
Bowles quickly reached the pinnacle of his unlikely NFL playing career when the Redskins dispatched the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. Two years earlier, he feared he might never have a chance to play in the league.
A wrist injury cost him half his senior season at Temple and any chance of being drafted.
"I went to the combine, I couldn't bench press. I couldn't do a push-up. I couldn't even bend my wrist back," Bowles said. "Who's going to draft a one-armed safety?"
Twelve teams offered him a free-agent contract. He taped his wrist up tight and heavy, and he went to Washington. Six weeks later, after round after round of gut-wrenching cuts, Bowles made the team.
A year later, he took Curtis Jordan's starting job. Suddenly, he was telling Dexter Manley and Charles Mann where to go and how to get there.
The first time he called the defense in the huddle, timidly, Manley barked at him, "Put some bass in your voice, rookie!"
Soon, Bowles realized, most of the veterans knew little more than their specific assignment. In his first game as the starter - against the Eagles, no less - they overrode one of his calls.
Bowles promptly got beat for a touchdown, Randall Cunningham to Mike Quick, because Bowles didn't cover the post. The veterans let him take the blame.
Never again, Bowles vowed.
Bowles later picked off Cunningham, the third of his 15 career interceptions.
He also stopped Cunningham on a fourth-and-1 rush - and actually exchanged blows.
"I had him in a headlock. He threw a punch. I threw about three or four punches," Bowles said. "That's what I remember about that game. That, and we won, 34-24."
Two weeks later, he was on strike with the rest of the team. The NFL lost a week of that 1987 season, and, while the stoppage dragged into its third week, Bowles worried his career might be over before it began.
"I was told to bring the doughnuts, stand outside and picket," Bowles said.
He did not fear, though. He always had his momma.
He didn't have her this year.
When the Dolphins lost those first seven games, Bowles began to worry.
"The biggest fear of any coach in the league is going 0-16," Bowles said.
It was a chilling turn in an otherwise steadily rising career.
A winless season can taint any coach. The Eagles weren't winless, but they were expected to contend for the Super Bowl . . . and started 1-4.
Only cornerback coach Johnny Lynn is gone from that staff.
Bowles will coach alongside safeties coach Mike Zordich, a contemporary as a player. Bowles said he has met briefly with Zordich.
He has not had any sort of air-clearing session with his new immediate superior.
"There is no 'Big Talk' with Juan Castillo. He's the defensive coordinator. I'm the DBs coach. We're going to sit and game plan" with the rest of the staff, Bowles insisted. "He's going to call the game. We're going to help him the best that we can."
Things were not simple in Miami, either. Bowles' title of assistant head coach/secondary did not make him defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's superior; rather, Bowles was responsible for some of Sparano's administrative duties and some planning, he said. Things like scheduling training camp, running meetings.
And, you know, taking over the team.
If Bowles shares anything with Reid, it is patience, discipline and faith in preparation.
Bowles never has drank or smoked, he said.
Joan Bowles, a librarian and a school aide, made her kids report to the library after school to finish their homework before they could hit the playgrounds for basketball or the streets for football. By the time she got home later that night from her second job, the next day's clothes had better be ironed and laid out.
When the neighborhood had its street football Super Bowl, said Bowles, "I couldn't leave the house until I finished washing the windows."
He is the last of four children. The eldest, Doreen, is 52 and remains in Elizabeth. Lenny, 50, and Kenny, 49, both are retired from the armed forces and live in Georgia. None regrets their upbringing.
"It wasn't rough when I grew up. It was rough when I went back. You don't change. The way they treat you changes," Bowles said. "It was just . . . life, when I was growing up there. Everybody knew you. You adopt your own."
He lived in one of the dozens of squat housing projects that dotted portside neighborhoods off Newark Bay, the Goethals Bridge a towering, austere sentinel to the south. The violent crime, the drug abuse, the poverty - it was just an environment.
"We had a pretty normal childhood," said Kenny Bowles. "You did the best you could, and you kept on stepping."
From job to job, from family to family.
Bowles is divorced. He met his current fiancée, Taneka, 5 years ago, while coaching in Dallas. Their son, Tyson, joined the clan 18 months ago; Bowles' 19-year-old stepdaughter, Sydni; 9-year-old quarterback Todd Jr. (the MVP of his flag football league in Dallas); and 6-year-old receiver Troy are all from the previous marriage.
If anything, you get the sense that Bowles now fears that he will not be able to adequately create the presence Grandma Joan would have been for the younger kids.