TWO YEARS AGO, Gerald Bowman figured his football career was behind him.

See, it's hard to pursue your athletic dream when you remain disillusioned and are not even enrolled in school.

"I wasn't working. Wasn't taking any classes. Wasn't really doing much of anything," Bowman said. "I was just spending time with my friends and family, and I wasn't sure at all where my life was going to go.

"This just goes to show, it's true what they say: Never give up. I got this chance, put my mind to it, worked hard . . . and look what happened."

The 6-1, 215-pound Bowman, a 2008 Imhotep Charter grad in his second year at Pierce College, a 2-year school in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills, Calif., Wednesday made a commitment to play safety at the University of Southern California.

Some scouting services rank Bowman, a punishing tackler, as the nation's No. 1 junior college prospect. He boasted close to 20 big-time offers.

Roman Catholic grad Maalik Wayns, star Villanova basketball guard, is Bowman's cousin.

"I always big fan of Southern Cal, going back to the Reggie Bush days," Bowman said. "I'd always make jokes with Maalik, 'I'm gonna go to Southern Cal.' Never thinking I'd get there, of course."

He laughed. "But now, sure enough, I am!"

Bowman, 22, a second-team Daily News All-City running back at Imhotep, spent half of the 2008-09 academic year at a prep school in North Carolina. The experience did not go well, he said, and he completely disconnected from football/academics through 2009-10.

"I came to the conclusion I wouldn't be playing football anymore," he said. "Then I had a talk with 'Juice.' "

Juice is Clinton Granger, the former George Washington High quarterback who's now at Temple. Granger also went the JC route, at Coffeyville in Kansas.

"Juice kept encouraging me, saying the JC thing would work out," said Bowman, a West Oak Lane native. "He said he got his first offer before he even threw a pass in a game. Then I talked to some guys who were out at Pierce and they kept saying to come on out, that it would be good for me.

"I got excited when I found out USC was looking at me. It's not far from where I am now . . . Well, it can be 15 to 20 minutes if the freeways are normal, or up to 3 to 4 hours . . . It was hard to say no to all the great schools that wanted me, but USC is where I most saw myself. It's going to set me up for success after football."

Bowman said he plans to pursue communications.