He had to wait a year, but when Nigel Bowden finally earned his shot at a starting role, he never looked back. In 2013, Bowden headed Nashville, Tennessee, to play in the SEC for Vanderbilt after starring at Central.
After sitting out a year, Bowden started as a redshirt freshman and promptly added more awards in 2014 -- earning freshman All-SEC honors after leading the Commodores in tackles with 78.
“It means a lot, especially being from the SEC, being voted by all the coaches,” Bowden said. “And I also give great thanks to my (defensive linemen), because without them, holding guys up front, I wouldn’t be able to make the plays I made. It’s really showed me I have the ability to play in the SEC and play at this level.”
But his honors are not limited to the field. In 2013-14, Bowden earned SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll honors, and in 2014, he was named to the Fall SEC Academic Honor Roll.
“It took a lot of hard work into it,” Bowden said with a laugh, acknowledging Vanderbilt’s academic reputation. “Every freshman before they get here, they’re a little nervous about the school because of how much pressure you get on you for academics. When I got that first grade back and I knew I could actually stay here academically and just give my best, that was a year for me where maintaining my GPA wasn’t a problem.”
He spoke of how difficult the school is academically, saying “it lives up to its name” and joking that he tries to get a little bit of sleep every now and then. He said he has to put approximately an equal amount of time into academics and football, and Bowden is content with his academic performance thus far.
But he’s shooting for more this year: the Dean’s List. While he has found success on and off the field during his time at Vanderbilt, he was not always satisfied with his redshirt tag.
“At first, I had a problem with it,” Bowden said. “But I trusted my coaches, and I went along with what he felt was best for me, and I feel like after I went along with his decision, it was the best decision. It was great experience.”
As a redshirt, Bowden learned aspects of the game he believes aided his breakout season last year. Playing against older players who are now in the NFL, Bowden realized the amount of work players put into the game in order to reach that level of play.
“It showed me how hard they work and how hard I have to practice full speed every day,” Bowden said. “You can’t take one play off.”
Bowden learned different ways to take on blocks as a linebacker, as well as the intricacies and techniques in studying film. During his redshirt season, he played for James Franklin, but after Franklin departed for Penn State, Bowden got a chance for a fresh start with new head coach Derek Mason.
“It made me try to work harder for a spot because, having a new coach, everybody’s on the same level as far as knowing the playbook and everything,” Bowden said. “So coming in from Franklin’s work ethic and going into another coach, I kind of got acclimated to his program really fast.”
Bowden’s all-around success resulted in him being selected to represent the team at this year’s SEC Media Days -- as a sophomore. He was one of four sophomores -- teammate Ralph Webb, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Florida’s Brandon Powell were the others -- to represent his team.
But football doesn’t define his life at college. He described his time at Vanderbilt as “a great experience,” which has given him a chance to expand his horizons.
“It gave me a chance to actually see other places outside of Macon, Georgia,” Bowden said. “It’s a beautiful place to be, meeting a lot of different people from different areas, because it’s probably one of the most diverse schools.”
He enjoyed the friendliness and openness of random individuals walking down the street.
“I’m not used to people coming up to me and starting conversations all the time,” Bowden said. “People are more open to you, so I had to adjust to that. I started to understand how I started opening up more to people when I see them on the street.”
Vanderbilt’s campus is located approximately a mile outside of downtown Nashville. Bowden said he enjoys the size of Nashville, as it’s a big city but not as heavily populated as Atlanta.
It’s just large enough to attract the biggest country music stars -- like Taylor Swift.
“Saw Taylor Swift walk on the side of the street one time,” Bowden said, speaking also of some of the stars, including NFL players, he meets in town. “There’s so many people you actually witness walk around here, especially since you know, it’s Country Music City. It’s nice to actually meet people.”
Bowden said he’s “not really a country music fan,” but the culture has grown on him. Now, he takes a country music class offered by the school.
“I like the rhythm of it, so I kind of listen to some from time to time,” Bowden said, admitting some offensive linemen have persuaded him to enjoy it and now Bowden even has some on his iPhone.
After two years in Nashville as an SEC player, Bowden has lived through many experiences. But his favorite memory is not his 11-tackle performance against Missouri. It’s not his first collegiate start. It’s not even meeting Swift.
“Probably meeting Eddie George,” Bowden said.
George played for the Tennessee Titans, but Bowden did not focus on the former running back’s NFL career.
“I met him on campus, and he’s an actor here in Nashville,” Bowden said. “That’s one thing I really enjoyed in high school, acting, so that’s probably one of my best things.”
And with all of the changes, including moving to a new state and meeting new people, Bowden believes the biggest transformation he has experienced came as a teammate. Witnessing veterans on the team speak and communicate with players and coaches taught him what it meant to be a leader.
His newly formed leadership skills will be important this year as Vanderbilt attempts to bounce back from a 3-9 season that included a 0-8 record in the SEC.
“I expect the team to be much faster, just by knowing what to do mentally, and I feel like this year, everybody’s confidence is much higher,” Bowden said. “If I’m about to leave my room, and I’m about to go watch film, I try to take like three or four guys with me just holding everybody accountable. The offense gets up at like 7 o’clock in the morning and does walkthroughs, so just holding everybody accountable, that’s the big thing.”