ST. PETERSBURG — The East-West Shrine Game is loaded with long shots, small-school standouts and unlikely stars trying to find their way to the NFL.
It's only fitting that James Rowe III is coaching them this week.
Even when he was still on a baseball scholarship at USF, Rowe would drive home across the state to Cocoa High School to watch younger brother David's games from the sidelines at his alma mater.
"I suggested a play one day, and it worked," Rowe said of his unscripted coaching roots. "I got a phone call from the head coach to come back on Friday nights and be up top in the booth."
Rowe's baseball days are long gone, but he is back in the Tampa Bay area this week as an assistant coach on the East staff for Saturday's Shrine Game at Tropicana Field. He just finished his first season as assistant defensive backs coach for the Washington Redskins, the latest stop in a quick ascent for the 31-year-old.
"The guys kind of look at you sideways when you tell them you played baseball in college," said Rowe, a left-handed pitcher and occasional pinch-runner with the Bulls from 2005-07. "It's like anything else. You can learn the ways of the game by being around and watching film. Bill Belichick wasn't the greatest football player, but he might be the greatest coach of all time."
Rowe spent four seasons coaching at Cocoa, then a year as a graduate assistant at Bethel College, an NAIA school in Tennessee, then three years at Jacksonville University, then a season as a graduate assistant at Florida. In 2016, he was defensive coordinator at Valdosta State, which led I-AA football with 27 interceptions. That earned him a job on Jay Gruden's staff with the Redskins.
"It's been a great experience," Rowe said of his first year in the NFL. "Anything you do, you want to be at the highest level. I got to come in to a great organization with great people around me. I've been blessed, and it's great to be back down here in the sun in Florida."
Coaching is a Rowe family tradition — his father James Jr. has won more than 400 games as the boys basketball coach at Cocoa, and his brother David is now an assistant coach at Valdosta State. David played safety for Greg Schiano at Rutgers and went to rookie minicamp with the Bucs in 2013, joining the coaching staff as an intern and defensive assistant that season.
Rowe's baseball career at USF was unremarkable — a single win on the mound with a career ERA over 9.00, eight runs as a pinch-runner without a single hit — but he has fond memories of a trip to Hawaii and conference tournaments in Coney Island and Clearwater.
"Great kid, never had one bit of a problem with him. He'd be a perfect guy for coaching because of his demeanor," said Lelo Prado, his coach with the Bulls. "He was a smart kid, and everywhere he's been, they like him, because he's a good human being. It's a great story. It's unbelievable what he's doing."
Rowe made it back to USF's campus this weekend when the Shrine Game players and coaches visited patients at Shriners Hospital for Children-Tampa. He said he enjoyed coaching in college, but already knows he likes the sharp focus of being an assistant in the NFL.
"It's all about football at the end of the day — you can't beat that," he said.