Friday, December 15, 2017

Tampa Prep sports wouldn't add up without Donna Fowler

TAMPA — She's an old-school anomaly with a New England accent.

In this specialized era, when most high school kids focus on one athletic endeavor year-round, Donna Fowler remains Tampa Prep's quintessential three-sport star.

Throwback? Fowler still drives a stick shift. If she owned a cellphone, she likely would never bother texting, much less tweeting. And while she has the means for more dignified modes of transportation to and from away games, Fowler still often takes the team bus.

"She's remarkable," said fellow Tampa Prep faculty member Bob Bradshaw, himself a former coach.

For 34 years, including the last 16 at Tampa Prep, this math teacher with the curled locks and cursive pen has served as the voluntary scorekeeper for whichever school has employed her.

At Tampa Prep, she keeps the score book for basketball (boys and girls), volleyball and baseball — home and away. Before that, she spent 13 years doing the book for three sports teams (football, basketball, baseball) at Shorecrest in St. Petersburg.

For the half-decade before that, she cut her scorekeeping teeth at Canterbury School of Florida in St. Pete, ultimately working with the baseball, basketball and soccer teams while serving as cheerleading coach.

In the process, she has won the adoration of coaches, earned the admiration of officials, and developed her own distinctive scoring style. Check out one of her basketball lineups.

The book on Fowler is written in her trademark red calligraphy.

"She's really dedicated," said Tampa Prep senior basketball standout Josh Heath, a USF signee and son of Bulls coach Stan Heath. "Super dedicated."

Toss in her teaching job, and Fowler's life is a steady stream of 14- to 16-hour days. She has logged more bus miles than some Greyhound employees. On most road trips, Patricia Fowler, her 88-year-old mom with whom she lives in a St. Petersburg townhome, comes along.

For Terrapins home games, the elder Ms. Fowler even works the gate. It's the only time money enters her or her daughter's hands during a sporting event.

Donna Fowler never has taken a dime for her scorekeeping.

"I really love doing the scorekeeping," says Fowler, who politely declines to reveal her age. "I don't know how else to say that. I love doing that."

Coaches insist you couldn't put a price tag on her contributions anyway.

"Immeasurable," said Joe Fenlon, who just concluded his 30th season as Terrapins boys basketball coach. "They're as much a part of the program as I am. You walk into the gym, you see me, you see Donna Fowler, you see her mother."

• • •

The oldest of four kids born to college-educated parents, Fowler was reared in small towns in Vermont and New Hampshire. To this day, she remains partial (PAH-tial, she pronounces it) to New England sports teams, particularly the Celtics and Bruins. Not that she ever gets to see them play.

For roughly four decades, many of her weeknights — and some Saturdays — have been consumed by helping out in the high school sport du jour in one capacity or another.

"In school, you have to wear many hats," said Fowler, who has never married. "I think that in addition to teaching, to have a complete experience, you have to work with the kids outside of the classroom as well."

The genesis of her extracurricular benevolence dates to her teaching days at Rutland Junior High, her alma mater, in Vermont. She regularly attended the school's basketball games and was asked to start a pep club.

At her second job, at Pierce Junior High in Milton, Mass., she began photographing sporting events for the school yearbook and other publications. When asked to become cheerleading coach, in part because she could sew (she and her mom are avid quilters), she again agreed.

A fortuitous twist of fate brought her to the bay area in 1979.

While visiting her mom and dad in Largo, she learned of a contest sponsored by then-country music radio station WSUN. Any out-of-state resident who sent the station a postcard became eligible to win a free flight to the area. Fowler sent them in bulk.

The very day she learned she had won, she had put an application to Canterbury in the mail.

The school hired her as a teacher and persuaded her to coach its cheerleaders. She was walking out the door to attend her first basketball game when Dr. Paul Hager stopped her.

"The first thing he does is hands me the score book," Fowler recalled. "I said, 'What's that for?' And he said, 'Oh, the cheerleading coach keeps score for the basketball team.' I said, 'Oh, really?'

"And then he hands me his keys, and I said, 'What are your keys for?' And he said, 'How do you think your cheerleaders are going to get to the game? You're going to drive them in my (Volks-wagen) van.' "

She hasn't let her figurative foot off the pedal since.

That first season, she kept the junior varsity boys basketball score book, essentially learning on the fly. "I'm a trial-by-fire type of person, as you may have figured out," she said with a chuckle.

At varsity games, she sat on the bench at the request of Bradshaw — then the coach — and wrote down as much of his dialogue as she could.

That year, Bradshaw says, his team finished 21-1.

"I didn't have videotaping capability, and I wanted to replay the game for myself," recalled Bradshaw, 72. "So I dictated the game to her. … I couldn't have done that without Donna."

That spring, Bradshaw, running the baseball team in a pinch, taught her to how to keep the book for that sport as well. By the time she arrived at Shore-crest a half-decade later, Fowler's reputation had preceded her.

Her first day on the campus, the boys basketball coach asked if she would be his scorekeeper.

• • •

These days, Fowler volunteers anywhere from two to five nights a week. Februarys, when basketball and baseball overlap for a spell, are particularly busy.

"If somebody said to me, 'Well, maybe you shouldn't do this anymore,' it would be difficult for me," she said. "It's hard for me to be just a spectator anymore."

In addition to her scorekeeping, Fowler almost always takes the team bus on road trips, to assist athletes struggling with algebra or calculus.

Former Tampa Prep volleyball coach Mike Flynn, the current athletic director, said he recalls some of his players bypassing rides back home with their parents just to be tutored by Fowler on the bus.

"She's a neat lady," he said.

She remains as durable as she is dependable. It's not uncommon for her to score three basketball games — JV boys, girls and boys varsity — consecutively in one night. Despite left rotator cuff surgery in November, she didn't miss a boys basketball contest.

For the season's first few games, she kept score with her left arm in a sling.

"She sang the national anthem before the (Feb. 23) region final game," Fenlon said. "Not only did she do the score book, she sang the national anthem."

Fowler never has asked for compensation. Fenlon said she and her mother, who prepare homemade chowders and chili for the Terrapins holiday basketball tournament every year, get embarrassed when given flowers on the team's senior night.

"But think of the pluses," Fowler said. "I get to go on the transportation with the games. If they do an overnight, they take care of my hotel room. So there are lots of ways being remunerated without it being numbers."

She made a rare concession last March, at the state boys basketball tournament. Minutes after Tampa Prep clinched its first state championship in program history at the Lakeland Center, Fenlon, his staff and players were presented gold medals.

Donna Fowler got one, too. Patricia beamed from the front row.

"She's just as dedicated as they come," Bradshaw said.

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