TAMPA ― His reserve of inner fuel is always at his fingertips, stored on his iPhone for easy retrieval.
He taps it on this bright New Tampa morning inside a Panera. Within seconds, the harrowing headline pops up: Rivals’ Biggest Busts: Top five No. 1 prospects who busted out.
Then, with a subtle downward scroll, Byron Cowart sees his name. He’s No. 1 on the list.
“Before every game at Maryland, I looked at that,” the former Armwood High force of nature said. “It was just motivation, man.”
By week’s end, Cowart likely will be able to look at that story ― published in September 2017 ― with less of a sneer and more of a snicker. At some point Saturday, a dose of redemption could arrive on that same phone, via a call from an NFL team.
“Fifth or sixth round, I think it would be open to a possibility of Cowart going,” ESPN draft savant Mel Kiper said.
And a career that seemingly flamed out 19 months ago would be re-ignited.
After an underwhelming tenure at Auburn spanning 26 games and two-plus seasons, Cowart resuscitated his football life this past fall at Maryland.
Starting all 12 games as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, he totaled 38 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble.
“At Maryland, I grew as a person, as a football player,” he said.
That resurgence led to invitations to the Senior Bowl and NFL combine, where Cowart measured in as the heaviest defensive end (6-foot-3, 298 pounds) and offset a lackluster 40 time (5.16 seconds) with 26 reps on the 225-pound bench press.
He has met, formally or informally, with representatives from 29 NFL teams. Still a football novice of sorts upon arriving at Auburn, he said he has “killed it” on whiteboard work in his more extensive NFL interviews.
“One guy, he was like, ‘You ever thought about being a coach?’” Cowart recalled.
Only eight months ago, he still was a mostly forgotten entity, the Ryan Leaf of the recruiting industry.
The nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in 2015 according to ESPN and Rivals, Cowart didn’t so much sign with Auburn that February as he did with Will Muschamp. Had Muschamp not been dismissed as University of Florida coach the previous November, Cowart almost certainly would’ve been a Gator.
When Muschamp was hired as Auburn defensive coordinator in December 2014, Cowart essentially followed him there despite warnings from Armwood coach Sean Callahan, who realized Muschamp’s tenure on the Plains likely would be brief.
“I think (Callahan) was trying to prevent what happened at Auburn from happening, because I think he knew Coach Muschamp...would want to be a head coach again,” Cowart said.
“So he was just saying to be smart. But I had outside people thinking, ‘Oh, (Callahan) just wants you to go to Florida because it benefits him.’ I look back at it, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I should’ve just listened.’”
Armed with only four years of true organized football experience upon his arrival at Auburn, Cowart says he was complacent and a bit overwhelmed by the preps-to-college transition at first. He appeared in every game as a freshman, but barely made an impact in the defensive end rotation.
“I had a (position coach) that was like, ‘You need to catch on fast.’ And being a fish out of water I’m like, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’” Cowart said.
“And then I didn’t do the extra stuff, because I’m thinking it just happens on Saturday. Practice a little bit, have success. But I didn’t know about the preparation and all that stuff.”
By the end of that season, Muschamp had been hired as coach at South Carolina. The following summer, Cowart was among four Tigers players arrested on a marijuana-possession charge. Another lackluster season followed.
By late September 2017, he was gone, granted his release to seek a fresh start and be near his ailing single mom in Tampa. Lacroria Wilson, who spent three years working consecutive eight-hour shifts daily as a certified nursing assistant to support her only child, had been diagnosed with fibroid tumors, primarily benign growths that originate in the uterus.
“He asked people, ‘Is my momma gonna die?’ They’d say, ‘No, but she’s real sick. She needs help. She needs to get these treatments done,’” Wilson recalled.
“So it made him feel bad like, ‘Oh, she did all this working for me, and now I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do on this field. It’s like she worked for nothing.’ I’m like, ‘Don’t look at it like that, Byron. We’re gonna go through problems, but we’re gonna get through this.’”
Confronting adversity in tandem long since had become a way of life.
Cowart said he has seen his imprisoned father, Byron Tarsha Cowart Sr., only twice. For the first decade or so of his life, his mother scraped together a living in Polk County before moving with her son to the outskirts of Atlanta to live with relatives.
When that relationship soured, Wilson and Cowart spent 11 months residing in the Gwinnett County nursing home where Wilson was employed. Seeking a fresh start, the pair moved to Tampa in February 2010.
“We came here with no plan,” Cowart said. “And I was drilling her on the way here like, ‘What are we gonna do? Where are we gonna go? We don’t know nobody in Tampa.’”
Initially, they were forced to reside in hotels before finding shelter at Metropolitan Ministries, which offers residential programs for women and families experiencing temporary homelessness.
By the time Cowart reached Armwood, Wilson had cobbled together enough money ― through her two nursing jobs ― to afford an east Tampa duplex.
“When I would come home in the morning, he would be in school. When he’d get home from school, I would be at work,” Wilson said.
“So on my way to work (in Plant City), I would stop by his school in Seffner and see him, give him $20 or whatever and spend time with him, and go on back to work. It was hard, but being a single mom, his father in prison, I didn’t have nobody to call on.”
Hence Cowart’s irrepressible sense of obligation to return home in the fall of ’17 as his mother’s physical battles persisted. Disillusioned and mildly depressed, his outlook changed when then-Maryland coach DJ Durkin ― Muschamp’s defensive coordinator at Florida ― contacted him.
With his mom’s blessing, Cowart suddenly found himself enrolled in a litany of classes (most of them online) at Hillsborough Community College in an effort to gain eligibility at Maryland.
“Really, I enrolled in like, eight classes at different times,” he said. “Some classes I’m getting in there late, but I just took whatever I could take, just so it would be transferable to go to Maryland.”
He arrived in College Park on Jan. 25. Thus began a breakthrough, bittersweet year.
Five months after Cowart’s arrival, he attended the first funeral of his life. Terrapins offensive lineman Jordan McNair died on June 13, two weeks after suffering a heatstroke during a team workout. He was 19.
The fallout included a scathing ESPN report of a “toxic culture” at Maryland under Durkin, and ultimately Durkin’s dismissal. Against this grim backdrop, Cowart somehow flourished under his new position coach, Jimmy Brumbaugh.
“He micromanaged, and he was on me,” Cowart said. “He’s like, ‘What’s this block? What’s that block? What formation is this?’ When I first got there, it was a lot. But he’s like, ‘This is what you want, right? You want to be in the (NFL)?’”
That yearlong residency of sorts enabled Cowart to evolve from washout to wild-card prospect.
Widely deemed as a defensive tackle in an end’s body, Cowart’s 81-inch wingspan, quick hands and raw strength suggest he could excel at run stoppage and evolve into a serviceable pass rusher.
NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein gives him a prospect grade of 5.29, equating to “NFL backup or special teams potential.”
“I watched (Maryland) and saw the development of (safety) Darnell Savage Jr. into a first-round pick, and I think Cowart’s got a chance on Day 3 to come in and show some pass-rush ability,” Kiper said. “I thought he handled run responsibilities better.”
Cowart will be attuned to Kiper all weekend. He and his mother annually have watched the draft, albeit in separate locations the last few years.
This time, they’ll be together in her New Tampa apartment. Nothing festive or frivolous is planned.
Just a single mom and her son preparing for life’s next move. The idea of Cowart getting drafted make’s Wilson’s voice crack.
“I can’t even put it into words,” she said.
“I’m just gonna be overjoyed and feel like, ‘Wow, this is what dedicating your life to your son and to Christ does for you in the end’.”
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.