When Bob Rowley learned of the fund-raising efforts to help provide Fort Hill football player Zac Elbin the opportunity to play in the Down Under Bowl this summer in Australia, it became a mere reflex for him to make a significant contribution on Elbin’s behalf. For while very few area high school football players have followed in his footsteps, Rowley, the former Fort Hill great from the late 1950s, had certainly walked in Elbin’s, having faced similar circumstances following his senior year in high school. And thanks to the support of the community, Rowley says he was able to realize an opportunity of a lifetime.
Rowley enjoyed an outstanding collegiate career at the University of Virginia before playing professionally for the NFL Pittsburgh Steelers and the AFL New York Jets. But almost immediately after receiving his scholarship from Virginia in July of 1959, Rowley, then a 6-2, 197-pound tackle, had a date to play in the High School Prep All-American football game in Baton Rouge, La. The following month, he and his Fort Hill teammate, quarterback Charlie Robinson, were selected to play for the 25-man squad that would play against the Pennsylvania All-Stars in Hershey, Pa. — the game now known as The Big 33.
“For the High School All-American Game the people of Cumberland supported me just like they always supported everybody else,” Rowley said Monday evening. “Then when Charlie and I went to the game in Hershey, folks here raised money again to send us. It’s always been that way. Everybody takes care of everybody else. Cumberland is a great place, and growing up here was the greatest thing in the world for me.”
Rowley, 6-2, 215 pounds by then, was a starting guard for three years at Virginia, earning All-Atlantic Coast Conference his senior year. Entering the final game of the season at Maryland that year, Charlottesville sportswriter Bob Serling wrote, “Rowley is one the three top players on this year’s Virginia squad. He leads the team in tackles, averaging 12 a game, is among the leaders in scoring, by virtue of an educated toe and is the best kickoff man since the days of Bill Dudley (10 of his 25 kickoffs have gone beyond the goal line). Bob is a leading candidate for All ACC honors this year ... (He) has been Virginia’s most consistent player over the past three years.”
Said Virginia head coach Bill Elias, “Rowley does everything like he is shot out of a cannon. He is what we call a 100 percent-plus. He has contributed in every way to our team.”
Regarded by his high school coach Bill Hahn as one of the top linemen in Fort Hill history, Rowley was an aggressive tackle with quick reflexes, according to J. Suter Kegg, legendary sports editor of the Cumberland Evening and Sunday Times. He was also outstanding in track, his specialties being the pole vault and relays.
The recipient of the 1962 Cumberland Dapper Dan Award as the sports personality doing the most to publicize the area, Rowley was not drafted by the NFL or the AFL, but was contacted by the Baltimore Colts and the Steelers, with whom he signed his first professional contract, joining Allegany High’s Rod Breedlove of the Washington Redskins to give Cumberland two NFL players at the same time.
Rowley made it to the final cut of the Steelers preseason training camp, but was kept on the taxi squad. He played several games with the undefeated Wheeling Ironmen of the United States Football League, providing what was voted in 1968 as the greatest performance in franchise history. Upon being activated by the Steelers in Nov. 1963, head coach Buddy Parker said, “Rowley has a future in the National Football League. He can play linebacker or be used on the kicking team.”
Rowley, whose nephew Jared Jacobs enjoyed a four-year football career at the United States Naval Academy, finished the 1963 season with the Steelers, before signing with the Jets, playing in six games during the 1964 season. His career, however, would be cut short unexpectedly by an off-field accident.
Rowley will be the first to say he has been fortunate to experience college and professional football. But he’s not sure he would have made it that far if not for the opportunity the high school all-star games he played in provided.
“Virginia was a completely different culture for a boy of my background,” Rowley said. “It was tough, but with a lot of encouragement from my parents (Mr. and Mrs. Elwood Rowley) I kept my nose to the grindstone and was lucky to have some success. But if I hadn’t been able to play in those summer games, I don’t know if I would have been prepared for Virginia to the extent that I was.”
Which is why it was nothing more than a reflex for him to try and help Zac Elbin play football in Australia.
“Games and experiences like these are opportunities of a lifetime,” Rowley said. “Being able to be part of them myself, I know it helped shape me into the person I wanted to become. But there is no way I could have gone in the first place if not for the people of Cumberland.
“Maybe this is my way ... I just wanted to say thanks to Cumberland.”
Those wishing to support Elbin can reach one of his sponsors at 301-777-3227, 240-727-7037, 301-268-5932, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at email@example.com