The 49ers linebacker missed all of last season rehabbing a severe left knee injury and questions remained about his durability and ability to return to a high level of performance.
Bowman had all the answers. There are two regular-season games remaining, including Sunday’s game in Detroit. He’s started every game and is the NFC leader in tackles with 135.
Bowman, selected to his third Pro Bowl, said it was a tribute to his mindset and all the hard work he put in getting his knee back in shape.
He’ll be joined by 49ers left tackle Joe Staley, who was his selected to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl. Left guard Alex Boone was selected as an alternate to the game.
“I always approach the game the way I should,” Bowman said. “It was a long, hard road of work. It’s not all about athletic ability; you get the coaches’ mindset into your game.”
Bowman sustained extensive damage to his knee late in the NFC championship game in January 2014 in Seattle. He was taken off the field on a cart.
That’s a distant memory, even though Bowman doesn’t feel as if he’s all the way back, “but definitely at the level I can still make plays.”
Unable to attend the first two times, he’s looking forward to sharing the trip with his family.
“You always want to go to these types of things. Me and my family are looking forward it,” Bowman said. “They’ve always heard about the Pro Bowl and never got a chance to experience it.”
Bowman, who is tied for the NFL lead with 99 solo tackles, said he values that statistic as a defining marker.
“As a linebacker you are looked at to make plays,” he said. “Tackling is the No. 1 thing in your game. It can make or break you.”
Bowman never wandered from the game while he was out. He spent plenty of time in the clubhouse and film room last year, serving as a leader to younger players.
His approach to his injury rehabilitation was relentless, setting another example.
“I want to be looked at as a guy who can encourage others who have any kind of injury,” Bowman said. “I’m one example of how to get it done.”
49ers defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said it’s hard to know how players will respond coming off such a serious injury.
“What he’s done, is really hard to do,” Mangini said. “It’s hard to do physically. It’s hard to do mentally. It’s a great story.”
Staley said Bowman is an inspiration in an otherwise disappointing season.
“He’s always made big plays for us,” Staley said. “He misses an entire season and in getting back, he’s done a terrific job of preparation throughout the year and he’s being rewarded for it.”
Staley called the season a disappointment because the 49ers are 4-10 “and that’s all that matters.”
Meanwhile, if Anquan Boldin makes one catch in Detroit, he will become the 13th player in NFL history to reach 1,000.
But while that milestone seems likely with two games remaining this season, his future with the 49ers is far more questionable.
Boldin, 35, will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and expressed interest in returning to the 49ers, with whom he’s played the past three seasons.
“Definitely. I like it here. I like the people here. The organization has been good to me,” Boldin said.
“And I have roots here now. There’s a lot of people, a lot of relationships that I’ve built in this community. When the time does come, it will just be hard to say goodbye to.”
Boldin is on pace to have fewer than 1,000 yards receiving for the first time since joining the 49ers in 2013, just months after beating them in the Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. Boldin eclipsed 1,000 yards in seven of his previous 12 years, and ranks 17th in league history with 13,097 yards receiving.
If Boldin were to hit the market in the spring, he could be a hot commodity for teams contending for a championship.
“I mean, it doesn’t matter what age you are, you want to be playing for a championship. That goes without saying. That’s the reason you play this game,” Boldin said. “But I would also say it’s difficult to say I just wouldn’t want to be here because I feel like we’re rebuilding and I want to play for a championship. It’s deeper than that, especially when you’ve been at a place for a certain amount of years. And you have roots there.”
Boldin’s NFL career has been unusual given his lack of the blazing speed typical of contemporary receivers. He relies more on his technique and fundamentals to get separation from defenders. It’s a physical brand for the position.
“I feel like you could put him at D-line and he’d be successful. Anquan can play ball,” receiver Torrey Smith said. “They don’t make them like Anquan. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to play with him, and consider him family.”
Smith joined the 49ers as a high-priced free agent last spring, in part, because Boldin recruited him to rejoin him in California. Despite having different skill sets, Smith viewed Boldin as a mentor after getting drafted by the Ravens in 2011. They won that Super Bowl together catching passes from Joe Flacco.
“I’m more of a speed guy. He doesn’t have that part, so he has to work harder at different things,” said Smith. “But he told me, ‘You have all the natural ability. You have to work on all the techniques and get that down. That’s how you last a long time in this league.’
“And I took it to heart, and that’s what I work on a lot in the offseason.”