SANTA CLARA — As he stepped into the 49ers post-practice huddle of the first time in over two years, Navorro Bowman took in a deep breath as he prepared to break things down one last time in Santa Clara.
“You know that smell,” he said afterward. “You just remember you smelling like that. I had on a clean white shirt but I still wanted to give them a hug.”
Bowman, who played for San Francisco for seven-and-a-half seasons, returned to 49ers headquarters on Tuesday to announce his retirement and end his illustrious career with the same team drafted him in 2010.
“I was just a guy coming from District Heights, Maryland,” Bowman said. “This is the organization that chose to let me play in the NFL … The 49ers is my home. It’s the place that loved me from the start.”
Just two years ago, there was no love lost between Bowman and the 49ers organization after the four-time Pro Bowler publically requested to be released from the organization following a multi-year bout with injuries.
Against the Seattle Seahawks in 2013, during the 49ers’ third-consecutive NFC Championship game, Bowman suffered a gruesome knee injury in the Seahawks end zone which kept him off of the field for all of 2014.
Coming back from the ACL, MCL and PCL reconstructive surgery, Bowman had a career year in 2015, recording 154 tackles to lead the entire NFL, earning him his fourth All-Pro bid.
Just five games into the 2016 season, however, Bowman went down again, but this time due to a season-ending non-contact leg injury — a ruptured Achilles.
When head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch came into town on a pair of six-year contracts, Bowman said that he felt rushed to come back.
“You need time to come back and I feel like it wasn’t given to me,” Bowman said.
This disagreement regarding the management of his injury is what led to Bowman’s request, which the 49ers granted, allowing him to sign with the Oakland Raiders, for whom he played 10 games.
Bowman doesn’t like to think about the the rocky departure. He’d rather think about “The Steamrollers,” a nickname that apparently never stuck to the 49ers ferocious front seven, which terrorized opposing backfields from 2011-2014.
Comprised of himself, Patrick Willis, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, Glen Dorsey, Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks, the group still brings a smile to Bowman’s face.
“We were special. We held each other accountable,” Bowman said. “[Former 49ers defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio had a way of dealing with all of us. We kept him on his toes. We had some guys up front where you never know what they were going to do off of the field. But when it was time to play, we all locked in.”
Bowman’s intensity and work ethic bled over into the current 49ers, despite him only being around the team for less than half of a season.
“He did a really good job of setting the standard” said 49ers tight end George Kittle, who also called him terrifying. “Navorro always does a great job of high intensity every play. He didn’t take plays off and always ran to the ball.”
Bowman reflected on his favorite moments as a 49er, including the famous “Pick at the Stick,” in which he intercepted Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on the 49ers’ own 10-yard line to win San Francisco’s last game ever at Candlestick Park on Dec. 24, 2013.
But while that moment will always reside in the minds of fans, according to Bowman, it’s the near misses or the “almost” type plays that stick out in his mind. That devastating knee injury, which in hindsight may have directly contributed to his career’s premature end, is one of his favorite memories, because he was able to put his body on the line for his team.
As his final act as a “active” member of the 49ers — he was unable to be officially listed as a roster member due to the lack of available space — Bowman put his hand in the middle of the huddle one last time.
Letting out one more “49ers!” exclamation, Bowman took in the overwhelming “funk” of body odor and sweat with as much appreciation as he could, with his four children as well as his wife, Mikale looking on.
“I just felt like it was time,” Bowman said. “My kids are getting older so I wanted them to see a little bit of what their dad did. And just receive the love from the guys on the field … They welcomed me and I’m glad it happened.”