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Todd Bowles was a coach on the field for his New Jersey HS

Todd Bowles (r.) replaces Rex Ryan as Jets head coach.Lynne Sladky/AP Todd Bowles (r.) replaces Rex Ryan as Jets head coach.

Todd Bowles’ roots run deep, although not that far from the Florham Park, N.J., headquarters of the team he’s about to coach.

The makeup, the character and the belief system that has brought Bowles to the Jets began at Elizabeth High School in the late 70s. Bowles wasn’t part of any great championship teams. That came a year after his senior season when the Minutemen swept to victory in the 1981 North Section 11 Group IV playoffs at Giants Stadium.

But ask anyone affiliated with the Elizabeth program, anyone like then-head coach Don Somma, and they’ll tell you.

“Todd was part of the foundation of that team,” Somma says.

“At the time there was a song called “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and that was sort of our mantra,” Somma explains. “We talked about how we could become anything if we all stuck together. And those kids all bought in. Those kids just loved doing the things we did to build a great program.”

Bowles and his teammates wore T-shirts with “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” on the front. On the back, it said, “Now or Later.”

Now is later.

“It was such a positive atmosphere, from Todd down to our manager,” Somma says. “I’ve been asked if Todd was a special leader? Todd had special gifts. Todd was just one of many who believed in what we were doing. He was a leader. Everyone was.”

Somma had a unique position at Elizabeth in that he was hired strictly as a football coach as were his top four assistants who had no teaching responsibilities. The school was brand new and state of the art. Its weight room would have been the envy of Rutgers, Somma says.

But there was twist. The weight room chart didn’t list accomplishments but grades. There was mandatory study hall for players who fell short in the classroom. Non-attendance meant you were off the team. But in Somma’s four years, he never had to enforce that rule once.

“These guys were part of my family,” Somma says. “They’d come over my house, I used to take them down the shore. You’d see me walking down the Boardwalk at Seaside Heights, all eating a slice of Jersey pizza, having a good time. Todd would go on vacation with me and if not with me, with another assistant coach.”

Bowles thrived in that environment, combining the mental with the physical.

“We were football 24-7,” Somma says. “We used to feed the kids breakfast, lunch and supper in those days. After every practice, we’d sit around and eat supper, watch film.

“Todd… he just studied. He wanted to understand the whys of the way things were designed. Todd really understood the game.”

Bowles, a lean 6-2, 195 in high school, played free safety and was one of the few who went both ways, at tailback. But it was on attack-minded defense where he truly excelled.

Julian Gibson and Andreem Terry are producing a documentary series on Elizabeth football called, “The Big E, 100 yards of Tragedy, Tradition and Triumph.”

Gibson says Bowles was an inspirational player.

“Todd possessed a coaches mind, even at a young age,” he said. “Todd could anticipate the other teams tendencies and let his teammates know what to look for. While at EHS, he wore number 83 and made that number legendary.”

At Elizabeth, Bowles played in what Somma called, “an offensive-minded defense.” That’s how his blitzing philosophy as the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator got its start.

“In those days we called it Cover 4 where you’d have inside out with the safety, the corner would go back, according to motion and alignment,” Somma explains. “You about zone blitzes. We were doing that at Elizabeth in the late 70s. We stunted, We would rush six, seven, eight guys sometimes. We played defense on the other side of the ball. That was our concept. The kids loved it. We were mad when the other team had the ball.”

Bowles’ senior year ended in a 5-4 record against one of the toughest schedules in New Jersey. His play earned him a scholarship to Temple, where Bruce Arians would take over the program in a couple of years. Bowles, or course, would eventually reunite with Arians in Arizona, and build his credential for his first head coaching job.

Somma’s voice cracks when he considers how far he’s come.

“It’s nothing unusal for those players,” he says. “I’ve got four Ivy League graduates from those four years there. Guys who were doctors, lawyers, just successful businessman, guys who were just good fathers. We’d always say don’t let this Elizabeth thing be the last exiting part of our lives. We have to continue this “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us” attitude, that we could do anything.”

Even coach the Jets. 

Recommended article: Chomsky: We Are All – Fill in the Blank.
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