Few things are as timeless as tattoos. Some immortalize a loved one. Others remember dreams, passions or personal promises that have the potential to be forgotten except when inked into the physical, visible memory. The threat of permanence usually drives people to choose art representing what is most important to them at that time in their lives.
A massive, aggressive owl stretches across Khadija Bowens’ left shoulder. Although she did not make it on the basketball court as a freshman at Temple, the 5-foot-11 guard and forward chose the icon as a representation of things to come.
“I remember [my teammates and I] always talked about getting tattoos,” Bowens said. “One day [the team was] away – I was allowed to practice then, but not travel with them as a freshman – I was here alone and I got the tattoo. When they came back we had a meeting and I showed it off. Three other players got it, so a few of us have the tattoo.”
In 2001, Bowens was recruited from University City High School, where she led her team to the 2000 Philadelphia Public League Championship, and was selected to the All-Area, All-Public League and All-State First Teams.
Although she received numerous letters from Division I programs, Bowens finally chose Temple because of influence from head coach Dawn Staley.
She sat the bench her first season after missing the NCAA score requirement on her SATs. In her second year, she saw time in 11 games and ranked second on the team in scoring with an average of 11.2 points per game. But while Bowens shined on the court, her performance in the classroom suffered.
“I just wasn’t into school,” said Bowens of her early academic efforts. “I didn’t like it. It was more about basketball than schoolwork, but you can’t play without going to class.”
Bowens learned this lesson the hard way as failing grades forced her out of the program in December 2002 – only three semesters after she arrived. She enrolled at the Community College of Philadelphia in order to pull up her grade point average to a 2.7 eligibility threshold.
“When I left, I thought I could just come back the next semester. I was supposed to come back in the fall, but I just couldn’t get it together,” she said. “Then I lost my grandmom in February 2003. After that, I felt like giving up. It was a tough loss for me.”
Despite her personal struggles, Bowens returned to school the following year, a move she felt her grandmother would have encouraged. Still the hardships continued. She lost two more friends in the span of several months, and her cousin in March 2004. Bowens felt pressure academically and emotionally in dealing with the successive losses of loved ones and her consistently inadequate grades.
“Things happen, and I’m not glad they happened, but I learned a lot about people and about life,” she said. “I stayed in touch with my coach and the team, and got a lot of support from my family and friends. Those losses, and the things I went through, that was not how I wanted to live my life. After my cousin died, I felt like I had to make a change. Sometimes things get worse before they get better. I felt like I owed it to my family and to myself to do better and be a better person.”
From that point on, Bowens’ grades improved and her outlook on education changed drastically. She was backed by assistance from Margo Jackson, the academic coordinator for the women’s basketball team. Jackson made sure Bowens received tutoring, help writing papers and access to materials and computer labs to do her work during scheduled study halls. Bowens was also set up with learning specialist, Carla Suber, to better focus on her studies.
“[Bowens] goes to study hall every day,” said Jackson. “She does what she’s supposed to do. It’s a whole different level of commitment. It’s not that before she didn’t have the capability, she just didn’t realize it. She’s a very smart young lady.”
Physically, Bowens also needed to train to rebuild her stamina. She did not work out rigorously while at community college, but managed to play pick-up games with her team and do some running. The summer before her return, she was allowed to come back and practice with the team to get back in shape.
Bowens returned to the court for the first time in 18 months on Dec. 21, 2004, when Temple faced Villanova. The Owls were 6-3 at the time. In 20 minutes of play, Bowens scored eight points, blocked two shots and snagged a rebound. Temple won 64-57.
“I was so out of shape and so tired,” Bowens said of her first minutes back in the game. “But I was so excited to step on that floor. It was so different. I was happy. I was part of it all over again, and we won. The last time we had played Villanova we lost, so to win against a good team felt good.”
Above all, Bowens credits Staley as a main support system. “I love my coach,” said Bowens. “I can definitely say I love her. She was my idol growing up. She is from North Philly [like] I am, so I feel like she could understand my struggles and know all of the things that distract you. She always stuck by me no matter my grades or performance on the court. She always had my back and never gave up on me or said she was looking at someone else, and I give her a lot of heart for that.”
Last semester, Bowens earned a 3.34 grade point average – a full point higher than last year.
“She is scheduled to take seven credits each summer session,” Jackson said. “If she does well, she can petition to get her year back. I’m sure she’s going to do just that. She is really dedicated to academics now.”
“I know a lot of people counted me out,” Bowens said. “How many people come back after two years? I know a lot of people don’t know or understand what happened, but I’m strong. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to move forward. We won 25 games in a row, so I’m happy.”
Her teammates echoed this appreciation for Bowens’ effort.
“I definitely think her maturity level has grown,” said senior forward Ari Moore. “Her goal has always been to win and be part of the team, but when that’s taken away from you, it increases your desire. Also I think not everyone gets the easy road, and she had a tough road and stuck on it with the ups and downs. In stead of talking about it, she actually had to live through it. She was able to overcome everything that happened to her. She’s positive going into her last season, and she’s a leader on the team now.”
Three years later, that owl tattoo holds a new meaning – one of struggle, survival and conquered adversity. It chronicles her path from success to failure and back again. It serves as a reminder that, despite being counted out, sometimes being the underdog is the greatest encouragement.
“I’m happy to be here at Temple,” Bowens said. “I hadn’t got dismissed yet when I got [the tattoo], so once I did and came back and realized I really have a lot of love for Temple and they gave me a second chance. They changed my life and gave me the opportunity to become a better person, get an education and become the person that I am.”
“Plus I just love the Temple owl. I think it’s a cool tattoo.”
Nadia Stadnycki can be reached at email@example.com.