'Norm Parker saved my life'

Former Iowa defensive back Matt Bowen talks about his experience

Former Hawkeye and NFL safety Matt Bowen takes in a Cubs game with his son, Matthew Jr. (Contributed photo)
Former Hawkeye and NFL safety Matt Bowen takes in a Cubs game with his son, Matthew Jr. (Contributed photo)

[Editor's note: Soon after Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker announced his retirement in 2011, former Iowa defensive back Matt Bowen offered to write a story from a young father's perspective on wisdom gleaned from his coach. Both men had sons born with Down Syndrome, something that Bowen struggled with at first. Matt Bowen writes for Bleacher Report and the Chicago Tribune. Follow Matt on Twitter (@MattBowen41) for tremendous football knowledge. Thank you to Matt for this fantastic piece. Re-posting today after Parker died early this morning.]

Norm Parker saved my life.

And that was eight years after I played football for him at Iowa.

One season. That’s it. All the time I had to spend with Norm during Coach Kirk Ferentz’s first season with the Hawkeyes in 1999.

We weren’t any good, and outside of a win against Northern Illinois under the lights at Kinnick, I doubt you will hear fans talking about that squad over beers at the Sports Column in Iowa City.

A forgotten team when you look at the success the Hawks have had over the last decade under Kirk. Big Ten titles, an Orange Bowl win and dozens of players heading to the NFL.

A great program that Norm helped shape and develop through his ability to coach, teach and connect with his players on a level that you won’t find just anywhere around the country.

That only really existed with Norm.

I remember those days and took plenty with me into the NFL for seven seasons. He made me a better football player, but when I now look back, he actually made me a better husband and father.

You see, I couldn’t talk to anyone outside of my family after my oldest son Matthew Jr. was born.

I was walking with a big chest around the hospital up in Evanston, Illinois after he was born in January of ’07. The “proud father” who couldn’t get enough of holding that little boy in his arms.

That changed when the doctor told my wife, Shawn, and I that my boy had Down syndrome.

I couldn’t talk, sleep or eat. Within a week, I looked like a skeleton standing in front of the mirror in my house down the street from Wrigley Field.

This can’t be happening.

I continued to tell myself that when I sat in the brown leather chair that overlooked the city streets out of our front window. There were times when I would just stare—for hours—looking for some relief.

That relief was Norm. A voice on the other end of the phone on a Tuesday morning in January. Snow on the ground, grey, oily skies in Chicago.

“You’ve just been delivered an angel from Heaven.”

Not many fathers have to fall back in love with their kids. I did. And I am man enough to admit that I struggled with Matthew’s diagnosis to a point where I didn’t know what to do.

Norm changed that.

He described his relationship with his late son, Jeffery. The same diagnosis as my boy and a life that he lived which my coach will always cherish.

My viewpoint as a father changed that day because of Norm. He brought me out of the darkest place I had been as an adult and showed me the beauty in having a child with special needs.

My wife and I took Matthew up to the team hotel that following season when the Hawks were preparing to play Northwestern. Introducing my boy to Norm that night is still one of the proudest moments of my life. To see the true joy he had in seeing my son is something you can’t buy in a store. It is real.

Norm Parker will be remembered for his time at Iowa as a coach. And that’s fine, because he was damn good at what he did.

But that’s not how I see it as I sit here crying by myself (because I’m a crier) wrapping this piece up.

He means more to me than what I learned on the field or in the meeting room, and I am forever grateful that he was my coach. 

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