OXFORD, Miss. (BP)--It's OK if you don't give Bill Flowers a second look. Opposing cornerbacks don't. Preseason football publications don't. Shoot, even his classmates don't.
Well, they don't until he makes a clutch one-handed snag, or roll is called and fellow students whip their heads toward the 6-foot-1, 193-pound Ron Howard impersonator and think, or even say, "You don't look like the Bill Flowers on the football field."
It's just further proof that it's not as easy as it looks to cover Bill Flowers, on or off the field.
Many a Southeastern Conference defensive back has found out just how tough it is to keep the Ole Miss wide receiver under wraps. Still, despite his big-play capabilities, despite his consistency, and despite his family football legacy -- father Richmond II played at Tennessee and in the NFL, uncle Jeff played at UT as well, and brother Richmond III played at Duke -- Flowers has not received the full amount of respect he deserves.
Even his teammates can't resist playful jabs at Flowers, a one-time high school state champion hurdler and 2000 Gatorade Alabama Athlete of the Year.
"If you look at him, you wouldn't think there's an ounce of athletic ability in his body," said offensive lineman Doug Buckles.
It doesn't bother him. Flowers and his teammates know that numbers -- he caught 39 passes for 543 yards and one touchdown in 2003 -- can't measure his ability or value to the Rebels, a team that has been stacked at receiver in recent years. Or was that just Eli Manning making them all look good? Flowers has been overshadowed by both Manning -- the NFL's No. 1 draft pick -- and the departed Chris Collins, who holds most of the Ole Miss receiving records.
Add to all that the possession receiver label he's been unfairly stuck with, and it would seem Flowers has a lot to prove this senior season. But he doesn't. He's already proven to himself what and who he is, and that's all he cares about.
"You have to look in the mirror and say, 'All right, this is what I've accomplished, and this is what I'm doing,'" Flowers said. "Seek praises from God and not other people. If other peoples' respect comes to you, that's great, but don't get down about it if you're not getting praise when you think you should be getting praise."
Carefully directed praise is what keeps Flowers' perspective level. He learned a long time ago that he isn't bigger than the name on the back of his jersey, weighted as it is with reputation and expectation. He also knows his name isn't bigger than another family legacy -- faith in Christ. As with football, Flowers was steered toward Christianity by a prompting but trusting father who allowed his sons to grow into themselves.
"He's always trusted me," Flowers said. "He's always given me a little leeway, trusted me that I'll make the right decisions, and I think that tells a lot."
STAY OR GO?
One of those decisions came early in his college career. As a freshman, he had 28 receptions for 315 yards and four TDs -- good numbers for any rookie. Not good enough for Flowers. Actually, just not enough. He felt underused, unappreciated and overlooked. He seriously pondered leaving Oxford and all it offered. The future, with Manning and Collins and so many other budding stars in place, was brighter than Flowers could see at the time. He couldn't foretell last season, which brought Ole Miss a 10-3 mark, its first Western Division championship and a Cotton Bowl win.
Something inside Flowers told him to stay put and wait it out.
"Times like that, God really comes to you and really gives you a challenge," Flowers said. "There are situations where people need to leave school, but I felt that God wanted me to stay here and that I'd be a better man. I thought I took a bold step to stay and to trust God that He knew what He was doing."
He's content with his decision because he feels God had a purpose for him in Oxford and beyond. Flowers harbors NFL dreams, and not solely for his own athletic fulfillment. Football, to Flowers, is a ministry. His name catches people's attention, but then comes the wicked irony -- the name generates lofty expectations that, upon observing him, people don't think he can reach. Sure, he's Bill Flowers, but -- he's Bill Flowers?
Once people get to know him, Flowers believes the name and the freckles will become secondary issues.
"When a young white guy can come into a predominantly black area and talk about football and faith, that brings a lot of people together. That's where I feel God has blessed me so much, an ability to reach people," Flowers said. "I have a chance to go in and talk to people who other people wouldn't have a chance to talk to. Hopefully the Lord will bless me to play in the NFL and keep on having this platform to share my faith and encourage people in their faith and show it on the field."
LEADING THE WAY
Within the Ole Miss team, Flowers has all the respect he could want. He is being counted on this season as a leader in an offense trying to transition from the meticulous, rock-steady Manning to the athletic, improvisational Michael Spurlock. Flowers expects himself to be the playmaker Spurlock -- who has thrown only eight collegiate passes -- needs when he gets in trouble. He is the Rebels' leading returning receiver, and while his leadership style isn't of the vocal sort, his actions speak loud enough.
Take the spring of 2003, when Flowers missed time while recovering from foot surgery. Fellow receiver Taye Biddle remembers how Flowers didn't let the pain keep him sidelined for long.
"We all knew he was in pain and knew he was hurting, but he was out there trying to fight through it and trying to go every play and bust his hind end and make something happen," Biddle said.
That kind of commitment and sacrifice has only bolstered Flowers' standing among his teammates and coaches. As he strives to do, Flowers' faith permeates his every effort on the field.
"I see Bill as a great person and as a great player," said Biddle. "He's one if you need help, he's going to go through hoops to help you."
Sooner or later, others will see these qualities in Flowers, and he'll get the respect he deserves. Until then, he brushes off slights and uses them as extra fuel. He's well aware of his unique position, and he wants to exploit it for a higher purpose. As he keeps his eyes on the ball and on God, Flowers knows he'll achieve what he's meant to achieve, and he'll honor the legacies that have been passed on to him.
"All my life, I've always been looked at with a crooked eye," he said. "It's a blessing, because God uses people in different shapes and molds to do different things."
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