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Be Special: West Washington football returns to semi-state a year after coach's death

The undefeated Senators are back in the semi-state round, a place that impacted their entire community just one year ago.

CAMPBELLSBURG, Ind. — As you pass through the fields and approach West Washington High School, you start to see them. 

"We all had chills just driving down the road, reading all the signs about how much this community leans on football and how much we just mean to it," Senators quarterback Holden Bowsman said.

"You drive through the middle of a lot of emptiness and fields," West Washington head coach Keith Nance said. "But they never hesitate to put signs up to encourage us or to be here and do something special for us."

Credit: WHAS11

The community carries the spirit of one of its former leaders: 16-year Senators head coach Phillip Bowsman

"He said all the time to the kids to be special," Nance said.

Those last two words sit on a plaque on a stone holding a cross behind an end zone at the Senators' football field. It's a memorial to honor Bowsman's memory after a tragedy struck on the sidelines. 

"This coaching staff and these kids, we've been through a lot," Nance said.

Credit: WHAS11

On Nov. 22, 2019, West Washington was in the semi-state round of the Indiana state playoffs for just the third time in school history. A 49-0 road loss to Indianapolis Lutheran wouldn't be the story though. Instead, it would be grave concern for a sideline stroke that had Bowsman's life in jeopardy.

Three days later, just a day after his daughter's birthday, he died at the age of 44. And his son remembers finding out.

Credit: The Bowsman Family

"I remember like it was yesterday," Bowsman said. "I remember I was sitting at the kitchen table and mom called. I thought I was going to have a concussion because I just fell and hit my head on the table, just losing it. 

"But that night, we all went up there and all the boys came up. We all sat in his room together with him one last time. We all told stories and memories. We all just laughed together one last time."

"I considered Coach Bowsman to be my best friend," Nance, who said he coached with Bowsman for 20 years, said. "We often talk about our team as a family. He's the one who set that direction for us as a program."

Credit: The Bowsman Family

As condolences poured in, memorials were held and days passed by, the Senators understandably struggled to move forward.

"To do this without him is difficult," Nance said. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't."

"Everything that was going on, no one really wanted to come out here and practice," Bowsman said. "But we all knew deep down that he would want us out here. And this is where we all became brothers."

Their family has been their strength. This undefeated squad is back in the semi-state round where that nightmare of a stroke and loss happened with a chance for a dream to come true.

"We all said when we were in third grade, we want to win a state title," Bowsman said.

"There's a sign in our locker room: 'One Team, One Dream' with a picture of Lucas Oil Stadium," Nance said. "They had t-shirts made when they were young. And it's something that they've aspired to for a long time."

Credit: Tara Brown

A win on Friday, which will mark the first time West Washington has ever hosted a semi-state game, would make these Senators just the second team in school history to go to the state championship game. 

"These guys have been playing football together for a long time," Nance said. "And they're all bought into it. And that's really the big difference from this year."

"I just don't think people thought we could do it by ourselves," Bowsman said. "And here we are."

Of course, as they prepare for it in helmets with 'Be Special' stickers right outside of the Phillip Bowsman Athletic Complex, they know they're not alone.

Credit: WHAS11

"I do feel like he's here with us," Nance said. "I do feel like there are moments where he shows himself."

That could be when a big play or defensive stop is needed. Or when Holden reaches back to a towel with the date of his father's death, 'Be Special' and 'R.I.P. Dad," written on it. 

"I know he's always with me," Bowsman said. "But just to know that every time I touch a towel, I'm touching something more than just a towel."

Credit: WHAS11

As this team pushes through an emotional week, it is the memory and lessons of its beloved coach that have continued to carry it.

"He had many sayings and one of them was you got to ride the highs together and climb out of the valleys together as well," Bowsman said. "Because when you're at the top, everyone wants to be together. But when you're in the valleys, and you're deep down, everyone has to come together and pull through."

"As hard as tragedy can be, it can also be a major binding effect," Nance said. "We went through it together, we've sought each other out for comfort during these times. And it's just made us a closer team."

That's what makes this group special.

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