The gridiron is the one place where Luke Bowanko feels right at home.
The 19-year-old, 6-foot-6, 295-pound Centreville native is the starting right guard on the University of Virginia football team, where he is only the fourth-largest member of the team’s offensive line.
But while his imposing stature might be oddly unremarkable for a position dominated by oversized men, his impressive speed and commitment to academics separate him from the brawny masses.
Nearly 30 years ago, Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel coined the term “The Hogs” to describe his offensive line, which reportedly averaged 273 pounds — a robust figure for that era. These days, Bowanko’s playing weight of 295 is considered on the light side for an offensive lineman, but ever since he was a child, he’s had anything but a lightweight appetite.
“He was insatiable at a young age,” said his mother, Sheryl Bowanko, a vice president at SAIC. “Sometimes we’d need to order like three kids meals to satisfy him. At 13 or 14, he’d order a full rack of ribs and the waitress would look at us sideways like, ‘Is he really going to eat all that?’ But he would.”
Sheryl Bowanko said she had to bring Luke’s birth certificate to avoid being overcharged at King’s Dominion and other amusement parks that offered discounted tickets for children.
Bowanko’s father, Mike, an executive at the U.S. Agency for International Development, also is 6-foot-6 and played basketball at Frostburg State University (Md.). Size runs in the family, he said.
“But I’m built like a Greek urn, and he’s built like a Greek God,” he joked.
In junior high, Luke Bowanko was a basketball prodigy. He also excelled at hockey but played football only every other year.
“I was always trying to cut my weight to play with kids my age,” Bowanko said in an interview after Virginia’s loss to North Carolina State last weekend. “I was usually too big to get in under the weight restrictions, so there were some years when I just played basketball and hockey.”
Once Bowanko arrived at Centreville, he no longer had to worry about weight restrictions and, by his sophomore year, his coaches were urging him to focus on football.
“My coach, Mike Skinner, took me aside, and said, ‘You have an opportunity to play football anywhere you want to if you focus on being an offensive lineman,’ and after that, it just sort of went from there,” Bowanko said.
At Centreville, Bowanko excelled in the classroom and on both the offensive and defensive lines. He garnered recruiting interest from the likes of Florida State, Boston College, North Carolina, Maryland and UVA after running the 40-yard dash in an eye-popping 4.8 seconds at a scouting combine his junior year. He chose UVA for its academics and proximity to home.
Bowanko continues to mentor former teammates, including Ken Ekanem, one of the area’s top high school players.
“Luke set the bar for me, in terms of being a model for success in football,” Ekanem wrote in a Facebook message. “He’s the only college player I’ve looked to for advice on the recruiting process.”
After getting in on just 63 plays as a redshirt freshman last fall, Bowanko earned a spot in the starting lineup this season and has been an integral part of an offensive line that has helped the team pull off some big wins, including the recent upset of 12th-ranked Georgia Tech, which Bowanko counts as the most enjoyable victory of his career.
The team, which features five players from Fairfax County, is off to a 4-3 start after a disappointing 4-8 campaign last year. The Cavaliers’ much-improved offensive line is on pace to give up half as many sacks as it did a year ago while bumping the team’s average rushing attempt to 4.6 yards, up from 4.0 last year.
Sheryl and Mike, who met playing racquetball while studying at Frostburg, haven’t missed a single game this season, and celebrated their 30th anniversary at Thursday night’s game in Miami.
But his parents are most proud of his off-the-field achievements. In April, he shared the Cavalier Academic Achievement Award with defensive tackle Will Hill and maintains an impressive GPA in UVA’s rigorous Foreign Affairs program.
Bowanko would like to pursue a career in the CIA or the FBI, but hopes those pursuits come after a successful career in the NFL. Few who know him well would be surprised to someday see his name on an NFL roster or at the top of one of the country’s national security agencies. But for the moment, he’s keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.
“I asked him how he was going to handle being a starter and keeping his grades up,” said Mike Bowanko. “And he said, ‘plan A is to get my degree, plan B is football — you need to take care of business on both ends. There’s no excuses.’”