CHICAGO — Rain drops slipped down windows when Dean Lowry got a call that sent him looking for distractions. It was 9 a.m. on the final day of the 2016 NFL Draft. Raining or not, he grabbed a golf club and a ball from the garage and headed for the back yard.
An NFL team had just called. They wanted him, but there was a catch: Dean wouldn’t see his name appear on TV. Instead, his phone would ring just minutes after TVs across the country turned off. They planned to sign him as a free agent.
As he walked out, the clouds broke, and the sun peaked through. A neighbor hopped on his lawn mower. Dean took his time in between swings, as if he were on the greens of Augusta, not chipping around in the back yard of his Rockford home.
Margaret Lowry, Dean’s mom, stepped out on the patio. She watched him take deep breaths every few swings and knew what it meant. After a few minutes, Dean joined her on the patio. He looked down at his club, still swinging at an imaginary ball, while he spoke.
He told her about the call. If he fell to that team, it likely meant no guaranteed money, no signing bonus. He’d be an afterthought.
“I’ve entrusted this whole situation to God,” she said. “And I know that you’re going to get a call today. I don’t know who, and I don’t know when, but I have a really good feeling.”
Lowry’s big enough to put the “bear” in bear hugs at 6-foot-6 and 296 pounds, his lumbering walk only adding to the perception. His feet are so big, the family’s Yorkshire terrier launches pre-emptive strikes when he moves to take off his shoes. It’s just self-preservation. Add his round face and an earnest smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes, and you might think he’s a regular Baloo.
But like a real bear in the wilderness, Dean prefers attacking people rather than singing to them–specifically, quarterbacks and running backs. And that’s what he’s done on the football field the last four years at Northwestern University, and before that, since he first started playing defensive end at 8 years old.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald recalled visiting Lowry at his home during his senior year of high school. Fitzgerald called him one of the humblest players he has ever recruited—too humble, even. At Northwestern, he tried to coach a confidence in Lowry that would translate to the football field. All Dean did was tally 139 total tackles with 31 for a loss and 12 1/2 sacks. After the 2015 season, coaches and media named him to the second team on the All-Big Ten Defensive Team.
Of course, Lowry wasn’t always football-sized. At 18 months old, he could pick up a nerf basketball in both hands and throw it into a plastic hoop. But it’s not like he could dunk. Six years later, he joined the Nelson-Storm, a tackle football team. He played both ways, starting at defensive end and center. Lowry struggled playing center, but defensive end came naturally. He liked to hit people, and the position gave him a way to channel his aggressiveness. His experience as an offensive lineman left a lingering respect for what they do, and helped him understand how they think.
On Sundays as a kid, he would plant himself in front of the TV with his dad, John, to watch the Chicago Bears. The two of them loved to watch linebacker Brian Urlacher particularly, and Dean memorized his stats.
When Lowry was 10, his father and he watched Boylan Catholic play Rockton Hononegah in an 8,000-capacity football stadium in Rockton. Stuck in traffic blocks from the stadium, Dean couldn’t believe it. Why all the traffic? For the game, his dad explained. Lowry looked out the window at the stadium lights in the distance, then back at his dad.
“You ever think that many people will come to watch me play?”
Sophomore year of high school, his imagination turned to determination. His father drove him to a NUC Sports football combine in Barrington, Illinois, where a former college recruiting director for Notre Dame spoke the final day. Kids who have better grades are looked at more favorably, he told the crowd of Division I hopefuls. If you get really good grades, you’re going to move up a lot faster than those kids with bad grades. The guy might as well have been speaking directly to Dean.
Lowry changed his study habits after that. He closed his bedroom door and emerged just for meals. No posters on his walls, no distractions. Study, eat, workout, repeat. By junior year, Honor Student adorned his grade report. He set goals: Get a football offer by the end of junior year. Make a Big Ten football team.
As he aimed higher, he grew taller.
Shorter than many boys in middle school, Dean was 6-foot-6 by the end of high school.
Throughout those years, he competed with his older sister, Ava. She ran cross country and track, excelling in both. She wasn’t competitive with Lowry, but he was with her. When Lowry heard that Ava set a school track record her senior year, it wasn’t “Great!” or “Awesome!” She got “Oh yeah?” And he challenged her to a race. The nearly one-acre back yard was long enough for a sprint, but Ava’s strength was always longer distances. So Lowry tried to even the odds: He gave her a head start. But Ava, all technique and talent, won. He couldn’t let that stand. So he demanded a rematch—so much for head starts. That evened things out.
Ava socialized; Dean sacrificed. She turned out for everything and anything on weekends with her friends—nights before races included. FOMO was strong for her. Lowry usually stayed home, got ahead on homework and went to bed. If he went out Friday, he stayed home Saturday. Ava gave up sports in college; he worked toward playing in the NFL.
If high school centered on homework, college became about nutrition. His first visit back home, Dean asked his mom for one thing. “You don’t have to do my laundry—I can do my own laundry. But if you can make sure the refrigerator is stocked with all the food that I need. If you could just whip up a batch of eggs and toast and fruit and just have it ready, that’s all I need.” Grocery shopping was done together.
High school had been burgers and pizza and French fries. Anything to add bulk. Learning about nutrition with the football team changed his thinking, and the size of older teammates motivated him. As Lowry pushed himself in the Wildcats’ weight room, he pushed more—and better—food in his mouth than ever. Four-pound bags of chicken breast. Family-sized slabs of salmon. Breakfast might be eggs with onions, green peppers and spinach with toast and fruit. After his morning workout, Margaret would prepare foot-long sub sandwiches packed with vegetables and fruit on the side. Dinner might be pulled pork on “good-carb” 9 grain, whole wheat bread with a side of potatoes. Bowls of oatmeal before bed, hold the brown sugar—tasteless or not. He ate every two hours.
To maximize the benefits of his workouts and eating, he prioritized sleep. During sophomore training camp, Northwestern brought in two sleep engineers. They handed out arm bands that monitored players’ sleep habits and gave lectures on the sleep cycles of top athletes in the NFL and NBA. The correlation couldn’t be ignored: Elite athletes always got eight to nine hours of sleep. Starting that season, Dean took naps between 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., and always turned out the light by 10 p.m. for a 5:30 a.m. wakeup. It all worked. He blew up from 245 pounds his freshman year to an NFL-sized 296 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
Where Dean played, his father followed. Every home game, and all but one away game—a game Lowry missed due to injury. For away games, even for a 12-hour trip to New York, John drove. An associate judge in Winnebago County, John arranged his schedule with those games in mind, and made the obvious choice: the frugal one. When he could, he brought Margaret or one of his three daughters. But few people saw the work he put in off the field.
Friday, July 31, 2015, was max back squats—“ass-to-the-grass squats,” as the team calls them. He had trained with the football team all summer, preparing for what would be Northwestern’s first 10-win regular-season in 20 years. The week before, he had tried three reps at 525 pounds and failed. But the warm up felt good on that sticky summer Friday. Four hundred felt like 350. Five hundred felt like 450. Why not go for three reps at 545?
The humidity combined with the workout meant Dean’s shirt and shorts were soaked through long before he stepped under the bar. But he had prepared. Chalk covered the back of his shirt, where the bar would make contact, and his hands were caked in white. Fridays meant rock music, and not playing softly in the background either. Three spotters stood ready, one on either end of the bar and one directly behind him. An iPad-sized screen bolted to the frame of the weight station looked back at him, ready to give feedback. Once he was ready to lift the weight, the entire 80-man team gathered around him. Cheers filled the weight room. Hands slapped the weight rack. Lowry’s butt descended so that his hips dipped just below his knees and popped back up. One. Primal yells grew louder. Dean’s upper back stiffened as he descended again, trying to stay vertical, refusing to bend forward with the weight. He shot back up. Two. His spotters flexed their legs, ready to take the weight on their shoulders if necessary. His back screamed and his quadriceps throbbed, but this was pride’s game now. He squatted down a third time, the support belt around his midline threatening to burst. His upper back rounded slightly, but held. As he hit the bottom of the squat, he tried to explode up, but faltered with his hips slightly above his knees. Weightlifters call it the sticking point, the spot where you either collapse or push through. The team’s yells drowned out the music, and Dean stood up. Weight on the rack, teammates took turns slapping Lowry’s back. Clouds of chalk filled the room as sunlight streamed in. His teammates returned to their weight racks, most of them with fewer plates. Dean’s one of the three strongest guys on the team, according to Joe Orozco, a team strength and conditioning coach. And when players feel like pushing themselves hard in the weight room, they reference the defensive end’s impressive strength. “You wanna work hard? Lift ‘Dean weight,’” they say.
Nine months later, back in Northwestern’s gym, “Dean weight” wasn’t enough. He finished his senior season with 13 1/2 tackles for a loss, 52 total tackles and three sacks. His best season yet. But despite the gains in the weight room and the extra pop on the field, Lowry couldn’t push through certain setbacks, couldn’t get through to certain critics. NFL teams and doctors had poked and prodded him at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine, and in addition to the good headlines— “Dean Lowry second most impressive player at NFL Combine”—he had new negatives to deal with. His arms weren’t just short—they were measured in the bottom one percent of defensive lineman historically. Other combine tests indicated he had below average athleticism for the position. Tenacious and smart, sure, but the NFL requires more. After the combine, CBS Sports projected him as a seventh round pick or an undrafted free agent.
“I’ve entrusted this whole situation to God,” his mother said. “And I know that you’re going to get a call today. I don’t know who, and I don’t know when, but I have a really good feeling.”
Lowry smiled for the first time during their conversation. “You know, actually, I’m more nervous about two exams I have this week,” he said. “I’ve gotta get studying for those.” After waking up at 6 a.m. that morning, he spent two hours in his books before going downstairs to eat.
At about 10:45 a.m., the Lowrys’ neighbor stopped by. Mark Rice had been following Dean’s football career since high school. Though a die-hard Green Bay Packers’ fan, he didn’t begrudge Lowry or his family for supporting the Bears. Rice had even attended one of Lowry’s high school games with his parents. But that day, he just wanted to wish Lowry the best. He was rooting for him.
The fourth round started 15 minutes later, and Lowry never sat still. He popped up to his room to study for his exams, checked his phone, paced the living room, checked his phone, avoided the healthy snacks Margaret prepared and checked his phone.
At 12:51 p.m., that phone rang. A Wisconsin area code. “Please hold for Ted Thompson.”
Surely, a prank. He hadn’t spoken to the Packers throughout the whole process. Not at the combine, not at Northwestern’s Pro Day. Not once.
“Tell me why we should draft you right now,” said Thompson, the Packers general manager, as soon as he picked up the phone. Dean’s eyes started flicking around the room, as if searching for the answer somewhere among his parents, two sisters, and grandma. Ava stood up and started recording him on her phone.
“I would say go for it,” Lowry said. “I’m a team guy, and I love the Packers. I love the way you guys develop players and draft well. So, I would be honored.”
Thompson: “Good enough. We’re going to draft you.”
“OK,” said a grinning Lowry, his thumbs up signaling it was official. John looked up at the ceiling, his arms raised in triumph. Margaret wrapped her arms around Kathleen in the recliner, the two trying to stifle cheers. The dog yipped. Grandma smiled in her wheelchair.
Pat Fitzgerald Facetimed him five minutes after he hung up with the Packers. “He’ll allow himself a four-second smile, and then he’ll go lift,” Fitzgerald guessed (he was right). Defensive line coach Marty Long called minutes later. Then the first TV truck showed up. Two more followed, and a reporter from RRstar.com. Somewhere in there, one of Dean’s high school teammates showed up.
His sisters left to buy him a Packers hat from the nearby mall. The reporter from RRStar.com stayed behind to take pictures as Dean posed.
After the TV lights switched off and his former teammate headed home, the Lowry house settled. Except for one last caller, this time at the front door.
Mark Rice stood there, wearing a bright green and yellow Packers’ hat and jacket. Smiles don’t get much bigger.
As he stepped into the foyer, he held it out. “I’m so excited for you, and I want you to have this.” A 4-by-5-inch Green Bay Packers’ replica helmet balanced on his palm.
From that Saturday on, when you walk through the Lowrys’ front door, a couple things greet you: A shimmering crystal cross, standing tall on the middle shelf; two framed photos on the shelf above showing a smiling Dean with his parents and three sisters, and; right next to them, Rice’s Green Bay Packers’ helmet, positioned with the white and green “G.”