COLUMBIA — It was only a matter of time until the benches cleared.
Missouri senior forward Laurence Bowers found himself suddenly surrounded by a pack of 14 campers at a youth basketball camp Monday at Mizzou Arena. Towering over his admirers, Bowers flashed a smile as he scribbled out his autograph. He used the backs of the campers for writing support, the camp memorabilia as autograph paper and the children around him as inspiration.
"I feel as if it's a duty of mine to give back to the kids because I was in the same boat," Bowers said, remembering when he, too, was a kid at summer camp.
Nearly every camper in the vicinity fought for the signature of the man who played zero minutes during the Tiger's 2011-12 season. While a preseason ACL tear kept Bowers from participating in Missouri's 30-4 campaign, he said it strengthened his commitment to mentoring youth in the community.
Bowers turned the darkest of his on-court experiences into an opportunity to give back. Just because he could no longer contribute on the court didn't mean he couldn't keep contributing to Columbia. In what Missouri coach Frank Haith calls one of his favorite stories, soon after Bowers tore his ACL, he was out at a local elementary school, reading to children.
"I was like, you know what? It's my problem, it's not theirs, I'll deal with it," Bowers said of the visit. "I'm going to show up, be a man of my words and give back to the community."
Bowers said he learned quickly that as much as kids needed him, the hurting 6-foot-8-inch power forward needed their support, too.
But it wasn't just after he couldn't play that he was committed volunteer for the Columbia community. Bowers has spent five years assisting at summer youth camps and visiting students in schools where he is able to instill in them the values he said are most important: Education, hard work and giving back to the community.
Bowers visited Shephard Boulevard Elementary School last spring, where principal JoNetta Weaver said the player translated the school's values of leadership into lessons children could easily understand.
"Those athletes can really relate because there's probably not a single boy in third grade that doesn't think they’re going to be a professional basketball or football or soccer player," Weaver said. "Sometimes it's hard to relate to kids, but he did a really good job."
The commitment to giving back earned Bowers two character awards last school year. Bowers was named the Big 12 Conference's Winter Chick-fil-A Community Champion and was inducted into the Mizzou '39, both of which recognize accomplishments in athletics, academics and community service.
One of his biggest admirers is new coach Haith.
"He's just a special young man," Haith said . "He stayed involved in the community, he stayed involved with our team, he's the biggest cheerleader on the bench during the game, so he's just that true team player."
As he signed autographs at Mizzou Arena, Bowers had to introduce or reintroduce himself to campers who weren't sure who we was.
When 12-year-old Bryson Clayton shouted, "I'm next!" and slipped in front of Bowers in the pack, he reconnected with a star he admitted to having forgotten after the previous summer's camp. But after receiving the autograph and escaping the mob, Bryson said Bowers was his favorite Missouri player.
Bowers sees himself in these children as he remembers the summer camps he attended in Memphis as a youth. He remembers what it was like to look up to players that seemed like giants and wonder if he could ever get there.
Now that he's reached a position to give back, Bowers is sure not to waste the opportunity.
"It's not like you have to do this," Bowers said as he sat on the gym floor. "It's all in your heart."