JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. trudged off the practice field, his helmet in one hand, his jersey and shoulder pads in the other.
Beads of sweat covered his bare chest, making his huge “Dreamer” tattoo difficult to read.
He was exhausted, hungry and facing a full afternoon of meetings. He had his mom, dad and little brother in town to watch him practice against his hometown team (Tampa Bay) and a crowd of autograph-seekers chanting his name from outside a cast-iron fence. Fowler had plenty of reasons to hurry past the fans and into the air conditioning. Instead, he went out of his way Monday to make sure everyone waiting got what they wanted.
This was Fowler at his finest, a guy determined to alter his image and change his reputation. Known more for his off-field stumbles than his on-field sacks, Fowler even has a new goal for his personal and professional lives.
“From now on, when people say my name, I want them to talk about a soft-hearted, good guy,” he said. “A teddy bear off the field but a monster on the field. I don’t need to be doing the monstrous stuff off the field.”
The 22-year-old Fowler was arrested July 18 in St. Petersburg and charged with simple battery and criminal mischief. He allegedly hit a 55-year-old man following an argument about Fowler’s driving, knocking off the man’s glasses and then stepping on them. Fowler then took the guy’s grocery bag and threw it in a lake.
“I’m not even that type of guy,” Fowler said. “I’m not an (expletive). I’m not a bad guy. That was a bad decision that I made, and I learned from it. I really did learn from it. It’s just something that I’m going to have to show you guys and really the community. I care about the community of Jacksonville. I care about the people that look up to me, and really the kids.
“When they Google my name, I want them to see me making plays. I don’t want them to see my mug shot. I don’t want them to see me on TMZ and bad articles and news reports because that’s really not me. I’m a loving guy and I have a huge heart for people. I’m human at times and I made a mistake and I can admit to that, too. But at the end of the day, when I went through that, I realized really what type of person that I am as far as being a pro, being a role model. I don’t want to disappoint people that look up to me the most.”
Fowler has the ability to be a dominant pass rusher, and it’s been evident through three weeks of training camp.
He beats offensive tackles routinely, even making Buccaneers veteran Demar Dotson look silly in one-on-one drills Monday. The victory provided some redemption for Fowler, who was stonewalled by Dotson so much during last year’s joint practices that he lost confidence.
“I really don’t like to say it, but that week kind of showed me how it was going to be last year,” Fowler said. “I realized I was a raw pass rusher and that it’s more than just athleticism. I have to use my hands; I had to get stronger with my bull rush. He was kind of better than me at the time. That’s different now; I’ve been working really hard. I like how I feel physically and mentally.”
The Jaguars like what they’ve seen recently from the third overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft.
“I’m happy with his effort level,” coach Doug Marrone said. “I think he gives good effort, and I think he’s getting more quality snaps, meaning building on that, which is what you want to see from players. Now, the next thing we need is to just start getting the results, and they will come.”
Fowler had four sacks and 32 tackles last season, which was essentially his rookie year. He missed all of 2015 after tearing a knee ligament during his first minicamp. He worked his way back to be the opening day starter last fall, but ended up getting benched in favor of rookie Yannick Ngakoue.
Fowler had trouble off the field, too.
He was arrested in Miami Beach in March 2016 and charged with misdemeanor counts of assault against a police officer and resisting arrest without violence. The charges were dropped in December after he completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders. That arrest came a little more than two weeks after a video surfaced showing Fowler refereeing a violent fight between his girlfriend and an ex-girlfriend.
He also has a long list of traffic violations, including four speeding tickets in Jacksonville over the past two years.
He insists his behavior and commitment have changed. He believes new veteran teammate Calais Campbell is helping him mature, and he’s spending extensive time studying moves of All-Pro pass-rushers Khalil Mack and Von Miller. He has no plans to tone down his in-game antics — “I’m going to talk; that’s just me” — but guarantees that his days of leading the league in “bone-headed penalties” are over.
The same goes for his arrests.
“Somebody can bash-mouth me or do this and do that,” he said. “But people that really look up to me, if I disappoint them, that disappoints me. I don’t want to go through that again.”
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