The three-story public housing projects Todd Bowles called home are gone. So are the six interior courtyards that served as the battlegrounds for him and other gifted athletes in search of neighborhood bragging rights.

The epicenter of his childhood -- the Pioneer Homes in Elizabeth, New Jersey -- were a place where "everybody knew everybody,'' the Jets' coach said, and neighbors were expected to discipline each other's children. But those gritty, all-brick structures have since been gutted and replaced by rows of identical low-income housing with cream-colored siding and brick facades.

Drugs, gang activity and violence are prevalent throughout the poor, industrial section of the city, located behind Newark Liberty Airport. So are makeshift memorials dedicated to young lives lost -- such as the graffiti mural of Francis Scott Walker Jr., a 20-year-old college student who was shot and killed in March 2008 at the intersection of First and S. Park Streets, just around the corner from the Miller Evans Logan Recreation Center.

"Back then, the worst thing we did was stand in the courtyard too late making noise,'' said Lemar Davis, 60, the director of the recreation center.

Times have changed since Bowles left. But the lessons he learned there live on.

After all, the city of Elizabeth is where he first learned to be a leader of young men.

advertisement | advertise on newsday


These streets didn't own him, but they helped shape him. He was the unsuspecting role model, the quiet kid who spoke softly but exuded toughness. And all the while, he was unaware that he was a source of pride for those in his community. "I did not see that at all. I was just trying to make it,'' Bowles, 51, said, laughing.

Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson -- who played at Temple 25 years after Bowles starred for the Owls -- had heard "a little bit'' in college about his future coach. But it wasn't until this past offseason that he developed a deeper appreciation for him.

"It's pretty much like having another relative or something that's in the facility with me,'' said Wilkerson, who was born in Elizabeth and moved to Linden, New Jersey, in the sixth grade.

Bowles was the guy neighborhood kids wanted to emulate, said Malik Jackson, 42, who grew up in the Pioneer Homes and credited Bowles as the reason he played football.

Jets videos

"He's a hometown hero,'' said Jackson, a former Rutgers safety who had stints in the Arena and Canadian Football Leagues before becoming a health inspector for the city of Elizabeth.

Bowles also had an impact on some of his closest friends.

Elizabeth native and Purdue product Anthony Rose said: "I lived by his example.''


Bowles had a toughness about him, but he had a kind heart, too.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"He was rare,'' said Davis, who grew up in nearby Migliore Manor and is known in the neighborhood as "Moo Moo." "Within the past 20 years, I could put, maybe, two or three guys in the same category with Todd in terms of the goodness of his heart . . . He wasn't a street person. He was one of the good guys. His mom and pops made sure of that.''

The adage "hard work pays off'' isn't a cliche to Bowles. It's a way of life. He was a four-year letterman and team captain at Temple (1982-85), but he dislocated six of seven bones in his wrist heading into his senior season. He went undrafted in 1986 but still earned an NFL starting job, won a Super Bowl ring with the 1987 Washington Redskins and played eight NFL seasons. He worked his way up the college and NFL coaching ranks for almost 20 years, and after two seasons as the Arizona Cardinals' defensive coordinator (2013-14), he became the Jets' head coach last Jan. 14.

Nothing about his life has been easy, and he "wouldn't have had it any other way,'' said Bowles, the first recipient of the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year award. "If you come from the 'hood, then you're probably more determined and you have a mean streak.''

His mental fortitude was forged in childhood. And it's one of his best attributes as a coach.

"Todd's Jersey-tough,'' said Rose, 49, who played high school football with Bowles and Bowles' best friends, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rodney Carter and Glenn "Ricky'' Bates.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"Todd's mind-set was: As long as I keep working hard, things will happen for me. That's his way of life. That's how he's programmed. That's how he thinks.''

Bowles was always confident and level-headed. Nothing seemed to faze him. And the same can be said now.

His first test as a head coach came July 2, when the NFL suspended Pro Bowl defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson for four regular-season games after he tested positive for marijuana. On July 30, Bowles learned that Richardson was facing possible jail time for resisting arrest after an alleged street race in Missouri on July 14. But the biggest blow came Aug. 11, when then-Jets linebacker Ikemefuna Enemkpali punched starting quarterback Geno Smith over an unpaid $600 debt, breaking his jaw. In the face of a crisis, Bowles delivered the stunning news in matter-of-fact fashion and then went about his day. "I know what I signed up for,'' he said at the time. "This is the NFL. We're not in needling class or anything like that.''

It was quintessential Bowles: always calm; never unnerved.

"None of that stuff has fazed him,'' said Rose, who now lives in Avenel, New Jersey, and works as an IT/multimedia specialist at the State University of New York. "He's always a few steps ahead, always thinking about how he's going to solve problems. That's why he's going to be successful. There's no shortcuts with him. He's out to produce a winner for this market.''


Days after the Jets hired Bowles, Davis, Jackson and fellow Elizabeth native Lamar Grady, 45, gathered in Davis' cramped office in the recreation center. Amid wall-to-wall Steelers memorabilia, the trio traded stories about how Bowles was "the good guy'' destined for great things.

Drugs had been a neighborhood temptation for some, but Bowles had wanted no part of it. And the dealers wanted no part of him. "Today he would get clowned for it. But back then, being an athlete, he was a star,'' Grady said of Bowles, who delivered the commencement speech at Elizabeth High School's graduation ceremony in June. "If you were on the right track back then, the community wouldn't allow you to go backward.''

The neighborhood has changed considerably since then. But even though the good ol' days are gone, an overwhelming sense of pride remains.

"You always root for the success of your own,'' Jackson said.

And this neighborhood will continue cheering on its hero.

"To make it out of Elizabeth and become someone that the entire country will get to know -- that's a hard thing,'' Jackson said. "So are you surprised at that? Yeah. But the reality is, he should have been a head coach earlier.''