In an era when lacrosse wasn’t necessarily mainstream, Mike Bowler made an investment in it. That venture would yield a lifetime of returns, both personally and professionally. Bowler, who never played the game himself, turned a kernel of interest in the mid-1970s into a permanent spot in Long Island lacrosse lore.
“He learned and taught himself how to play as an adult,” said son Mikey, 38, of Massachusetts. “He never had it around him growing up. It was never offered at any of the schools he was at. It just became an interest of his and he just thought it was a really cool sport.”
Bowler, a 47-year Port Jefferson Station resident who started the Rocky Point school district lacrosse program with an intramural team in 1974 and coached the Rocky Point High School varsity team for 42 years, died after a month-long battle with leukemia on Dec. 1 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, his family said. He was 72.
Born on Feb. 14, 1947, in Brooklyn, Bowler grew up in Hicksville and played football at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay. After graduating from King’s College in Pennsylvania in 1969 with a degree in history, Bowler taught social studies at Rocky Point High School for 12 years before being promoted to vice principal, a position he served in for 19 years, Mikey said.
Despite retiring in 2004, Bowler continued as head lacrosse coach until last month. He won 444 games, making him the 13th-winningest coach in state history and seventh-winningest coach in Long Island history, according to the New York State Sportswriters Association website. Bowler won a state championship in 2008.
“He is the sole reason that I got into coaching,” said former player and current Stony Brook University women’s lacrosse coach Joe Spallina. "He showed an ability to connect with all different types of people and to get the best out of people. The style that he did it [with] is remarkable. He had a way of connecting with the best guy on the team or the kid who’s not getting the most amount of playing time.”
Spallina also credited Bowler with turning him on to lacrosse. As a middle school soccer player, Bowler suggested Spallina give lacrosse a try. After Spallina graduated from Adelphi University, Bowler hired him to teach physical education at Rocky Point High School and work as an assistant coach on his staff.
The two developed a lasting friendship. Two years ago, when Spallina was coaching the Long Island Lizards, a men’s professional team, he was telling Bowler about the team’s struggles in man-up situations.
“I said, 'You have any of those good, old plays for me?'” Spallina said. “The conversation continued, he wound up leaving, and the next day, I went into my office, and under the door was a four-page handwritten, step-by-step breakdown of three different man-up plays that he had handwritten and put under my door. This was probably 15 years after we stopped coaching together.”
The warm nature extended to all of Bowler’s players.
“He wasn’t just a coach,” said former player Eddie Torriero, 26, of Houston. “I’m a lacrosse coach now full-time and I try to make sure that my kids know that if they need something, they can call me. He always gave his number out and said, ‘If you need a ride, call me. If you need something, give me a call.’ There should be no hesitation to call Coach B if you needed something.”
Torriero said that Bowler had an instinctive way about him.
“My girlfriend had broken up with me before we go to play [Eastport-South Manor] my junior year,” he said. “I was upset, I get out of the car, go into the locker room and coach just saw me in the hallway and said, ‘What’s up?’ And he was like, ‘Look, these things happen,' and gave me a whole spiel and it brought me around full-circle to get me ready for the game.”
A devoted father of four sons, Bowler passed on his love of lacrosse and Notre Dame football, spending fall Saturdays on the telephone, commiserating about the latest developments out of South Bend, Mikey said.
“He went out of his way to make sure we had everything we needed and felt loved,” Mikey said. “He was always running around doing trips, whether it was going around to see his grandkids' lacrosse games and lacrosse tournaments or going to graduations. He really made it a hobby to stay in touch and be a big part of our lives.”
Bowler is survived by his wife of 50 years, Helene, son Brendan and daughter-in-law Amy of Colorado, son Kevan and daughter-in-law Andrea of Massachusetts, son Mikey and daughter-in-law Ann of Massachusetts, brother Kevin and sister-in-law Jennie of Florida, sisters Stephanie Bowler and Meg Malangone of Lake Grove, and six grandsons. He was preceded in death by his son, Sean.
A funeral Mass was held for Bowler at Infant Jesus Church in Port Jefferson on Dec. 6 and he was buried at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Smithtown.