It's always an honor for a high school senior to receive an invitation to play in an All-American game.
For Fallbrook (Calif.) Union offensive lineman Sean Dowling, a spot in this year's Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl holds an even deeper meaning.
The bowl, as the name suggests, is supported by the U.S. Marine Corps, and Sean is the son of two Marines -- Colonel Christopher Dowling and Lieutenant Colonel Karen Dowling. Though his mother has since retired, the Colonel is still on active duty, splitting his time in two-month increments between the Middle East and the Dowling home in Fallbrook.
Sean Dowling's father -- a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps -- will be on hand to watch Friday's Semper Fi Bowl.
However, during Friday's game, Dowling will have a special guest in the stadium: his father, home to watch his son's final high school football game.
"To be here to watch him, well, this means a lot," Col. Dowling said. "It took an understanding Marine Corps, my chain of command, both in the Middle East and at the Embassy in Tampa. They were very supportive. I only got to watch one game in Sean's senior year, and now I get to see him play one more high school game before he gets to the big league."
Friday's game (9 p.m. ET at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.) is one of a couple of milestones for which Col. Dowling will get to be a part. On Saturday, Sean -- a three-star recruit, according to Scout.com -- will enroll at Vanderbilt, where he has committed to play college football.
Growing up in a Marine household, the younger Dowling didn't have the easiest path to a college scholarship, starting out in the small community of Twentynine Palms, Calif.
"It's a small Marine base, like an hour and a half away from Palm Springs," Dowling said. "It's in the middle of the desert. We've moved around a lot. I've lived in Virginia, North Carolina, Washington, California, Rhode Island, Florida, and then back to Fallbrook.
"I didn't really think anything of that lifestyle until recently. We live by the base and it's very different. Kids play on the street all day long, all hours of the night sometimes. You don't think of dangers or anything. There are Marine patrols, people always on the watch. There are always Marines. Instead of deer crossing signs, there are tank crossing signs. Training areas behind our houses. It's a lot different than living off-base."
Though switching schools made it more difficult to hone his talent, the 6-foot-6, 266-pound athlete never gave up on his dream.
"I'm most impressed by Sean's determination," Col. Dowling said, "the discipline to see something he wanted at a very young age when people told him, 'Listen, you have two left feet. Your hands are two right hands. You just don't fit the typical elite athlete mode.' He broke that model with sheer determination, working with coaches and trainers.
"He had to go to different schools, adapt to different football programs, and is now graduating early. He spent his whole summer going to football camps, elite camps, studying calculus, and doing honors English so he could graduate and go to college in the spring so he could be part of the team to learn the protocol and the process very early so he could apply it down the road."
Though Dowling is an early enrollee, a few weeks ago he was actually set to enroll in a different program. He committed to UCLA in April before flipping to the Commodores shortly before Christmas. Though the uncertainty of what the future holds can be daunting, Dowling has sought out the advice of those he trusts most: his family.
"I thought I was going to be somewhere else and I was prepared to enroll in the spring, get two months off from school and regroup," Dowling said. "Get stronger, get faster. Things didn't go as I planned them, but as God planned them. I'm going to Vanderbilt on Saturday. Things have been moving fast, but I've been able to adapt pretty well. I have two great parents who have been supportive the whole way.
"They told me to just give it to God, that our human minds are too imperfect for us to make decisions like that on our own. I let him decide; I have prayed for a long time. I asked him before I parted ways with UCLA and I got my answer. I was heartbroken for the first few hours, but it became so evident that it was His will that made it happen the way it did, the way it's happening right now. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to make myself a better football player and a better man at Vanderbilt."
Col. Dowling doesn't hide his pride for his son, who consistently remains humble. To have his son recognized as one of the country's top talents while also honoring the Marine Corps is something he feels blessed to witness.
Dowling was a UCLA commit before flipping to Vanderbilt.
"It's an amazing opportunity for Sean," Col. Dowling said. "We're honored because he's representing the Marine Corps. His mother is a retired Marine Lietentant Colonel. His grandfather is a retired Marine Colonel. The Marine blood runs deep in our family and for Sean to be selected for this bowl means even more to us."
Dowling doesn't have to look far to find a man he admires. Though he spends a lot of time apart from his father, he sees many qualities that he hopes to emulate.
"We're pretty close. I'm always trying to emulate him in everything I do," Dowling said. "He's had a lot of success; reaching the rank of Colonel in the Marine Corps, playing college football for Texas A&M, and being an all-around good man. Everyone that I have ever met only talks about how good of a person he is, how well he does his job, and how much honor and pride he takes in doing it well.
"My dad is one of the Marines who leads from the front. If this were the 1800s, he'd be the one riding in front of his men. He never makes his men do things he can't do. I think that's a very good example for me as a football player, to lead my team, to always lead from the front. He says to do everything you expect everyone else to do, always put forth 100 percent effort and never give up, never let your teammates think you are going to give up. My dad tells me to always do the right thing when no one is looking."
In the time they have spent discussing the future, Col. Dowling has made sure to pass along some of the advice his own father gave him.
"My father used to tell me, 'You're going to give back to your society one way or another, whether you're going to be a teacher, a policeman, or something like that,'" Col. Dowling said. "'After that, you will make your own path.' Sean, more so because of his mother, has become a man of character. Sean has the focus. We are very proud of that."
This week, as Sean has been busy with Semper Fi practices in preparation for Friday's big game, he's made sure to appreciate the deeper meaning behind the event. Though some players have been a bit taken aback by the taste of Marine training they have received this week, Dowling has used the added challenge to his advantage.
"You learn discipline," he said. "You have to do your job to perfection. In the Marine Corps, if you don't do your job, someone could get hurt. In football, if you don't do your job right, that play won't be successful. It's obviously a lot more severe in the Marine Corps, but I think you can learn from that and apply it to football."
With the meaning of true sacrifice and courage emblazoned in his mind, Dowling looks toward his future at Vanderbilt as a privilege, never taking the opportunity for granted.
"I've had neighbors that have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq and didn't come home," Dowling said. "Growing up around that, having some of my best friends, some classmates, not show up to school for a week and come back changed because their dad didn't return teaches you that you can't take life too seriously. Being around people who have lost the people they loved the most shows you that you have to take things one day at a time.
"I really like Oregon's saying of 'Win the Day.' You're focused on the day, doing your best today, living for today, and doing everything you can to be the best person today, rather than focusing fifty years down he road."