When Tay Gowan participated in UCF's pro day, the cornerback took it upon himself to go out in front of every drill for defensive backs even after having opted out of the 2020 college season.
"That's how I want to carry myself," said Gowan, the Cardinals' second sixth-round draft choice. "That's how I carry myself in life. I'm a father and I want to lead by example."
Leadership like that sometimes means sacrifice – like giving up his final college season for the health of his daughter.
Gowan is convinced that decision was the correct one, but also one that cost him a draft tumble.
"I think (teams) just used it against me that I didn't play any games," Gowan said. "That's OK. I know in my head, that might take place. Ultimately, the Cardinals believed in me. I feel like I landed exactly where I needed to be."
Gowan has no regret. He had entered into 2020 one of the first UCF players to return for preseason workouts. He is a leader, after all. But then he caught COVID, and soon, his daughter – who had been born premature – caught it, as did his mother, his girlfriend and others in his family. His mother ended up hospitalized "all because of me and all because I want to play football and pursue my dreams."
"I didn't have the resources, the money at the time to make sure everyone is OK," Gowan said. "It was a lot on me, weighing down on me. It was just very hard on a kid from Georgia who all he knows is football and protecting his family. I put family first."
The problem wasn't just that Gowan missed the season, but more that he had little experience prior. He was fantastic at UCF in 2019. But he had played just one game as a freshman at Miami of Ohio before playing at a junior college in 2018.
Even with that, many of the pundits expected him to potentially go as high as the third or fourth round. When the Cardinals were on the clock with the first of their two sixth-round picks, the cornerback-needy team could have gone with Gowan there instead of grabbing edge rusher Victor Dimukeje. Then he was still there later in the round, and the Cards grabbed him with the pick they got in the Mason Cole trade.
"When you look at the big picture, you realize that he hasn't played a ton of football, yet still looks that good on tape, still looked that good in his workout, you'd like to think he's another guy with a high ceiling and another guy who can come in here, learn under some really good veterans," Cardinals GM Steve Keim said. "The sky is the limit, in my opinion, or him."
Gowan has that expectation. Already driven to succeed in the NFL, his year away and all that entailed mentally and physically has spawned a player anxious to star. He didn't choose jersey number 32 but now that he has it – last worn by Tyrann Mathieu and Budda Baker – Gowan insisted "I'm going to live up to that legacy."
"Once you get to know him, it's not just what he says – he actually lives that," Cardinals cornerbacks coach Greg Williams said on the "Big Red Rage." "He backs it up with his work ethic. It's not just talk."
His agent and trainers made sure Gowan didn't overdo work during the football season, which made sense for Gowan, who worked three days a week and had plenty of time to tend to his daughter and family.
He ramped up his training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for what became an impressive pro day, and then after his pro day trained with Steelers Pro Bowl safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and Fitzpatrick's father. Gowan has no fear a year off will be a problem.
His family is healthy again. He now has the money to provide for them should another medical emergency come up. And Gowan is ready to fulfill his announced plan to become a fan favorite, to sign an autograph for every fan waiting for one, to deliver smiles to the fan base.
Gowan is going to be at the head of the line. For his family, for the Cardinals, and for himself.
"I'm so excited, I don't think I'll ever leave the facilities," Gowan said. "I might stay there. This is my life-long dream."