When Byron Cowart walks onto a football field, people take notice. Heck, when he walks down the street, they take notice. He has an immediate impact regardless of his surroundings.
He likes the attention. What teen doesn’t? The best thing about the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Armwood defensive end, however, is that he understands he’s not perfect. He wants to be and he’ll work hard toward that goal, but he knows he’s human.
No one probably knows Cowart better than Armwood coach Sean Callahan, who has mentored numerous big-time athletes like recent Armwood stars and now Florida teammates Matt Jones and Alvin Bailey or USC’s Leon McQuay.
“He’s an extremely intelligent, brilliant, immature kid,” Callahan said. “So you mix all that together, and you gotta spend some time with him to figure him out. I know he likes [the attention] and sure he tries to give the impression that he doesn’t, but he’s a good boy and he’s handling it pretty well. He’s been coached up how to handle it.”
He’s usually had things come easy for him, given his size and athleticism, and Callahan says that can sometimes be a detriment to players with Cowart’s kind of talent.
“He has that ability to turn it on and off. Now, that can be a good thing and that can be a bad thing,” Callahan said. “He’s much better about that than he was as a sophomore. … He understands what’s going on in front of us right now and how he needs to be all in, so we’ll see.”
And it doesn’t always come easy. In last year’s Class 6A state title game, a 52-7 drubbing at the hands of Miami Central, Cowart had difficulty with the size and double teams of the Rockets’ offensive line. His name did not even appear in the final defensive statistics after the game.
“I think he’s definitely brushed it off. I don’t think he made a single tackle that game,” Callahan said. “We’re using all of that to fuel us. We only lost 11 guys off that team, so we have a number of guys back from that team. We’re embarrassed by beaing beaten so badly. They had a very good team.
“We’ll be better this year and we’re taking all of that in toward making ourselves better.”
Cowart has not let that performance define him, nor, has he let it wear on his confidence. He, too, vows to get better from it.
“I learned a lot from that game. Those guys were bigger and they were on a college level,” Cowart said. “Me attacking the double team, not losing ground ... I learned a lot from that game and it wasn’t really a negative. It’s the nature of football. You can’t play and think you are never going to lose, but I had a good experience because I went up against some 6-6, 300-pounders and I didn’t get pancaked, I didn’t lose ground.”
And best of all for Cowart, he was a junior then. He knows what it takes and wants to make sure the shellacking the Hawks took last season does not happen again.
“We’re going to take it one game at a time. Everybody expects us to get to state, but last year, we were like, ‘We’re going to state. We’re going to state,’ he said, “but this year we’re going to do what we have to and finish it.”
He is the No. 1-ranked player in the country by Rivals.com, No. 5 by 247Sports.com and No. 1 player in the state in the Sentinel’s 2015 Florida Top 100. But he doesn’t convey the sort of prima-donna attitude that consumes a lot of highly touted football players.
“I just try to focus on my team because at the end of the day all of the awards and all that stuff ... I’m blessed for it, but it’s easy to get distracted and get the big head,” Cowart said. “I just try to stay humble, keep working doing my assignments and just trying to contribute to my team.”
He’ll still be the one who everyone wants to beat; every game, every play.
“I got a bigger chip because I know I’m targeted out there,” Cowart said, “I know people wanna say, ‘Oh, I did this to Byron Cowart,’ or whatever, so yes, it’s a big chip on my shoulder, but I like when people target me.”
Most people assume he’s leaning toward the Florida Gators when the time comes to pick a school, but he doesn’t let on much.
He figures, at this point, he will announce his decision somewhere in the middle of December, instead of at the Under Armour All-American Game in January.
“I don’t really deal much with the recruiting. There are some schools, sure. Oregon is in there, Florida’s in there … even UCF is in there. They’ve been winning, so you can’t say anything about that,” he said. “My thing is that football will take care of itself. I want to go somewhere for academics. I want to go into sports broadcasting, so that’s the biggest thing for me.”
Off the field he stays focused. He’s not one to likely get into trouble. He takes pride in some of his other, non-football activities, one of which is spending time with a young Crohn’s disease patient in Tampa. He’s become an advocate for the awareness of the disease and also become great friends with 10-year-old Crohn’s patient Jeovani “JoJo” Ortiz.
Ortiz can remain active as long as his symptoms are not prevalent. He plays quarterback on his flag football team when he can. Cowart tries to help with his technique and they also spend time playing video games, which is right where Cowart feels at him when not on the football field.
“There really two things he does,” Callahan said of his big rush end. “He’s playing football or he’s on that X-box.”
Kids will be kids.
Chris Hays is the Sentinel's recruiting coverage coordinator and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter at @Os_Recruiting and Facebook at Orlando Sentinel Recruiting, and on Instagram at os_recruiting.