Lacrosse won him fame, but it was football that earned Joe Cowan a shot at the pros — and with his hometown team, no less. A three-time first-team All-American lacrosse attackman at Johns Hopkins, Cowan made headlines in 1969 when selected by the Colts. A wide receiver, he remains the only Blue Jay ever drafted by an NFL team.
Never mind that he was chosen in the 17th and final round, the next-to-last player picked. For Cowan, who'd grown up attending Colts games, it was a dream come true.
"As a kid, I'd walk the two miles from my home in Northwood to Memorial Stadium," said Cowan, 69. "At the 1959 championship (a 31-16 Colts victory over the New York Giants), I sat on the 20-yard line and had a great visual of Johnny Unitas scooting up the right sideline in the fourth quarter for [the go-ahead] touchdown."
Ten years later, on the first day of Colts training camp in Westminster, Cowan found himself playing catch with Unitas.
"He threw a spiral, I caught the ball and then asked myself, 'Am I really here?'" Cowan said.
After practice that day, Cowan trudged off the field, a few steps behind No. 19.
"It was hot, maybe 95 degrees, and all you wanted was to take a shower," he said. "On the way, another player stopped me and said, 'Watch this.' There was Unitas, surrounded by 100 people — and he stood and signed every single autograph."
Cowan treasures those memories no less than those from his playing days in lacrosse, where he starred at Friends before lifting Hopkins to three national championships (1967-69).
"My favorite sport was whatever season we were in," he said. "At Hopkins I loved both sports but lacrosse was big-time — we played at the highest level."
Then, the football team was peppered with lacrosse players, who helped the Blue Jays to a 13-3 mark and back-to-back Middle Atlantic Conference titles during Cowan's two seasons. In his first game, he returned the opening kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown against Franklin & Marshall; in a victory over Haverford, he scored 29 points (four touchdowns and five extra points).
Against Ursinus, Cowan caught two 64-yard scoring passes and kicked three extra points in a 35-20 win. All told, he set 16 all-time records at Hopkins — running, receiving and punting — and made Little All-American.
The Colts, then NFL champions, took note and picked the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Cowan.
"The 17th round? I didn't care," he said. "I just wanted to show them I could walk out there and play."
He signed for a $500 bonus, which he negotiated with Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom's son, Steve, who'd been a classmate of Cowan's at Friends.
His tryout was brief. Cowan was an early cut, having injured his back in a college all-star lacrosse game two weeks before the start of camp.
"Joe's a great athlete and a tough little guy," coach Don Shula said at the time. "But it's awfully hard to go from playing Swarthmore one year to the Chicago Bears the next."
The Colts offered him a spot on the practice squad but Cowan declined, opting instead to run the family-owned trucking business that his late father had started.
"I'd always dreamed of running the company and making it special," he said. Still chairman and CEO of the firm, he lives in Brooklandville with his wife of 46 years. Cowan has two daughters and five grandsons, all of whom can cradle a ball and throw a pass.
He now plays golf, sometimes at Caves Valley with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. Who wins?
"We all work very hard at it," Cowan said diplomatically.
On Saturday, he'll attend Hopkins' football playoff game against Wesley at Homewood Field.
"Their seniors are leaving with a regular-season record of 41-1. Can you believe that?" Cowan said. "It's astonishing that a school its size could maintain a program of continued excellence."
Astonishing, perhaps, like a 5-10 Blue Jay getting a brief opportunity in the NFL.
"One of the biggest disappointments of my life was that I wasn't 100 percent healthy while there, but it is what it is," he said. "The bottom line is, I never dreamed I would accomplish what I have in life."