KNOXVILLE — Matt Underwood always will remember his first team meeting after he took the job as Jackson Christian School's football coach.
He may not remember what the weather was that day two years ago, how nervous he felt before the meeting or the exact words he might have said. Instead, Underwood likely won't forget an unexpected display of respect from then-sophomore star Drae Bowles.
"The first day that I was able to speak with the team, he came up to me afterward and he was actually the first one that came to me," said Underwood, who coached Georgia receiver Marlon Brown at Harding Academy in Memphis prior to his move east up Interstate 40. "He gave me a big hug and told me he loved me, which is really unusual for a kid to say that, especially at the time never having been around somebody like that. Some people might say that was fake, but after getting to know Drae, I think that was honest and he felt that way just because I was now part of his family here.
"He's always been that way since me and the rest of the coaching staff has gotten here. He's that way with all of us. I definitely remember that, and I always will [because] that was a special memory for me."
Ask just about anyone about Bowles, and you'll probably get a similar story. Underwood knew about Bowles' football abilities from scouting him while at Harding, but he's learned more about the 6-foot-1, 198-pound receiver's personality since taking the job with the Eagles after the 2009 season. Personable, kind and mature, Underwood said.
Bowles' recruitment provides the proof. Though he officially signed and faxed his letter of intent into UT's football offices on Wednesday morning, he'd say his recruitment ended when he committed verbally in July. Bowles never wavered and never even visited another campus.
"I'm the type of guy that just makes my decision and get it out of the way and remain quiet," he said. "I really don't like to get caught up in all of that media stuff."
That didn't mean, though, that Bowles ignored the inundation of calls to his phone for interview requests. A "yes-sir, no-sir" type, Bowles was easy to reach, easier to talk to and honest in conversations. Even when receivers coach Charlie Baggett became the first of six UT assistants to leave the program, Bowles stood steadfast.
"I can see why you would ask that with the way things are going today with a lot of kids committing early and changing their commitments or committing and still looking around," Underwood said. "I think that speaks to Drae's character. A lot of people started asking about that when Tennessee had some coaches move on and when they acquired some new coaches. [When] we talked about it, he said he definitely was Tennessee all the way and he felt really comfortable there."
Bowles admitted he has no problem with how other recruits may handle their respective recruitments.
"I personally I think it's kind of a personal thing, whatever that person or that guy decides to choose," he said. "Me specifically, I don't like to deal with all that stuff. It's all up to the person who's making the decision."
That kind of maturity certainly helped Bowles' relationship with Vols coach Derek Dooley, which was the biggest factor in this particular recruitment. Underwood said the two personable sides clicked.
"Drae is, in a lot of ways, he's probably more mature than maybe some other kids that are recruited," Underwood said. "You can talk to him seriously, and I'm sure that helped. I know Coach Dooley was very honest with him and his family from the get-go [and] talked to him straight. I know Drae's father said he admired how Coach Dooley was very real with him and very honest about things.
"I know Drae respects that. I think those are probably the biggest reasons they get along so well."
Bowles carries the billing of a big-time recruit. ESPN, Rivals and 247sports rate him as a four-star prospect. He played in the prestigious U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio in early January.
"It was great, just being able to play with some of the best athletes in the nation," Bowles said. "Competing with those guys was great, and just being able to get a taste of how college is going to be. It was definitely a great overall experience."
Bowles hopes to carry that kind of experience with him to Knoxville, where he'll arrive in June, start his football career and begin his pursuit of a degree in education or communication. With a lack of depth at the receiver before the offseason transfers of DeAnthony Arnett and Matt Milton, the Vols made the wideout position a focal point for the class. UT signed four on Wednesday.
"We're still young, and we're going to do great things in the future," Bowles said. "I'm really excited to play for Coach Dooley, and I'm looking forward to it. I'm ready to rock and roll."
In reality, though, those are probably the same feelings he felt in July.
"I know when he first decided to commit, for him that was the end of it, and I think that speaks to his character and the type of the player they're going to be getting," Underwood said. "They're going to get somebody that's going to stick to his word [and] that's going to be high-character in all situations, even maybe when it's not the most popular decision. I'm really proud of him for the way he's handled himself."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...