By Nate Thompson
“I started (playing football) in seventh grade,” said Dowdell, Whitehall’s standout senior running back. “I was getting bad grades at the time and I was pretty much a bad kid. I got in trouble quite a bit.
“So I think it was my parents who finally just said ‘Why don’t you try football?’ So I started playing, and then I tried wrestling. and everything just clicked. I loved it.”
For Dowdell, academics and athletics turned out to be a perfect partnership. He found the motivation he needed to become a more focused student and earn better grades so he could continue to play sports.
Now, as a senior, he sports a 2.8 grade point average and has bright plans for the future – attending Muskegon Community College for two years, then transferring to Central Michigan University.
Things have worked out pretty well athletically, too. Dowdell is a key reason why the Vikings are currently 4-0 and strong contenders to reach the Division 4 playoffs for the third straight season.
He’s been the workhorse running back for Whitehall, and with his eye-popping stats through four games, he should easily reach the goal of 1,200 rushing yards that he set for himself in the preseason.
Currently, he’s more than halfway there, with 670 yards and eight touchdowns. That’s pretty good for a kid who saw limited playing time last season, just because the Vikings had a crowded offensive backfield full of talented runners.
Dowdell is the latest in a recent string of great featured backs at Whitehall, going back to Trip Thommen in 2014 and Jwan Britton last season.
“We had a senior rush for 1,000 yards last year in Jwan Britton, who was a really good football player,” said Whitehall coach Tony Sigmon. “And we had a lot of other pretty good kids at the skill positions touching the ball, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities to go around.
“But I think if JoJo would have been the guy last year, he would have turned in back-to-back great years. He averaged 6-7 yards a carry last year, and it’s hard to believe, but he’s topped that so far this season.”
Sigmon said Dowdell has many of the necessary tools that great running backs possess – solid speed, tremendous vision, and great balance.
“The balance comes from his ability in wrestling,” Sigmon said. “He may only be about 170 pounds, but I haven’t seen just one person tackle him. He’s a gifted athlete. He can front squat over 300 pounds.”
Dowdell quickly points to his offensive line for his gaudy rushing totals.
That group includes left tackle Derek McCollum at left tackle, Jody Jansen at left guard, Jared McCollum at center, Alex Bell at right guard, and Brandon Rake at right tackle.
“I give all the credit to the offensive line,” he said. “The holes are so big, you could drive a semi through them.”
While he’s making a name for himself on the gridiron this fall, Dowdell has already established himself as a force for the powerful Whitehall wrestling program.
He finished seventh in the state at the Division 3 individual finals at The Palace of Auburn HIlls in March, and earned All-American honors at the AAU Scholastic Duals, known as the “Disney Duals,’ held in June at the ESPN World Wide of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla.
Dowdell said there are certain skills developed in wrestling and football that helps him excel in both.
“The wrestling part helps me in football mentally more than anything,” he said. “I get that mindset carrying the ball that I’m not going to let this one person tackle me. And football helps me in wrestling from a toughness standpoint. When you’re tired and hurting, you will yourself to fight through it and go for one more takedown.”
As for Friday’s showdown against neighboring Montague, which also comes into the game undefeated, Dowdell said focusing on being as perfect as possible will be critical for his team.
Painful memories of last year’s 29-28 setback to the Wildcats were rekindled this week, Dowdell said, and it’s a stinging feeling the Vikings do not want to experience again.
“We learned from last year that all it takes is one play,” he said. “They got that two-point conversion early in the game and that turned out to be the difference. We need to focus on all of the little things and take care of business.”