POCATELLO, Idaho — Sam Dowd has what coaches call pop, a burst that allows him to jump a little higher, move a little quicker than the players around him.
He wouldn’t have become a 5-foot-7, 167-pound Division I basketball player without it.
In life, Dowd has a buoyancy to him, rising above hardships no kid should ever endure, yet still able to be the most gregarious, genuine person in the room.
He might not be alive without it, much less playing basketball at Idaho State, a year from becoming a college graduate.
“He is one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” Idaho State coach Bill Evans said. “It’s amazing that he still is so positive after everything he’s been through.”
Abandonment, homelessness, hunger. Dowd knew all of it before he turned 16.
His fate appeared to be set.
The generosity and encouragement of coaches and friends, compassion from two families, an indomitable will and the bounce of a ball changed Dowd’s course, turning an improbable dream into reality.
Dowd’s nadir hit freshman year in high school.
Relaxing in a Yakima, Washington, hotel room between AAU tournament games, his phone rang.
“Your stuff is outside,” the voice on the other end said. “Come get it before someone takes it.”
Dowd crashed on coaches’ couches, stayed with friends’ families, slept outside the school when there was nowhere else to go — whatever it took to survive.
The call, from a friend whose parents had taken him in for a spell, sent the pent up emotion bursting from him like a pinpricked water balloon.
“I just felt this weight bearing down on me. I started breaking down crying,” Dowd said. “I didn’t know what to do at that point. I was scared. When you’re going through that stuff, there were thoughts of why am I here. There were many times when I didn’t want to be here, in this life. It was definitely scary and dark.”
Drugs tainted Dowd’s early life.
He wasn’t using. His parents were, and the lure of the next high often took precedent over Sam and his three siblings.
Chaos was all the kids ever knew.
Kicked out of one house, unable to pay the rent at another, the family stayed in constant motion.
The cycle sent Dowd circling the Seattle-Tacoma area, one school to the next, multi-stop bus rides just to attend basketball practice.
His classmates wore Air Jordans, the latest gear. Parents attended every game, offered praise after.
Dowd wore Dickies and Goodwill gear. No family cheered him at games. He left alone.
Money for food mostly fed the habit, the front door a gateway to wickedness.
“There were nights I was scared to come home because I didn’t know what to expect from my dad, if there would be abuse,” Dowd said.
Dowd’s parents kicked him out multiple times, usually letting him back in when the high-fueled anger wore off.
One day, locks changed, knocks and calls went unanswered, his phone, cut off.
“That’s when I became an adult,” Dowd said.
He was 13.
Back from Yakima, Dowd went to pick up his belongings with Jerry Petty, one of numerous coaches who helped him negotiate the dark times.
Dowd knocked on the front door, hoping to at least say how much he appreciated the hospitality.
No answer. They, like so many other families, had grown weary of housing the kid who was always on the streets.
Dowd grabbed his belongings — stuffed into a duffel bag, backpack and a garbage bag — and loaded it into Petty’s car. As the hatch closed, the coach told him: “You’re going to get through this.”
Homeless again, Dowd reached out to anyone he could find.
Reed Hopkins, an AAU teammate, said his family was thinking about hosting a foreign-exchange student.
Dowd’s eyes lit up.
“Hey, I’m a foreign exchange student!” he said with his usual flair.
Hopkins’ parents were skeptical, yet two days before school started, Dowd was on a plane to Spokane, a new family and school waiting.
“It was like a dream,” Dowd said.
Dowd thrived at Gonzaga Preparatory School, enjoying the comradery of new friends, playing basketball and football. When the moms brought sandwiches for the team, he hugged and thanked them.
The little guy with the big heart stood out.
“His smile lit up a room,” said Jill Miller, mother of Dowd’s football teammate, Matthew.
Basketball was the only constant through the tumult and uncertainty.
The game allowed him to be free, take his mind off the turmoil at home or, later, where his next meal or pillow would be. Teammates and coaches supplanted the family he never really had.
“Basketball was more than just a sport,” Dowd said. “It was a lifeline.”
The network of people Dowd met through basketball became his salvation.
Coaches drove him to practices, offered their couches for days at a time.
Teammates pooled money so he could eat when they when out. Parents offered their homes until he could find the next place to sleep.
“I was truly blessed to have them in my life,” Dowd said.
Their generosity allowed Dowd to survive. But he still had a hole.
Dowd wanted a home. He wanted a family.
Ron and Jill Miller knew Dowd as the charismatic kid from the Gonzaga Prep football team.
One day, Matthew came home with some news.
“He said mom and dad, Sam doesn’t have anywhere to go, we’ve got to take him in,” Jill Miller said. “We went, what? God has a hand in things and we just had this feeling.”
Dowd enjoyed his time with Hopkins, but when family health issues arose, he stared homelessness in the face again. Seattle was out of the question — he wouldn’t even know where to go — so he started calling teammates.
The Millers not only took Dowd in, they became his legal guardians within months.
It was a complicated process because Dowd’s parents are still alive, but the Millers worked through it, finally giving Dowd a sense of permanence.
“I can call them mom and dad,” Dowd said. “That’s most important. That’s my family.”
Love and security allowed Dowd to thrive even more on the basketball court.
His first stop post-high school was Carroll College, a NAIA school in Helena, Montana.
One redshirt season later, he was back home with the Millers. He finally had a family and missed them too much.
The next stop was at North Idaho College, just over the state line in Coeur d’Alene. The Millers attended every game they could.
A superb second season with the Cardinals brought interest from Division I schools.
Only one offered him a full scholarship: Idaho State.
“I couldn’t stop smiling, my coaches couldn’t stop smiling,” he said. “I still smile because it’s like, not everybody from my situation gets this opportunity to play basketball, go to school and succeed in life.”
A junior, Dowd gives Idaho State a spark off the bench with his quickness and leadership. He’s on pace to graduate next year with a degree in communications. On Monday, he received the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s 2018 Most Courageous Award.
Dowd has reconnected with his parents, but still calls the Millers mom and dad.