Watch Gonzaga Prep senior Sam Dowd walk on a basketball court, football field or in a classroom and it’s obvious he’s a leader.
His infectious smile and glowing personality attract people to him.
What isn’t as obvious, though, is the survive-by-any-means life he left behind three years ago.
Prior to moving to Spokane, Dowd essentially was homeless for two years, having been kicked out by troubled parents. He bounced around from home to home in the Seattle/Tacoma area wherever friends would give him a place to sleep. He also slept many nights outside.
Through the forgettable two years, he played AAU basketball for a Seattle team. One of his teammates was Reed Hopkins, now a teammate at Prep.
Dowd was at a tournament in Yakima the summer before his sophomore year and roomed with Hopkins. Dowd got a call from a friend he was living with who said his mom put his things outside because a sister and her baby were moving in and would use the room Dowd had been using.
He knew what was ahead of him if he returned home – back on the streets and begging for a place to stay. He was overcome with emotion, and Hopkins asked what was troubling him.
Dowd shared what he was facing. Hopkins talked to his parents about Dowd moving in with them. They agreed and two days before school was to begin Dowd arrived in Spokane.
He gained athletic eligibility through a hardship waiver. He made varsity in football and basketball, and it was apparent he had a bright athletic future.
By the end of his sophomore year, Dowd had to find another place to live. He was thankful for the Hopkins’ graciousness.
The fear of the unknown again began to overwhelm him. He asked a friend on the football team, Matt Miller, who was heading to Central Washington, if he could talk to his parents.
Ron and Jill Miller met with the Hopkinses to learn more about Dowd.
“We sat down and really evaluated it,” Ron Miller said. “We knew that if we took him in we’d treat him exactly as a son.”
The Millers welcomed Dowd, and they immediately went through the process of becoming his legal guardians. He’s in his second year living with the Millers.
“He’s a superb kid,” Miller said. “It was a difficult decision but we haven’t had any problems. The way we look at is we were lucky to get him.”
Miller said it was obvious initially that Dowd was fearful he’d end up back on the streets.
“All he’s known all his life is rejection,” Miller said. “It’s been a great experience. He’s grown by leaps and bounds. We incorporated him fully into our family. He’s our own child. That’s the way we’ve treated it.”
The Millers helped Dowd get his driver’s license and bought him a pickup truck.
While moving to Spokane opened more doors than Dowd could ever imagine, it was a difficult transition.
“G-Prep is rigorous academically, especially for an African American coming from the public school system and living in poverty,” Dowd said. “It was tough at first. I had to find my place.”
Even through all the hopping around his eighth- and ninth-grade years, Dowd never failed a class in school. And his grades have improved dramatically at Prep.
The simple things in life that many of Dowd’s peers take for granted didn’t come easily.
“There were times before I came here that I didn’t know where my next meal would come from,” Dowd said.
He’s overcome physical limitations, too. Dowd is 5-foot-5, and he admits he stretched the truth when he asked to be listed at 5-7 on the roster.
He was a two-year starter in football at cornerback and saw considerable action at running back this past season. He’s also been a two-year starter at point guard in basketball – the sport he’ll play in college.
Dowd signed a letter of intent this fall to play at Carroll College in Helena, Mont.
“I don’t know where I’d be without the Hopkins and Millers,” Dowd said. “I had to handle adult stuff before. They gave me a chance to be a student and a kid.”
His gratefulness extends to his coaches, too – Matty McIntyre and Dave McKenna.
“I have so much respect for them,” Dowd said. “They stepped out of their comfort zones to help a kid.”
McIntyre beams like a proud parent when he talks about Dowd.
“He’s always had an outgoing, positive personality and he engages anyone at any time,” McIntyre said. “The biggest change the last three years is his emotional stability. He’s taken advantage of every opportunity given to him. That’s what I’m most proud of Sam. Some get opportunities and waste them. Not Sam.”
“Sam’s a success story,” McKenna said. “He’s so mature for what he’s gone through. He’s tough, tenacious and part of that is because of his past. He’s had to fight for everything he’s earned. He’s never asked for any special treatment.
“Sam will always have a special place in my heart. My own children see him as a brother.”
Dowd’s mom now lives in Las Vegas. He doesn’t know where his dad is living. It saddens him that they won’t be at his graduation this spring.
Every day he thinks about where he’s come from and how far he’s come.
“I want to ask my parents someday the whys,” Dowd said. “In my heart there’s a place and time I can forgive them.”
He plans to study either sports medicine or pre dental at Carroll.
“I have a great debt to pay back,” he said. “A lot of people have spent a lot of time and energy on me.”
He hopes, in part, to do that by paying it forward with a life well lived – one that started anew three years ago.
“I want to be a husband, I want to have a family and I want to work for a program that will help kids get to a prep school like I did,” Dowd said. “My faith is important to me. That’s what kept me going at times. I don’t think I’d be alive today without everything that’s been done for me.”