CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Amid his year of tragedy, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers slimmed down, got serious about football and had a breakout season.
Bowers was honored for his dominance Monday night with the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation's top defensive player, an award he wishes he could share with his father and his mentor.
Playing with a heavy heart following the deaths this year of his father, Dennis, and close friend Gaines Adams of the Chicago Bears, Bowers burst onto the scene after two mediocre years. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound junior leads the nation with 15½ sacks and his 25 tackles for a loss rank second in the country.
Bowers, one of the nation's top recruits coming out of high school, had managed only four sacks in his first two college seasons.
"He's excelled in every area," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He's had to overcome some personal tragedy and has still been able to stay focused. He's become the inspirational leader of our team. To see him being honored is really heartwarming for me."
Swinney was the keynote speaker at Monday's banquet as Bowers edged out Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, Georgia linebacker Justin Houston and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson for the award presented by the Charlotte Touchdown Club.
"It's very big for me, personally," Bowers said. "It's very big for my program at Clemson University and it's very big for my family and community."
Bowers, of Bamberg, S.C., first met Adams when he attended a Clemson camp in the eighth grade. Adams would later set numerous Clemson records and was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy in 2006 before being a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the following spring.
Adams, who was later traded to Chicago, died in January of cardiac arrest. The autopsy report said he had an enlarged heart.
"He was an unbelievable friend," Bowers said. "He was there when I needed him and when everyone thought I wasn't the player I am today. He kept telling me to keep it up, keep going hard, gave me a lot of enthusiasm and love and kept me grounded."
Bowers had shed 15 pounds and was performing well in preseason camp in August when his father collapsed while performing in his gospel band. Bowers was later visiting him in the hospital when his father suffered a seizure and died. Bowers spent two weeks away before rejoining the team.
"I think that just fueled his drive that much more," Swinney said. "He's just grown up."
Bowers, wearing Adams' old No. 93, had a sack in nine straight games this season, breaking Adams' record by a game. He's surpassed Adams' record for sacks by a defensive lineman and needs one sack when Clemson (6-6) meets South Florida (7-5) in the Meineke Bowl on Dec. 31 to break Keith Adams' overall school sacks record.
"It's his size and the ability to move and bend and change direction and accelerate at 275 pounds," Swinney said. "Most people can't do that. ... He's just extremely gifted and blessed with athleticism. But this year he's put a tremendous work ethic and consistent drive with it."
Bowers had tough competition for the Nagurski award named after the former Minnesota college star and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Fairley has 10¼ sacks and 21 tackles for a loss, Kuechly leads the country with 171 tackles, Houston has 10 sacks and 18½ tackles for a loss and Peterson has four interceptions.
But Bowers' big season put him among an elite group of past winners that includes Warren Sapp, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey, Roy Williams, Glenn Dorsey, Brian Orakpo and Ndamukong Suh.
"It's incredible," Bowers said. "It's just an honor to be here in this situation."