TEMPE, Ariz. -- Tay Gowan knew the right decision last June was to opt out of his senior season at Central Florida, but that didn't make it any easier to come to terms with.
As he grappled with the choice in front of him, he thought about his infant daughter, Skyler. Gowan contracted COVID-19 as UCF tried for a second time to begin its offseason practice nearly a year ago and while at home he passed the deadly virus along to Skyler, who was born premature at 2 pounds, as well as to his girlfriend and his mother. After the Cardinals drafted Gowan, he revealed that his mother had to be hospitalized.
"My family has COVID now all because of me," he said, "all because I want to play football and pursue my dreams."
He put his family ahead of those dreams when he decided not to play last season, a move that cost him in the 2021 NFL draft, where the cornerback fell to the Arizona Cardinals in the sixth round.
But it was a decision he doesn't regret, as the guilt of spreading COVID-19 to his family was a heavy burden for Gowan and made returning to football difficult to imagine.
"I didn't have resources at that time, enough money to even make sure everybody's OK, so it was just a lot on me, just weighing down on me," Gowan said. "And, at the time, like nobody knew about COVID, there's no vaccine, so, it was just very hard on a kid from Georgia who all he knows is football and [wants to] protect his family."
The American Athletic Conference didn't announce its football plans until Aug. 5, 2020, but Gowan didn't wait that long before opting out.
"It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but at the end of the day I'm a family man and will always put my family first no matter what."
Randy Shannon, who was UCF's defensive coordinator in 2020, was good with Gowan's decision and made sure his player finished his classes. He could see Gowan was struggling with the decision and the mental trauma of a COVID-19 diagnosis.
"It was tough on him," Shannon said. "He was nervous about it because it was a situation where nobody knew anything about COVID the way we know it now. It was totally different back then.
"We weren't going to force anybody, we weren't going to tell anybody anything different, we was going to stand by their decision and help them through the process of it."
Gowan's position coach, Willie Martinez, explained to Gowan that UCF was going to try to create a bubble-like atmosphere, with daily testing. Still Martinez, a father himself, understood Gowan's desire to want to protect his family.
"I was going to support him no matter what," Martinez said.
So for the first time since he was 5 years old, Gowan wasn't playing football last fall. It got to the point where it was hard for him to even watch UCF games on TV.
He worked out three days a week during the season and then on Jan. 4, went to Fort Lauderdale to begin training for his pro day on April 1. He took a week off to recover and then moved to Boca Raton, about a half-hour north of Fort Lauderdale, to train with Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jr., and his dad.
A year before opting out, Gowan had two interceptions during a junior season at UCF that put him on the radar of NFL scouts. Gowan said he met with all 32 teams during the draft process and all 32 asked why he opted out.
"I think they just used it against me," he said.
In the week before the draft, ESPN's Todd McShay predicted Gowan would go No. 96 overall in his three-round mock draft with Mel Kiper Jr. Gowan, with good size (6-foot-1, 186 pounds) and respectable speed (4.47 40-yard dash at the UCF pro day) lasted until pick No. 223.
"It hurt my draft stock, but I think it was also a part of my journey and a part of my story when I get to tell it to other kids and relay my message and relay my journey," Gowan said. "It'll make kids feel more comfortable taking the type of route I went."
The Cardinals, Gowan said, believed in his decision to protect his daughter and family. Cardinals general manager Steve Keim also saw a second-day talent on the board late in the third day.
"That's why I think he was there where he was because guys like that can potentially slip through the cracks, and then they don't play this past year, you have to go back to the '19 tape," Keim said.
"When you look at the grades we had on him, we were really surprised. Especially as hard as it is to find perimeter corners, especially when you say, 'OK, now all of the sudden they're 6-1, they have the type of movement skills he does.' He's so good in press coverage, which, again, we play a lot of in [defensive coordinator] Vance Joseph's system. When you look at the big picture, you realize that he hasn't played a ton of football, yet still looks that good on tape, still looked that good in his workout. You'd like to think he's another guy with a high ceiling and another guy who can come in here, learn under some really good veterans, and the sky is the limit."
Gowan's first days on an NFL practice field are behind him after rookie minicamp last weekend. Now it's up to Gowan to prove he's worthy of making Arizona's 53-man roster.
His physical transition to the NFL should go smoothly, Shannon said. It's the mental part of the game Gowan needs to get back in the groove on.
"When you got a year off of learning stuff or doing something that you normally do, then that's going to be the part you have to get back in and retrain his mind and body to do," Shannon said. "That may be the toughest thing, retrain his mind."