Former CFL linebacker Orlando Bowen went from the excitement of signing a contract extension to the brutality of being beaten by multiple police offers.
The Brampton native was meeting up with teammates on March 26, 2004 to celebrate putting pen to paper on a new deal with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The plan was to connect in Mississauga and head downtown Toronto for a fun night out. It all changed, for no reason, in moments.
“I step outside my vehicle, I was excited, I see two guys walk towards me and they ask if I have drugs. I looked at them and I said, ‘no’,” Bowen told CHCH’s Tim Bolen on Morning Live.
“They were both armed with guns, grabbed me, started to wrestle me down to the ground, started beating me and beating me until the skin on my head split. I thought I was going to die that night. All I could think was, ‘Oh my God, not like this, God I’ve got so much in me to give.'”
Disbelief made its way through Bowen’s mind. He couldn’t believe that not only his pro football career, but most importantly, his life would end unexpectedly and abruptly based on racial profiling. Two undercover Peel regional police officers nearly killed Bowen because of assumptions made due to the colour of his skin.
“When they realized that I was active in the community, I was actually a spokesperson for the police service and did a lot with them, a huge cover up began where I was taken to jail,” Bowen said.
“I wasn’t allowed to speak to anyone and then they went back to the scene and planted drugs by my car and then charged me with assault against a police officer, two counts of that and one count of possession of a controlled substance.”
Bowen was a sixth round draft pick in the 1999 CFL draft and played four CFL seasons with the Argonauts and Ticats. Because of the concussion inflicted upon him, Bowen’s football career came to an abrupt end as the focus turned to the trial. While one of the policemen, Sheldon Cook, was charged.
“It took us on this whole crazy journey of court and the social stigma that comes with that, the loss of my job as a Ticat — it just really challenged us to our core. While we were going through that tumultuous time, one of the officers was arrested and charged with trafficking cocaine,” Bowen said.
“I was acquitted of my charges. The officer that was charged was convicted and sentenced to go to prison and people wanted to celebrate his conviction, I said no because the man going to prison is a father just like I am.”
In 2006, Bowen filed a lawsuit against the Peel police department and settled out of court. He actually forgave the officers in March 2014. Bowen started a youth leadership organization, One Voice One Team, amidst the ordeal. His mission is to motivate youth to see beyond their circumstances, believe they have more to offer their community and take action.
The worst memories came rushing back for Bowen while watching the video of George Floyd being senselessly murdered in Minneapolis. White police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes while he was handcuffed and restrained on the ground. The 46-year-old black man told Chauvin repeatedly: “I can’t breathe.” However, the pleas were ignored by Chauvin and resulted in Floyd losing his life.
“I can’t even describe the pain as we watch the video and we’re just hoping and crying out: PLEASE. Crying out for humanity, for the officers to see him as a human being,” Bowen said.
“There was a suppression of humanity in that moment and it brought us back to our journey. Not just the assault but the things that happened after. It was a really challenging thing for us to witness.”
Bowen’s father-in-law happens to be Chuck Ealey, a legend in Hamilton for quarterbacking the Ticats to a Grey Cup victory in 1972. Ealey won the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie Award and followed it up by being named Grey Cup MVP for his performance in the 60th edition of the CFL championship game.
“He came from the States to Canada because Hamilton gave him an opportunity to play quarterback. As a black man in the U.S. that wasn’t a thing back then, it wasn’t acceptable in the NFL,” Bowen said.
“Something that pained me was that his wife Sherri just the other day said, ‘We left the U.S. 40 years ago and came to Canada, and it feels as though nothing has changed.'”