OGDEN — After a year in which he signed six employment contracts, James Cowser found himself out of a job a few months ago.
The former Davis High and Southern Utah University star football player thought he was about to enter his fourth season with the Oakland Raiders, playing the whole 2019 offseason and preseason with the club before being released.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker and defensive end has been in this spot before. He trains every day so he’s ready to jump back onto an NFL field at any time. He says he’s fielding positive feedback from teams — as well as discussing options in the CFL and XFL — as he looks for his next playing opportunity.
“I’ve been picking up jobs, testing different things out,” he said.
Having served a mission to Hong Kong for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he recently used his fluent Mandarin Chinese for a company who hired him to translate for a product manager flown from China to visit Utah. He previously has traveled to China as a representative of the NFL.
He also entered the broadcasting booth for the first time. He joined local announcer Jon Oglesby to do color commentary for Eleven Sports’ broadcast of Weber State’s football game against Idaho State last weekend in Ogden.
Cowser said he was on the sidelines for the SUU-Weber game in October and ran into Oglesby. The two knew each other from the latter’s previous days as the Big Sky Conference’s communications director. Oglesby is now an assistant director for the Utah High School Athletics Association and maintains his freelance play-by-play work. He announced nearly every game of the Big Sky basketball tournaments last spring in Boise, Idaho.
That run-in led to an informal meeting with the Big Sky, who recommended Cowser to Eleven Sports as a color commentator for their game Nov. 23 in Ogden.
“That was my first time ever doing it and I loved it. So fun,” Cowser said.
CIRCLING BACK TO WEBER
Cowser’s call of the Weber State game brought him back to Stewart Stadium where he thought he’d play college football for the Wildcats. He graduated from Davis High in 2009 and grew up as the only athlete in his family, often attending basketball and football camps in the southern part of the state. His family also traveled to Cedar often for the Shakespeare Festival.
“I enjoy a play or two but that’s about as much as I can handle for a summer,” he said. “So all I knew of southern Utah is that I didn’t like it. It represented awful camps and Shakespeare to me.”
In football, his lone FBS offer was to the Air Force Academy. He visited the campus, loved how the team played football and was high on head coach Troy Calhoun. But after spending a full day with a cadet, he couldn’t put his whole heart into it.
“‘I respect what you’re doing, man, but it’s not for me,’” he explained. “I was really close to going to Air Force but I just didn’t think I’d be able to enjoy life outside of football to the fullest.”
So then it was Weber State. He told coach Ron McBride he was going to WSU but first wanted to take an official visit to Southern Utah, the third and final team to give him an offer, “just to see.”
Once there, he met with coach Ed Lamb, loved how the team worked and felt he could get behind it. After prayer and lots of discussions, he chose SUU.
“My head was telling me don’t go but my heart was like ‘you absolutely have to go.’ It turned out to be the best thing for me,” Cowser said.
What he got at SUU: lots of team success, professional exposure by playing on a defense with up to five players who at one point played in the NFL — Miles Killebrew and LeShaun Sims still do — and missing out on the drama and strings of losses in Weber’s John L. Smith and Jody Sears era.
“I think about that all the time. It was absolutely the right fit for me,” Cowser said. “I missed all the Weber craziness. I’m happy for Weber ... they have a lot of success, (Jay) Hill is dope. But that was post-me. I was at Southern Utah when we did some awesome things and it set me up.”
BECOMING A PRO
Cowser was part of an accomplished defense at Southern Utah, a career that included setting a new Big Sky record for tackles-for-loss in a season by recording 28.5 in 2014. He immediately left SUU upon graduating in 2016 to train in Louisiana, played in the East-West Shrine Game and participated in the NFL Combine. He went undrafted, which meant throwing himself into the whirlwind of being a post-draft free agent signing.
“You’ve got to sign within five minutes of the draft ending. Pick your team and go,” he said. “From then on it’s just like, ‘I’ve gotta earn something.’ Especially as an undrafted kid, just fight for everything. That’s kind of been my career, just fighting to prove myself.”
He signed with the Raiders and moved his way up the depth chart as a rookie until a concussion in the final preseason game led to his release. But Oakland brought him back five weeks later for the practice squad, then he was activated to the main roster for the final six weeks of the season.
He was a full-fledged Raider in 2017, playing in all 16 games and recording 23 tackles and a forced fumble. But he was thrown another curve ball when Oakland fired Jack Del Rio as head coach and hired Jon Gruden, which led to changing their defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
He began switching from linebacker to defensive end and back again in 2018. He was released after the preseason, brought back in Week 8, activated the following week, cut the week after that, then signed two weeks later for the practice squad.
Cowser felt he played well in the 2019 preseason but still got cut.
“Now I’m here,” he said.
He lives in Davis County and trains daily, though sometimes he treks to Cedar City to work out with the team at SUU.
The opportunity to pick up a mic and call a football game was not one Cowser expected to come his way, but he quickly fell in love with it. He visited Weber State’s practice ahead of the game and dove into game film to prepare.
“I watched like six games for the teams, probably more than I needed to,” he laughed. “It was fun watching film again, studying someone and learning tendencies like I’ve been doing the past 10 or so years ... I enjoy that stuff.”
Oglesby said Cowser had a few rough spots, to be expected for a first-time announcer, but otherwise said Cowser was fantastic and could definitely have a future in football broadcasting.
“It’s like, watching football and having an opinion? Those are two things I like doing,” Cowser said. “It was exciting. Football had pressure again. And that’s how I watch football anyway, so I feel like color commentary is good. I’m rarely watching the ball. I’m watching what everyone’s doing and looking for kooky stuff. So it fit naturally with how I watch the game.”
He hopes his playing days aren’t quite over, but ...
“I definitely want to pursue (broadcasting) but I also know I have to work at the craft, too.”
Cowser seemed at ease with the uncertainty of his current situation — young, unemployed, and with college degrees in both psychology and in communication. He knows he’s traveled a fun road so far.
“It’s crazy. I never would have imagined any of it. What I’ve done and what I’m interested in are not what I would’ve thought if you asked senior-year, high-school me. I had no idea I was going to learn Mandarin,” he said. “If you would’ve asked me if I was going to the NFL, I’d say ‘that’d be cool, but no way. I just play this game because I love it, I think I’m pretty good at it, but I’m not that good.’
“So it’s just been a culmination of a lot of hard work that’s carried me to places I didn’t think I’d get to. Which gives me hope for the future, just believing in my work ethic and believe if I can decide what I want to do and put my heart and soul into it, that I’ll be successful no matter what it is. I’ve done some cool things and hope to do some more.”