IOWA CITY — It was a Dairy Queen on the way from Cincinnati to Akron. The long trip to the college football camp required sustenance.
Chris Sorrentino remembered turning around and seeing B.J. Lowery juggle four somethings that sat on the counter. He didn’t remember what they were. Lowery picked them up and juggled. Nothing to it. No big deal.
“I turned around and asked, ‘Is there anything you don’t know how to do?’” said Sorrentino, a teacher and assistant athletics director at Cincinnati’s Hughes High School. “He just said, ‘What, I just know how to juggle.’ I asked, ‘How do you know how to juggle?’
“That’s kind of how everything he did went.”
Sorrentino took a personal day from Hughes to drive Lowery north to the Akron football camp. He took another personal day to accompany a nervous Lowery on a recruiting visit to Iowa City in 2010. “It was the first time he had ever been on an airplane,” Sorrentino said.
Before Lowery’s first camp his freshman year with the Iowa Hawkeyes, Sorrentino drove him from Cincinnati to Iowa City. Everyday after practice at Hughes, Sorrentino would drive Lowery home to North College Hill, on the west side of Cincinnati, and then turn around and drive to his own home on the east side, going around an hour out of his way.
Lowery, a senior cornerback for the Hawkeyes, never asked. Sorrentino wanted to do it.
“It’s his attitude, it’s his humility,” said Sorrentino, who’s been assistant athletics director at Hughes for seven years. “He never complained about anything. He always worked hard. He was always willing to help out. As an athletics director, I work events. We’d be at a volleyball game and I would need someone to do something, go get hot dogs, something like that, without hesitation, it didn’t matter what it was, he did it.
“I’ve never heard the kid complain in the seven, eight years I’ve known him.”
Hughes High School is in the heart of downtown Cincinnati. The school lists 77.2 percent of its students as “economically disadvantaged” and doesn’t offer busing, so 100 percent of the student population depends on city buses (so, with sports on an evening schedule at times, athletic directors often find themselves driving student-athletes home).
The ABC show “Boy Meets World” used Hughes for the show’s exterior shots. It’s a public high school in the downtown of a metropolitan city, so not everything is sit-com material.
“We have students and athletes who come from complete dysfunction,” Sorrentino said.
Sorrentino quickly added that wasn’t the case for Lowery. He lived with his grandparents and seven sisters. His dad, Fernando Wright, watched nearly every athletics event Lowery participated in at Hughes. (Lowery’s real name is Fernando. No one calls him that. His dad’s nickname is “Boots” and so B.J. is “Boots Junior.”)
“His father is a wonderful person and was our biggest sports fan for four years straight,” Sorrentino said. “He was a big part of our community and was always there for B.J.”
Lowery, third oldest in his family of seven sisters and zero brothers, is a man of few words. On the topic of Cincinnati — a place he loves — “It’s a good place to be. Everybody has their struggles, that’s really all I can say.”
From the minute she met Lowery as a freshman, Hughes athletics director Jolinda Miller, a former University of Cincinnati basketball standout, was struck by his manners, personality and drive.
“He was just this scrawny kid,” Miller said. “He just had this smile about him. His smile would light up a room. He was so respectful. That’s what drew me to him. He was always, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ ‘No, ma’am.’ He was just a good kid to be around. He never bragged, never boisterous. He was just a great kid.
“I’ve always said, I have a daughter and I wish she was old enough to marry him. I would make that happen, for sure.”
Miller and Sorrentino were emotional recalling the B.J. Lowery days at Hughes. They had a front-row seat for an athlete who, as a junior, helped the Big Red defeat Western Hills. Hughes is a Division III school in the Cincinnati Metro Athletic Conference. It was late in the year and Hughes had endured huge attrition (quitting and eligibility issues), but beat Hills, a Division I school, with 15 players.
They saw Lowery become a pretty good baseball player, good enough to consider it in college. He played point guard on the basketball team. He ran track his senior year and became the first athlete to be first-team all-league in four sports.
“How he did it was legendary,” Miller said. “They had to win the 4x4oo on the last race of the night. It was pouring down rain and he came off the turn trailing this Withrow [University High School] kid, and Withrow is a state powerhouse. He’s 20 yards behind the kid off the turn.
“I was right there at the turn and I remember yelling at him, ‘Do you want to be a legend? Do you want to be a legend?’ I was just screaming and the next thing I know he’s 20 yards ahead of the Withrow kid. It was just incredible.
“There are a million B.J. stories we can tell and I’m sure the kids at Hughes get sick of hearing them, but I can’t impress upon them enough that you can be successful and be a nice kid and be respectful and get good grades and do things the right way.
“That’s why we always reference B.J. whenever we can.”
How Lowery ended up at Iowa, which has had exactly one player from Cincinnati in Kirk Ferentz’s 15 seasons, also is rooted in the community. Iowa defensive backs coach Phil Parker knew former Withrow coach Doc Gamble. Hughes and Withrow are in Metro Athletic Conference.
“This was a big deal,” Sorrentino said. “We don’t have many, or really any, Division I coaches in our halls.”
Lowery, who has three interceptions this season including the two he returned for TDs last week, made the leap to starting cornerback for the Hawkeyes last season. This spring, he beamed in on his job. Ferentz said he was one of Iowa’s most improved players.
Sometime after his strong spring on the field, Lowery found time to get back home. It worked out that he made it for Hughes’ spring awards ceremony and cookout. All the springs sports were represented, from junior high baseball to softball to track. Miller and Sorrentino worked the grill.
As you can imagine, it was overwhelming.
“I was like, ‘Hey, will you help us?’” Miller asked Lowery. “‘Sure, what can I do?’ ‘Umm, can you help me serve the baked beans?’ The next thing I know, the kid is putting on gloves and serving the younger kids. There was nothing glamorous about that. He didn’t bat an eye. It was, ‘What do you want me to do?’ That’s just always how he’s been, ‘What do you want me to do?’”
It’s all worked. Lowery is the first FBS football player to come out of Hughes. A fact he carries close to his heart.
“Whatever I do out here, I always think about back home,” Lowery said. “I always get in touch with my athletic directors back there. Whatever’s new with them, they tell me and I tell them. We still have a good communication going on right now.”
If you listen closely, you hear Lowery’s voice grab with emotion. For a second, he’s the scrawny freshman who needs a ride home and knows he has one.
Lowery from 2012 pre-NIU. He talks about back home.
Lowery talks about growing up with seven sisters.