Born in an Arkansas town with a population of less than 4,000 people in 1961 — Siloam Springs, a place as close to Arizona as it is to Johnson City — Fowler’s zig-zag journey bounced east, south, north and elsewhere.
But through it all, every step — including the painful ones because of a balky knee — had a purpose, he said.
“God had his hand in every single thing that happened,” said Fowler.
Firmly entrenched in Johnson City since 1993, Fowler is well known to the area as a sports medicine physician at Watauga Orthopaedics. He is the team physician for Science Hill High School, the Johnson City Cardinals, and other area teams. He is actively involved in the community, and is a deacon at First Christian Church.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Fowler’s dad was a military man, who moved from Alaska to Arkansas to attend John Brown University on the GI Bill. He got an engineering job, and changing addresses was part of package.
Moving was so common, it wasn’t a burden, Fowler said.
“I didn’t know any different,” said Fowler.
Fowler’s first move was from Siloam Springs to Fort Smith, when he was 2 years old. In the second grade, Fowler was whisked away to Oxford, Mississippi, where he lived down the street from the university. He still has a souvenir from that two-year stay.
“(Quarterback) Archie Manning was playing (for Ole Miss) with a broken arm, and he led the team to a last-minute win,” said Fowler. “He came off the field, and I asked him for his chin strap. He gave it to me, and I still have it.”
Next up was Greenville, Michigan. Two years later, the family was in Connersville, Indiana. That’s where Fowler sprouted his water wings.
“Everybody I lived around was on the swim team,” said Fowler. “So my brother and I started swimming, and I ended up being third in the Junior Olympics when I was 12 years old.”
A month later, Fowler moved to Conway, Arkansas. Swimming wasn’t a big thing there, and Fowler won seven gold medals in the outdoor state meet.
“Arkansas had terrible swimming, so all of those events I couldn’t qualify for in Indiana, I won the state in Arkansas,” Fowler said with a laugh.
TROUBLE WITH THE KNEE
Fowler first hurt his knee in the ninth grade, playing football. He saw an orthopedic surgeon in Little Rock, who gave him some troubling news.
“He said I should never play football again, or I might be crippled,” Fowler said.
It was 1975, and sports medicine wasn’t a thing. What seemed like a heartbreaking step backward was actually a harbinger of the future.
“I was really upset,” Fowler said. “I loved football.”
Fowler continued playing high school sports, eventually receiving 12 letters. He played basketball, golf, tennis and swam. And he didn’t give up on football, going back to Little Rock for a second opinion — where a different doctor said he was perfectly fine to return to football.
Fowler said his knee issues were part of the process in leading him into the field of medicine.
“The first doctor I saw said I would never play again, and that was a mistake,” he said. “The second guy took care of me. I wanted to learn about sports injuries, and try to get people back to playing instead of what was done to me.”
He finally got to play football again his senior year, and in game six, it happened again — another grade three MCL sprain of the same knee.
“I was on crutches for about a year of my life,” Fowler said.
Still not willing to give up on the football dream, and possessing college-level size and athleticism, Fowler decided to walk on to play football at the University of Arkansas, where Lou Holtz was the head coach. But another knee injury ended his hopes of playing college football.
GOLF DETOUR WITH A RING
Fowler had received a scholarship offer from Austin Peay State University to play collegiate golf, but turned it down. One of his high school teammates, Brad Germany, went to AP as a walk on.
With Arkansas football out of the equation, Fowler asked the Austin Peay golf coach if the scholarship was still available. It was, and Fowler transferred.
Fowler went to medical school in Texas while his buddy went to medical school in Memphis. Germany asked Fowler to be the best man at his wedding. That is where Fowler met his future wife, Sally. Thirty-two years later, they’re still going strong.
JOHNSON CITY VIA CALIFORNIA
Fowler did his residency at the University of Oklahoma. One of the high school football teams he covered was coached by Larry Mantle — brother of New York Yankees’ great Mickey Mantle.
A new primary care/sports medicine fellowship was being offered in different parts of the country, and Fowler was interested. When he sought an appointment for the fellowship, he interviewed at multiple places in California.
After the exhausting search, he found the right fit just a few miles down the road in Tulsa.
ANOTHER GOLF DETOUR
Fowler’s brother-in-law, John Tillman, invited him to play in the member-guest at Johnson City Country Club in 1993. While in town for the event, Fowler met Hal Sherrod, who started Watauga Orthpaedics in 1950.
“I found out he was the team doctor for ETSU,” Fowler said. “I talked to him and he liked Johnson City. Plus, my wife had relatives here.”
Fowler interviewed for jobs in Houston, Memphis, Knoxville, Louisville, Little Rock and Johnson City.
It was an easy choice to join the group at Watauga Orthpaedics, he said.
“Watauga is a Christian group, and that was a huge part of coming here,” Fowler said. “You don’t have to worry about getting stabbed in the back. Everybody takes care of everybody else. As a partner, I was required to sign a statement of faith. You can’t do that with employees, but we can because we are independent contractors.”
Fowler donates his time and expertise every week to help Science Hill athletes. He sees anywhere from five to 15 student-athletes every Tuesday morning, and estimates he has saved them around $1 million through the years.
“It saves an office visit, and I can OK therapy,” Fowler said.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
Thinking back, Fowler said his life lined up nicely.
“Meeting my wife, going around the country, knowing Tulsa was where I needed to go, playing golf here and meeting Hal Sherrod, and my wife having a relative in Johnson City: I can see God’s hand in everything,” said Fowler. “Johnson City is a wonderful place to raise a family. We have five children and four were born here (Preston, Sarah-Catherine, Elizabeth-Ann and Edward).”
The fifth child is Gad Fowler (formerly Gad Nagba). He became part of the family through the years.
“He was in our house almost continuously since he was in the fourth grade,” Fowler said.