Detroit — If there was a place for Bennie Fowler to burst onto the NFL scene, that place just had to be Ford Field.
Ford Field, after all, was where he played in two state finals with Detroit Country Day, in 2008 and 2009.
And it was Ford Field, after all, where he caught his first college pass, for Michigan State, in 2010.
So it was meant to be, at Ford Field on Sunday night, before at least 20 family members and friends, Fowler made the first four catches of his NFL career, playing a small but hardly insignificant role in helping the Denver Broncos past his hometown Detroit Lions, 24-12.
“Coming back home, it meant a lot to me, to play well here and get my first catch here,” Fowler said. “It felt good.”
Fowler, 24, is one of the feel-good stories of the season for the Broncos, who have a lot to feel good about, having bumped their record to 3-0.
He went undrafted in 2014 after a four-year career at Michigan State, and settled for a role on the Broncos’ practice squad last season. He never got off the practice squad, but learned a lot from the experience.
So this year, he set out to, if nothing else, make the coaches notice him during the exhibition season.
“My preaseason mind-set was just to go out there and make plays,” said Fowler, “show this coaching staff and my teammates that I can make plays and contribute to this team.”
On Sunday night, back home in Detroit, he did just that.
“Bennie is making plays on Wednesdays, Thursday and Fridays, and we gave him a chance on Sunday, and he did it again,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “It’s Bennie’s work. He deserves the credit, it’s his work.”
Fowler led all Broncos receivers with 10 catches for 155 yards in the exhibition season, and he scored a touchdown.
Still, he wasn’t sure it would be enough, especially considering the resumes of Denver’s receiving corps.
Tyke Tolbert, Broncos receiving coach, called him two days after the final exhibition game. At first, Tolbert tried to play a practical joke and tell Fowler he was out. But the joke didn’t last long. Tolbert told Fowler he had made it.
“It went down to the wire,” Fowler said. “It was a dream come true, finding out I made the team, being an undrafted guy. That means a lot.
“I was on the practice squad last year, I learned a lot from great receivers. And that carried over to the preseason, and now it’s carried over to the regular season.”
Fowler saw some action on special teams in the first two Broncos games.
He knew he might have an expanded role Sunday night.
And sure enough, in the second quarter, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Fowler found a connection — hooking up on three different passes, the first two securing key first downs on an 80-yard Denver scoring drive that put the Broncos up, 7-0. Fowler finished with four catches for 50 yards; he caught each pass Manning threw his way, and each picked gave the Broncos a first down.
“I knew I was gonna play a little bit,” Fowler said. “I didn’t know I was gonna get the ball that much, but I’m not mad.”
Speaking of the ball, do football players keep their first catch ball like baseball players do with their first hit?
“Touchdowns,” Fowler said, smiling. “I’d rather keep the touchdown ball.”
That’ll have to wait, but perhaps not long — especially if Fowler keeps earning the trust of Manning, who spread the ball to nine receivers Sunday night. Only Demaryius Thomas (nine passes) and Emmanuel Sanders (six) and Owen Daniels (five) caught more than Fowler’s four.
“I knew he could play, period,” Thomas said. “He’s going to continue to help us out.”