KANSAS CITY, Mo. – After signing autographs for what seemed like an hour, Dwayne Bowe finally walked up the long grassy hill toward the locker room, still smiling after a hard, hot practice.
This is the wide receiver that everyone used to call "moody?" The guy branded as aloof, or worse, early in his career with the Kansas City Chiefs? The guy who became disgruntled when he didn't get the ball or was a distraction in the locker room, earning a reputation as an immature diva that certainly seemed to fit?
Nope, not anymore. These days, Bowe is all smiles.
He's armed with a new long-term contract that makes him one of the best-paid wide receivers in the NFL. He finally has stability at quarterback for the first time in his seven-year career. And he has a coaching staff led by Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson that has repeatedly stated how valuable Bowe is to the team.
Indeed, what's not to smile about?
"I'm just blessed to be alive, every day just coming out and seeing more fans appreciating me, screaming my name," Bowe told The Associated Press during a recent interview. "I'm just trying to let loose and be joyful. There's a time to have fun and a time to be serious, and I know that. But I'm just trying to be myself."
Maybe for the first time in his career.
Bowe made enough flashy plays his rookie season, and folks around Kansas City were already calling him The Next Big Thing. With his big body, good speed and sure hands, he was supposed to be the homegrown star that the Chiefs had never been able to develop.
But then he was hit with a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy — his agent, Todd France, said at the time that it stemmed from a weight-loss supplement. He made eyebrow-raising comments to a magazine about womanizing that allegedly occurred at team hotels, and then offered an apology that went awry when he referred to the Hunt family that owns the Chiefs as "the Clarks" — presumably a reference to Clark Hunt, who serves as the team's most visible face.
Bowe began to draw the ire of fans, pointing to his name on the back of his jersey after a nice catch taken as a sign that he thought he was bigger than the team.
Eventually, though, Bowe started to change. Ever so slowly.
Those around him have said he heeded the advice of close friends and family, taking his dedication to his craft to a new level. He matured. And the result was the best year of his career, when he caught 15 touchdown passes and reached the Pro Bowl in 2010.
Bowe had another good season the following year, catching 81 passes for more than 1,150 yards. But his contract was up and the Chiefs decided to franchise him, touching off another round of drama. Bowe refused to sign his franchise tender until deep into training camp, and struggled with injuries and poor quarterback play. He wound up with just 59 catches for 801 yards last season for a 2-14 team.
The season was such a dismal failure that general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel were shown the door. John Dorsey was hired as the new GM and Andy Reid as the new coach, and they made signing Bowe to a long-term deal one of their priorities.
They reached a five-year, $56 million pact that made Bowe among the best-compensated pass-catchers in the league. And when Dorsey and Reid swung a trade with San Francisco for quarterback Alex Smith, Bowe finally had someone who could get him the ball.
All of which would be enough to bring a smile to anybody's face.
"I like what I've seen," Reid said of his No. 1 wide receiver. "He hasn't missed a day. He's worked his tail off. Obviously he's a good player, we all know that."
Indeed, Bowe seems to be more focused than in years past, almost as if he's making a conscious effort to become a leader for a team getting younger by the day.
"Every day is a grind. Guys make mistakes sometimes. You just have to keep moving forward," he said. "We're all trying to make plays and right now everybody is just trying to grind. Every day is a grind. The only way you'll see a difference is when it really, really counts."
That won't come until the Chiefs' season-opener Sept. 8 at Jacksonville. But for all the good vibes Bowe is feeling these days, the preseason has sure been a struggle.
Bowe's been blanketed by the Saints and 49ers, partly because of his big-play ability and partly because of the lack of alternatives at wide receiver. He still doesn't have a catch as he heads into Saturday's preseason game against Pittsburgh.
"He's getting a lot of attention," Smith said. "Coverage is dictating where I'm going with the ball, and he certainly demands a lot of respect out there and he's getting it."
He's getting plenty of attention in interview lines, too.
After just about every practice open to fans this summer, Bowe would dutifully sign his name for anyone who asked. He was always among the last players to leave the practice field, even on those stifling days when his jersey was plastered with sweat.
"They come way out here, man, and right now this is all they got," Bowe said, "so take 20 minutes, 30 minutes out of your day to change someone's life forever. This is what we signed up for."