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Happy ending for Redbird center’s search for birth parents

Charlie Cowley runs onto the field

Charlie Cowley (75) runs onto the field for the Homecoming 2013 game.

For a big guy, Charles Cowley is quick.

The starting center for the Redbirds racked up big yardage as a tight end in high school, and even played three years of basketball before switching to football full-time.

But it wasn’t Cowley’s speed that helped him solve the biggest mystery in his life, the one that’s been tugging at him since he was a kid, the one that took literally years to unravel. It was patience, persistence, and the constant support of his family—his parents and his Redbird family.

Cowley was recruited to play football at Illinois State out of a small Christian school in Florida, but that’s not where he came from. That’s not something Cowley figured out until this year, when he finally tracked down his birth mother and his birth father, who didn’t even know he existed.

Now, several months after meeting his biological mother, Cowley is eager to share his story.

Charlie with his parents on the field

Charlie with his parents, Don and Teresa Cowley, at a Redbird home game.

“As I got older, you just slowly get that urge—I want to know where I came from, who I am,” Cowley told STATEside. “And the way it worked out was just phenomenal. Usually with situations like this, it doesn’t always work out the way either party wants it to. In my case, I got lucky.”

Cowley’s parents, Don and Teresa Cowley, adopted him when he was five days old in September 1990. They had recently moved to Boca Raton, Florida, from Michigan. After one biological daughter, Samantha, they were having trouble conceiving again. So they turned to adoption, telling their neighbor—who was an adoption attorney—that they didn’t care if it was a boy or girl, white or black or brown.

“I told her, ‘We’d just like to love a child,’” Teresa recalls.

Teresa and Don planned to tell Charlie he was adopted as soon as he started asking. That happened fairly early, only because Charlie’s biological father is black, and Don and Teresa are white.

“He’d ask me, and I’d tell him, ‘It’s because I gave you chocolate milk.’ He bought that for a while,” Teresa said. “It was light-hearted then, because he was young.”

A tough stretch

But the real conversation was inevitable. Around age 10 and 11, Charlie went through a difficult period where he was “very angry” after his adopted history became fully understood, Teresa says. But because it was a closed adoption, the identity of Charlie’s birth mother was confidential and he couldn’t reach out to her until age 18. Teresa remembers the attorney delivering that news to a young Charlie about his 18th birthday, and how Charlie banged his hand on a desk and said it was “really stupid rule.”

“But it didn’t change anything,” Teresa said.

Charlie had an outlet for his emotions—sports. He played basketball and tee ball, and then started football around ninth grade. “I think sports really helped him deal with his anger,” Teresa says.

Charlie Cowley runs

Cowley picking up yardage as a tight end at Boca Raton Christian School in Florida.

Charlie did try to find her when he turned 18, but the cost of the lawyer was too high, he said. So life moved on. Charlie kept playing football, earning a slot in Florida’s Treasure Coast Outback Bowl All-Star game for the state’s best players. Recruiters from all over, including Illinois State, were looking at Charlie.

Charlie would end up signing with the Redbirds as a defensive lineman. He redshirted his freshman year in 2010, and moved to the offensive line in 2011, when he played in one game as a reserve.

Fast-forward to summer 2012, when Charlie’s back home in Florida on a trip before starting his third season with the Redbirds. Teresa had recently discovered that a coworker’s daughter was something of an expert in solving adoption mysteries—a “Search Angel,” they’re called. In reality, they’re adoption detectives.

They weren’t starting from zero. They had a clue. Teresa had once seen a document on which Charlie’s birth mother’s first name was inadvertently still visible, as well as her birth year. With that information, the Search Angel found the birth mother’s brother on Facebook, and then the dominoes began to fall.

It was Christmas 2012, and Charlie had found his birth mom, who lived in Ohio. But he didn’t meet her until the Redbirds spring football scrimmage in April. She was joined by Charlie’s half-sister and her son, Charlie’s nephew, who got to meet the Redbird players and have fun at Kids Football Fest.

“I’m not gonna lie—it was nerve-wracking,” Charlie said. “But after a few hours of talking, it was really good.”

“A little bit of patience paid off,” he added.

Telling the coach

Charlie’s coaches at Illinois State knew about his search. Head coach Brock Spack remembers when Charlie came into his office and told him he had finally found his birth parents.

“He treats us like family, and that’s the kind of atmosphere we want to have here, is a family atmosphere,” Spack said. “He’s been a tremendous kid. That was a real cool thing.”

Charlie praises his coaching staff’s open-door policy—their eagerness to talk about anything at any time.

Cowley hiking the ball

Cowley was recruited as a defensive lineman but now plays center for the Redbirds.

“One of the many reasons I came here was the coaching staff,” he said. “They were as interested as I was to figure out where I came from, and they were very supportive as well.”

Charlie was recruited to add size and quickness to the Redbird defensive line, even though he ended up on the O-Line. He’s always been big. He literally skipped sizes in clothes as a kid, Teresa says.

She remembers when Spack and assistant coach Dan Shula came to her home to discuss Charlie playing at Illinois State. It was tough thinking of Charlie living 1,300 miles away, but Teresa knew that’s what he wanted. “He was good at what he was doing,” she said. “It’s just another phase of life. You gotta let go.”

During the 2012 season, in which the Redbirds went 9-4 and made the playoffs, Charlie saw action in two games as a reserve offensive lineman. He stepped in for injured starting center Pete Cary in a September victory at South Dakota State, and then got the starting job himself this season.

Don and Teresa travel to Illinois to see their son play every year, usually for the Family Weekend game, and they always find a way to watch games online or on TV, whenever possible.

They support him no matter what, and that meant through his long search for his birth parents. Charlie would take time to reassure Teresa and Don that they were his parents, no matter who gave birth to him.

“The relationship Charlie and I have will never be taken away from us, because we just have a bond,” Teresa told STATEside. “When I tear up, it’s not because I’m jealous (of the birth mother), it’s because I’m happy, because he found what was he’s looking for.”

Charlie still hasn’t met his birth father, who also lives in Ohio but didn’t know Charlie existed until he was contacted earlier this year. He was warm and open about the situation, Charlie said, and he told Charlie that had he known, he wouldn’t have put him up for adoption.

“But if I wasn’t put up for adoption, I wouldn’t be here at this good school,” Charlie said.

Charlie’s spent the last few weeks trying to set up a meeting with his birth father—who he looks a lot like, by all accounts—when the Redbirds travel to play Youngstown State in Ohio on Saturday, October 12. Another twist: His half-brothers, who are twins, both play football for University of Cincinnati.

Charlie has tried to “keep living the same way I’ve been living” since his discovery. But there have been some new insights into his own personality since speaking with his biological relatives for the first time.

“I understand the reasons why I act the way I act sometimes,” Charlie said with a smile. “I can see it in my siblings. I can see where I get my goofiness from.”

Charlie has worked hard to improve as a player since arriving at Illinois State in 2010, Spack said. He’s a high-character guy, popular among his teammates, and a hard worker, he said.

“A lot of people should be proud of him—that he puts on that red jersey with the bird head on his helmet, because he’s a great representative of Illinois State University,” Spack said.

Charlie is a redshirt junior now, majoring in criminal justice sciences with a minor in sociology. Charlie wants to go into law enforcement or wildlife conservation—something outdoors, not behind a desk. He’d like to move back to Florida after graduation, though he’s got a soft spot for “beautiful” North Carolina since traveling there for the Redbirds’ playoff win last December against Appalachian State.

“He’s gonna be very successful with whatever he chooses to do, after football is over for him,” Spack said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at