Police said McDowell, 20, and John Brian Taylor,21, of Raleigh died while swimming near the dam on the Neuse River.
The two men were with a third man and a young woman who later called for help.
Investigators said they do not suspect foul play. Emergency workers tell Eyewitness News there were no visible signs of alcohol.
McDowell was a football standout at East Wake High School before he graduated in 2006. His father, William Riley, said he was attending college in Rocky Mount, but recently decided to return to the Raleigh area. Riley had just purchased a new apartment for McDowell two weeks ago.
"This was a good kid," said Riley, "He would've helped anyone. He never got into trouble."
Riley said investigators told him the three men were swimming in the river around 3 a.m. That's when something went wrong, causing Taylor to call out for help. McDowell and the third man tried to rescue him.
"Because that's Mikey. He would do anything to help anyone, his friend or someone he didn't know," said Riley.
Emergency workers said the third man who survived went under water several times to help the first victim. But, when he returned to the surface of the water, McDowell and Taylor were already gone.
The Milburnie Dam is privately owned. But officials said rain gauges along the Neuse River indicate higher flow levels from the weekend rains. The exact cause of the drowning remains under investigation.