Big Honor For "The Big O"

James Owens talks about being the first black scholarship football player for the Tigers, his time at Auburn, overcoming struggles in his life and being honored by the university.

Auburn, Ala.--Auburn University will present the inaugural James Owens Courage Award on Saturday and Athletic Director Jay Jacobs notes that "it is only fitting" that the initial recipient is the man whose name is on the award.

Owens, a football player for Auburn from 1969-1972, is remembered by Tiger fans as a powerful fullback with good speed as well as the first black scholarship football player in AU history. His nephew, LaDarius Owens, is a sophomore defensive end for the 2012 Tigers.

James Owens, known to his teammates as "The Big O" during his days as an Auburn player, will receive the award on Saturday during AU's home opener vs. Louisiana-Monroe.

"I don't know of a football player in Auburn history who has faced adversity and shown more courage while working for the betterment of Auburn University than James Owens," Jacobs said on Tuesday.

Owens, who is a semi-retired minister, has been in poor health this year. He was hoping to receive a heart transplant at UAB, but was recently told he is not a suitable candidate for the procedure. He is currently waiting on a second opinion from another hospital group.

After finishing football at Auburn, Owens was drafted by the New Orleans Saints, but a serious knee injury short-circuited his NFL dreams. He played briefly for the short-lived WFL team based in Birmingham before going to work for U.S. Steel back in his hometown of Fairfield. However, that company failed and he noted that he struggled for a period of time before finding his calling as a minister.

Pat Dye, who was the head coach at Auburn in the 1980s, convinced Owens to return to Auburn and work on finishing his degree while helping the football team as a student assistant coach. Owens said he loved doing that, but the NCAA passed legislation limiting that practice before Owens had time to finish his degree.

Coach Pat Dye, who was head football coach at AU from 1981-1992, hugs Owens.

He then got a job coaching football at Miles College in his hometown, however, that opportunity ended when Miles decided to quit sponsoring a team.

Owens noted he has had a "lot of knocks, a lot of disappointments" in his life, but noted he felt fortunate to be called into the ministry 11 years ago to do what he says is the most important and meaningful job he could have.

"That's why I am not fearful, I am not afraid of this health issue," he said. "I am not afraid of anything that I have to face because I know that God has something else for me to do. He is just putting me through a test right now. I am 0-2 right now, but I am going to keep fighting until the victory is won. I am not going to give up."

Owens said that Jacobs approached him at an Auburn football scrimmage in August and told the former player that the university was interested in honoring him with a courage award. Owens said he never looked at himself as a guy who would be honored for his courage, noting it is an "awesome" feeling.

The former fullback said when he got home after talking to Jacobs he received a phone call from former teammates Terry Henley and Thomas Gossom, who told him the award would be something that the university will present annually, something he didn't realize would be the case. "All three of us began to shout ‘War Eagle,'" the former fullback noted. "It is something I am awful proud and honored to receive."

Owens remembers he had no idea what a big deal college football was when he left the steel mill town of Fairfield and arrived at Auburn as a freshman in 1969. "Football has been a joy," he said. "I played the game because I loved it."

Despite arriving as a nervous and "frightened" freshman as the only black player on the team, the now 61-year-old said, "After everything that has happened over the years I am thankful that James Owens--little ol' barefoot boy running on coals or whatever--will never be forgotten because of what God has allowed to happen."

Now living in Auburn, Owens is able to be around the current football team and enjoys seeing his nephew play. Auburn coach Gene Chizik said that it is great to have Owens around to share his life experiences with the players.

"I have talked to a great many of the players," Owens pointed out. "The thing is to keep them encouraged through whatever might happen to have hope and belief that anything can happen.

"I often tell them about the song War Eagle, ‘ever to conquer, never to yield.' That is what Auburn University, and the Auburn University Family, is all about--getting over the hurdles."

Owens has a message for the current football team, which is off to a slow start, noting he is still excited about the 2012 season. "Nobody wanted to bet on the turtle," he said. "Everybody wanted to bet on the rabbit because he is faster. The Bible says the race is not given to the swift, not to the strong, but to the one that endures until the end, and we have not gotten to the end yet. We are War Eagles and we will overcome."

Like many freshmen, athletes and other students, Owens remembers having second thoughts about his decision to leave home for college. The former Tiger noted it didn't take long for his to happen. It began as his parents dropped him off at Sewell Hall in Auburn and drove back to Fairfield. He remembers thinking at the time, "What am I doing? Why am I here? I began to think this was a mistake."

However, Owens stuck it out and made life-long friends as well meeting his wife, Gloria, who was also a student at Auburn. They met at a laundromat in 1971 and are the proud parents of three daughters and have three grandchildren.

Gloria Owens notes that doctors recently told her husband he had to retire from being a full-time minister, but notes he still does it part time at Pleasant Ridge Baptist in Dadeville until his replacement is hired. He has been minister there for 11 years.

"That has been a difficult journey when the doctor says you have to turn your congregation over to someone else for health reasons," Mrs. Owens said. "Since then we have been back and forth (from Auburn) to Birmingham to see what the doctors recommend."

James Owens is shown with his wife Gloria and Coach Gene Chizik (left).

She notes that the former football player has been diagnosed with a weak heart along with a kidney problem, which has recently improved. However, because of also having diabetes and a neuropathy problem, UAB doctors decided he is not a candidate for heart replacement. Instead, the doctors told Owens they would install a heart pump when his condition worsens.

"We weren't satisfied with that and wanted a second opinion, and we are waiting to hear from Emory," Mrs. Owens said. "We want to see what other options are available for him."

Owens, who was the second black scholarship athlete at Auburn after basketball player Henry Harris, was part of a major social change with desegregation in the region and the country as a whole in the 1960s. He remembers that Harris was always there for advice and support when he needed that.

He noted that an incident at a bar made him realize he had been accepted by his new teammates at Auburn. "There were about 15 of us or more and we were sitting there. The guys had gone up and were ordering. A guy comes back to where we were and said, ‘You are going to have to leave because we don't serve your kind here.'

"The guys could have told me they would see me back at the dorm or whatever, but instead of that they stood up and we all left together. We were part of the same group and from then on it kind of let me know that I had been accepted. It helped do away with a lot of the fears and anxieties I had."

As one of the first black athletes to compete in the SEC, Owens said when he arrived at college he didn't think of himself as being a pioneer. "I thought of myself as just a guy trying to get to the next level," he recalled. However, that changed as he got to meet people in the Auburn community and figured out that he was in the spotlight and someone others looked at as a role model.

"Coming out of high school, I just wanted to play football, but then my whole life changed and I realized there was a struggle ahead...but I was blessed. I love Auburn. I love the Auburn Family."

Another memory of acceptance came in an English class when he was called on to speak for an assignment in front of the class. Noting that he was self-conscious because he arrived at the university academically unprepared compared to his classmates, particularly in English, he said he had never had to speak in public.

"I am standing there, in shock," he recalled, noting it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. "After two or three minutes the instructor said, ‘Are you going to say something?' I realized I had to say something. After I finished, I was thinking that was the worst thing I could have done."

To his surprise, the feedback on the speech was positive and immediate. "Everybody in the classroom stood up and began to clap," Owens recalls. "That was a thrill to me. I can't remember what I said, or how long I said it, but it was something new and it gave me a feeling I can do it."

Owens smiles at the memory of his fear of speaking in public, something he later would do as a major part of his job as a minister. "It is all because of God," he said. "I learned a lot of times it is not how you say it, it is what you say. The people have been so great, and gracious, even when I used the wrong verb or whatever, they hear. We are not as conscious about how we say it, it is about what we say."

On Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, with thousands of Auburn students, alumni and fans watching, they will have an opportunity to say what they think about the "Big O," who was known for his toughness on the field that has surely been matched by his toughness away from the sport he loves.

Video Of Former Auburn Standout James Owens

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