By Jeff Shearer
At first, James Owens didn't feel like a pioneer. He just wanted to take advantage of his opportunity to play football at Auburn.
But the first time he took the field for the varsity, in 1970, Auburn's first African-American scholarship football player realized his contribution would be much more than how many yards he gained.
"You would have thought there was a parade," Owens said in January, recalling the cheers from the wooden bleachers in the southwest corner of Jordan-Hare Stadium. "Those black people cheered and hollered."
More than 45 years later, the memory was still fresh.
"I was their hero, and they were my heroes. I realized I was there for more than James Owens. I was there for a nation, and people were depending on me to succeed," he said.
Relying on his quiet courage and steadfast faith, Owens, who died Saturday at age 65 after a long illness, succeeded by all accounts.
On the field, he was a three-year starter in the backfield, a key member of the 1972 Amazin's.
Off the field, James and Gloria, his college sweetheart, were married for 42 years, making their home in Auburn.
"Being part of the Auburn Family is something I always cherish," Owens said.
James left his job at U.S. Steel to become a minister, sharing the gospel for four decades, until health problems forced him to slow down a few years ago.
Owens may have retired from full-time ministry, but he continued to preach. To converse with him was to hear a mini-sermon, filled with hope.
"God called me to preach, and that's something you can't get rid of," Owens said.
Growing up in Birmingham in the '60s, Owens remembered the marches, the dogs, the firehoses.
He enrolled at Auburn in 1969, one year after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
"With what Martin Luther King sacrificed, he helped many people stand and be courageous," Owens said. "If he gave his all, why couldn't we?"
So James Owens endured the challenges that came with being a pioneer.
"When my parents dropped me off at Auburn, I realized I was here all by myself," Owens said. "When my teammates left the field, they were going home. I was never home. I was always on a stage."
The man his teammates called "Big O" continues to inspire.
In 2012, Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs presented the first James Owens Courage Award to its namesake.
"It's been a joy to see what they have accomplished and overcome," Owens said.
"James Owens was the epitome of courage," Jacobs said. "All of us at Auburn are forever indebted to him for the grace and courage he showed in being our first African-American player. It takes a special person to break down barriers and be first.
"My heart is broken, but I am inspired by what James meant to Auburn and to me. He did a lot more than make Auburn better. He taught those of us who played the game how to be courageous with quiet humility. My heart goes out to his family and friends. They are all in my prayers," Jacobs said.
"James Owens was a trailblazer, a legend and a great Auburn man," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "James changed Auburn for the better and opened doors for countless young men and women. We are deeply saddened by his passing. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his entire family."
The past few years were not easy. Heart failure. Diabetes. Nerve damage. "We need prayer," Gloria Owens said in January.
Nearly a half-century after making history at Auburn, James Owens soldiered on, embodying a verse from the Scriptures he held so dear.
That is why were are not discouraged. Though outwardly we are wearing out, inwardly we are renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)
"I feel God has more for me to do. He's not ready for me to come home just yet," Owens said. "The prayers, the letters, to know people care. It's one of the greatest feelings to know you are loved by your family."