May 4, 2014
Family portrait: James Owens, left, and graduate LaDarius Owens together on Sunday (Zach Bland photo)
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — You should listen when James Owens speaks. His words are inspirational. His journey is motivational.
His story is Auburn.
Sunday, like many days before it, James Owens was proud of his university, the school where he became the first African-American scholarship football player; and the school where on this day his nephew walked across the stage in cap and gown as an Auburn graduate.
Defensive end LaDarius Owens followed his uncle's footsteps when he enrolled in Auburn in 2010. Four years later, this Sunday, he was handed his diploma in Communications. He'll have that when he plays his senior season this fall.
James Owens, an Auburn fullback from 1969-72, was smiling about those very facts.
"It started back in 1969, and it has taken a long time, but we are still a family of Auburn; and we're grateful that the Good Lord has allowed us to be a part of it," James Owens said.
Owens chuckled the loudest cheers at the Sunday afternoon graduation would be from the Owens extended family during a weekend when 64 athletes received their diplomas.
This day, and the football Saturdays, would continue the Owens legacy.
"I'm thrilled to see my nephew walk across the stage. Words can't explain what it means to the family," he said. "He is making history for our family. He is the first male that finished from a four-year college. We're all excited. That's why the family is here to let him know how much we love him and cherish this day.
"LaDarius is a good young man. He's smart. And he's determined. We're thankful for him."
It wasn't always easy for James Owens, not in the early days at Auburn. But he persevered. Today, the school awards the James Owens Courage Award.
He is now a retired minster who lives in Auburn. And he was awarded an honorary degree from his university last year. LaDarius Owens was there.
"Just to see the tears in his eyes and getting what he wanted for so long was wonderful. It brought joy and pride he brought to my family," the younger Owens said.
Sunday, it was indeed LaDarius Owens' turn.
"I'm just glad to be here. It's been a long journey. It still is kind of surreal for me, all the emotion right now."
LaDarius and James Owens have more to talk about than graduation. They exchange football talk after Auburn games.
"I love it," James said. "We get excited. I can't wait until the game is over so we can sit and talk and laugh about some things, and talk about the familiarity of when I played and his plays. It's exciting."
LaDarius Owens has hadn't the smoothest of careers. He's been moved around, from defensive line to linebacker to defensive end. He's been hurt. He missed spring practice because of a foot injury.
He's been a part of an 0-8 SEC season. And he was a starter last season and was part of a huge turnaround that carried Auburn to the SEC championship and the BCS title game.
"At the low, I think all the kids were disappointed and felt they could do better," James Owens said. "When Coach Malzahn came in, things changed and their attitude changed. It helped him to learn you have bad days, but good days are ahead. I think it has strengthened him to have gone through that. Troubles will come, but they won't last always."
That will help LaDarius Owens dealing with the disappointment of missing spring practice.
"It was tough missing time because it would have been my first spring as a starter," he said. "I was looking forward to work on my fundamentals because I've never had a lot of time to work on my craft. I was rushed to defensive end position a week or so before the first game last year, and then I had to just run with it."
Owens said he spent the spring watching film and getting mental reps.
"There were a lot of mental aspects of the game I took in," he said. "Hopefully, it will pay dividends this fall."
His coaches were complimentary even when he didn't practice, saying he was a veteran who knew what to do.
"That was nice, but, at the same time, you can be complacent," Owens said. "I wanted to be better coming to next year. That's why I spent so much time in the film room and spent so much time watching."
And listening to his uncle.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine