Sept. 9, 2013
LaDarius Owens had eight tackles and a sack against Arkansas State last Saturday (Todd Van Emst photo)
AUBURN, Ala. – Through the hard times when he wondered if his chance would ever come, through the miserable days of a season gone bad and in the good times, LaDarius Owens has remembered.
He’s remembered his family’s history. He’s been proud, and he’s been determined to live up to his uncle’s legacy on the football field and off.
A fourth-year junior, Owens has bounced back and forth between defensive end and linebacker. Until this season, seemingly every opportunity was followed by disappointment. And still he remembered. He remembered the stories of his uncle’s struggles.
James Owens was the first African-American scholarship football player in Auburn history. His story is one of heartache, perseverance and, finally, triumph. Before Auburn’s 38-9 victory over Arkansas State last Saturday, he was on the field again to present the second James Owens Courage Award to former Tiger safety Zac Etheridge.
“It was good to know he was there, just like the rest of my family comes every game,” LaDarius said. “This game, I was able to get more comfortable and cut loose. Anytime I’m out there in an Auburn uniform I feel like I’m representing him and my family name.”
Against Arkansas State, LaDarius, who spent the spring and the early part of preseason camp at linebacker, was a force at defensive end. He was in on eight tackles. He had a sack, two tackles for loss and quarterback hurry. His uncle watched it all and was proud.
“It’s indescribable to have him feel that way,” James said. “I tell him all the time that I’m not worthy of all the recognition I get. He works hard to please me and the family, but I tell him to work hard for himself, too.”
The year was 1969. It had been six years since George Wallace’s infamous stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama, and integration was the law of the land. Earlier that year, Owens had made history when he signed with Auburn. He’d left the warm embrace of his family in Fairfield for a strange, new world, one that would test him like he’d not been tested before.
On Saturday afternoons, he was “Big O,” who would become one of the more popular players of his time as the bruising fullback on the 1972 Amazin’s, a team that won 10 games when it was expected to win no more than three. But away from the cheering crowd, he was alone.
“For four years, every day that I got up, the first thing I’d do is look in the mirror and say ‘I’m going home today. This is the day I leave here,’” James said. “I’d call my mom and tell her I was coming home. She’d encourage me not to quit, not to give up.”
He didn’t give up, but for a time he was bitter. His teammates say to this day that he would have been one of the great running backs in Auburn history if he’d been given the opportunity.
The bitterness is long gone. A retired minister who lives in Auburn, James sees his nephew wearing Auburn colors in a far different time.
“My wife tells me all the time I weep too much,” James said, “but when I look at all the things that have happened and all the things that have gone on and think the Lord allowed me to be part of this change, it brings about a whole different feeling.
“I used to say if I had it to do over I wouldn’t do it, but looking at the changes and how people embrace each other no matter what color, I’m thankful and privileged to be part of it.”
Forty-four years after his uncle began his freshman year at Auburn, LaDarius is part of a football team made up mostly of African-American players. That it all started with his uncle is a matter of great pride.
“I was always proud I had an uncle that was the first African-American here and played football at Auburn,” LaDarius said in an interview two years ago, “but once I got older and started being recruited, that’s when he broke it down for me, everything he went through.
“I didn’t know it was so rough for him. During the season everybody patted him on the back. After the season, it was segregated. He had to drive two hours just to get a haircut. He said there were plenty of times he wanted to go home. He said his teammates kept him here and encouraged him.”
Because he stayed the course and persevered, doors opened for LaDarius and countless others.
“Somebody had to do it,” LaDarius said. “I’m very prideful about that. He made the way for all of us - the Cam Newtons, the Nick Fairleys, the Carnell Williamses. It’s a real honor for that to be my uncle, for me to have him in my life to give me advice and be there when I need him.”
In 2010, LaDarius was a big-time prospect after completing his career at Jess Lanier High School. He’d been a defensive end in high school but projected as a big and fast linebacker in college. In February of that year, he signed with Auburn.
After redshirting on the 2010 national championship team, Owens dealt with injuries the next year. By the 2012 season, he was back at defensive end after spending time at linebacker. And he was getting precious little playing time. He suffered with his teammates as the season disintegrated into a 3-9 nightmare and the coaching staff was let go.
Through it all, LaDarius turned to his uncle for comfort and counsel. James, too, was facing challenges. He had heart problems. He was frequently confined to a wheelchair because of back problems. But he was always there for the son of his sister, Ora Owens.
“Last year was the biggest impact he had on me,” LaDarius said. “With everything he was going through, I was having frustration with the season, that I wasn’t playing a lot and the results of the season. Knowing the courage he had made me keep chopping wood. When the new coaches came, I just flipped a switch. Whatever came my way I was going to fight and try to conquer it.”
From the time LaDarius arrived at Auburn, James and his wife, Gloria, have been his parents away from home. He visits frequently.
“He tells me what I need to do and work on and stuff like that,” LaDarius said. “I was out of gas one night and I called him. It’s real convenient for me. When I want some real home-cooked food, my auntie cooks for me.”
His uncle, LaDarius says with a laugh, takes advantage.
“He manipulates it,” LaDarius said. “She cooks more for me than for him. He’ll say ‘Aren’t you hungry? The boy says he’s hungry now. Don’t you need to cook?’”
When the discussion turns to football, LaDarius gets frequent doses of reality from his uncle.
“He’s done a great job of handling the situation,” James said. “He’s adjusting to the things that have happened around him. It’s teaching him patience. I tell him God has something for him, but he has to learn to be patient and accept what he has. I think he’s getting to the point that he’s grown up enough to accept whatever success he has, that he can handle it in the right way.”
Before the start of spring practice, LaDarius went to see defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. He wanted to try to play linebacker again. Johnson agreed. LaDarius made progress throughout the spring and the early part of camp, but injuries changed things. He moved back to defensive end. Perhaps now he has found a permanent home.
“It's very comfortable, and it's weird because I went through the spring, all summer and the beginning of fall trying to get my footwork for linebacker and studying all that,” Owens said. “… It’s like I never moved.”
Owens and his teammates are 2-0 and feeling about themselves as they look to Saturday’s SEC opener against Mississippi State. It’s a far different feeling from last season.
“It’s changed a lot,” LaDarius said, “just coming into it with a different attitude, just wiping out last year. We are closer together as a team and as a defense. We have a lot of young guys out there, and it’s built their confidence. It’s built the confidence of the guys who endured what we went through last year. It’s big going into the SEC. We know what’s coming, and we know how to prepare for it.”
James cautions his nephew to stay humble, to remember the hard work it took to get where he is and the hard work it will take to continue to be a force on Auburn’s defense.
“A lot of times I have had to do a lot of convincing that things are going to be OK,” James said. “I’m so glad he has listened and been patient and waited for his time to come.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter:
James Owens hugs former Auburn coach Pat Dye on the day the establishment of the James Owens Courage Award was announced (Todd Van Emst photo)