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Jeff Shearer | | January 18, 2016

Auburn's first black football player James Owens inspired by MLK

  James Owens became Auburn's first African-American scholarship football player in 1970.

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," said Owens, recalling the cheers from the segregated bleachers in the southwest corner of Jordan-Hare Stadium. "Those black people cheered and hollered."

More than 45 years later, the memory is 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, James Owens 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, will celebrate their 42nd anniversary this spring. They make 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 be retired from full-time ministry, but he's still preaching. To converse with him is 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 remembers 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.

Zac Etheridge (2013), Lee Carpenter (2014) and Shon Coleman (2015) are fellow recipients of an honor bestowed to an Auburn football player who has displayed courage in the face of adversity.

"It's been a joy to see what they have accomplished and overcome," Owens said.

The past few years have not been easy. Heart failure. Diabetes. Nerve damage. He recently spent two weeks in the hospital. "We need prayer," Gloria Owens said.

Nearly a half-century after making history at Auburn, James Owens soldiers on, embodying a verse from the Scriptures he holds 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."

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