Those who know James Owens and his story understand how much his name means to Auburn University.
Owens was the first African-American football player on scholarship at Auburn. He arrived on Auburn’s campus as a freshman in 1969. Being Auburn’s first African-American football player—and one of only a handful of African Americans enrolled at Auburn—just a few years removed from the heat of the civil rights movement wasn’t easy. But having grown up right outside Birmingham in Fairfield, Ala., Owens was no stranger to racial adversity and attention.
When Owens tried out for the Fairfield High School football team, the coaches told him that he was too late. To Owens, the message was clear—he was too late and too black.
“I was upset, but I said, OK, I will just play basketball and run track,” Owens says.
He tore up the track and basketball court. By the time football tryouts rolled around again, his athleticism was obvious. He didn’t have to try out. The same coaches who turned Owens away the year before were now at his door asking him to play.
“At first I told them no,” he says. “They did not need me before, so why now I thought.”
Owens later told them yes. As expected, he dominated Friday nights with his great size and speed. And as expected, he caught the eye of college recruiters from across the country.
“I had offers from just about every school you could think of except for the big home schools, Auburn and Alabama,” he says. “I wanted to go play ball at Grambling State anyway. Most blacks were going to play at the predominantly black schools back then.”
The only problem with Owens’ plan to attend Grambling was that it wasn’t close to home. But finally a school that was close to home along and offered him a football scholarship: Auburn.
People who knew Owens and his family didn’t think he would ever attend a school like Auburn. To this day, if you ask him why he chose to go to Auburn, Owens will say, “I chose to come to Auburn because it was not too far for my family to come see me or vice versa.”
Owens was close to home, but also close to prejudice.
“During my time at Auburn, I endured many tough situations. It was not easy being stared at like I had horns growing out of my head or being called names,” he says. “Going to restaurants, stores, and barbershops was not easy. I would be turned around or refused service because of my skin color.”
Does Owens regret his choice of coming to Auburn or being the first to do so?
“No, I don’t regret being the one to do it. At the time, being the first (African-American football player) was not pleasant. Many times I wished I had gone to Grambling,” Owens says. “Now, after seeing what I went through and the person it made me, I am proud of what I did.”
“My most memorable moment at Auburn was my sophomore year at the first game. As we ran out of the tunnel I looked up into the crowd and saw all the black people at the game in their section. They were all looking at me screaming ‘James! James! James!’ That is when I knew I was special and that this wasn’t just for me, it was for them, too.”
Owens says he is also proud to have helped pave the way for players like Bo Jackson, Karlos Dansby, and Cam Newton.
Owens is still remembered and respected at Auburn. The university recently established an award named in his honor to be given to a student athlete who has displayed courage in the face of adversity.
The first recipient of the James Owens Courage Award was none other than James Owens himself.
Related: Picture Day — James Owens.