Steve Owens:
1969 Heisman Trophy winner

by David Pietrusza
If anyone was born to play Oklahoma football it was 1969 Heisman winner
Steve Owens.

Born on December 9, 1947 in Gore, Oklahoma Owens grew up in Miami,
Oklahoma as Oklahoma's Sooners compiled their fabulous 47-game winning
streak. He was six years old when Oklahoma began winning and ten when
they finally stopped. "I can't think of anything that brought as much glory to the
state as those teams did," he later contended, "Everybody followed them.
When I was working at Hub's Bootery on Main street, we didn't sell many
shoes between noon and 4 on Saturdays."

Owens, a halfback at Miami High School, averaged 7.2 yards per carry and
gained 4,000 yards in his home town, but he had his skeptics. Then-Oklahoma
assistant coach Barry Switzer thought Owens, a high school track star who
actually possessed above average speed, "looked slow and clumsy, and we
couldn't decide where to play him. We had about decided to use him as a tight

Owens played unimpressively as a freshman, largely because he skipped
home games to be with his high school sweetheart. He finally decided the
situation had to be resolved. It was— but not in the way he had planned. "I
went home one weekend to break up with her," he once revealed, "and wound
up getting engaged." Married life agreed with Owens. As a sophomore on the
1967 10-1 Oklahoma team, Owens gained 813 yards and scored 12
touchdowns. He went to the Orange Bowl, scoring one touchdown as
Oklahoma squeaked by Tennessee 26-24.

The following season, Owens really began attracting attention. His 1,536 net
yards earned him Associated Press Big Eight Outstanding Player honors.
"Oh, he can fake people," observed one of his coaches, "but more often he
just splatters 'em." Four times during the season UPI named him to its National
Backfield of the Week. Against Nebraska he set a Big Eight record with 30
points. He recorded conference records for net yards rushing (1,536) in one
season and most net yards rushing (2,344) in two seasons. That year Owens
broke O.J. Simpson's NCAA mark of 355 carries with 357. At season's end,
Owens even received a call from Simpson, that year's Heisman winner,
predicting Owens would capture the 1969 award.

The prophecy proved right on target.

Owens once revealed that his strategy was "to get to the line quick. you go
pitter-patterin' up there and they'll be waiting for you with a smile. Then pow!
And the lights go out!"

Occasionally the very force of his running worked against him. Bursting past
his own secondary, Owens was known to pitch over head first—untouched by
enemy hands. "It was humiliating," he admitted, "Just imagine shaking loose
with all that grass in front of you and then falling down. Some of the guys
kidded me about it. 'Show Owens daylight,' they said, 'and he doesn't know
what to do with it.'"

Iowa State Cyclones head coach Johnny Majors once said of him, "Owens
keeps everyone honest. When he just pounds and pounds that middle, he
opens them up for the outside game and the passing game."

He seemed impervious to injuries. Against Pittsburgh in 1969 Owens
performed on a leg so battered that it turned purple. He could barely walk. Yet
he stayed in the game. "It was dumb thing for me to do, but I didn't want the
100-yard streak to be stopped with me on the sidelines."

Aside from capturing the Heisman, perhaps the highlight of Owens' Oklahoma
career was an NCAA record of 17 straight games with 100 more yards in
carries. He also established since-broken records for career carries (905),
yards rushing (3867), touchdowns (56) and points (336).

Throughout his college career, however, Owens thought more of his team than
of individual achievement. Against Colorado in 1969, OU was winning 42-30
late in the game, but Owens had not yet reached the 100-yard mark. Owens
told his teammates "Let's just fall on the ball and forget this 100-yard stuff. It's
not that important."

But offensive guard Bill Effstrom shot back: "It might not be important to you,
but it's sure important to us." Owens got on his horse and finished with 112
yards—and four TDs.

News of Owens' Heisman award reached OU in the form of a call to university
president J. Herbert Holliman. Neither Owens nor his wife Barbara were in the
room, but they soon were. Barbara entered first, followed later by her husband.
"I was running pretty hard," Owens quipped, "but I had a hard time catching my
wife. She was leading me by about 50 yards."

Said Owens on winning the Heisman, "This is the greatest thing that has ever
happened to me. I knew I was in the running, but didn't dream I had a chance.
It's something that every player dreams of but never thinks it could be true."

Not surprisingly Oklahoma head coach Chuck Fairbanks thought Owens was
the right man for the honor: "The Heisman Trophy is supposed to go to the
best college player in the country and in this case it did. Steve is the greatest
inside runner I've ever seen. He is remarkable at diagnosing defense and
finding holes. He has tremendous durability and strength."

The voting:

Steve Owens, Oklahoma     1,488
Mike Phipps, Purdue           1,334
Rex Kern, Ohio State             856
Archie Manning, Mississippi   582
Mike Reid, Penn State            297
Mike McCoy, Notre Dame     290
Jim Otis, Ohio State              121
Jim Plunkett, Stanford           120
Steve Kiner, Tennessee          109
Jack Tatum, Ohio State          105
Bob Anderson, Colorado         100
Lynn Dickey, Kansas State       49
John Isenbarger, Indiana          41
Bill Cappleman, Florida State    27

The week following the Heisman announcement, Owens' Sooners were
scheduled to play the arch-rival Oklahoma State Cowboys at Stillwater's Lewis
Field. "We struggled that year," Owens once recalled, "We had great
expectations but it was a disappointing season. We had a lot of injuries and
after going to the Orange Bowl and the Bluebonnet Bowl the previous two
years, I was really looking forward to me senior year.

"We lost some tough games that year to Texas, Kansas State, Missouri and
Nebraska. And I won the Heisman the week before the OSU game. The media
coverage put the whole team under a lot of pressure. It was a good way to put
that all behind me.

"I remember when we lined up in the I-formation, we were looking east and a
sign in one of the windows of a dorm across the street read 'Steve Who Won
What?' I remember looking at that sign every time we lined up. That really
inspired me."

Inspiration may be too mild a word. Owens responded with 55 carries, 261
yards, and two touchdowns as OU ground out a 28-27 victory.

No one, on or off the Oklahoma State campus, could now doubt Owens was
the proper choice for the coveted award.

After accepting the Heisman Memorial trophy Owens and his wife hitchhiked
down to the Texas-Arkansas game aboard Air Force 1 when President Nixon
learned he was unable to arrange travel from New York to Fort Smith,
Arkansas via commercial airlines.

On board, Nixon admired Owens' Heisman Trophy as well as Owens' gold
Heisman cuff links. Owens held on to the trophy but generously offered Nixon
the cuff links. "I'll only take these," said Nixon, "if you're sure you'll have another

Owens assured the President he could obtain another set, but shortly
thereafter confided to reporters that he wasn't too sure that was the case.

Word of this got back to Nixon, who then undid his own gold cufflinks and
presented them to Owens. They were no ordinary jewelry. Years before the
birth of Pat Nixon, her father had prospected for gold in the Black Hills of South
Dakota. Those cuff links were made from that gold.

Despite his Heisman selection, Owens was only the 19th selection in the NFL
draft. Again his false reputation for slowness dogged Owens. Said future
teammate Alex Karras: "I saw the kid on television in the Hula Bowl. The only
thing is there was something wrong with my set. It looked like they were
playing the game in slow motion. Look, maybe they'll make him a defensive

Owens suffered a disappointing 1970 season as he sustained a pre-season
separated shoulder. In the six games left of his season he gained just 122
yards in 36 attempts.

But he returned to peak performance in 1971, gaining 1,035 runs in 246
carries for Detroit— the first Lion to run for over 1,000 yards in a season and
only the 28th performer in NFL history to do so. The following season he ran
for a 74-yard touchdown and was named All-Pro, but the remainder of his pro
career was plagued by a variety of injuries. He missed the entire 1975 season
before retiring in 1977. "My only regret," Owens once stated, "was that I
physically wasn't able to play pro ball longer."

Owens later served as a color commentator for the Oklahoma Sooners radio
network and now operates a brokerage firm in Norman, Oklahoma. He wears
his celebrity well. When in 1991 his number (42) was retired by Miami High
School he noted that his two brothers and a nephew had all worn the number
and that he was accepting the honor not for himself but for his family. On being
inducted into the College Hall of Fame he gave full credit to his teammates.
And on entering the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame he contended: "Fame is a
vapor, popularity is an accident, money takes wings. The only things that
endure in life are love and friendship."

But in Steve Owens case, fame has not been a vapor. As his coach Chuck
Fairbanks once observed, "Steve is the rare combination of athlete and
person only a few coaches ever have the privilege of coaching in a lifetime."

The Owens 100-yard streak

Opponent                  Carries  Net
N. Car. State            37             164
Texas                       28             127
Iowa State                36             175
Colorado                   34             193
Kansas State              47             185
Kansas                      37             157
Missouri                    47             177
Nebraska                   41             172
Oklahoma State          34             120
SMUG                       36             113
Wisconsin                  40             189
Pittsburgh                  29             104
Texas                        30             123
Colorado                    28             112
Kansas State               29             105
Iowa State                 53              248
Missouri                    29              109
Kansas                      44               201