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 end."
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 wasâ€” 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 firstâ€”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 yardsâ€”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."
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 pair."
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 tackle."
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 Detroitâ€” 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 1968 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 1969 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