At Saturday’s ULM game, the Auburn Athletics Department will present the first James Owens Courage Award to the man who broke the color barrier on the football field at Auburn. Owens, who became the first African-American scholarship football player at Auburn in 1969, will receive the inaugural award named in his honor.
The James Owens Courage Award will be presented annually to a current or former Auburn football player who has displayed courage in the face of adversity, distinguishing himself while contributing to the betterment of Auburn University.
A Fairfield native, Owens lettered at Auburn as a fullback from 1969-72. During three seasons on the varsity, he helped Auburn to a 28-5 record and played a key role on the 1972 Amazin’s team, which defied the odds and finished the season with a 10-1 record and a top five national finish. The New Orleans Saints drafted Owens in the 11th round of the NFL Draft after his senior season at Auburn.
Here are some of the comments from Owens and Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs at today's football press conference:
Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs:
“It’s a blessing to be here with James Owens. As many of you know, a few weeks ago we announced the James Owens Courage Award. I don’t know of a football player in Auburn history that has faced adversity and shown courage from working for the betterment of Auburn University than James Owens.
“As you know, he was the first African-American scholarship football player in 1969 for Auburn, and he played on the 1972 Amazin’ team. I believe in his career he was 28-5. He was a fullback that led the path for the running backs, and since his days of playing he has led the path of opportunity for many people including some of us here in this Athletics Department.
“We intend to try annually to look for a former or current football player that has displayed courage in the face of adversity while doing the same thing that James has done in making Auburn University a better place.
“It is, again, an honor to be here with James, and James, we appreciate so much what all you have done for Auburn University, so we thought that it was only fitting that the first James Owens Courage Award goes to the man that has overcome more than most everybody else and that’s Mr. James Owens. We look forward to seeing you Saturday pregame as we recognize you.
“James has asked that his teammates come be on the sideline with him, so as many of those guys that can come back James wants to share this award. He said, ‘I want my teammates there.’ So, as many of those guys from the years that he played here can be with him on the sideline on the field they will be there as well.”
Former Auburn Football Player James Owens
On how he found out about the award…
“I came to practice the first practice of the fall season, the scrimmage, and I walked on the field and Jay Jacobs came up and he mentioned that they wanted to do something for me. He let me know that they wanted to give me an award, and he said courage. I never thought anything about me having courage, but it’s an awesome award.
“After we talked for a few minutes, and Terry Henley called me, and Henley and (Thomas) Gossom were on the phone, and they said, ‘Do you realize what you heard?’ and I said, ‘I was given an award.’ I didn’t realize it would be yearly based. Henley and Gossom were talking and all three of us began to shout War Eagle. It is something that I am awfully proud and honored to be able to receive.”
On his amazement looking back at what he has been through…
“I have to say that when I was coming up I never dreamed of going to Auburn or Alabama. That was the dream. I was talking to someone when I was coming up all of the people that I knew worked at U.S. Steel. Football has been a joy for me, and I played the game because I loved it, and when I came to Auburn I didn’t realize that it was a big deal at that time. I was too young to realize what was going on, but after everything that has happened over the years I am thankful and honored that James Owens, a little barefoot boy running those coals and whatever, will never be forgotten because of what God has allowed to happen.”
On what he remembers about enrolling in Auburn and starting his career…
“Fear -- not knowing what to expect living in a new era, being the only one different in skin color. Fear was the greatest thing about it all, not really knowing what was going to happen. But having Henry Harris -- he was here -- he was the first African-American basketball player. He signed the first scholarship, and Henry was a great leaning pole for me because he had been here a year earlier, and he helped me through a whole lot of things that I don’t think I could have gotten through without Henry Harris.”
On if he has talked to any of the current football players…
“Yes, I’ve talked to a great many of the players, and the thing is to keep them encouraged all through whatever might happen, to have hope and believe that anything could happen. I often tell them our song War Eagle -- “ever to conquer and never to yield” -- that’s what Auburn University and the Auburn University Family is all about, getting over the hurdle. The young guys that come around, a lot of them are like I am right now. It’s all about the Auburn Family, and we are so excited about, even now at 0-2, I’m so excited because everything happens for a reason. Nobody wanted to bet on the turtle. Everybody wanted to bet on the rabbit because he’s faster, but the Bible says that the race is not given to the swift. It is about enduring until the end, and we haven’t gotten to the end, and we will overcome.”
On what he expects Saturday…
“Excitement, joy, honor and having my teammates there with me. These young guys, at 18-, 19- years old, we all went through the same struggles. I have a lot of family members that are coming, and we can all share this award. We’re just honored and privileged to be able to receive this award.”
On his life after Auburn…
“After I left Auburn, I returned back to Fairfield. I struggled a lot because I worked at U.S. Steel. There were day-to-day struggles, and I guess the thing about it all was God was preparing me for something special. There were a lot of knocks and a lot of disappointments, but I have a beautiful wife, Gloria and three daughters that we have and three grandkids, and God called me into the ministry. That’s awesome! Out of all of the people that could have been called out of all of the great things that go on in the world, God chose me to do the most important thing, and that is to deliver his Word. That’s why I’m not afraid of this health issue. I’m not afraid of anything that I have to face because I know that God has something else for me to do. He’s just putting me through a test right now. I’m 0-2 right now, but I am going to keep fighting until the victory is won, and I am not going to give up.”