James Owens, the first black scholarship player to play football at Auburn, died Saturday at the age of 65, his family has confirmed.
Owens suited up for Auburn in 1969 and was battling multiple health issues over the last several years. He was on a list to undergo a heart transplant in 2012 and was also battling back problems.
Owens played fullback at Fairfield High in the late 1960’s and never thought he could attend Auburn or Alabama, let alone play football, as the SEC had just started the integration process at Kentucky in 1966.
Auburn assistant Jim Hilyer, however, offered him an opportunity to break the color barrier at Auburn.
Henry Harris was the first black basketball player at Auburn the previous year in 1968. The trailblazer proved to be a guiding light for Owens in a time of change on Auburn’s campus.
“The first three years that I was here, there were days I got up and said, this is the day,” Owens said in 2012. “I’m going home. It’s not worth it. And I would call my mom and say ‘I’m coming home.’ And she’d say, ‘No. Stay.'”
Owens heard racial epithets on and off the field, but powered through as a beacon for black football players in the SEC. He was kicked out of barbershops and bartenders refused to serve him, even while surrounded by his teammates. His teammates usually had his side and would leave alongside their teammate when service was refused at establishments.
Owens made his Auburn debut as a sophomore in an era when freshmen did not play during their first year. When he walked on the field for the first time, a section of wooden bleachers filled with black fans cheered and screamed out his name.
“I realized, it’s no longer about you,” Owens said in 2012. “It’s about all these that are believing in you, hoping in you. This thing that I’m doing is not for me to get to the next level, but for others to have an opportunity.”
Saddened by the passing of James Owens. He was a trailblazer, a true legend and great Auburn man. Thoughts and prayers are with his family.
— Coach Gus Malzahn (@CoachGusMalzahn) March 26, 2016
Owens rushed for 225 yards, picked up 119 receiving yards and scored five touchdowns, including a punt return, during his career.
“James Owens was the epitome of courage,” Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs said. “All of us at Auburn are forever indebted to him for the grace and courage he showed in being our first African-American player. It takes a special person to break down barriers and be first.
“My heart is broken, but I am inspired by what James meant to Auburn and to me. He did a lot more than make Auburn better. He taught those of us who played the game how to be courageous with quiet humility. My heart goes out to his family and friends. They are all in my prayers.”
Owens’ legacy lives on at Auburn, where the school established the James Owens Courage Award in 2012. His nephew, LaDarius, played football at Auburn for several seasons and the two would watch his games and critique his performances during the Tigers’ run to an SEC championship in 2013.
“Through this entire battle with this heart condition over the years he never showed an ounce of fear,” LaDarius Owens told AL.com Saturday. “No matter how much pain he was in or how he felt you would never know because he didn’t allow it.”
James Owens underwent six weeks of tests at UAB in 2012 to see if he qualified for a heart transplant. He also had to have surgery after a spot was discovered on his lungs. In February of 2013, Owens underwent surgery to alleviate spinal cord compression, which was among the reasons doctors pulled his name off the list of potential transplant recipients.
“We haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re thankful God has really blessed me, and one of the things I realize is I have to eat right and do the right things, but the heart, it’s a little stronger and we’re just praying God will completely heal us,” Owens said in 2013. “I still have problems with my back. That hurts me more.”