AUBURN – James Owens had taken Coach Shug Jordan’s words to heart. Jordan had told Auburn players their hair was getting too long. Owens, a freshman running back, went straight to the Auburn Barber Shop near campus. He was about to learn a hard lesson about life in the Alabama of the time.
Redshirt freshman defensive end LaDarius Owens
There were no other customers when Owens walked in. The barber was sitting in his chair, reading the newspaper. At the first sight of Owens, he jumped to his feet.
“I didn’t know any better,” Owens says. “The guy jumps up and says ‘Please leave. I can’t cut your hair and you are going to ruin my business.’ Things like that stick with a young man who didn’t know what to do.”
The year was 1969. It had been six years since George Wallace’s infamous stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama, and integration was the law of the land. Earlier that year, Owens had become the first African-American to sign a football scholarship with Auburn. He’d left the warm embrace of his family in Fairfield for a strange, new world, one that would test him like he’d never been tested before.
On Saturday afternoons, he was “Big O,” who would become one of the more popular players of his time as the bruising fullback on the 1972 Amazin’s, a team that won 10 games when it was expected to win no more than three. But away from the cheering crowd, he was alone.
“For four years, every day that I got up, the first thing I’d do is look in the mirror and say ‘I’m going home to day. This is the day I leave here,’” Owens says. “I’d call my mom and tell her I was coming home. She’d encourage me not to quit, not to give up.”
More than four decades later, Owens watched on television at his Auburn home last Saturday as redshirt freshman defensive end LaDarius Owens, getting his first chance at significant playing time, made one of the plays of the game with an open-field tackle for a loss in Auburn’s victory over Florida Atlantic last season. He made other plays, too.
LaDarius Owens is James Owens’ nephew, the son of his sister, Ora Owens. The significance was not lost on the uncle or the nephew, as close as father and son.
“I was always proud I had an uncle that was the first African-American here and played football at Auburn,” LaDarius says, “but once I got older and started being recruited, that’s when he broke it down for me, everything he went through.
James Owens during his playing days at Auburn
“I didn’t know it was so rough for him. During the season everybody patted him on the back. After the season, it was segregated. He had to drive two hours just to get a haircut. He said there were plenty of times he wanted to go home. He said his teammates kept him here and encouraged him.”
James Owens lives in Auburn. He’s the pastor at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in Dadeville. He couldn’t have imagined in those days that so many African-Americans would have opportunities for greatness at Auburn and other schools across the South, that his own nephew would be one of them.
“Somebody had to do it,” LaDarius says. “I’m very prideful about that. He made the way for all of us - the Cam Newtons, the Nick Fairleys, the Carnell Williamses. It’s a real honor for that to be my uncle, for me to have him in my life to give me advice and be there when I need them.”
Even in 2011, there are challenges. But LaDarius says they are nothing like those faced by his uncle, who was one of only a handful of African-American students on the Auburn campus.
“That’s just a part of life,” LaDarius says. “It is what it is. A lot of people are in denial, but it is still around. I’m just thankful everybody is not like that anymore. Times have changed. You have to let people deal with their own issues. That’s another thing he taught me. We just leave it up to God and do to the best of our ability what He wants us to do.”
That’s the way LaDarius was raised back in Bessemer. His father has not been part of his life, but his mother, his uncles and the rest of his extended family were always there.
“His mother did a great job raising him, practically by herself,” James says. “She is his biggest example. You don’t have to have a lot. Don’t hold your head down. Hold your head up and do your best.”
LaDarius became a star football player at Jess Lanier High School. He chose in 2010 over a host of offers. He planned on playing early, but fate intervened. He was redshirted.
“It was hard, but I needed that,” LaDarius says. “I’m not going to lie. The Lord does stuff to prepare you for the next step. It humbled me and helped me realize where I need to come from.”
LaDarius was recruited as a linebacker, but after spring practice, he was moved to defensive end. That wasn’t easy, either.
In the hard times, he turns to his uncle for advice and help. Having family so close by, he says, has plenty of advantages. Not the least of them is the opportunity to eat his Aunt Gloria’s cooking. Sometimes he takes teammates along.
“I talk to him just about every day,” LaDarius says. “He tells me what I need to do and work on and stuff like that. I was out of gas one night and I called him. It’s real convenient for me. When I want some real home-cooked food, my auntie cooks for me.”
His uncle, LaDarius says with a laugh, takes advantage.
“He manipulates it,” LaDarius says. “She cooks more for me than for him. He’ll say ‘Aren’t you hungry? The boy says he’s hungry now. Don’t you need to cook?’ A lot of guys say I recruited them here. My mom is the biggest Auburn fan in the world, so she comes in and talks to everybody, too.”
James Owens admits there was a time when he was bitter about his Auburn experience. But today, he watches his nephew play, meets his nephew’s teammates, and he knows it was all worthwhile.
“When I was there, I didn’t realize what I was there for,” he says. “The Lord put me there for a reason. To see these young guys have the success they have means a lot. At one time I said I wouldn’t do it over, but now I would do it over and over and over because I’m so proud of all these young guys. I think the Lord for using me to be an example.”
James Owens was the ultimate team player at Auburn. He had a combination size, speed and athleticism unmatched on the Auburn teams of his time. But, in the end, it was his role to block and Terry Henley’s role to run. He shares those lessons with LaDarius.
“We are teaching him and talking with him to be patient,” James says. “His day will come. I’m glad once he’s out there he does his best to be part of the team. That’s the thing we want him to realize. It’s not about him.”
Most of all, James Owens is proud of the relationship he has with his nephew, one that has grown only closer over the years.
“We are close,” he says. “His father hasn’t really been part of his life. I try to be a father figure for him. I’m proud of him. He’s grown up to be quite a young man, a great person. I couldn’t be more proud of him if he was my own son.”