Hope felt lost inside Oklahoma Memorial Union.
It was there Steve Owens and his wife, Barbara, awaited an important phone call on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 1969. He was told he would know around 11 a.m. if he had won the Heisman Trophy, the award annually given to college football’s most outstanding player.
The phone didn’t ring, and he knew the Downtown Athletic Club called only the winner. Owens had to get to football practice soon, so he departed the union under the impression he fell short of becoming Oklahoma’s second Heisman Trophy winner. As he walked across campus to go prepare for his final game as a Sooner, he was stopped by someone who broke the news to him.
Owens had won the Heisman.
A trio of quarterbacks were his biggest challengers — Purdue’s Mike Phipps, Ohio State’s Rex Kern and Ole Miss’ Archie Manning. Each played for teams with better records than the 6-4 Sooners of 1969, but team success carried less weight with Heisman Trophy voting in Owens’ era.
Oklahoma RB Steve Owens
Purdue QB Mike Phipps
Ohio State QB Rex Kern
Ole Miss QB Archie Manning
What helped was that his name resonated with voters. He had a memorable performance in 1968 against powerhouse Nebraska, scoring five touchdowns in a 47–0 win on national television late in the year. Owens, then a junior, rushed for 1,536 yards and 21 touchdowns, but wouldn’t sniff the Heisman due to an even better season from Southern Cal running back and 1968 Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson.
The Nebraska game set Owens up to compete for the award his senior year when he once again tortured Big 8 Conference defenses. However, he wasn’t breaking off any long scampers to the end zone or producing any jaw-dropping highlights like most running backs who contend for the award today. Owens recorded only one rushing attempt for more than 40 yards in his career as a Sooner. The year he won the Heisman, Owens racked up 1,523 rushing yards on 358 carries and 23 touchdowns and averaged 4.3 yards per attempt.
“He was a workhorse,” said Barry Switzer, who was wrapping up his fourth season as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator when Owens won the Heisman.
“Not many people could carry the ball as many times as he did a game and hold up physically, but he did. He carried it 30-something times a game, but he was physically and mentally tough. Basically of all the yards he made, 90 percent of them were inside the tackles.”
Owens’ durability is rare in modern college football. He averaged 35.8 carries a game his Heisman-winning season. Alabama running backs Derrick Henry, the 2015 winner, and Mark Ingram, the 2009 winner, carried the ball 26.3 and 19.3 times per game, respectively, the seasons they won. You have to go back nearly two decades to find the last running back to win the award and average more than 30 carries a game — Ricky Williams of Texas, the 1998 winner, averaged 32.8 carries in his winning season.
All the more impressive for Owens was the lack of a strength and conditioning program like today’s tailbacks enjoy. In order to endure the weekly punishment of carrying the ball close to 40 times a game, Switzer recalls watching Owens remove his pads immediately after practice to go lift weights.
It was that type of work ethic and dedication that allowed him to win college football’s most prestigious individual award, which he never thought obtainable growing up in the 9.8-square mile town of Miami, Oklahoma.
• • •
Owens’ roots were nothing short of humble.
He credits much of his success to the lessons he learned as one of 11 children, the son of a truck driver and a mother who cleaned houses and took care of kids.
Owens himself worked at a shoe and clothing store, called the Hub, on the weekends in his tiny hometown in northeast Oklahoma. He’d sneak to the back of the shop to listen to the voices of Bob Barry Sr. and Jack Ogle calling Oklahoma football games on the radio during his shifts. It was there his passion for Oklahoma football began during the days of legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson.
“When I was young, I used to get every magazine I could find to read about the history of Oklahoma football,” Owens said. “At that time as just a kid, I was thinking, if I work hard and am fortunate, maybe someday I’ll have the opportunity to play at Oklahoma.”
Owens eventually developed into a football and track star in high school, drawing interest from Arkansas. Jim Mackenzie was an assistant coach for the Razorbacks at the time and heavily recruited Owens to stay within 100 miles of home just across the state line, as opposed to a 200-mile drive to Norman.
It was Owens’ dream to play for Oklahoma and walk in the footsteps of one of his first idols, 1952 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Vessels.
The only things holding Owens back from following his dream was Arkansas’ pitch to him as one of the best teams in the country in the late ’60s and Oklahoma struggling in the early years following Wilkinson’s retirement.
Wilkinson’s successor, Gomer Jones, lasted two seasons before stepping down in the aftermath of a 3-7 year in 1965. His departure made way for Mackenzie, however, to take over in Norman.
Convincing the running back he heavily recruited to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to change his mind wouldn’t be much of an issue.
“(Mackenzie) called me and said ‘forget all that stuff I’ve been telling you about Arkansas,’” Owens said. “‘You need to follow your dreams and go to Oklahoma.’”
• • •
Tragedy struck a year after Owens followed Mackenzie to Oklahoma.
Following a 6-4 season in 1966 that included a win over fourth-ranked Nebraska, Mackenzie died of a heart attack after returning to Norman from a recruiting to Amarillo, Texas, in the spring of 1967.
He was 37 years old.
Owens never got the chance to play for the man who brought him to Norman, because freshmen players weren’t eligible to play on the varsity until the NCAA changed the rule in 1972. But he stayed the course, and quickly became the star Mackenzie saw blossoming in Miami.
As a sophomore, Owens technically never started a game, according to Oklahoma football historian Mike Brooks. He shared time with the team’s more-experienced running back, Ron Shotts of Weatherford, Oklahoma. The two rotated series, but it was clear who was better.
“Owens was a budding star,” said Brooks, who started to closely follow Oklahoma football during Owens’ playing days. “Kind of think about Samaje Perine his sophomore year. He didn’t shy away from contact. Good, but not great speed, and very durable.”
Owens wasn’t flashy. He was a north-and-south runner, a slasher and could make you miss going straight ahead, Switzer said.
He made his living picking up four or five yards at a time and wearing down defenses that couldn’t pull him down. He was “Mr. Consistency,” Brooks said.
Switzer had a different name for the 6-foot-2, 200-pound back.
“I used to call him a Ricochet Romance,” Switzer said. “You hit him, most of the time people would come ricocheting off of him.”
One of the games Owens is best known for came Nov. 29, 1969, against Oklahoma State, a few days after he was named the 1969 Heisman winner.
He ran the ball for a grueling eight consecutive plays at one point against the Cowboys and was so worn down he was forced to make a request to his quarterback, Jack Mildren.
“Jack, you have to call timeout,” Owens pleaded. “I can’t breathe.”
The request was granted, confusing Switzer. The Oklahoma play-caller asked Mildren on the sideline who was responsible for the stop in action. Mildren told him it was Owens, to which Switzer replied, “Well, you tell him he can rest when the game is over.”
Owens powered through to finish with 261 yards rushing on a whopping 55 carries in Oklahoma’s classic 28–27 win over Oklahoma State, capping an already special week for the running back and leaving his final footprint on Owen Field.
• • •
A trip to New York City awaited Owens less than a week after his collegiate career ended against the Pokes.
Owens — along with his wife, parents, coaches and teammate Mike Harper, a close friend and the fullback who blocked for Owens in 1969 — flew to New York for the senior to accept college football’s most coveted individual accolade on Thursday, Dec. 4, 1969.
His trip became more unbelievable for the boy from Miami when he received a phone call from then-President Richard Nixon.
One of Nixon’s aides called to invite Owens and his wife to be the president’s guests to fly to the de facto national championship game that Saturday between No. 1-ranked Texas and No. 2 Arkansas, the school that once recruited him.
Owens’ Sooners had no bowl game to prepare for, so he took the president’s offer. He then flew to the city where he almost spent his collegiate days with Nixon on Air Force One before driving back to Norman from Fayetteville in a beat-up Chevy with some friends who went to the game.
“You just call recall those memories, and you don’t forget those things,” Owens said. “It was just a tremendous experience for me and my family.”
Nearly five decades later, Owens, who turns 70 on Dec. 9, feels blessed for everything Oklahoma gave him and his family. He was the No. 19 overall pick in the 1970 NFL Draft, playing from 1970-74 with the Detroit Lions, and was named to the Pro Bowl in ’71. He later became Oklahoma’s athletic director in 1996 before Joe Castiglione assumed the position in 1998. His younger brother, Tinker, also played for Oklahoma and was a two-time All-American receiver.
He’s grateful for the fraternity of Heisman winners he gets to share with his hero Vessels, Billy Sims, Jason White and Sam Bradford. He’s hoping OU quarterback Baker Mayfield — a frontrunner for the award following last week’s performance against Oklahoma State — will soon join them.
He never expected he would cement his legacy with a larger-than-life replica of himself outside Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. He didn’t expect any of this would happen when he was just the kid at the Hub, tuning into hear his heroes play on Owen Field where he’d later set Oklahoma’s program record for career rushing touchdowns with 57, which still stands.
“When I was a kid at that shoe store, I never thought I’d have a statue at OU,” Owens said. “I wanted to come here and be a part of this great tradition, but I never thought I’d have a statue.”