NEW YORK — Oklahoma football legend Steve Owens celebrates his 70th birthday on Saturday, and Baker Mayfield can give him a once-in-a-lifetime present.
“A big birthday gift for me,” Owens said, “would be for Baker to be our sixth Heisman Trophy winner.”
If — OK, when — Mayfield joins OU’s most exclusive fraternity during Saturday night’s Heisman Trophy ceremony at the PlayStation Theater in Times Square, Owens has a gift for him, too.
It’s called the gift of wisdom, and Mayfield’s first wise move in this whirlwind year of offseason transgressions and historic success and faux outrage would be to pair up with and learn from Oklahoma’s Greatest Heisman Trophy Winner.
Owens carries that title not because of his exploits on the football field, which were historic and unprecedented and in many ways still unmatched 48 years later.
Owens became Oklahoma’s Greatest Heisman Trophy Winner by reaching out to, befriending and mentoring the Sooners’ two Heisman winners after him, Billy Sims and Jason White, helping them become successful businessmen and productive citizens long after the stiffarms stopped.
“That’s one thing I was always told,” White told The Franchise, “is that Steve has done such a great job representing the Heisman Trophy and representing the school. I was always told, ‘Hey, you should really pay attention to how he conducts himself and how he handles his business.’ So I’ve always observed how he treats people and how he does things.
“He’s done great job of just keeping his name clean and doing the right thing and helping out in the community. He’s kind of like the poster child for the Heisman and what it stands for.”
“He’s always been there for me,” Sims told The Franchise. “Even now. From my freshman year to now, he’s been a great friend, no question.”
Owens’ reputation as the nicest guy on the planet is well earned. But in truth, even those he has helped along the way don’t know the full extent of Owens’ compassion and generosity because he has done the same thing for so many others.
The most shining example is Sims.
The 1978 Heisman winner, who became the No. 1 overall pick for the Detroit Lions in the 1980 NFL Draft, Sims got a $1 million signing bonus and a contract worth nearly $200,000 a year. And after his career was wrecked by a knee injury, he got a $1.75 million Lloyds of London insurance settlement.
But by the mid-1990s, Sims was broke. Sims wasn’t a bad guy. He certainly wasn’t a dummy. But he was far too trusting and fell victim to one bad investment after another. He was frequently in bankruptcy court, was sued several times for child support and even had to sell his beloved Heisman Trophy.
That was the last straw for Owens. He found Sims’ Heisman, paid top dollar for it and gave it to Sims.
“He recovered it, got it back, didn’t charge me anything,” Sims said, “and life goes on.”
Owens, who built a multi-million dollar insurance and investment business with Steve Owens Insurance Group, took his Heisman brother under his wing, helped him get back on his feet on the memorabilia and autograph circuit (the three of them have partnered with Coca-Cola and Walmart for autograph sessions for 11 years now), then helped Sims land with some savvy investments and strong business connections.
Today, there are 53 Billy Sims Barbecue locations in six states.
“I never saw all these stores coming up,” Sims said. “Actually, I didn’t think it was gonna work at all. I was real reluctant to put my name on it. Because I knew if the food wasn’t any good, especially in Oklahoma, I was definitely gonna hear about it.”
In White’s case, after his bad knees forced him to quit football for good, he jumped into a career as an investment broker. But “that wasn’t my thing, sitting behind a desk all day,” he said.
White was naturally shy with a guarded demeanor at OU — not ideal for networking purposes. So Owens brought White on board in the premium finance industry, and White’s personality has blossomed. While working for Owens, White opened his sports apparel shops, A Store Divided, and that led to his involvement as the main pitchman for Air Comfort Solutions.
“Just being able to kind of hit the ground running, having an office with him, watching him, being able to office with him was important,” White said. “Because I could always bounce things off him being right there, I could see how he conducted himself with clients that came into his office. That was always a big help. Any of my decisions, even when I left the premium finance job, I talked to him about it. I’ve always relied on him for his opinion because he’ll shoot you straight and he has your best interests.”
From shy Heisman winner to statewide spokesman, from financially strapped Heisman winner to barbecue magnate. That’s the power of knowing Steve Owens. That’s real Sooner Magic.
“Seriously, that’s how I feel about those two guys,” Owens told The Franchise. “I spend so much time with Billy and Jason. I talk to them weekly, we discuss things, we visit, we talk. We’re best friends. So this relationship is awful special to me. It’s been a great thing.”
Owens actually regards his mentorship of Sims and White — and Sam Bradford, if he were to ever need it — as something of a responsibility. It’s another reason why Owens is so eager reach out to Mayfield one day soon.
“I’ll tell you a quick story,” Owens said. “Billy Vessels (OU’s 1952 Heisman winner), who was my hero, he was a class act. So after I won the Heisman, he stayed close to me. He stayed in touch. And actually, when I got honored in my hometown, he flew from Florida to Miami, Okla., to be the speaker. I never forgot that. And we became best friends. He always told me, he said, ‘You look after our Heisman Trophy winners.’
“So Billy (Sims) and I became really best of friends, and still are. I’ve stayed close to Billy. And of course, Jason, I feel like we’re best friends. I feel like I should always be there for those guys. … Listen, that’s something I take seriously, and I tell those guys, ‘If I can help you, I’m always there for you.’ ”
Mayfield, like Bradford, will soon be off to the NFL, and he’ll be just fine financially. But Mayfield could certainly use some mentoring from someone who’s been there, from someone who truly cares, from someone who has invested himself in OU’s Heisman winners.
In Owens, Mayfield has access to one of sporting America’s most dignified and classiest gentlemen. Mayfield already is acquainted with Owens’ younger brother, former OU All-American Tinker Owens, but there’s no doubt that starting a relationship with 1969 Heisman Trophy Winner Steve Owens would be in Mayfield’s best interest.
Mayfield’s youthful exuberance, brash behavior and occasional lapses in judgment have resulted in three public apologies this year. His arrest in Fayetteville, Arkansas, last February for public intoxication and running from the police was a lapse in judgment, his profane crotch-grabbing this season in Lawrence, Kansas, was brash behavior. And his midfield flag plant in Columbus, Ohio, earlier this fall was youthful exuberance.
How does the ultra-classy Owens, a product of the ‘60s who built a business empire on a sterling reputation and unassailable integrity, reconcile Mayfield’s antics off the field with his amazing play on the field?
“It’s a different time today,” Owens said. “It’s not my style, but these types of things happen, and it’s him. He’s a competitor, and just great player.”
“Sometimes as a young kid,” Sims said, “you do some things you wish you hadn’t done. But overall, he represents the university well.”
“We all make mistakes when we’re young and do stuff that we shouldn’t do,” said Owens. “And I think he’s experienced that, and he’s certainly learned from that. Hey, those type things — just go play football. That’s all you have to do is play. If you go play, the rest of the stuff will take care of itself.
“We all learn from our experiences. I still think when I came to OU, I was just a kid, just a young kid and wanted to learn everything I could about how to do stuff the right way. I figured it was a process for me and for most kids who come to college. So I think the experiences that Baker has had have been life experiences that he’ll learn from.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.