Jalen Hurts’ journey this week to New York as Oklahoma’s latest Heisman Trophy finalist has been quite the tale.
But no college football player before or since will ever top Steve Owens’ Heisman Trophy experience.
From winning the most iconic award in American sport to a record-setting performance in his final collegiate game to sitting between a couple of religious icons to chatting up the most powerful man in the world, Owens made more memories in the span of 10 days in 1969 than most people do in a lifetime.
“Just an incredible week,” Owens told The Franchise this week. “Incredible memories.”
It was 50 years ago last week that Owens became Oklahoma’s second Heisman winner. Now 72, Owens embraces his role as OU’s Heisman steward, and his memory of it all burns like a white-hot flame.
“That week I won the Heisman seems like so long ago,” he said, “but a lot of it seems like yesterday.”
On a Tuesday afternoon in 1969, Owens and his wife Barbara waited in the student union for the phone call that never came. Then, disappointed and on his way to practice, Owens was stopped by someone from the campus radio team with the news: he had indeed won the 35th Heisman Trophy.
His dad, then a trucker on a long haul in Texas, pulled off the road to find a payphone. He called Owens’ mom and asked, “That boy win that trophy?”
The following Saturday, Owens carried the football 55 times for 261 yards in a season-ending victory over Oklahoma State.
Then, with his wife and his fullback and his coaches and his parents — it was Olen “Peanut” and Cherry Owens’ first airplane trip — Owens flew to New York on a Thursday, Dec. 4, to begin the unlikeliest of odysseys.
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College football was celebrating its 100th official year in 1969, so it had to be an historic Heisman event.
There was no ESPN Heisman show in 1969 — no ESPN, actually — so and no pomp and circumstance, no tour of Manhattan, no pre-Heisman buildup. When Owens and his troupe landed in New York, they dressed for dinner and went straight to the Downtown Athletic Club to pick up the trophy — no big announcement, no drama, countdown, no TV.
That night, Owens and his party met Joe Namath and Tom Seaver, two New York sports icons. That blew everyone’s mind — Namath was on his way to winning the Super Bowl with the Jets, and Seaver had just won the Cy Young Award on his way to pitching the Amazin’ Mets to a World Series title.
But it wasn’t until the next night, after picking up his trophy, that things got really crazy for Owens.
NBC’s “The Tonight Show” originated from New York at the time, and whenever someone did something newsy in New York, the show’s producers tried to book that guest. The Heisman winner had become something of a standby.
So when Owens showed up to 30 Rockefeller Plaza for his bit with TV icon Johnny Carson, he was led to the green room to wait for his segment.
A few minutes later, a massive entourage of people rolled in. The quiet one among the loud and garish group sat next to Owens. It was heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali.
Within five minutes, another towering figure walked in: actor Charlton Heston sat on Owens’ other side.
“Moses!” Owens recalls. “So I’m sitting between Muhammad Ali and Moses. And here I am of course just overwhelmed by these two people.”
The 1969 Downtown Athletic Club’s Heisman Trophy Journal. (PHOTO: Heisman archives)
He was too shy to introduce himself, too cool to ask for an autograph.
But when one of Carson’s aides opened the door and asked which one was Steve Owens, the tenor in the room changed.
“I raised my hand,” Owens said. “She says, ‘You got a call from the President of the United States.’
“And Muhammad and Charlton looked at each other and said, ‘Well who in the hell is this guy?’ ”
Owens just smirked, thinking it was one of his Sooner teammates.
“I thought it was a joke,” he said. “I thought it was probably Steve Zabel, you know, punking me. But I got on the phone and it was an aide to President Nixon. He wanted Barb and I to fly to the Texas-Arkansas game, which was being played (in Fayetteville) for the national championship.”
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So the next day, Steve and Barbara hurried to Washington D.C., where they were met and taken to an air base.
“They put us on Air Force One,” Owens said, “and had a chance to spend about 45 minutes with the President of the United States.”
Meeting Richard Nixon was no doubt a big moment for Steve Owens. But Nixon, being America’s most famous college football fan, also got a thrill out of meeting the Miami Wardog who had carried the Sooners to so many victories.
Nixon presented Owens with a pair of cufflinks bearing the official Presidential seal. So Owens presented Nixon with a pair of cufflinks bearing the image of the Heisman Trophy.
Because of foul weather and small airports in Northwest Arkansas, Air Force One landed in Fort Smith. They caught a chopper — Marine One — to Fayetteville and landed just after kickoff, then enjoyed that year’s “Game of the Century,” a 15-14 victory by No. 1 Texas over No. 2 Arkansas that sent the Longhorns to the national championship.
After the game, Steve and Barbara rode back to Norman with some friends in an old pickup truck.
“Just a kid from Miami and his wife, experiencing those type of things — just an incredible week,” Owens said. “Incredible memories.”
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Owens, who was a three-event stud in track and also an all-conference basketball player at Miami, was a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions and went on to play six years in the NFL before knee injuries ended his career.
Since his playing days, he has been a successful Norman businessman and even served his alma mater as athletic director from 1996-98, preceding current AD Joe Castiglione and the school’s two-decade boom.
But maybe his most important role has been as OU’s Heisman steward. He learned immediately from the Sooners’ 1952 Heisman winner how important that role would be.
“Billy Vessels told me after I won the Heisman, he said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna have more Heisman Trophy winners. Make sure you look after ‘em,’ ” Owens said. “And of course, Billy (Sims) came in ’78 and Jason (White) came in ’03, and I’ve become so close to those guys.”
After a knee injury also wrecked his career with the Lions, Sims famously ran into financial hardship in the 1990s — issues with child support and his Heisman being sold off/not sold/bought back/a doorstop at his mother’s house.
It was Owens — his guidance, his kindness — who shepherded Sims out of that turmoil into financial stability and helped Sims become a regional restaurant baron and regain his self-esteem as the school’s unofficial Heisman mascot. Sims’ brash shouts of “Boomer!” four times since 2003 might rub some people the wrong way, but not Owens.
And after multiple knee injuries wrecked any chance White had of playing professionally and he transitioned into his post-football career without a real sense of direction, it was Owens — his leadership, his generosity — who helped steer White into several successful business ventures.
Now, whether it’s barbecue or HVAC, Sims and White have become ubiquitous images across the state of Oklahoma, and they have Owens — and their own Heisman success — to thank for it.
They have become a trio, inseparable, constantly touring the state on autograph junkets, charity golf outings and football get-togethers. They raise money and awareness and community spirit, but they also reap the rewards of the title, “Heisman winner.”
With the kind of money that Sam Bradford, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray got paid as No. 1 overall draft picks, those three will probably never need Owens’ help — not financially, anyway. But he says he’ll always be there for them if they need anything else.
And they would be wise to take him up on that. Fame can be fleeting. Wealth can be hollow. Owens’ own time on earth has been filled with the kind of triumphs and tragedies that make up the tapestry of a full life.
“I’ve tried to stay close to ‘em,” Owens said. “Of course, to the younger guys, I won it 50 years ago, so I think to them, I’m just a statue.
“But I’m really proud of Kyler and Baker. And of course Jalen this year, he’ll be at the Heisman and have a chance — gonna be tough for him to win it — but I think it’s a great tribute to him that he’s invited to the Heisman. So, really proud of Jalen.
“Hey, the thing about Jalen, I haven’t had a chance to meet him, but I’m so impressed. You can just tell by interviews and the way he conducts himself, he is a winner. I mean, he is a competitor. He has all his priorities in the right place. So I think I’m looking forward to the semifinals (No. 4-ranked OU plays No. 1 LSU on Dec. 28 in the College Football Playoff) because I think Jalen’s gonna come up big-time. Just really proud of him.”
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Aside from Vessels’ advice, why has Owens felt the need to be a steward for other Oklahoma Heisman winners?
“Well, I think it’s pretty simple,” he said. “When I came here to this place, I was an Oklahoma fan. And I grew up wanting to be an Oklahoma Sooner. And when I came here, all the dreams I had as a kid came true here. This place is special to me.
“And of course, Billy Vessels … was one of my heroes, but he became a dear friend. And of course, we stayed in contact yearly, for all those years after I won the Heisman. We lost Billy Vessels in 2000, and I was put in that position to be the (Sooners’) oldest Heisman Trophy winner. This place is so important to me and our state and I think us, this small state has produced — this university — has produced seven Heisman Trophy winners, which is the most by any school, tied with Ohio State and I think Southern Cal (and Notre Dame), so that says something about us here.
“But this university, this program, the people here, are important to me. I’m from Oklahoma. I’m proud of this state. I’m proud of this university. I’m a big part of it. I just turned 72 Monday. I’m still here. And I think it’s important for us to continue this great tradition we have here at this university and in this state. It’s just something that’s so important to me.”
Being a Heisman winner means a trip to New York every December for life, plus all the camaraderie and indelible memories and pats on the back that come with it. And every year, the Heisman Trust honors past winners on their 10th, 25th and 50th anniversaries. Last year, Sam Bradford was honored, but he was unable to attend the ceremony.
This year, as OU sends Hurts (the Sooners’ fifth Heisman finalist in four years) to attend Saturday’s announcement ceremony (he’s a big underdog to LSU’s Joe Burrow), Owens will be honored on Sunday night at the annual Heisman Dinner Gala for taking home the trophy that special week 50 years ago.
“I wrestled with this,” Owens said. “I’ve got some issues, some health issues with family members, and I had to make a decision to stay here and help out with that or take a trip to New York City. So I’m gonna stay here.
“But hey, I sent Billy Sims, and he’ll be there, and he’s gonna represent me at the Heisman for my 50th. So I know one thing: when he’s finished with his remarks, he’ll say, ‘Boomer!’ ”
Formerly co-host of “Further Review” and “The Franchise Drive,” columnist John E. Hoover is a college football insider on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. 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. Hoover co-hosts The Franchise “Inside OU” Podcast with Brady Trantham and Rufus Alexander, and the Locked oN Sooners podcast on the Locked oN Podcast Network. He also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his YouTube channel at YouTube.com/c/JohnHoover, and his personal page at johnehoover.com.