By Dr. Ken


In 1969 the winner of the Heisman Trophy was determined by the votes of 1,371 football writers and broadcasters as well as past Heisman winners. The award had already become little more than a “Best Quarterback Or Running Back Of The Year From A Prestigious Conference” Trophy but this was the tail end of voters giving some consideration to those from a broader range of conferences than they do today, as well as the occasional defensive performer. 1969 offered up a great group of potential winners including Steve Owens of Oklahoma, Archie Manning of Mississippi, Mike Phipps of Purdue, Rex Kern, Jim Otis, and Jack Tatum of Ohio state, Lynn Dickey of Kansas State, Dennis Dummit of UCLA, Jim Plunkett of Stanford, and defensive players Mike McCoy of Notre Dame and Mike Reid of Penn State as well as Tatum. All had supporters and all had reasons for supporting the vote or negating it. In Owens’ case, the Sooners’ 6 - 4 record was a black mark in voters’ minds as was the lackluster 7 – 4 mark of the 1968 season. However, in a time when only in-season games counted in the statistical compilation, Owens had a three season run of All Conference nominations and Big Eight rushing leader honors, and those regular season rushing totals of 808, 1536, and 1523 yards. The distinction of gaining over 150 yards per game consistently for two years was highlighted by the fact that he rushed the football 357 times in 1968 and 358 in ’69. Except for O.J. Simpson’s 355 carries in his Heisman winning season of ’68, no one else was close. Owens took a beating, primarily running inside against Texas, Colorado, and Kansas State, all tough-guy squads during those seasons. He had surpassed the conference rushing totals but his career rushing yards total and touchdowns per game average were NCAA records and his seventeen consecutive 100-yard games was something that no one before had approached when rushing for 100 yards in any game truly had meaning. Three of his senior outings resulted in 200-plus yard accomplishments.




Owens did win the Heisman, certainly for being a Consensus All American, his gaudy statistics, and excellent leadership and team oriented attitude. In fact he was so revered by his teammates that they issued a statement prior to his ’69 senior season that “Steve deserves the Heisman” and the squad was dedicated to helping him earn it. Minus today’s media-driven hoopla and immediate internet notification, the Heisman Trophy remained a singular honor but one that was most appreciated by those with a more intimate relationship to it. For Owens, it was a justification of his teammates’ play despite a disappointing record, and less of his individual ability or accomplishments. Loren Everett “Steve” Owens, born in Gore and having grown up in Miami, Oklahoma, had already exceeded his goal of “being good enough to play for the Miami High Wardogs.” Perhaps typical of rural youngsters in a long-ago era, he became attached to the powerful OU Sooners while listening to their games on the radio. As a three year high school starter, he filled the fullback and linebacker positions well, dreamed about playing in Norman, and college recruiters began their contact his junior year. Playing basketball and being the state champion in the high hurdles, high jump, and broad jump gave indication of his athletic ability and he was indeed “good enough” as a Miami Wardog, sharing the “Oklahoma Back Of The Year” designation with Rick Baldridge of Lawton who became his back-up with the Sooners. Always visualizing himself as a Sooner, Steve also built a strong relationship with Arkansas assistant Jim MacKenzie. With OU struggling through a 3 – 7 year and MacKenzie present to welcome him with open arms to Hog Nation, Owens was torn until Oklahoma head coach Gomer Jones was relieved of his duties and MacKenzie was named the new Sooners head man. The new head coach went to Steve and said, “…follow your dreams of becoming a Sooner” and he did although he missed his small hometown enough to consider leaving during his freshman year to attend junior college. The sudden death of Coach MacKenzie also brought a cloud that hung over the program. With six siblings at home, his father made it clear he would have to remain at OU if only because “we don’t have any room here.” Of course, his homesickness was overcome and his career was off to a hot beginning as in his second varsity game at OU, he ran for 129 yards against Maryland, kick-starting a surprising 10-1 mark in 1967 under new coach Chuck Fairbanks, with the only loss a 9 – 7 squeaker to rival Texas on the season’s third weekend.


Owens marked himself as a potential stand-out and in fact was, despite the step back the team took in his junior and senior seasons. The team had dedicated its 1967 season to the memory of Coach MacKenzie and there was an emotional letdown going into ’68. It was Steve’s consistency that made him such a valuable player and no one is going to argue the point that seventeen consecutive 100-plus yard games that spanned his entire senior season did not demonstrate consistency. Interestingly, the Heisman voting was completed and announced prior to OU’s final game of the season against Oklahoma State. Despite being the underdog, Steve’s collegiate finale performance of 261 yards on a NCAA record fifty-five carries would be the best of his entire career and lead his squad to a 28 – 27 upset victory. Rushing for two touchdowns also sealed his position as the nation’s leading scorer as well as leading rusher. Owens made the statement, “"That was the greatest individual game I've played, the Heisman Trophy stuff was over and I didn't have to worry about it. I tried to play like a Heisman Trophy winner and I think I did." He also won the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award and completed his collegiate career as the holder of seven NCAA rushing records and nine Big Eight Conference marks.




Owens always gave credit to his blocking, especially that of fullback Mike Harper, a 5’11”, 190 - pounder, and as much as anything else, that defined who Owens was, truly a “team first” individual. He had tremendous respect for the OU staff that included Galen Hall, Barry Switzer, Larry Lacewell, and Pat James and prior to the 1969 finale against Oklahoma State, the word was circulating that this could in fact be the finale for Fairbanks and his staff also. Owens took it upon himself to bring the captains together and stated, “Look, these coaches are great coaches, we got to go win this game for them.” He saw the future potential of both the staff and the recent recruiting class, knew that the darker days of the Gomer Jones years and the death of Jim MacKenzie were behind the team, and wanted his school to move forward without interruption. The OSU team, in addition to being a rare favorite over its in-state rival, had talent with an NFL first round draft choice in tackle John Ward and Cleveland’s second round pick Jerry Sherk. Without a bowl game to look forward to, this Bedlam Series game, especially on the infrequent occasion of a Cowboys victory prediction, marked a special occasion and for Owens, his swan song. He and his teammates made it count, leaving a great “last impression” for pro scouts prior to the 1970 draft.


Thus, we have Steve Owens, clean-cut, a family man married to his high school sweetheart, highly respected for his team oriented and selfless play. He was never in trouble and served as a reflection of the solid values instilled in him by what was at the time, his rural Oklahoma upbringing. In fact his dad was driving a truck through Dallas on the day the Heisman award was announced and pulled into a truck stop to call home and ask his wife, “Did the boy win that there trophy?” The “personal stuff” was not the emphasis. The Veer and Wishbone had been introduced and were taking off as the dominant offenses in college football thus a hard-nosed, run-the-ball-inside tough guy back like Owens was on the cutting edge of being an offensive engine’s important component after a competent run-and-pitch quarterback. Why then, is he not one of the most memorable Heisman Trophy honorees in the minds of fans and historians?



My “partner-in-crime” during my elementary school years was Richard Landsman. Like me, a solid athlete and student, he was also a football nerd, a kinship that has kept our relationship going to this day six decades later. Although we were perhaps too young to appreciate the exploits of Billy Vessels, Alan Ameche, and Paul Hornung, we certainly knew who they were and what they had accomplished. By the time John David Crow won the 1957 Heisman Trophy, we were full-fledged college football fans and we were ecstatic when our very favorite player, Pete Dawkins was named the winner for 1958 [ see HELMET HUT  http://www.helmethut.com/College/Army/NYUSMA5758.html ]. This added justification for altering our Pop Warner League uniforms from the blue and white our teammates wore to our home-altered spray painted gold helmets with black electrical tape striping. Some winners, as Richard and I traced them through the years, especially “our years,” were more memorable than others. However, in recounting the Heisman winners of the sixties and early seventies, why we wondered, do so many fans and so-called historians easily flow through the names “Davis, Staubach, Garrett, Spurrier, Beban, OJ, Plunkett, Rogers, Cappelletti, and Griffin.” They usually recall Terry Baker because the Rams had no idea how to effectively use a Single Wing back in the pros, John Huarte because he was from Notre Dame, and Pat Sullivan because it was the final time serious consideration was given to an Ivy League player in the form of record setting Ed Marinaro who surpassed Owens’ marks and is often deemed a more worthy recipient than Sullivan was. Steve Owens? Frequently a footnote, much like Gary Beban, ‘67’s winner although the latter was from “glamorous” UCLA and had a hot and heavy rivalry with Simpson.



Unfortunately, fans often equate a Heisman Trophy holder’s professional career with their college exploits, with one somehow justifying the other. Owens has a well-earned place in the College Football Hall Of Fame and how would he not? His professional career which began as the nineteenth player taken in the NFL Draft by the Lions also began with a pre-season shoulder injury, limiting his participation to but six games and thirty-six carries. He roared back to expected greatness in ’71, rolling up 1045 yards and putting in 246 carries. He became a Pro Bowl player and the first Detroit Lion to gain 1000 rushing yards in a season. Despite being in a backfield crowded with excellent talent, Owens was a cog but had a decreasing number of carries despite “always coming to play” as his coaches put it, and suffered the effects of injury. The final blow occurred without a blow being delivered on Thanksgiving Day in 1974. Owens leaped over a fallen Packers opponent, hit the slick turf and went down with a devastating left knee injury. The damage cost him the entire 1975 season in rehabilitation and despite some reports that he would attempt a comeback in ’76, the reports going into the Lions camp stated that “Owens must be considered questionable until he survives the tests of the preseason. As a precaution, the Lions used their second No. 1 draft choice for Lawrence Gaines, a power fullback.” That precaution proved necessary as Owens announced his retirement, unable to perform up to his standards. He completed his pro career with 2,451 yards and twenty rushing touchdowns while adding another 861 receiving yards with two touchdowns.


Perhaps the disappointment of his professional career in some way tarnished his memory as a pile driving and pile moving force that set NCAA records. Certainly “those who count” remembered as Steve was voted into the College Football Hall Of Fame, the Oklahoma Sports Hall Of Fame, the Orange Bowl Hall Of Honor, and was named the Walter Camp Foundation Alumnus Of The Year. He proved to be a successful business executive and returned to Norman to serve as Oklahoma’s Athletic Director from 1996 to 1998, a position he left for the sake of his family after the passing of his son. He has devoted a tremendous amount of time to various national and local charitable endeavors. A statue of Steve Owens stands outside of OU’s Memorial Stadium where he remains a revered figure but for those nationally, he is one of the Heisman winners most deserving of praise, yet one that is often neglected.