If you wanted to make something happen, you handed off to Artie Owens.
That move was a pretty big part of the offensive game plan for West Virginia University’s football Mountaineers from 1972-75.
Those were the years when Owens notched up yards like nobody’s business. The tenacious tailback who wore No. 24 on his jersey employed an old-school mix of open-field finesse and just plain muscle to bob and bowl his way to a Mountaineer record of 2,648 rushing yards.
The gold-and-blue gridiron resume of the East Stroudsburg, Pa., native also includes 13 100-yard rushing games, and Owens even ran a kickoff back for a touchdown against the fearsome Penn State in 1973 to cement his legend.
Owens went on to make things happen in the National Football League, as a star with the San Diego Chargers (where he netted 999 career yards in kickoff returns alone), and as a solid, journeyman contributor with the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots.
But for him, all those yards kept looping back to one place WVU .
On Sunday, May 16, the day of the University’s 135 th Commencement, the tailback will tie up some loose ends in Morgantown. He’ll do the one thing he wasn’t able to do as a graduating senior back in 1976 when he took his education degree with a child psychology minor.
On that day, Owens will add just a few more yards to his Mountaineer bookthe distance he’ll mark when he files into the WVU Coliseum with the Class of 2004 to participate, finally and officially, in the school’s graduation ceremonies.
Oh, man, I’m really excited,said Owens, a genial 51-year-old and father of two who is now a special education high school teacher and coach in Bethlehem, Pa., right in the heart of the Keystone State’s gridiron-rich Lehigh Valley.I wanted to �€~walk the walk,’you know? That would have been really special for my mother, but back then it was too crazy with football. I never had the chance.
Owens went early in the NFL draft. San Diego scooped him up in the fourth round, and
by then it was training campnot a cap and gownthat ruled the momentThings just moved so fast after that,he said.There was a lot of stuff to focus on, but I never forgot about WVU . This is one special place.
The proud Mountaineer graduate in recent years has reaffirmed ties with his alma mater, attending alumni functions in Bethlehem, and in neighboring Delaware, which is around three hours away.
It was at a family picnic thrown by the WVU Alumni Association’s Delaware chapter last year that Owens mentioned in passing that not taking part in Commencement was the only regret he had about his years at WVU .
Lehigh Valley chapter president Dan Dolphin listened and took note, as did Delaware president Jon Hickey.
The conversation that followed quickly and neatly wrapped up a 30-year history to send No. 24 motoring down Interstate 79 for the weekend.
Artie, you really oughta go next year (for Commencement), Dolphin and Hickey said.
Yeah, I really should,came Owens’reply.
Simple as that.
Hickey and Owens spent an hour on the phone last week talking about the trip, and just what it will mean for the former scholarship athlete who chose to play his college ball at WVU over Arizona State so he could be closer to home for his ailing mother.
Owens’emotion, in turn, moved Hickey, the chapter president said.
Artie told me that talking about this trip to me the most important phone call he’s taken since he was drafted into the NFL ,Hickey said.He always wanted to go through graduation for his mother. She was just such an influence on his life back then. She passed away in 1992 and she’s still an influence. She made him who he is today. He told me he’s going to say a silent prayer to her during Commencement.
Lorrine Owens inspired Artie to always do the right thing and to treat people with respect, her son fondly recalled.
She especially encouraged him in the classroom.
Well, that took a little time, he said, as Lorrine was at first lukewarm to the idea of all those organized competitions and teams that were consuming his after-school hours.
She was always afraid I was going to get hurt,he said. She was a little overprotective at first, but you have to remember that I was her youngest. I was the baby of the family, and I only weighed two pounds when I was born.
He calls East Stroudsburg his hometown, but life began in Montgomery, Ala., where
Owens lived with his parents before the family moved north when was 13.
Artie was the youngest of eight children, and grew up in pretty comfortable circumstances. His father, Charlie, was a hard-working railroad man who was a good provider for the family.
The elder Owens was crazy for baseball, and he quietly encouraged his youngest child to take up the gamebut Artie, as the athlete recalled with a chuckle, was skittish at the plate.
I couldn’t take that little ball coming at my head at a hundred miles an hour,he laughed.
Football was something else, though, and when Artie got his first taste of it on youth teams in Montgomery there was no turning back.
He’s modest about the whole thing, but it didn’t take him long to realize he was a natural in a helmet and shoulder pads.
And that was in 1960s Alabama, where legendary coach PaulBearBryant roamed the sidelines for the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide, watching as Joe Namath, his blue-chip quarterback from Beaver Falls, Pa., threw the football in orbit every Saturday afternoon in the fall.
Football in Alabama is an almost religious experience, and to excel at it helped serve as a balm for the sting of racism Owens felt on occasion. He tends not to dwell on that too much, though, and Lorrine is the reason why.
She taught me to keep an open mind and to accept people for what they are,he said.Life’s too short to get caught up in all that stuff of �€~reacting,’and things like that. She taught me to respect people, no matter what color they are, and to never forget where I came from.
The Owens family moved to Pennsylvania in 1969. Charlie had just retired from the railroad, and two of his married daughters were living in East Stroudsburg. Lorrine’s health had been failing by thenshe had suffered two strokesand the daughters would be there to care for her.
Owens strapped on his helmet for East Stroudsburg High and rolled up 2,061 rushing yardsnumbers that sent the college coaches his way. He got scholarship offersto everywhere,he said.
I’m not bragging, but there were a lot of schools interested,he said.I narrowed them to the two (Arizona State and WVU ). I came to Morgantown because I didn’t want to get too far away from my parents, in case my mom got down more with her health. It couldn’t have worked out better. The teams I played on were like family.
A winning family.
Then-head coach Bobby Bowden (on his way to becoming a gridiron legend at Florida
State University), was building a strong team that included play makers like Danny Buggs and the late Jim Braxton, both of whom would go on to the NFL , like Owens.
Bowden directed the once-lowly �€~Eers to two Peach Bowl appearances and Owens was right there. In the off-season he ran trackwhizzing past school records in the 440- and 880-yard relays that had stood for 41 years.
He nailed it in the classroom, too, an athlete just as driven to hit the books as he was his marks on the football field and track.
I just didn’t want to waste any opportunities,he said.I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. I didn’t want for anything growing up, because they always worked so hard. I think about them, and Coach Bowden, my teammates, my professorsI couldn’t have had a better experience. I always tell people I gained a family when I came here. I’m proud when I call myself a Mountaineer.
He just as proud these days when he calls himself a teacher, and a coach.
Owens splits is his time daily a special education teacher at Bethlehem’s Freedom High School, and as a track coach at nearby Bethlehem Catholic Highwhere his team took won it all two years ago in Pennsylvania’s prestigious Penn Relays, despite having no track of its own on which to practice.
We run in a graveyard,he said.No track, just determination.
His professional determination comes out in front of his classroom at Freedom High, where he daily faces row after row of at-risk students and other youngsters with learning disabilities.
Football and the NFL just naturally come up in conversation, this being the Lehigh Valley, and Owens will own up to being a former pro football player, if his students ask.
But like the racism he encountered as a young man, he won’t dwell on it. As he says, he doesn’t need to define himself these days by a younger man’s glories.
Sometimes a kid’ll ask, �€~Mr. Owens, did you really play in the NFL ?’I just always kind of smile and say, �€~Well, yeah, I didbut I’m your teacher now. And today’s the day we go to work.’
After all, he said, it’s all about empowerment, be it athletics or academics.
When I was in 11 th grade, the kinds of kids I’m teaching now were in the basement. In the basement. They kept �€~em out of the way. Well, today they’re on the top floor, just like everyone else. Where they belong.