James Owens’ path was always going to be a lonely one. As the first Black football player at Auburn in 1969, how could it not be?
While establishing himself as a trailblazer during a time of integration, the empty dorm on the other side of Henry Harris' bedroom became a sanctuary. It was where they could drown out some of the pain of loneliness they felt on a campus that, for the most part, despised them.
When he was not in the TV room or the film room, which he considered his best friend according to his wife, Gloria Owens, he would seek refuge in that unoccupied dorm and listen to the blues and soul—Curtis Mayfield was his favorite artist—to calm his soul.
After suffering a knee injury prior to being drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the 11th round of the 1973 NFL draft, a coaching change shattered his dreams of playing professionally despite successfully completing rehab. It was that life lesson that fueled Owens’ desire to prepare young people for a successful life after sports.
“James wanted to make sure that current and former athletes had a path from the football field or the basketball floor, or the track and field, whatever sport that they were in, that they did not go back home the way they came in,” Owens said. “James was familiar with that because, after four years at Auburn, he did not have a degree.”
On Nov. 12, 2022, at 8 a.m., the James Owens Foundation will host its second-annual scholarship breakfast in the AU Coliseum Scholarship Room to honor the legacy of the 70s Trailblazers, Auburn’s first Black athletes, by asking attendees to sponsor scholarships that benefit current high school students.
While general admission is $43, children under the age of 10 and students that present their Tiger I.D. card may attend for $15. Scholarship sponsorships range from $200 up to $5,000.
The breakfast is the culmination of the vision laid by Owens before passing away on March 26, 2016, due to complications from his battle with amyloidosis, a rare heart condition, just over three months shy of turning 65.
“It's breakfast, but the camaraderie, the memories, how things were then compared to how they are now is much different,” Owens said. “We're just excited to be able to do this for the Auburn family.”
At its core, the foundation focuses on three areas of opportunity: educational opportunity, access to employment and social and cultural experiences.
To improve educational access, the foundation administers scholarships to what have been mostly lower-income students, although they do not solely focus on those types of students.
When the first scholarship breakfast was held in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of Owens integrating Auburn football, Gloria estimated that the foundation raised around $2,000. For an event that was put on at the very last second, she said she felt very proud of its success.
The experiences that initial fund contributed to ended up being priceless to those first few recipients.
One was a middle school student who had been invited to Mexico to represent the United States at a football camp. Another was a woman who wanted to go back to school for early childhood education but had existing student loan debt. After the foundation assisted her in paying off her old debt, she went on to graduate and is currently working at a daycare facility.
But at this Saturday’s event, scholarships are not the only reason it is being held, although they are the primary purpose. To Gloria, the opportunity for community members and students to connect with those athletes that paved the way is almost just as important.
“We also want to present a valuable part of Auburn history because a lot of it is not displayed anywhere on campus, and our student population don't know who these guys and women are,” Owens said. “So we just want to bring them back for them to have a great time.”
Among those she expects to be honored include Jeffrey Rowser, Auburn’s first Black drum major, Linwood Moore, Auburn’s first Black cheerleader and Harris, Auburn’s first-ever Black athlete and basketball player. However, Gloria hoped that more than 50 athletes or their representatives from the 1970s will appear at the breakfast.
It is an event more than 51 years in the making that almost never happened after she told James to leave her alone after she caught him waiting for her outside of Funchess Hall, while she was in a foul mood after not doing well on her math test.
In the end, he never wavered after that initial difficulty, similar to the foundation that bears his name. Even though he is now departed from this Earth, his wife continues his work to keep his legacy and mission alive.
“My children tell me I talk too much, but that James train[ed] me because I was a very quiet, soft-spoken; he would put me on the spot where I would have to get up and say something,” Owens said. “So he prepared me for his lead.”
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Daniel Schmidt, senior in journalism, is the assistant news editor for the Auburn Plainsman.