Heisman Memories: The Trophy Wasn't the Best Part of Steve Owens' Impossible Journey

After winning the Heisman and setting national records with a heroic effort against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma's star running back had the experience of a lifetime.
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Of the 85 winners, has anyone had a more incredible Heisman Trophy experience than Oklahoma’s Steve Owens?

Owens won the trophy in 1969, but flying to New York to pick up the trophy barely makes the list of the most amazing things to happen to him that week.

“Just an incredible week,” Owens said. “Incredible memories.”

Steve Owens

Steve Owens

The Sooners weren’t very good under Chuck Fairbanks in 1969, going just 6-4 and getting blown out by Kansas State, Missouri and Nebraska. But Owens was easily college football’s most outstanding player, leading the nation with 1,523 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns.

Nine games into his senior year, Owens was told he was up for the Heisman and needed to go to the student union to wait for a phone call. He took his wife Barbara, and they waited patiently, but the phone never rang. As they walked home across campus, someone from the OU radio team stopped him on the sidewalk: The 35th Heisman Trophy was his. Owens said they ran back to the administration building to receive the official phone call from New York, and "Barb beat me by 50 yards."

In that Saturday’s season finale, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound, Owens, a tough and durable old farm truck from Miami, OK, carried the football an NCAA-record 55 times for 261 yards in a 28-27 victory at Oklahoma State.

The following Thursday, Dec. 4, Owens’ impossible journey began.

Steve’s parents, Olen “Peanut” and Cherry Owens, enjoyed their first airplane ride as they joined Steve, Barb and the OU coaches on the trip to New York. They checked into the hotel, dressed for dinner and went straight to the Downtown Athletic Club. The event wasn’t televised — just a dinner gala.

The 1969 Heisman Journal

The 1969 Heisman Journal

That’s when things got interesting.

Later that night, Owens met a couple of New York sports icon at the height of their popularity: Joe Namath, who was on his way to an historic upset in Super Bowl III, and Tom Seaver, who had just won the Cy Young Award as he pitched the “Amazin’ Mets” to the World Series title.

Then things got biblical.

NBC’s “Tonight Show,” which originated from Manhattan at the time, had booked Owens as a guest. While Owens sat quietly in Johnny Carson’s green room awaiting his segment, a loud, sprawling entourage of people came in. The quiet one — heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali — sat next to Owens.

A few minutes later, Moses himself — Hollywood icon Charlton Heston — entered the room and sat on the other side of Owens.

“So I’m sitting between Muhammad Ali and Moses,” Owens said. “And here I am, of course, just overwhelmed by these two people.”

Steve Owens Heisman portrait

Steve Owens Heisman portrait

Then things got — well, presidential.

Nobody in the room knew who Owens was, of course. But when one of Carson’s assistants came in and called his name, everyone took notice of the quiet kid from Northeast Oklahoma.

“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?’ ”

At first, Owens thought it was one of his OU teammates back home playing a prank. Steve Zabel, he figured.

“But I got on the phone and it was an aide to President (Richard) Nixon. He wanted Barb and I to fly to the Texas-Arkansas game, which was being played (in Fayetteville) for the national championship.”

The following morning, Steve and Barbara got transportation to an air base in Washington, D.C.

“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.”

During their chat, they exchanged gifts — Owens gave Nixon his new Heisman cufflinks, Nixon gave Owens a pair with the Presidential Seal.

Bad weather forced Air Force One to land in Fort Smith, and they caught a chopper — Marine One — into Fayetteville. They touched down just after kickoff for that year’s “Game of the Century” between the Longhorns and Razorbacks, a 15-14 victory by No. 1-ranked Texas over No. 2 Arkansas for the Southwest Conference championship. Texas went on to win the national title.

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.”