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September 12, 2012- -
AUBURN -- James Owens was the first black player to suit up in an Auburn uniform during the 1969 season, but he didn't enroll with the purpose of becoming a trailblazer.
Yet that's exactly what he became.
Owens spent four seasons as a fullback on the Plains, helping Auburn go 28-5 during that span and playing a central role on the Amazin's team of 1972. The Tigers finished 10-1 that season.
He'll be feted Saturday as the first recipient of the James Owens Courage Award and he'll once again soak in the adoration of Auburn fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"I've never thought anything about me having courage," Owens said, "but it's an awesome award. Excitement. Joy. Honor. And having my teammates there with me. These young guys ? all went through the same struggles. We all can share in this award."
The world was much different place in 1969 when a young man from Fairfield accepted a scholarship to play football at Auburn. Only six years earlier, Gov. George Wallace made his infamous inaugural speech that championed segregation and later attempted to block the enrollment of two black students at Alabama.
Integration still was an emerging concept when Owens made his way to the Plains. Though teammates were accepting, he didn't always feel comfortable away from the football field.
Asked earlier this week about his memories of being the first black football player on scholarship, Owens said: "Fear. Not knowing what to expect. Living in a new era. Being the only one, the only one different in skin color."
Owens said he often sought counsel from basketball player Henry Harris, who was the first black athlete to earn a Auburn athletic scholarship in 1968. The two exchanged ideas, stories, anxieties about their experience.
Those weren't easy days.
"I don't think I could have gotten through it without Henry," Owens said.
Generations of black players have Owens and Harris to thank for their opportunities. Auburn's football team has been wholly integrated for nearly three generations now, which means the current crop of Tigers and their parents had little or no first-hand experience with the perils of integration.
Still, defensive end LaDarius Owens does his part to spread the word about his uncle.
"The ? story that I always tell is during the season he's loved, and then after the season how he had to go miles away just to get a haircut," LaDarius Owens said. "One time after a win, the team went to get something to eat. They basically told him he couldn't eat there. So all of them left with him. Just the different stuff that he had to go through, kind of touches other people and gives them an insight."
James Owens' health remains a daily issue. He's in need of a heart transplant, but diabetes and a nerve disorder add complexity to the task of restoring his body into fully operational condition.
He uses a walker. He moves slowly. He speaks slowly.
Yet he's as sharp as ever, seamlessly weaving bible verses into stories of his days on the Plains. The pastor at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in Dadeville still derives strength from his faith - even as his body, once Auburn's strongest, slowly begins to betray him.
"I'm 0-and-2 right now," James Owens said, alluding to the Tigers' current team, "but I'm going to keep fighting until the victory is won."