AUBURN, Ala.-- For somebody with a weak heart, James Owens has plenty of soul -- perhaps even more than 40 years ago in a different generation when simply stepping on a football field was considered valiant.
The trailblazing Owens has been summoned back to Jordan-Hare Stadium before his alma mater's 2012 home-opener Saturday, when Auburn's first black scholarship football player will become the first recipient of the James Owens Courage Award.
Four decades after breaking down color barriers, the 61-year-old Owens has not evaded adversity, as health problems have caused the former U.S. Steel worker to take a step back from his work in the ministry.
James and his wife of 38 years, Gloria, are still awaiting another opinion on test results to determine whether a heart transplant is feasible to strengthen Owens, suffering from heart failure, neuropathy and diabetes.
So any current Auburn player looking for perspective in light of the Tigers' 0-2 start need look no further than Jordan-Hare Stadium at about noon Saturday, minutes before Auburn takes on Louisiana-Monroe.
"The thing is to keep them encouraged all through whatever might happen, to have hope and believe that anything could happen," Owens said earlier this week. "I often tell them our song War Eagle -- "ever to conquer and never to yield" -- that's what Auburn University and the Auburn family is all about, getting over the hurdle."
Born in Fairfield, Ala., a steel town just southwest of Birmingham, Owens couldn't quite wrap his head around playing for Auburn or Alabama. Civil rights laws didn't take effect until Owens was a teenager.
"I didn't realize that it was a big deal at that time," Owens recalled. "I was too young to realize what was going on, but after everything that has happened over the years I am thankful and honored that James Owens, a little barefoot boy running those coals and whatever, will never be forgotten because of what God has allowed to happen."
One emotion sticks out to Owens when he thinks back to joining the Auburn family.
"Fear -- not knowing what to expect living in a new era, being the only one different in skin color," Owens said. "Fear was the greatest thing about it all, not really knowing what was going to happen."
A member of the Tigers from 1969-72, Owens lettered his last three years as a fullback.
Those three Auburn teams, guided by coach Ralph "Shug" Jordan, went a combined 28-5, capped by a top-5 national finish Owens' senior year with the 1972 Amazin' Team.
When his career was done, Owens was drafted by the New Orleans Saints, but injury intervened and he never played an NFL game. He went back to Fairfield, returning to his job at U.S. Steel, and in April 1974 married his college sweetheart Gloria, with whom he has three children and three grandchildren.
In April, doctors recommended Owens, who uses a walker, see specialists at the University of Alabama-Birmingham hospital about the possibility of a heart transplant.
UAB recommended Owens prepare for the use of a heart pump. Owens, a man well-versed in overcoming, didn't like hearing that.
"We weren't satisfied with that," Gloria said. "We wanted a second opinion, and we're waiting to hear from Emory (University Hospital in Atlanta). They said his heart will improve. So we want to see what other options there are available for him."
Stubbornly, Owens still works part-time at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in Dadeville, Ala., where he began as a pastor 11 years ago. He and Gloria moved to Opelika in 2003.
"That's been a difficult journey, when the doctor said you have to turn the congregation over to someone else for health reasons," Gloria said.
Owens relies on his faith to get him through a difficult period.
"God chose me to do the most important thing, and that is to deliver his word. That's why I'm not afraid of this health issue," Owens said. "He's just putting me through a test right now. I'm 0-2 right now, but I am going to keep fighting until the victory is won, and I am not going to give up."
Perhaps nobody appreciates Owens' fight like his nephew, sophomore defensive end LaDarius Owens.
"My uncle is a big part of my life, the closest thing I've had to a father," LaDarius said. "Anytime things are going wrong or I'm getting discouraged or maybe a little bit disappointed -- whether it's football or school -- I go talk to him. He's made me a lot stronger. There's pretty much nothing I could go through that would compare to the stuff he's been through, so he can help me pretty much through anything."
No plans are currently set for Owens to address the team, but his presence clearly impacts players who appreciate history.
"For me, as a young black man playing here at Auburn, I don't think there's much I can say that would justify what he's done for us here," senior cornerback T'Sharvan Bell said.
"Hearing from him or even getting a handshake, it would definitely rub off on a lot of guys. He's on such a high pedestal from what he's done."
If James Owens does speak to the Tigers, badly in need of a win, he knows exactly which message to convey.
"Even now at 0-2, I'm so excited because everything happens for a reason," he said. "Nobody wanted to bet on the turtle. Everybody wanted to bet on the rabbit because he's faster, but the Bible says that the race is not given to the swift. It is about enduring until the end, and we haven't gotten to the end, and we will overcome."