HOOVER, Ala. — On the short flight from Athens to Hoover, Ala. for SEC Media Days, Joe Cox made the mistake of asking his traveling companion for some advice. Jeff Owens had been through the gauntlet of cameras and fans and reporters just last year, and Cox assumed his teammate could pass along a few tips on making it through the day unscathed.
“All he talked about was the people who were going to ask for autographs, and he talked all the way down here about it,” Cox said. “I got tired of listening to it, so I’m just going to figure it out on my own.”
After playing alongside Owens for the past four years, Cox might have known better than to ask in the first place. The senior defensive lineman loves the attention, and he wasn’t about to help Cox avoid it.
Dressed in a dark suit, he worked the crowd at the Wynfrey Hotel with all the savvy of a veteran politician. He was armed, too, with a small video camera, purportedly recording his experiences for FOX Sports. Instead of answering questions from reporters, he turned the camera on them, posing a few queries of his own before sitting down for interviews. Even then, Owens had his cell phone close at hand, updating his progress through the march of reporters and radio personalities for his the hundreds of fans who follow him on Twitter.
Owens immersed himself in every moment of the festivities, recording it for posterity. He had been through it all before just a year earlier, but the past 12 months have taught him a lot about appreciating the little things. In a flash, it can all be gone, and Owens simply loves being a football player too much to take any of it for granted.
“It feels great,” Owens said. “I’m enjoying college. I love it. I love being at college.”
When Owens sat in front of the horde of media last year, spending another year in college never crossed his mind. He was gearing up for a successful senior year with his Bulldogs atop the preseason polls and his NFL draft stock rising by the day. The future seemed bright.
Just eight plays into the season, however, that all changed. Owens knee buckled in the middle of a play against Georgia Southern, tearing his ACL and ending his season. With one painful twist of his leg, everything he had worked for was gone, and Owens was suddenly forced to re-evaluate his future.
“It’s tough losing something, having something taken away from you that you love, and I love this game,” he said. “You think about what’s important in your life — your family, your friends, your faith, and also football. So it was a tough time for me, but now I’m past that, and I’m looking to be successful this season.”
Watching from the sidelines last year gave Owens plenty of time to consider what it would take to be successful.
Georgia’s pass rush struggled in his absence, and the defense slumped to the finish of the regular season, drawing the ire of fans. Owens watched and knew that his team wasn’t playing with the urgency and consistency it needed.
For road games, Owens couldn’t travel with the team due to SEC regulations. So when the Bulldogs played Florida, he packed up his car and went to Jacksonville, Fla. as a fan. He tailgated, sat in the stands and watched the game from a different perspective. When Georgia was demolished 49-10, he left the stadium as bewildered as the rest of the Bulldogs’ fans.
When Georgia’s season came to an end — a 10-3 campaign that felt much worse — Owens knew he wanted to come back. He wanted another shot at the Gators. He wanted an opportunity to lead his team — not just from the sideline, but on the field.
Owens wanted to recover what he could of the opportunity he saw slip away as he was helped off the field with a mangled knee.
After the injury happened, Owens considered accepting his fate, heading to the NFL as a late-round draft pick and making the best of a bad situation. He might have found success anyway, but it wouldn’t have felt right.
Owens loves being in college, and he loves being a leader. The NFL could wait.
“I think that staying another year will only help me,” Owens said. “I’ll be more focused each game. I’ll be a better player in practice. My goal is to get better every day.”
Georgia’s players hit the weight room to measure their top performances in various feats of strength this week. Owens was ready for the challenge.
He fell just shy of the school’s all-time record for bench press, but he still lifted 545 pounds. He might take another crack at the 565-pound mark set by former tight end Ben Watson in the near future.
With his knee now back to full strength, Owens took his turn doing squats, too. Just 10 months removed from surgery to repair a torn ligament, he squatted 600 pounds.
Like nearly everything these days, Owens took a moment to savor the achievement then pulled out his cell phone and let his fans share it with him. It was good to be back.