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James Owens, Auburn’s first African-American football player, passes away

Former Auburn fullback James Owens passed away Saturday at the age of 65.
Former Auburn fullback James Owens passed away Saturday at the age of 65. Auburn Athletics

Former Auburn football player James Owens passed away Saturday at the age of 65. The fullback was the first black scholarship player at the university.

The Auburn alum (1969-72) battled heart problems in recent years while dealing with neuropathy and diabetes.

Owens spent decades as a steel worker and was a long-time pastor at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in Dadeville, Ala. The New Orleans Saints drafted the Alabama, but injuries ended his NFL career before it started.

Auburn honored Owens for breaking the school’s color barrier when it established the James Owens Courage Award in 2012. Athletic director Jay Jacobs described Owens at the time as an icon in the history of the university’s football program.

The award is given out annually to a current or former Auburn football player who displays courage in the face of adversity.

Auburn offensive tackle Shon Coleman was presented with the award in 2015 before the Tigers played Idaho at Jordan-Hare Stadium in November. Owens presented the award along with his wife of 40-plus years Gloria to Coleman.

Jacobs released a heartfelt statement Saturday afternoon in reaction to the news of Owens passing.

“James Owens was the epitome of courage,” Jacobs said. “All of us at Auburn are forever indebted to him for the grace and courage he showed in being our first African-American player. It takes a special person to break down barriers and be first.”

“My heart is broken, but I am inspired by what James meant to Auburn and to me. He did a lot more than make Auburn better. He taught those of us who played the game how to be courageous with quiet humility. My heart goes out to his family and friends. They are all in my prayers.”

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who coached Owens’ nephew LaDarius Owens, also released a statement.

“James Owens was a trailblazer, a legend and a great Auburn man,” Malzahn said. “James changed Auburn for the better and opened doors for countless young men and women. We are deeply saddened by his passing. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his entire family.”