I had dreamed about it my whole life: running onto Owen Field as a Norman Tiger.
I finally got to do that my Junior year at Norman High, and it was the most exciting thing I had ever done.
As little kids, my best friend Steve and I had snuck onto the hallowed field a million times, and every time was special. We’d pretend the announcer was calling our names as we made one great play after another. But that was just dreamy kid stuff.
When my time for gridiron glory finally came, it was very real and quite a shock.
It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was having my ankles taped for what I thought was going to be a normal practice for the Junior Varsity. But Mr. Quinn, our trainer, had a gleam in his eye. He said I might want to check the bulletin board in the locker room.
I raced over and saw my name on the list of players who were suiting up for the Friday night home game.
The next thing I remember was standing in line and being given my black game jersey, which I held as if it were the Holy Grail.
After taking the hook off my artificial arm, and putting on the special pad, I pulled the jersey over my head and just sat in front of my locker, taking it all in.
A coach shouted for us to hurry up, so I put on my shorts, grabbed my helmet, and jumped onto the bus. I held my breath as we drove to Owen Stadium for Thursday’s no-pads/walk-through practice.
I was sort of in a daze.
I only remember walking down the stadium’s ramp with my teammates, and feeling like I could fly on OU’s artificial turf. I had never run that fast in my life.
When we took the field for Friday night’s game, in full battle gear, with the Tiger band playing and the crowd roaring, my white cleats were a blur.
The starters went through warmups at the usual half-speed, but I was on fire, going 110%. I was drenched in sweat by kick-off.
I never got to play a down my Junior year, but just being on the Owen Field’s hallowed sidelines was an enormous achievement, the result of a journey many years in the making.
Way back, when Steve and I were in grade school, we spent hundreds if not thousands of hours in front of his house at the corner of Berry Road and Nebraska Street, often at dusk or dark-thirty.
We’d stand on opposite sides of the street, with our heels pushed back against the curbs.
When a car was about to turn onto Nebraska from Berry, we’d hum the football to the other guy, who would risk his life to snare the ball, tap both feet in bounds and roll onto the dead grass in Steve or his neighbor’s front yard.
If it was a bad throw – or maybe bounced off the car’s windshield – you still had to make the catch or you were a total wussie.
That’s where Lance Rentzel and Eddie Hinton came in.
For you see, we had learned at their knees. And those guys never, ever, dropped a pass, or failed to get their feet down.
Even though neither Steve nor I played noseguard, we learned heaps from watching the legendary Granville Liggins.
One of us would play Granny, his nose almost touching the grass and his butt sticking way up in the air. The other guy had to play the poor center who got smashed every time.
After a million practice reps, we both learned how to become Number 66: able to uncoil like a massive spring the nano-second the center even thought about moving the ball.
As a running back, I paid special attention to Steve Owens every time he touched the ball. It didn’t matter how many guys hit him at the line of scrimmage, he bulled ahead.
We learned how to absolutely unload on somebody by watching Steve Zabel and, especially, Rod Shoate, the “undersized” linebacker who played like a heat-seeking missile.
All these thoughts were in my head every time I walked onto my personal Field of Dreams at Owen Stadium. On so many occasions, I channelled my heroes.
I still remember the plays 50 years later...
One time, we were warming up before a game, catching flat passes in front of the opposing team’s fans. A pass was way behind me but I reached back, got my hand on it, pulled it in, spun 360 degrees and dotted both feet in bounds.
A wide-eyed fan was amazed at the catch, but that was because she was looking at a tiny kid with one hand. She didn’t know that I was Tinker Owens.
In one game, we got the ball right on our own goal line. I took the handoff and immediately got smashed in the backfield, but there was no way I was giving up a safety.
I kept churning my legs, made a yard, then got smashed again – but I bounced off and got another yard. I struggled to take one more step, then the weight of three defenders crushed me to the turf.
I was distraught that I’d been tackled two yards deep in the end zone. Then I realized I’d been looking at the wrong yard line: I had actually advanced the ball from the goal line to the three.
Because I was Steve “three yards and a cloud of dust” Owens.
When we played Ponca City, they had an incredible running back named Ben Young, who went on to big success playing pro ball in Canada. Ben was big, strong and fast as lightning. He took the opening kick-off to the house, so we were down 6 to nothing after just 12 seconds had ticked off the clock.
Later, on a big third down, they ran a sweep to my side. Ben and a pulling guard (a total load of 400-plus pounds) were about to crash into my 128 pounds.
But it didn’t matter, because I was Rod Shoate, and I went off like a rocket.
Before they could turn upfield, I hit the big guard below the knees, and both he and Ben went down like a ton of bricks.
In my last game on Owen Field, the other team decided to come right at me with their big end on a deep route.
Normally, I didn’t like covering deep because, at 5-4, I was usually giving up 8 or 10 inches in height. But I was step for step with the end when their quarterback lofted a pass 50 yards downfield. If it had just been me, I would have been toast.
But I was channelling Scott Hill, so I was in perfect position to either take the guy’s head off or beat him to the ball for an interception.
Unfortunately, in 1973, the lights at Owen Stadium were terrible; I lost the ball in the pitch black sky, jumped too early, and got beat for a touchdown.
Everyone in Owen Stadium watched it happen, and I never felt lower in my life.
But I had never felt higher all the times that I channelled those OU greats on the field. And even one time in the OU locker room.
Our coaches had basically threatened us with death if we touched anything, because that might prevent future Norman Tigers from enjoying the huge privilege of using the Sooners’ locker room.
When I found myself in front of Joe Washington’s locker, I couldn’t help myself.
After making sure no one was watching, I reached in and reverently touched the silver shoes that made Little Joe fly.
And I don’t think any Sooner fan could hope for a better memory than that.
(I've included the whole Memory, not just a snippet, because Coach Venables has me so fired up about OU football, and out of respect for all my Sooner heroes from back in the day!)
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