TORONTO - Chad Owens is listed as 5-foot-8, 180 pounds.
Nice disguise. For a Goliath.
Ever since becoming more than a gleam in his mother’s eye, Owens has had to prove that he is more than the sum of his parts.
And, in these parts, he has become a bit of a local phenomenon, leading the Argonauts on an improbable journey to the Grey Cup game.
Not too surprising for Owens, though.
His life has been full of improbabilities.
He was born to never live. Too premature. Too small. Even before he had a chance to open his eyes to the world he was fighting the odds — and winning. He grew, survived, even thrived, on the grungier underside of the city of Honolulu they don’t show on those glitzy travel brochures.
“Growing up in Hawaii, you can get distracted pretty easy,” said Owens this week as the Argos began preparations for Sunday’s Grey Cup game against Calgary. “There’s the beaches and, while I didn’t grow up in a really bad neighbourhood, it wasn’t the best either. A lot of the kids in my school came from — I don’t want to call them projects — but sort of (public) housing. Most weren’t bad kids, but there were the usual gangs. I was always the smallest. I didn’t get into a lot of fights, but I wouldn’t back down either.”
Chad Owens has never backed down. Well, maybe there was a moment in Colorado in the Arena League when he came close. But, like a cork on the ocean surrounding his tiny island, he always found a way to resurface emotionally and physically. That has been the storyline throughout Owens’ 30 seasons on his God’s verdant little Earth.
Never back down. Not from people. Not from a challenge. Not from life. It has brought him stability, if not riches. It has made him the toast of Toronto. It has left him on the cusp of becoming a Canadian Football League legend. He has restored excitement to a moribund Toronto franchise. Not since the days of Joe Theismann, Damon Allen or Pinball Clemons has this franchise been more relevant on a local sports landscape starved for success.
It is a landscape desperately looking for someone in which to believe. Someone in which to place hope.
There is some irony, then, that Owens has built his success, and his life, on both those: Hope and belief. Always the underdog, sometimes it was all he had.
“That’s been the story of my whole life right from being born a month-and-a-half premature, weighing three pounds. I was fighting for my life from Day 1, and I’ve been fighting ever since.
“I look at it as a blessing in disguise. God allowed me to survive through that so I could get to this moment. Everyone has a story of some kind of setback or hardship. The thing is, no matter what kind of hardship you face, you can accomplish anything if you believe inside that you can do it.”
So it is that Owens is perched on top of the world as his Argonauts — and make no mistake, this is his team — contest the Holy Grail of Canadian football. But it has not always been this way.
In fact, it has never been this way.
He went to the University of Honolulu as a nobody. He was a mid-round after-thought in the NFL draft. He crashed out of the Arena League with a career-threatening knee injury and he couldn’t find steady employment with the Montreal Alouettes. So how does the son of a surfer dude from Hawaii end up as Toronto’s fair-haired lad?
“What a grand thing, to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!
— Victor Hugo
His story begins with a father who wasn’t around much after he was born, and a single-parent home.
“I’m not going to say I had a horrible childhood. It was a little different, maybe. My mom kept me out of trouble and I was always in sports from the time I was five years old. Soccer first ... by middle school, I was playing football. And I was always pretty good, so they kept me involved.
“I got the nicest step-father when I was about nine or 10 and I have another brother and sister through him and my mom. It’s all worked out really nice. I had a childhood with a lot of love.”
A lot of days were spent at his grandmother’s house, which was located nearby on the school grounds where his grandfather was the custodian.
“Even though my dad wasn’t around much back then, we were very family-oriented. We were always at my grandmother’s house and we’d play on the playground.”
It is where he would meet his wife Rena — where they would become childhood sweethearts.
“Grandmother’s is where everyone seemed to end up all the time. Everyone knew Mr. Owens and he had a motorcycle ... when he made the rounds to check the school doors, he’d take us with him and give us a ride. Those were the best of times. We all looked forward to helping him make sure the school was locked up.”
He was one of the better players at Roosevelt High School, one of the oldest public secondary schools in the state of Hawaii. It has a lovely landmark bell tower and about 1,600 students.
But, Owens admits, what it didn’t have in his day was a landmark football team. Even today, a quarter of its students are considered “disadvantaged.”
He received no Division I offers. His most unlikely of careers began skinning his elbows and knees while diving for passes under the watchful eyes of a couple of coaches who had come to Roosevelt High on a scouting mission. They had not come to see Owens.
University of Hawaii coaches June Jones and Ron Lee were there to see his buddy, and quarterback, Chad Kapanui.
“I had a decent high-school career. I was one of the better players,” Owens said. “But our team didn’t play the best teams. We didn’t get a lot of looks from the scouts. So I never got a scholarship offer and I was actually going to (Linfield, Ore.) junior college. But they needed some guys to catch balls ... I was out there trying to put on a show, because this was my shot. We were back behind the scoreboard (of Roosevelt Stadium) where there isn’t much grass. It’s dirt. I’m diving and man, I remember, that dirt was hard. They invited me to summer workouts. I was the last guy added to the roster.”
“Tis with hearts, full pride, dear Alma Mater,
We rise and sing to thee!
And pledge to keep thy colours high,
Through all the years to be!”
— Roosevelt High Alma Mater
A year later, he got his scholarship. He became Hawaii’s career leader in all-purpose yardage, holding eight other school marks in receiving, returns and scoring.
“That was really the moment that kick-started my career. Until then, it had been just dreams. But when that happened, it was like, ‘Hey! I can really do this,’ ” said Owens, who would finish his career at the University of Hawaii as its most dynamic and — record-setting — return man.
There was a 76-yarder that ESPN played so often they should have paid him royalties.
“It’s something you dream about, but I never really imagined myself on national TV like that,” Owens, at the time, told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. Now, of course, they can’t get him off it. The only variance is that it’s a different nation doing the watching.
Not bad for a skinny little kid who couldn’t run very fast.
But he was elusive. Slippery. And quick enough to set an NCAA record in a game with 342 return yards.
He returned a kick and a punt for touchdowns in a 72-45 upset of Brigham Young, which had been 11-0 and headed for the BCS.
“I think we were, like, 8-3 or something. Maybe worse. We weren’t going
anywhere, but we spoiled their perfect season. That was our Bowl Game.”
In 2004, he won the Mosi Tatupu Award, presented to the best special-teams player in the nation.
It was also during this time that the seeds to a reunion with a prodigal father were sewn.
“There were long periods when I didn’t see him. But the relationship has gotten better since college. It’s good now,” said Owens.
“I never looked down on him for not being there. He works on Waikiki Beach. He’s got a paddle boat business, gives tourists canoe rides. He’s a beach boy. It’s a hustle job. It suits him. He’s a hustler.”
In that sense, the two are alike.
Owens is all hustle, all heart. His mother, Charmaine, once was told her son was hyperactive.
Actually, he was just in a hurry to make a name for himself. In a hurry to find his place in the world. Even then, the stars were aligning for Owens’ eventual arrival in Toronto. He just didn’t know it.
Jones, now the head coach at SMU, had spent the 1982 season as a quarterback with the Argonauts.
“It’s crazy. You can say the dots were aligned or whatever. I don’t ever recall him talking about the CFL,” Owens said. “The NFL was our goal and he realized that. Coaches aren’t going to crush your dreams and I think maybe that’s why he never brought it up.
“I do recall him telling me that I’d have to earn my stripes. That I wasn’t going to be a high draft pick and I’d have to prove myself all over again. I never believed it. I thought I would be a high pick. But it turned out, of course, that everything he said was true.”
“I would certainly make sure (Owens) found a way on the field as a receiver. I think he can do it.”
— Owens’ college coach June Jones to the Honolulu Advertiser in ’04 on the upcoming NFL draft.
Jones turned out to be prophetic.
Owens could be a pro receiver.
It just took five cities and eight years to prove it.
Selected in the sixth round by Jacksonville, he sparkled in camp. But all those yards at Hawaii, all the accolades in college suddenly didn’t mean a thing.
If he’d been a top draft pick, chances are the Jags might have kept him around, worked with him, given him a chance to work through the rookie yips.
“In the NFL, if you are a first-round pick, you have no worries. You just got millions of dollars and you know you’ve made the team. You can play with no pressure,” said Owens.
But he was feeling the pressure.
For the first time in his life, the football field was not a cosy, comfortable place.
“I was a sixth-round pick. So, yeah, I was living my dream; I was in the NFL. But there were no guarantees and it was the first time in football that I felt pressure, felt they were watching every move, felt I couldn’t make any mistakes. I fell into that trap.”
Through three seasons, he would bounce from Jacksonville to Tampa and back to Jacksonville.
“(I felt) nerves in games that I had never had before. Ever. They did give me an opportunity as a returner, but I didn’t excel right away. And, in the NFL, it’s all about what can you do for me now. My time was short.”
Fumbles haunted him then and, to be honest, still do. They have always been the one “Yeah, but ...” in his football life.
He was cut by the Jaguars after his NFL debut against Indianapolis in 2005 when he misplayed three punts. He was re-signed and caught a 62-yard touchdown pass.
Then, in the 2007 regular-season finale at Houston, he misplayed a punt in a 42-28 loss and was again waived.
Even now, in his golden season, there have been 10 fumbles — the little dark cloud inside the silver lining. Like a relief pitcher, a short memory can sometimes be an asset. And, he also trusts in the Good Book — and he doesn’t mean his playbook.
“Religion,” said Owens, “has given me strength. If you try to battle and reason (life) all out on your own, you will struggle. It’s not fun.”
“He must become greater;
I must become less.”
— John 3:30, International Bible
Owens’ language is peppered with biblical references. He wears a wristband citing the biblical reminder to stay humble.
It helped him turn his greatest football tragedy into his salvation. It happened in Colorado with the Crush in the Arena League.
He had a good season playing in what, to him, felt like “a closet”.
Then, he blew out his knee — and his chance for an NFL reprieve.
“That was the lowest point of my career,” said Owens, who by now was the father of Chad Jr., married with a family to support, only one leg on which to do it and no prospects.
“The day after I hurt my knee, I got a call from my agent. He said, ‘I don’t know whether to tell you this, but we just got a contract offer from the Falcons. They need a returner.’
“I broke down in tears. You never know what could have been. It makes you sick to your stomach. That is when I really, really turned to God.”
It has been a vital part of his life as long as he can remember, but particularly after bumping into Rena. Literally.
The two played as children at Booth Park. During a game of two-on-two basketball, Owens bumped her to the ground.
“I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to do. She stood back up and was smiling and kept on playing. She didn’t say anything about it. I found out later she was thinking, ‘Sheesh, he didn’t even help me up,’ ” Owens once told the Honolulu Advertiser.
Rena’s mother was a born-again Christian. That has helped Owens become a born-again football player.
“I learned I had to slow down ... accept that there is a reason everything happens.”
That faith in himself, that belief there is a God looking after his better interests, helped him through the rehabilitation, helped him when he had no prospects, helps him now as a player and as a man.
“I just feel we need it as a family,” said Owens, who has three children, Sierra-Lynn, 4, Areana, 7 and Chad Jr., 9. “I wanted them to be ready to face all the multiple opportunities that life will give them. The good, the bad, the questions, all the doubt ... God puts these things in our path so that we can grow through them. He doesn’t make mistakes.”
So there is a fearlessness in his approach to football, a recklessness in the manner he plays. It helped him amass a pro football-record 3,863 all-purpose yards this season. As a punt and kickoff returner, he led the league with 2,510 combined return yards. As a receiver, he led the league with 1,328 receiving yards, catching 94 passes.
He plays with the knowledge that everything, in the end, will work out in some grand design.
“Religion is ... so my kids have a foundation. But when I look back, yeah, it helps on the field. I fumble. I don’t want to fumble. I take it to heart. It bothers me. Sure.
“But in the end I have to remember it’s still just a game. I have a wonderful life, a beautiful wife and family. I’m doing what I love. So don’t let a hiccup make you forget that.”
“He was a great soccer player. I think that’s where he gets some of those moves. He was always the energizer, always kind of jumpy, always running around.”
— Chad Kapanui, his friend and teammate since high school, to the Dallas Morning News in an NFL pre-draft analysis in which they ranked Owens as the top kick returner.
In July of 2009, Chad Owens was a football player without prospects. The NFL was no longer interested. The Arena League was no longer an option. There were, as there always have been in Owens’ life, those who suggested he pack it in; those who suggested pro football was a land of giants with no place for a David.
“I just really wanted to play football. Somewhere. Football was all I knew. I had no business sense, no other way to make money in this world. So I’d poured everything I had into my rehab. My agent started checking around. I guess Montreal had held my rights for a couple of years, so I went up.”
He wasn’t sure what to expect, but had an idea the bigger field would suit his elusive style. He told a Honolulu reporter that he hoped to play in Montreal’s next game against Edmonton.
“I’m going in there with a humble attitude and a willingness to learn,” Owens told the Honolulu Advertiser. “If I’m not starting, it’s because those guys know what they’re doing ... and I’ll wait until I get my chance.”
Little did he realize how long that wait would be.
Stuck on the practice roster, it wasn’t until Week 18 that Owens’ chance would come. Ironically it came against Toronto — two kickoffs for 80 yards and a 10-yard reception. No big deal. But it would be enough to pique interest from Argonauts general manager Jim Barker.
What ensued has fairy dust sprinkled all over it.
The off-season turned into a contract dispute. Owens won’t talk about it now. Basically, he wanted a place to play while the Alouettes, already deep in receivers, were offering him a place to practice.
And so it is he ended up traded to Toronto. History was made.
For the first time since leaving college, opportunity — not to mention Pinball Clemons, whose records he broke — have wrapped loving arms around him. He has found a football home, although in the off-season he still returns to Honolulu, friends, family and the beaches.
In February 2011, he was given a contract extension through 2013. The CFL doesn’t release figures, but Owens reportedly received a signing bonus in excess of $50,000, meaning with bonuses he could approach $200,000 a season — comfortably in the six-figure neighbourhood. Let’s just say it was enough — and there’s a shiny BMW parked in the garage back in Hawaii to prove it — to make him walk away from an offer to return to the NFL.
“I went back and forth with it. There were so many reasons I decided to stay, and not all of them had to do with money,” said Owens of the New York Jets’ overtures.
“I’d just come off a good season and I was looking for some stability for my family. That was a big deal. On the other hand, (the Jets) would have given me one more chance (to play in the NFL) and I can’t deny that was appealing.”
The New York offer, however, came with no bonus money and it was the lockout season.
“Again, there were no guarantees. I had a feeling that this is where God was telling me I should be. I enjoyed being here, the team ... it was a good place for my family.”
If he’d made the Jets’ roster, he might have cashed millions.
“That thought was very influential. And, if I had still been single, I maybe would have taken the risk. I might have gone. But we decided it wasn’t just about the money anymore. I couldn’t take the risk for my family.”
So he stayed. On Thursday he finds out at the league’s annual awards night whether he or Calgary’s Jon Cornish will become the CFL’s Most Outstanding Player for 2012.
Win. Or not.
Either way, in his case, the measure of the man is not so much reflected by what he has achieved but, rather, by what he has overcome.