He’s Still Fighting for Player Rights : Football: Owens, former Fullerton quarterback who had stellar career with Redskins, is now an agent.
During his playing days as a quarterback at Fullerton High School and Fullerton College in the early 1960s, Brig Owens was a flashy, elusive runner whose deceptive moves sent would-be tacklers flying.
After starring at the University of Cincinnati, where he helped lead the Bearcats to two Missouri Valley Conference championships, Owens was drafted in the seventh round by the Dallas Cowboys in 1965. He spent a year on the Cowboys’ taxi squad before being traded to the Washington Redskins.
During the George Allen era in Washington in the ‘70s, Owens was a mainstay at strong safety and a defensive captain for the Redskins. His name became one of those of other former Redskins greats encircling the upper deck at RFK Stadium after his 12-year NFL career ended in 1977.
Now 49, Owens remains in good physical condition, but he is anything but evasive when discussing his favorite topic: NFL management-player relations.
After serving as assistant executive director of the NFL Players Assn. for 5 1/2 years, Owens made the transition from player to players’ agent. He teamed with Richard Bennett to run the high-powered Washington firm of Bennett & Owens that represents 28 NFL players, including such heavyweights as Wilber Marshall, Art Monk, Bruce Smith, Gary Clark and Eric Metcalf.
Returning to Fullerton recently to attend a farewell banquet for retiring Fullerton College football Coach Hal Sherbeck, the Orange County Hall of Famer took time from his busy schedule to speak about NFL player-relation policies.
“The NFL, in terms of collective bargaining, is the most hard line,” Owens said. “Their goal is to break the (players’) union. They’ve had things their way for a very long time, because some hard-line people want to keep it that way. But there’s such a thing as progress.”
Owens has been in the front line of the war between NFL owners and players for a long time. Before working for Ed Garvey and John Mackey in the NFLPA, he was the Redskins’ player representative for seven years.
“To be a players’ rep was to be blackballed,” Owens said. “Look what happened to Mackey. He founded the players association and he was kept out of the Hall of Fame for 20 years. And he was the (tight end) of the decade (1960s).”
It was during Owens’ playing career that he began working toward his law degree at the District of Columbia satellite campus of Antioch (Ohio) College.
“During negotiations, there were times we weren’t allowed to have lawyers with us,” Owens said. “I always had to do research to find out what the heck they were talking about and how it related to what we were fighting for. I came to realize that these guys weren’t that smart, they just knew how to get the information and use it. Not being able to have attorneys present just shows how one-sided (the negotiations) were.”
Owens’ decision to study law while playing for the Redskins didn’t sit well with then-coach George Allen.
“George Allen wasn’t very happy at the time,” Owens recalled. “I was the defensive captain, and I had to spend a lot of time going over game plans. He wanted me to wait (on law school), but I said I wasn’t going to be able to play the rest of my life. He benched me for a week, but I wasn’t going to let him stop me from reaching my goal.”
Owens thinks the resistance he encountered in preparing for his post-playing career is typical of the mind-set of NFL management.
“They discourage off-season jobs,” Owens said. “They think, ‘We pay you enough money so why should you have to work another job?’ There’s a lot of pressure on the players to live in the city where they’re playing, so they are working out at (the team) facility.
“What’s a player going to do at 28 if his playing career is over, sit on his hands? You’ve got to start preparing now while you’re playing and take advantage of those fantastic contacts. Once you stop playing, they’ll stop returning those calls. Remember, everyone out there doesn’t like you. Some of them are jealous of you.”
Even while serving as player representative and working for the NFLPA, Owens never planned to become an agent. After leaving the players association in 1983, he went to work for a phone company.
“I was involved in the cellular phone business,” he said, “but I kept getting calls from players asking for help (in negotiations). I had no intention of getting involved, but after a while I realized these athletes were depending on (me). Now I’m representing the sons of guys I used to play with and against. It’s something that just happened, but I’m enjoying it.”
Although Owens is closely following the NFLPA lawsuit against the owners in Minneapolis, he is confident there will be big changes ahead in league player-relations policies regardless of the verdict.
“I think management is trying to paint a picture of the greedy ball player,” he said. “But it’s a freedom issue, and a lot of things are on the line. First of all, they have a television contract to negotiate after this year, and they are going to have to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the union if they want to keep their anti-trust exemption.”
Owens would like to see nothing less than total free agency.
“We live in America, a democracy,” he said. “A person has the right to seek employment and market his wares wherever he wants. Everyone has that freedom to go from job to job, but in professional sports, especially football, you belong to somebody in perpetuity.
“The league owners argue that the wealthy teams in the big markets will get most of the (good) players. But Plan B has proven otherwise. They haven’t gone to the big markets. Players go where they think they have the opportunity to play or a nice environment for their families--places like Green Bay.”
Owens believes athletes have been unfairly singled out in the ongoing controversy over spiraling salaries.
“Entertainers, television news anchors, talk-show hosts and people like Michael Jackson and Madonna make millions because people pay to see them and nobody complains about that,” he said. “When corporation presidents make huge salaries, nobody says anything. But as soon as an athlete negotiates, everybody notices.
“An athlete has limited playing time--less than four years in pro football and maybe five years in baseball and basketball. It’s true (that) an athlete has a natural gift, but he only has a limited time to use it.”
Owens scoffs at claims the NFL can’t afford free agency.
"(The NFL) is the most progressive (in professional sports) in marketing and generating revenue--no one can touch them,” Owens said.
“Look at their (merchandise) licensing program. They pioneered that. They pay rookies large sums of money for those rights to bubble gum cards. They’ve put on clinics for kids all around the country and came up with the whole thing on instant replay. Now they are the first to be attacking the European market. The NFL is on the cutting edge in marketing, why not player relations?”
After making his point-by-point dissection of NFL management positions--something he does on a daily basis--Owens sighs and admits his arguments are a tough sell to Joe Six-pack.
“The player is a young person, and people think he doesn’t deserve those (big salaries),” he said. “But it’s the player who brings people through the turnstiles.”
Brig Owens has been in the forefront of major sports issues during his professional playing career. Tragically, he was witness to an issue that didn’t gain the limelight until this past year when Magic Johnson announced he had been infected with the HIV virus and Arthur Ashe admitted he has AIDS.
Owens was the traveling roommate of Washington Redskins receiver Jerry Smith, who died Oct. 16, 1986 at the age of 43, the first professional athlete known to have died of AIDS. Out of respect to the wishes of Smith’s family, Owens refuses to go into details of Smith’s illness or the cause of the disease, but he will discuss his feelings about the episode.
“Jerry was like a brother to me,” Owens said. “We roomed together for 11 years. Jerry and I were the first interracial players to room together, not Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. My two daughters called him ‘Uncle Jerry.’ We were close. We were buddies.”
Smith, Roy Jefferson and Charley Taylor formed a corp of receivers that was one of the best in the NFL, but Owens best remembers his roommate’s vulnerable side.
“Jerry was one of the most sickly guys on the team, anyway,” he said. “He used to get a lot of colds and when he got a mosquito bite, he’d swell up. When he first got examined and found out (he had AIDS), I was one of the first persons he called. He came over to the house, and we talked. The clock was ticking. He was gone within a year.
“He was very fanatical about conditioning. When we were on the road, we’d lay awake nights talking about strategy. We’d play mental games in preparation for the game. It was so devastating to see the changes come so quickly. We talked every day. He was pretty much at peace with himself (before he died).
“We had people approaching who wanted to do a movie, but we decided we didn’t want to do it. Jerry was a private person who didn’t want a lot of publicity. I saw him the day before he died. I went by the hospital every day. The doctor called me at the office and said Jerry had passed away. There was a big emptiness, like I had lost someone in the family. That’s what it was.”
Owens came out of the experience highly critical of national AIDS policies.
“When you have a disease of that magnitude . . . you’d think the nation would go all out to find a cure,” Owens said. “When is the United States going to wake up and commit to this? You’ve got to commit to win, not play politics with it. Jerry Smith was a great human being who had the misfortune to be infected with AIDS. We’ve got to do a better job of education, evaluation and research. We’ve got to put pressure on the government to cure it.”
The modest yellow stucco one-story house on East Rosslynn Avenue in Fullerton is still headquarters for Owens when he returns to visit. It is the home where his father, Al, a construction worker, and mother, Roxy, who died three years ago, raised a family of seven boys and four girls that became one of the most prominent in Orange County history.
Before Brig Owens rose to athletic prominence, four older brothers established a remarkable family tradition that spanned four decades in Fullerton:
--Jewell Owens, a single-wing tailback, starred for Fullerton High School and Fullerton College in 1951 and ’52. He rolled up 1,555 yards total offense for the Hornets and played semi-pro ball for the Orange County Rhinos. He died of cancer in 1963 at the age of 30.
--Leon Owens, 55, was a football and track star at Fullerton High School. He works at Bridgeford Industries in Anaheim.
--David (Sonny) Owens, 54, was a national prep-record holder in the high and low hurdles at Fullerton High School. He is an electrical engineer.
--Alford Owens, 53, played baseball and football at Fullerton High School. He is a manager for General Foods.
--Brig starred in the 1961 Orange County all-star game and for Sherbeck in 1961 and 1962. He was the second leading passer in Hornet history with 108 completions in 208 attempts for 1,404 yards, 12 touchdowns and only nine interceptions before transferring to Cincinnati.
--Teddy Owens, 46, was also a baseball and football player at Fullerton High School and Fullerton College. He works for the City of Yorba Linda Recreation Dept.
--Marv Owens, 41, was an all-conference quarterback for Fullerton College in 1969. He played at San Diego State and for the St. Louis Cardinals. He is a banker who lives in Diamond Bar.
In addition, Owens had three older sisters, Larance, Dorothy and Shirley, and a younger sister, Audrey Mae, and brother, Jessie.
“Jessie is the youngest and was probably the best athlete of the group. He was very fast, but he decided not to be involved in sports,” Owens said. “He’s very smart. I think he decided there was so much pressure and tradition in the family that ‘I’m not doing it.’ He’s working for a law firm in downtown Los Angeles.”
In addition, Owens’ nephew, Brian, was a first-team community college All-American defensive back at Fullerton in 1982.
But the contributions of the Owenses to the community don’t stop here.
Brig, who recently celebrated his 27th wedding anniversary with his wife, Patti, still remains active in community affairs.
“I’m involved with a project called ‘Super Leaders’ in the D.C. area,” he said. “We’re not paying enough attention to bringing up young leaders. Some of our brightest minds don’t want to go into public leadership. So we try to develop youth leadership as part of a drug-prevention program. We go into the high schools in Washington and Maryland and develop student leaders who will lead by example.
“We have close to 400 kids involved in seven high schools in D.C. and Maryland. We plan to expand into Virginia and think we can have an impact on up to 12,000 students. We have our headquarters set up on the campus of George Washington University.”
Owens says its all part of a philosophy he learned playing under such coaches as Gil Tucker at Fullerton High School, Sherbeck, Tom Landry, Vince Lombardi and Allen.
“I just try to be the best I can be and make a contribution to society,” he said. “I think I can best do that by working with young people.”