The Fighter

by twinink on October 11, 2013

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2013 Hana Hou Magazine)

The third time his thumb popped out of its socket, the pain brought Chad Owens to his knees. But he gritted his teeth and popped the thumb right back in. Owens was only midway through the 2012 Canadian Football League’s regular season, and with eight more games ahead, he had a plan. For many football players, injuries are a one-way ticket to the bench. But nothing— not a dislocated thumb, not even torn ligaments in his left wrist — was going to stop Owens from achieving his goal: to become the greatest all-purpose yards receiver in the history of pro football.

At five feet eight inches and 180 pounds, 31-year-old Owens looks like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s younger brother. He’s fit, charismatic, as agile with his words as he is on the field. To watch him sprint with a ball is to watch a man defy laws of speed, physics, football. He possesses an almost preternatural ability to split the defense, to find holes and shake linebackers like he’s repelling pesky fleas. But despite these skills, success never came easy. “Growing up playing ball, I was good, but I was never the top guy,” Owens admits. As a result, he wasn’t actively recruited out of high school. He had to “walk on” to the University of Hawai‘i’s practice squad to prove himself worthy against the players who were already guaranteed positions. On the last day of freshman training camp, he was the last man added to the team.

Looking back, it seems impossible that Owens barely made the cut. Over his illustrious career as a UH Warrior on coach June Jones’ run-and-shoot offense, Owens became a college superstar. He shattered school records as a senior with 102 receptions and seventeen touchdowns. To this day he holds Hawai‘i’s record for career leader in all-purpose yards: 5,461 total over forty-four games. Nationally he earned second-team All-American honors, and he still shares the NCAA record for the most touchdowns scored on kick returns in a career. In 2004 he was the recipient of the Mosi Tatupu Award for special teams player of the year.

But more than his stats, Owens was entertaining to watch. Small and unbelievably fast, his collegiate acrobatics made him a local celebrity. When he walked down the beach, bikini-clad coeds recognized him. The ego of a 20-year-old could easily have touched the clouds, yet Owens kept his feet firmly rooted to the ground. He tells a story of when he was 12 years old, biking home from school. “I reached a fork in the road. Straight ahead led home. Left, to my best friend Blake’s house.” He turned left and met a girl named Rena. They ended up going to the same school. Playing truth or dare. Sharing their first kiss. They’ve been together ever since, and he credits her for his unwavering focus. While his teammates were doing upside-down keg-stands in the dorms, Owens was in a delivery room making the most important catch of his life: his firstborn son, Chad Jr. The next year, after graduation, he married Rena.

It was widely assumed post-college that Owens would be a first-round draft pick, a rookie shoo-in for the NFL. To his disappointment, he was drafted in the sixth round. It felt like being the last kid picked in elementary school, he says. “But hey, I’m in the NFL,” he recalls thinking, “I’m thankful for the opportunity.” After a lifetime of being underrated, he thought he’d finally proved himself worthy. He wouldn’t have guessed that the real gauntlet was about to be thrown.

Everyone’s heard the truism that “it’s hard to be a professional athlete,” but few are aware of the statistics that back up that phrase. Of the eighty thousand students who play college football every year, an average of 1,500 get scouted by professional teams. Of those, only 250 are selected during the official seven-round draft. That’s only one-third of one percent. Even then a player isn’t guaranteed a spot on his team’s active roster. There are current stars to compete with and undrafted free agents, all angling for one of only fifty-three positions per team. Make it through all that and you still might never play a single season game: The real golden tickets go to the lucky eleven who earn the starting line.

The moment Owens reached the NFL, everything spiraled down. He was no longer a hometown hero, a big fish. Instead, as one of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ last three draft picks, he suddenly found himself at the bottom of a giant pyramid. A nobody. A minnow. “In the NFL the opportunity is so slim,” says Owens, “you gotta be perfect every single day. Everything you do, you’re under a microscope. A lot of guys pressure out.”

There are many who would argue that that’s exactly what happened to Owens. In his NFL debut in 2006, Owens muffed three punts. And just like that, they benched him. Waived him to the practice squad. For the next two years he got traded around: from the Jaguars to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, before finally trading out of the NFL altogether. “I was at the top,” Owens raises one hand high, then slams it down onto his thigh, “and I got knocked all the way down.”

He ended up in the short-lived, high-impact Arena Football League (AFL) because they paid room and board. At this point he’d just had his third child, Sierra, and there was real money to be made in the AFL. But the risks were bigger. Guys were hitting harder. It wasn’t long before Owens blew his anterior cruciate ligament, a potentially career-ending injury. He nearly quit then and there. “All I could ask myself was, ‘Why me?’ With a family I had a different pressure. It was all on me: ‘If I don’t achieve this, we’re gonna fall.’”

Today, looking back, Owens views his knee injury as a long-overdue wake-up call. “I let the NFL change me,” he acknowledges. “I was so focused on myself that I wasn’t thinking about my family. My middle daughter, Areana, her first three years … I can’t tell you much about what we did together. I’m heartbroken by that.”

Owens vowed to make it back, to rise from the ashes and play ball again. Only this time he sharpened his commitment. “Since that moment it’s been all about my family,” he says. Perched on the wave-washed rocks overlooking Kewalo Basin and Point Panic, he stares back toward Kaka‘ako Park and smiles as he watches his two daughters race each other across the park’s grassy hills. “They are involved in everything I do,” he says. Over the year following his injury, Owens spent the most stressful period of his life battling grueling pain in intensive rehab. Several times he came close to throwing in the towel, but his kids were always there to encourage him, his wife by his side to pick him up.

In 2009, when Owens finally got signed to the practice roster of the Montreal Alouettes in Canada, he didn’t care that he’d been traded to a different country at a reduced salary of only $500 a week; he was just happy to be back in a locker room. Like most Americans, Owens admits he knew almost nothing about Canadian football or its 130-year history. He had to quickly learn the variant rules: how a CFL field is more than ten yards longer and wider; how there are twelve players on the field instead of eleven; how offense gets only three downs instead of four. It took him the whole year to get his confidence back, but by that point he’d fallen way down the depth chart of the Alouettes’ more veteran bench. In a fourth-round draft, he was traded yet again to the then-floundering Toronto Argonauts.

“Once that year was done,” says Owens, “I wasn’t satisfied to just be in the building. It was time to finally launch.” At the opening of the 2010 CFL season, in his first game playing for the Argonauts, Owens ran a ninety-yard punt return, blowing past five defenders. It was his first major scoring run in more than five years. “Instantly a weight lifted off my shoulders that I’d been waiting to shake off since 2005. I had to go through so many obstacles to grow. And that moment …” Owens stops to gather his emotions. “I was almost in tears going back to the sidelines. From that moment the blessings just kept pouring out.”

Over the next three years, Owens’ explosive speed and balletic feet rocketed him to stardom. He became the only player in pro football history—not just in Canada, but in all of North America—to surpass three thousand all-purpose yards in three consecutive seasons. This past season alone, he led the CFL in receiving (ninety-four catches for 1,328 yards and six touchdowns), return yards (2,510) and all-purpose yards (3,863), surpassing the previous record held by his mentor, Michael “Pinball” Clemens. He is the third player in CFL history to hit a 100-100-100 game: recording 100 yards on six receptions, 111 yards on four kickoff returns and 105 yards on seven punt returns. And with an average 221 yards per game, he not only propelled his team to a Grey Cup victory (Canada’s equivalent of the Super Bowl), he was also named the league’s Most Outstanding Player.

“At the start of the season, I made a list of impossible goals to keep me motivated,” says Owens. “The fact that I was able to check off all those boxes, it’s a miracle. If I retired right now, I’d be …”— he can barely finds the words—“more than happy with my career. It’s a dream come true.” But more than anything else, “to think that my kids were right there, my family was on the field with me getting this award … this is the stuff they’ll remember forever.” Does he ever think of returning to the NFL? “Sometimes I wish I could go back to that moment, give it another shot,” he says of being in the league. “But there’s a danger to that mentality. I’ve changed my commitment. I’m only looking ahead.”

We all have two stories: the one we tell ourselves and the myth that gets told about us. When it comes to Chad Owens’ heroic rise, there’s a temptation to portray him as the patron saint of athletic perseverance. Canadian fans adore him for his underdog roots. In Toronto’s bars and newspapers, Owens’ stats are listed with a reverence reserved for Herculean feats. “It’s crazy. At home I’m just a local boy, but in Canada …” Owens shakes his head in disbelief. “You put in the hard work and this is the reward: A whole country knows your face.” Even at home in Hawai‘i, Governor Neil Abercrombie officially pronounced December 15, 2012, “Chad Owens Day.”

For Owens himself the story is much simpler. “The odds were against me from the day I was born. I was born a month and a half premature, weighed three pounds. I’ve been fighting since day one,” he says, pointing at the heart tattoo across his lower ribs and the four words inked there: faith, love, perseverance, family.

When he was home this spring, during the CFL’s off-season, Owens brought his fight to a new and quite literal level, incorporating mixed martial arts into his training routine. On April 6 he made his official debut in the ring, fighting at the Neal Blaisdell Arena under the nickname Mighty Mouse and winning a unanimous two-round bout against amateur welterweight Junyah Tevaga. To some the bout may have seemed like a bizarre departure from football, but for Owens it was just another notch on his battle belt. And the football field will always be his coliseum.

That same game Owens dislocated his thumb, he came back to catch four passes and nine kicks for 126 yards. The rest of the season he played with his hand in a cast, wrapped in tape and hidden beneath a glove. No one suspected he was injured, not that it would have mattered. Despite the pain, despite playing with only one good arm, Owens was unstoppable. He had a plan, the same one he’s always had: Never give up.