BY JOHN ROHDE
(The Oklahoman – Jan. 7, 1998)
There was a noticeable quiver in Steve Owens’ voice Tuesday. Perhaps his ailing back was making it tough to catch his breath. Occasionally, there was a sniffle. Perhaps a touch of the flu, but each response was undeniably brutal in candor.
This was the first time Steve spoke at length about the death of his son, Blake, who committed suicide on Sept. 6 at age 25. “It’s been a long journey, but I’m doing better,” Steve said.
There are various ways people handle grief. Some bury themselves in work. Others run and hide.
Steve Owens hid.
The brawny 1969 Heisman Trophy winner went into a shell and stayed there for four months.
Physical pain, Steve can handle. Emotional anguish is another story.
This is the same bullish man who carried the football 55 times against Oklahoma State in his last collegiate game. Six times in his career, he had 40 or more carries in a game. “Physical pain never seemed to affect me too much,” he said.
A workaholic who has made millions in the insurance business, Steve was the local icon who became Oklahoma’s athletic director out of sheer love for the university. No hurdle seemed too high.
But with the death of his adopted son, this soon became a beaten man. A depressed man.
He secluded himself in the same house where Blake took his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Steve’s suddenly shattered life consisted of his wife, Barbara, his son, Mike, and a suffocating sense of grief.
Initially, Steve said Blake’s death had devastated Barbara and Mike and it was his job to help them through their pain. But it was Steve who might have been in the worst shape.
“We took Steve in to see the doctor,” Barbara explained. “I was sitting between Mikey and Steve, handing them both Kleenex. The doctor looked at me and said, ‘Well, how are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going to get these two guys well first.’ I guess I’ve always been the caretaker.”
Blake’s death was shocking, but not totally surprising. “He was a diagnosed schizophrenic,” Steve explained. “We fought this battle for seven years trying to get him well.”
For seven years, Barbara’s care for Blake was 24/7 – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Much of their time together was spent watching the Golf Channel. “Something I don’t like, something I know nothing about,” Barbara said with a chuckle. “But he loved the Golf Channel – 24 hours a day if he wanted to. That was the only enjoyment he had at the end was golf. He played golf the day before he died.”
Four months before his death, Blake had been prescribed drugs. “But it wasn’t just the last four months that had been tough,” Steve said. “He fought a courageous battle. Nobody wanted to get well more than he did. We weren’t able to find the combination.”
Blake wanted his father to make him better. He was Steve Owens, fercryinoutloud.
Barbara recalled one conversation.
Blake: “Dad, you can fix anything. I’ve watched you do it. Please, fix me.”
Steve: “I’d give everything I have, but I can’t fix this.”
For perhaps the first time in his remarkably successful life, Steve Owens felt vulnerable.
“At first, Steve said, ‘I don’t want to be Steve Owens. I’m tired. I could help everybody else work out their problems, but I couldn’t help my son,’ ” Barbara said. “That’s what hurt Steve. There was nothing we could do.”
Steve said, “I realized I was human. I always thought I could will everything away.”
Barbara sensed Blake was slipping.
“I was telling friends, ‘I don’t know how long I’m going to have him,’ ” Barbara said. “It was to that point, and I knew it.”
She had an eerie feeling the day the Sooners played Syracuse in an afternoon game on Owen Field.
She invited Blake to attend the game. He refused, noting how his medication made him sluggish.
Mike stopped by his parents’ house for lunch about an hour before kickoff. He heard his older brother upstairs in his bedroom, but did not see him. “And Blake always came downstairs when Mike visited,” Barbara said.
Something wasn’t right, and Mom knew it.
“Mothers have an uncanny instinct,” Barbara said. “During that game, I kept telling Steve, ‘I need to get home.’ I almost left at halftime. Thank God I didn’t come in by myself. I don’t know what I would have done.”
After the game, Steve and Barbara returned home to find no outdoor lights turned on.
“Blake always left the lights on for us,” Barbara said.
Steve went to check the mailbox. Barbara entered the house and discovered Blake’s body at the top of the stairs. For months, all Steve and Barbara remembered was how they found their son.
“The doctor told us, ‘One day that memory will go to the bottom and all the good memories will come to the top, but it’s going to take some time,’ ” Barbara said.
Steve and Barbara have decided to keep the house. “This was Blake’s house,” Steve said. “This house was special for us. This is our home. This was his home. A lot of great memories are here, so we’re going to stay.”
For several weeks after Blake’s death, Steve made only a handful of appearances at his OU office. Eventually, he dumped his schedule completely and took an official leave of absence.
Contrary to rumors, he did not submit his resignation as athletic director.
“I needed some time alone,” Steve explained. “Barbara, Michael and I … all the things we went through, it was an unbelievable experience for us. You’re never prepared for anything like this. In our whole lives, we’ve never experienced pain like this. We went through it as a family and are still going through it. It’s been truly the worst four months of my life.”
Blake’s 26th birthday would have come Dec. 16. Barbara’s birthday was Nov. 26. Steve’s birthday was Dec. 9. Of course, there also was Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Steve, Barbara and Mike did their best to endure what should have been days of celebration, surrounding themselves with family and friends.
“I thought if we could make it through Christmas, we’ll be fine,” Barbara said.
On Dec. 21, an OU staff party was held at Steve’s restaurant in Norman. An overflow crowd of 300 helped ease some pain. “That was something that was good for me and Barbara,” Steve said.
If the Owens family were able to truly invite all their friends, 73,000-seat Memorial Stadium would have another sellout. Steve and Barbara estimate they have received more than 5,000 cards from well-wishers. “And they’re still coming in,” Barbara said.
They’ve already sent 1,000 thank-you cards. “The outpouring from family and friends has been unbelievable,” Steve said. “My brother (Tinker) has been unbelievable. The people at OU have been unbelievable. And that all helps.”
Steve returned to work this week – sort of. “I’m trying to get back in the groove,” he said. “I don’t know if I can ease back into anything. I’m coping, let me say that.”
Steve plans to attend tonight’s OU-Kansas State men’s basketball game at the Lloyd Noble Center. He still takes medication to battle his depression.
“I went through a period of time when I was lost and had no energy level,” he said. “The future was really hard to look at. I was living in the present, just trying to make it day-by-day. I didn’t have the ability to look down the road. I was trying to support Barbara and Mike and trying to keep myself propped up. It took all my energy just to do that.”
Steve said that he’ll be off the medication, “I’m hoping real soon. It’s been very helpful. I realized I needed some help. These feelings I had were all so foreign to me.”
Last month, Steve missed the Heisman Trophy dinner for the first time in 15 years. Tinker’s daughter, Brandi, was married the same day the Heisman was presented.
Steve did find time to cast his vote for Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, who finished second to Michigan’s Charles Woodson. “I’ve known Peyton since he was a little kid,” Steve said. “I thought he was very deserving.”
Earlier this week, the Owens family received a Heisman Trophy program signed by past winners and their wives. The gift came compliments of Florida coach Steve Spurrier, the 1966 winner. “That really means a lot,” Steve said.
Meanwhile, every day remains a battle.
“The grieving process doesn’t go away. You revisit it quite often,” Steve said. “Someone described to me that grief is not vertical, it’s circular. You go through emotions that come back again and again. And we understand it a lot better now. I have friends who’ve lost children. I thought I had some kind of idea about the pain, but I had no idea. No idea. It’s taken everything out of us. We’ll never get over the loss. We hope in time we’ll be able to cope with it.”
Barbara said, “You’ll have flashbacks for a long time. All I can say is Blake is better off. His mind doesn’t have to suffer anymore. (His mind) doesn’t have to go through what it went through for seven years.”
Steve insists he has progressed. “We miss him so much,” he said.
“He was so special to us,” Barbara said, “He was a sweet kid. I would do it all over again. I’d take Blake again. They (children) are only on loan to us. God only gives them to us for so long. You’re just supposed to go before they are.”