A life on the move suits Black River defensive end Jeff Owen. Five days a week during the fall, the senior gets out of school early to complete chores on his family’s 1,000-acre, 400-cow dairy farm and returns for football practice, then goes back to Homer Township for homework and a little free time before the cycle repeats.
Owen is a dying breed in Medina County — the housing development boom hasn’t reached the western part of the county yet — but he doesn’t think anything of it because farming is in his blood.
The farm is a family affair, as Owen, his two younger siblings and multiple cousins divide the workload to provide a sense of social normalcy. The equipment is old but reliable with multiple John Deere 4400 series tractors that, even at 30 to 40 years old, are still worth as much as a gently used luxury car.
So when Owen’s left knee began to swell after the 2014-15 wrestling season — curiously without pain — he became frustrated. Sitting on his rear and playing video games just isn’t his style.
X-rays revealed a startling problem — a tumor that was eating away at his lower femur. The good news was it wasn’t cancerous, but the bad news was Owen required bone graphs and a steel plate in surgery. That put him on crutches for months, forcing him to miss the entire 2015 football season.
Owen is reminded of his predicament every day by a 10-inch scar, and the plate will be removed after this school year. He will never be able to fully squat again — a small price to pay to be back on his feet — but, ever the blue-collar guy, Owen simply shrugs his shoulders and gets on with life.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t a part of the team. I didn’t go to practices because I knew I wasn’t going to play, but still came out (on game days) and supported on Friday and Saturday morning.
“(Rehab) was like when you tear your ACL. I had that same brace, just longer because my bone had to regenerate.”
Just when Owen was ready to return to the field, a broken ankle shelved him again. Undeterred, he returned to split time at end in the team’s 3-4 alignment, compiling 17 tackles (3ﾽ for loss), a sack and a pass breakup over the final six games a the Pirates reached the second round of the Division V, Region 17 playoffs.
Now fully healthy, Owen is making up for lost time. Black River is 6-0 behind a first-string defense that has allowed only three touchdowns, and Owen has been a significant contributor with 40 tackles, including 5ﾽ for loss and 3ﾽ sacks. All three statistics are among the best in the county at his position.
Owen, who also splits time at tight end and can play offensive tackle if needed, isn’t the strongest or most intimidating at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, but he embraces what he calls the “roughneck” culture. Long arms are his meal ticket, as he quickly gets his hands just below an opposing lineman’s neck and sheds blocks with ease.
“He uses his hands well, gets skinny and, surprisingly, he doesn’t get washed as much for as wide as he is,” said Black River defensive coordinator Kyle Clark, an All-Great Lakes Collegiate Athletic Conference nose tackle at Ashland University. “He has a motor. That’s what I love about him.”
“Speed kills,” Owen added with a grin.
The Pirates will face by far their biggest test of the season tonight at home against undefeated Buckeye in a ginormous Patriot Athletic Conference Stars Division showdown. The Bucks average 39.0 points and feature multiple home-run threats on offense, something Black River has not had to contend with.
Owen also will face one of his biggest foes in 6-3, 253-pound left tackle Ryan Smith, but, as always, he’ll keep his throttle pegged to the max and try all he can to deliver his tight-knit team a season-defining victory.
Owen has been through too much to play any other way.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “We have the opportunity to be PAC (Stars) champs and have a home playoff game, so it’s a great feeling.”
Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or firstname.lastname@example.org.