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Bette Midler, Vietnam, NFL: Bob Owens’ “strange” life

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By Julia Sayers

Bob Owens is the assistant coach for the men's and women's tennis teams. Photo by Julia Sayers

Bob doesn’t sleep.

This is just one part of Bob Owens’ interesting, or as he prefers “strange,” life. Not many people can say they’ve had experiences comparable to Owens, the assistant men and women’s tennis coach at Elon University.

Owens’, 65, experiences started young. Since his father was in the navy, his family moved around a lot, living in Japan, Alaska and Hawaii. Owens attended Radford High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, the same high school Bette Midler attended, who was in the grade ahead of Owens.

“I knew Midler and she knew me because I was an athlete,” Owens said. “She was very active in the student government and had a nice voice even then. She was in the chorus and did all those musical theater plays.”

Owens played baseball and football in high school, but excelled at football.

“I liked the contact sport, for a teen with all the hormones running it was a good way to release a lot of energy,” Owens said. “I was the oldest of 13 kids so my frustrations of having to take care of them were taken out on the field. I couldn’t hit the younger kids but I could hit people in football.”

“But you’ve got a bullet in your back” 

After high school, Owens was drafted into the military. After boot camp, he tried to outsmart the system by taking extended training in jump school and then going with Special Forces to Georgia, but was eventually sent to south Vietnam to fight in the war.

“I kept thinking I could spend my time in the service just going through classes, but that wasn’t what happened,” Owens said.

Owens was stationed in Quang Tri Province in the northern highlands of south Vietnam. It was an 18-month tour of duty in Vietnam, but Owens was there for just short of nine months. His regular army unit of 65 men was assigned to intervene with north Vietnamese and Viet Kong infiltration of south Vietnam.

“They were bringing supplies in and our job was to cut them off,” Owens said.

However, while on patrol on October 28, 1965, Owens was shot in his stomach. The bullet came in below his belt and went out his back, leaving a part of the bullet still in his back. He spent the first few weeks recovering in a field hospital but was then moved to hospitals in the Philippines, Japan and Virginia before finally being discharged home to Honolulu.

“All I wanted was someone to make the hurt go away,” Owens said. “It felt like someone was inside me with a settling torch trying to burn their way out. The idea of dying, it’s not that you don’t think about it, but it’s not important. For me it was like I don’t care what you do but just make the pain go away. The idea of my mortality did not enter my mind.”

The bullet, which doesn’t bother Owens nor has any need to be removed, still surprises doctors when they see it.

“It’s actually become a comical part of my life. I broke my back in college and as the doctor was looking at my x-rays, he goes ‘you’ve got a bullet in your back’ and I said ‘I know that’ and he kept saying ‘but you’ve got a bullet in your back,’” Owens said. “I said ‘look, can we not let this bullet go to rest here? Find out what the hell is wrong with my back so you can fix me.’”

Five Years of Headaches 

After four years in the military, Owens attended Guilford College in Greensboro, NC. He had been recruited right after high school by the football coach and was able to get in touch with him again after returning home from service.

“He asked if I could play football and I asked the doctor on one of my checkups what I could do and he said ‘Well how dumb are you?’ And I said ‘Well I can’t be a physicist,’” Owens laughed. “But specifically I asked if I could play football and he said he didn’t see why not.”

Owens, left, played wide receiver for Guilford College's football team. Photo submitted.

Owens went on to play wide receiver for Guilford in 1968, graduating as a two-time All American in football. While in college, Owens met his first wife, Katherine Byrd.

“While I was in college I met a girl. Surprise right?” Owens said. “We got a long pretty well. We started seeing each other socially and as it got more serious I got to know her more than just thinking she was cute and all the stuff associated with young love.”

After dating for a little while, Owens found out Byrd’s uncle was the governor of the state of Georgia and she was from a very well-off political family. After getting married and divorced three years later, her uncle, Jimmy Carter, ended up becoming President of the United States.

“I found that out after working with Bob for three or four years,” chimed in Michael Leonard, men’s tennis coach at Elon. “He just threw it in like that’s just normal.”

“Well it’s not like I have a business card that says ‘I got shot. I married Jimmy Carter’s niece. Bette Midler was in my class in high school’.” Owens said. “If you live long enough, something funny is going to happen to you. It’s not like I planned these things out.”

While Owens was in graduate school in France, the World Football League was formed and Owens received two letters from their scouting organization, one for the Birmingham Americans and one for the Philadelphia Bell. These letters were sent to every college football player who wasn’t in the NFL. Open tryouts were held for the Bell in New Jersey, and Owens, who hitchhiked to the tryouts, was signed as a free agent in 1974. The team did really well the first two years, even playing in the first round of the playoffs. However, financial problems came up and the league folded. Many players from the league went on to join the NFL, and the Philadelphia Eagles signed Owens in 1976.

“I had a headache for five years,” Owens said. “Nowadays they yank you out of the game and won’t let you back in until your five days free of symptoms. But back then they would give you a whiff of ammonia and send you back in. So the most vivid thing I remember was five years of headaches. It was just a constant headache. Three weeks after the season is over, the headache will go away and you feel good but then you go into summer camp and someone will hit you and the headache starts and then never goes away because from that point on someone will hit you for the rest of the season.”

Owens ended his football career in 1979.

“I got tired of the headaches,” said Owens. “But the deals were rebuilding and it doesn’t take a genius to realize they start drafting certain players so you just call it a career.”

A teacher, a coach, a husband and a Lollipop 

After Owens’ football career, he started teaching at public schools in North Carolina. His undergraduate major was social sciences so he taught AP U.S. History, AP Psychology and AP European History. He got certified to be an athletic trainer, which also certified him in science, so he taught anatomy, physiology and sports medicine. Owens taught for 33 years.

Owens and his wife Wanda have two twin boys, Jay and Todd (pictured) and daugther, Amber. Photo submitted.

In 1979, Owens met his current wife, Wanda, on a blind date. They got married in 1980 and had three children, twin sons Jay and Todd, 32, and daughter Amber, 27. Owens also has a grandson named Brody, 5, from Amber.

“We call my wife Lolli, which is partly my fault,” Owens said. “When I found out I was having a grandkid I said I’d be damned if I’d be called grandpa or granddad. So Wanda asked me if l didn’t mind ‘Pop’ and I said I liked that. And then our names became ‘Lollipop’.”

Owens, who started playing tennis in college and is currently a member of the United States Tennis Association, came to Elon in 2000 under Coach Parham, the men’s tennis coach, and started working with summer camps. When Parham retired and Leonard took over, Owens became assistant coach for the men’s tennis team. A few years later, Owens also decided to help out with the women’s tennis team. He also teaches the tennis class at Elon. Owens has really enjoyed his time coaching the teams.

“The guys are extraordinarily easy to bond with,” Owens said. “They’re good people, they’re easy to get along with and they’re very coachable. They’re good citizens and hard workers.”

No sleep tonight 

Due to his experiences in Vietnam, Owens doesn’t sleep. He rests, but he doesn’t sleep. He stays in the “sleep onset” stage of sleep.

“I hear things; I listen to monotonous noise, like a fan moving, and if something happens that breaks it, I’m instantly aware of it,” Owens said. “And if you ask me something you’ll swear I’ve been awake all night because I talk just like I’m talking now.”

When Owens arrived in Vietnam, he was told there were snakes everywhere.

“When you’re in your tent sleeping, you have mosquito netting around you and the wind will blow through and run across the hairs on your legs and arms so I’d think it was a snake,” Owens said. “From that point on, I was just terrified, and it just established me to go into this one stage and stay there.”

In the sleep onset stage, Owens motors down, his metabolic rates and breathing slows, and he rests.

“I’m not an insomniac because I can motor down and lay down and get the kind of rest I need,” Owens said. “But I don’t have to have this idea of 6 or 7 hours of deep sleep. It’s not something I’ve done consciously or practiced. But it’s worked out fine for me. I need to rest but I don’t need to have what everybody else is getting in order to be refreshed in the morning.”

It has become second nature to Owens now. He always gets the rest he needs, even when he was playing football.

“It’s like the old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Owens said. “It’s the way I’ve been for so long, it’s not even an issue.”

While most people find this interesting, Owens just thinks it’s strange, as he reiterated many times. He says anyone can have as many interesting experiences as he has had.

“If you live long enough, a lot of things are going to happen to you,” Owens said. “It’s not something you plan, it’s just life constantly doing things that are unusual and strange. Some aren’t always good, but it’s just the way it is. And it can happen to anybody. And it does, it happens to everybody.”

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Written by juliasayers

May 9, 2011 at 8:54 am

4 Responses

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  1. I LOVE the first line!

    You did a nice job reporting this. I am looking forward to seeing the video, too.

    You should fix the caption on the top photo so it says men’s and women’s teams…

    Janna

    May 11, 2011 at 1:35 pm

  2. I enjoyed seeing the video clips. I think that in this paragraph you used the word “ideas” when you meant to type the word “hours”:

    “I’m not an insomniac because I can motor down and lay down and get the kind of rest I need,” Owens said. “But I don’t have to have this idea of 6 or 7 ideas of deep sleep. It’s not something I’ve done consciously or practiced. But it’s worked out fine for me. I need to rest but I don’t need to have what everybody else is getting in order to be refreshed in the morning.”

    Janna

    May 16, 2011 at 2:14 pm

  3. Mr. Owens was actually my AP US History teacher at Northeast Guilford Highschool in 2002. I must say, not only has the man been through and experienced a lot in his life. But, he is also one of the most well educated and wise men that I have ever had the pleasure of learning from. If you don’t believe me, just ask him what he thinks about JFKs assassination. It’s good to see that respect is being given where respect is definitely due. And in my book, Bob Owens has earned more respect than he will ever be shown in this lifetime.

    David shaw

    May 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    • Oh wow, that’s so awesome! I wish I could have had him as a teacher, he’s definitely an amazing man. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to sit down and talk to him; the wisdom and stories he shared with me were incredible. And he’s so humble, which makes me respect him even more.

      juliasayers

      May 2, 2012 at 10:20 pm


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