In football, it always starts with the small stuff. "I remember being impressed back in freshman year that Sam would sprint back with the ball after every carry and hand it to the quarterback rather than just tossing aside or flinging it back. Even then, his discipline stood out," fourth-year wide receiver Joe Polaneczky said.
Dedication to going a little bit harder and with a little bit more determination has been a trademark of the Maroon career of fourth-year running back Sam Owens, who will head to law school at the University of Wisconsin in the fall after having run for 1,822 yards and 14 touchdowns on 443 attempts for Chicago football. Those impressive numbers came despite a number of injuries over his first three years.
"I was always doing whatever I had to do to get back out there. I felt I was cheating my teammates if I didn't," Owens said.
"At this level, everyone's working just as hard as you are. Guys like [running backs] Aaron Carlock and Frank Brown forced me to step up my game if I wanted to play," he added.
"Sam worked hard every game he could," football head coach Dick Maloney said. "And I think because of that he had four great seasons here in spite of his injuries. We thought he would be an outstanding running back when we recruited him, and he did not disappoint."
Owens's best year was his last, in which he accumulated 711 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. The season was capped by his play in his final game for the Maroons, a 27-13 victory over Case Western. Owens broke the UAA single-game rushing record with a 232-yard performance. Still marveling months later, Maloney described it as a microcosm of Sam's career.
"He just gave a great all out effort," Maloney said. "You could see all of the effort and the drive that he'd put into football for four years in that game."
"We'd just underachieved so much last season, and I knew it was the last opportunity to showcase what we could do. I went in with the mentality that this was the last chance to put it on-the-line forever, and there was no reason to save anything," Owens recalls. "My legs were totally dead for about four days afterwards."
He added, however, that he hopes that his legacy on the team goes beyond what fellow senior running back Aaron Carlock described as "Sam's perfect game."
"That record could be broken again in the next UAA game; it's not going to last. I would prefer that this group of underclassmen remembers me coming in with such intensity that I could make the people around me better," Owens said.
His coach and teammates don't doubt that that will be the case. "We could always count on Sam, and with the challenges of being a student-athlete that's not something you can take for granted," Maloney said. "It's been great for the guys here to see the way he approaches practice and the game. He leads by example, and he's incredibly intense and focused on the field. I think the underclassmen here now have really learned from that."
Carlock agreed wholeheartedly. "Sam's always had a great attitude. If I had one word to describe him, it would be intense on and off the field. He's not afraid to get in your face and say what needs to be said. He's taught the underclassmen his work ethic, to be tough and stick with it."
Owens, who strikes the casual observer as being almost mellow, laughed to hear of some of these praises, but went on to comment that "I think that most of the appeal of football for me is that basic, animalistic side of it. You can put aside everything else, all the stress from classes and your life, and just go crazy without being criticized for it. You need an outlet to release that tension," he said.
Owens certainly earned the outlet, completing four years of notable achievements both on and off the field. Aside from earning acceptance into law school, Sam worked in summer programs at the University helping children, he became fluent in Japanese, and spent a quarter abroad in Japan. All those interviewed mentioned that his tough, goal-oriented nature brought him success Monday through Friday, as well as on Saturday.
Looking back, Sam has come to regard the dual task of being an academic and a football player as positive on the whole. "It's not always easy to be a student and athlete here," he said. "I think it comes through on the team how tough it is to balance the game, and your academics, and your life. You just want to be a regular student. It also gets frustrating, knowing that athletics aren't appreciated that much here.
"But in the end, I think I appreciated what the process did for me. I made it here, and I enjoyed myself because of what I did in and out of school. I think I'm well prepared now. I don't think that after the U of C, law school's going to throw me any curveballs. I'm not afraid to step out there and take on the world. I know I can handle it."