Forgotten Big Red Stars: Luke Owens

Former St. Louis Cardinals defensive lineman Luke Owens grew up in Cleveland and wanted nothing more than to beat his boyhood favorites. However, the Big Red were winless in ten games against the Browns since Luke had joined the team in 1958.

Luke Owens led the Cardinals in sacks from 1960-1964.

“You’ve got to live around those guys most of the year the way I do to appreciate the chest-puffing, back slapping adulation they get,” Luke told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1963. “I get tired of it. We’ve tied ’em a couple of times, but never beat ’em. I’d like to blow ’em right into the lake (Erie).”

But on November 17, 1963, Big Luke finally saw his longtime dream come true when the Cardinals defeated the Browns 20-14 at Municipal Stadium.

“It’s like Christmas for me,” Owens said in the locker room as his teammates presented him the game ball.

Owens was a star two-way player at Kent State University and was selected in the third round by the Baltimore Colts in the 1957 NFL draft. He played in eleven games at defensive tackle his rookie season, but was released by the Colts at the end of the year.

Luke joined the Chicago Cardinals in 1958 and head coach Frank “Pop” Ivy switched the 6-foot-3, 255 pounder to defensive end much to the Ohio native’s chagrin.

“When I first came to the Cards from a rookie season in Baltimore, I was a defensive tackle with high hopes of someday being outstanding,” Luke recalled. “When Pop asked me to change to end to help the team, I wondered if I was being demoted, or something.”

Owens transitioned seamlessly and his career took off after the team moved to St. Louis. He netted 6 sacks in 1960 and would lead the team in that category the next five seasons (1960-1964). One of his biggest moments in 1960 came at Yankee Stadium when Owens beat New York Giants tackle Rosey Brown to help force a fumble to preserve a 20-13 victory.

“What was there left then… seven seconds?” asked Luke after the game. “That’s when I really felt comfortable. That victory was a big one for us.”

Luke Owens in the 1964 “Mud Bowl” against the New York Giants.

After two solid seasons at defensive end, the Big Red drafted rookie end Don Brumm in 1963 and moved Owens back to defensive tackle. He had his best season with 10.5 sacks and was named MVP by his teammates.

“I just can’t take all the credit,” he said after accepting his award at the annual Quarterback Club awards dinner, “when we have players like Charley Johnson, Bill Triplett and Bobby Joe Conrad, just to name a few. I honestly wish all our players could share the award.”

Big Red defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis had nothing but praise for Owens.

“Luke,” Drulis said, “is a hustling, all-out football player who has made the shift from defensive end so smoothly that he has become one of the best defensive tackles in the league. Maybe everybody doesn’t know it yet, but we do.”

“I feel especially good hearing the coach say that,” Luke explained, “because I was surprised to be shifted to tackle this season— I thought they were demoting me because I liked to play end so much—but I consider myself a team man first. So it’s nice to know I’ve done the job.”

Luke Owens was named team MVP in 1963 when he recorded 10.5 sacks.

Luke was well respected by his peers and one of the team leaders leaders. In 1964, he reflected on the Cardinals first four years in St. Louis and pointed out how most of the team would leave the area to find work in the offseason. He had a suggestion that he hoped would improve community relations with the Big Red.

“It’s timely now because the club has made its decision to continue in St. Louis instead of moving to Atlanta. I believe the city, its people and its business leaders, should try to do more for the players to make them feel wanted, to give them opportunity in offseason jobs to stay the year-round in the city.”

“I don’t think it’s good when 22 to 24 of our players have their cars loaded with belongings and family ready to take off after the last game of the season as has happened up to now—players who can say only that they are taxpayers in St. Louis but nothing more.”

“And I think that if this can be changed, the closer relation of the players to the city will have a real effect on what happens on the playing field.”

“Football players either have a college degree or four years of college,” said Luke, who had a Bachelor of Arts degree, “and so they should be qualified for something. I wouldn’t mind living in St. Louis myself if I could get work equal to what I have in Cleveland, some of the other Cardinals have expressed themselves similarly and that’s why I’m concerned.”

Owens once again led the Big Red defense with eight sacks in 1964, but nagging injuries hampered him the following season.

In 1966, Owens signed a two year contract but failed his physical just three days later after team doctors informed him that they had detected damage to his heart muscle. The heart issue forced Big Luke into retirement.

Luke later discovered that the Big Red knew about his heart condition since 1963 and filed a lawsuit against the Cardinals for two years of back pay and $15,000 in damages. Owens and the team settled the suit in 1972.

After his playing career, Owens ran a restaurant in East Cleveland and served as a manager of the Cleveland East Job Service Office.

He was inducted into the Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame and the Kent State Hall of Fame in 1980.

Owens died at the age of 83 on December 9, 2016.

Luke Owens passed away in 2016 at the age of 83.

2 thoughts on “Forgotten Big Red Stars: Luke Owens

  1. I very much enjoyed this story on Luke Owens. Thanks for chronicling his career. He indeed was underrated and underappreciated. I was appalled to learn the Cardinals knew he had a heart condition, didn’t tell him and let him keep playing. Damn. That is unethical and criminal, and it’s an important reminder of how rotten professional sports can be. I hope he got a satisfying settlement.

    Fun fact: Luke Owens graduated from John Adams High School, and so did his future Cardinals teammate, offensive lineman Bob Reynolds. Longtime Broncos linebacker and TV broadcaster Tom Jackson also is a John Adams High School alum.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know that Jackson went to John Adams, but I knew Reynolds had gone. Also, perhaps it was common around the NFL back in the day, but it sure seemed like the Cardinals had more than their share of disgruntled players leaving the team at the end of their careers. And many of them ended in a lawsuit. Owens settled for a pretty good sum from what I understand.


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