Jerad Johnson had an idea. As wide receivers coach at Pope High, he wanted to put a little fire into the Greyhounds.
Who better to give the team a jolt than Zach Owens, whose play and unrelenting drive had merited him his team’s respect? Johnson asked Owens to commit a penalty. And not, like, a false start.
“I want you to spike the ball, and I’m going to come out to the numbers and chest-bump you,” Johnson said he told Owens.
So, in that 2017 game, Owens caught a touchdown and … no spike. But he did acquiesce and chest-bump Johnson.
“He was like, Coach, I’m not going to spike the ball, and at the end of the day, that’s him,” Johnson said. “He’s never going to do that. He’s going to hand the ball to the official and if coach is forcing him to do it, he’ll go chest bump him.”
If that’s the only coach’s request that Owens won’t follow through on, Georgia Tech coaches likely will be quite pleased with the newest arrival from Cobb County. Johnson would submit that that will probably be the case.
“He kept his nose down, and he was a grinder,” said Johnson, who also is the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach. “There were a lot of days I wondered if I was pushing him too hard because I knew he wasn’t going to stop.”
Owens’ motivation has multiple sources. He grew up in a home where taking on challenges was part of life. When the family moved from Charlotte, N.C., to Atlanta for Owens’ mother Roxanne’s work, she practically recoiled when a co-worker suggested she avoid East Cobb schools such as Pope or Walton because the schoolwork was too demanding.
“And I’m, like, are you kidding me?” Roxanne said. “Well, that’s where we’re going to go. We’re going to go where the school is hard. And I’m going to ask for the hardest teacher.”
The last part is no joke – she said she actually did that for Zach and his two older sisters. Zach was unaware of this until he, his mother and his father Byron sat for an AJC interview in their sunlit East Cobb home. His mother’s requests resulted, Zach said, with an elementary-school teacher who sometimes kept the class in from recess to keep working.
Roxanne: “I sure did. And you didn’t know that?”
Zach: “I had no clue.”
Roxanne: “I’ve done that with every one of y’all.”
Zach (with a tone suggesting he was suddenly looking at his entire childhood – and perhaps his mother – through a new lens): “Really.”
Another motivator was a processing issue that caused Owens to have difficulty in areas like storytelling and strategy, leading his parents to take him to an occupational therapist. Roxanne said that the therapy changed his life. It also dialed up his competitive fire.
“I think in general it just put a chip on my shoulder just to work a little bit harder than all the other kids,” he said. “Especially in this area because it’s affluent, and it’s like, these guys are really smart. But, I mean, you can still do it. I can still succeed around here.”
Perhaps most personally, Owens said he is driven to buck the stereotype about black students being unable to compete on par with white students. Owens said he feels it particularly as an African American who has excelled in sports in a school that is about three-quarters white.
“It hurts, but it’s like you’ve got to keep pushing past,” said Owens, who took three advanced-placement classes and graduated with honors. “I mean, prove them wrong and just continue.”
Owens’ experiences with racism and ignorance have not been isolated. In middle school and at Pope, he said that it was not uncommon to hear the n-word used by white students. He said he has been told, “You speak good English for a black person.”
When he was a freshman, on the way home from a road game, Owens said that a white teammate told him and a black teammate that “you guys aren’t even black. I just talked to these real black guys.” In 2018, he said a white classmate posted racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic comments in German on a friend’s Instagram account, only to offer an apology and claim that it was a joke between friends.
Owens said that “you sort of get used to it” in a way that one might get used to sitting on a cactus.
“It’s still uncomfortable,” he said.
Though not one to bring attention to himself, his frustration led him to start a club at Pope to give minority students a place to share their experiences with one another and white students and to offer their perspectives on issues of the day. Owens said he was nervous about how the club would be received – particularly given that the club’s original name was “We the Minorities” before it was changed to PROUD (People Respecting Our Unique Differences). But he went ahead, believing that it was necessary and would help bring people together.
Every other Tuesday morning, after a Sunday spent researching, Owens led discussions on topics such as immigration, cultural appropriation and Colin Kaepernick. Students across the racial spectrum participated.
“I think the impact was mostly positive around our school,” said Ali Limbacker, a friend of Owens and a club co-founder. “I think the more people started going to the club, the more fun they had and the more they learned and were able to spread it out everywhere in the school.”
Owens said he is interested in joining a similar club at Tech, if one exists, or maybe start one if it doesn’t.
“I definitely want to carry it forward,” he said.
There will also be the matter of catching touchdown passes and not spiking the football. Johnson, his position coach, said that Owens is as athletic as any opponent he’ll face at Tech. He also said that, with his long strides, Owens is deceptively fast and ran the 100-meter dash in 11.1 seconds. Plus, he knows how to push himself.
“Football, if he becomes proficient and is really good and that leads to a road where he can maybe play professionally, he’ll definitely do that,” said his father, Byron. “But a football player’s not him. He’s a well-rounded individual, which I think will serve him well down the road.”
The story is part of a series of profiles of members of Georgia Tech’s incoming freshman class.
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