It was about this time of year, in 1957, fifty summers ago, that the Norwood High School football team learned that Bobby Gene “Diz” Owens would be our coach for the coming season. What’s more, “Diz” would be our basketball and baseball coach as well. I played on those teams and was a member of that year’s senior class.
To our surprise we discovered that Coach Owens had not played college football. He was a recent graduate of Pfeiffer College where there was no football program. “Don’t worry about that, boys,” our principal, B.G. Short, told us. “Mr. Owens will be a good coach.”
Mr. Short was an avid golfer and may have known “Diz” from the Badin golf course. Surely, he had talked with people who knew “Diz” and his reputation for hard work. Mr. Short may have been aware, too, of “Diz’s” appearance in the North Carolina AAU baseball tournament in Roxboro some years before.
Young Manufacturing Company, in Norwood, entered a team in that tournament. Their roster was submitted. As game day approached “Diz” was recruited to join the team. He would play under an assumed name – Ben Russell – whose name was included on the roster, but who was a little old to be playing this young man’s game. The team may have won a game or two in the tournament. At least they survived long enough for a professional scout to notice “Ben Russell’s” sterling play at shortstop.
Soon after the season ended, the scout arrived at the office of Young Mfg. Co. asking to speak with Ben Russell. The receptionist inquired as to the nature of the visit, and upon learning he was a baseball scout she said, “I don’t know why you’d want to talk with Ben, but I’ll send for him.”
If memory does not fail me, and if local legend is correct, that scout worked for the New York Yankees. When the real Ben Russell appeared in the office, they all had a big belly-laugh as the scout said, “You aren’t the man I saw in Roxboro. What’s going on here?”
It’s not known if the scout ever located the imposter, as “Diz” did not work at Young Mfg. Co. It may have been about this time that “Diz” entered in the U.S. Air Force.
My senior year at Norwood High School was a memorial one. Our football team won half of our games, our basketball team advanced to the county finals, and our baseball team made it to the state play-offs. As Mr. Short had assured us, “Diz” was a good coach indeed. In the case of our basketball team, we won only about half of our regular season games, but Coach kept practicing us hard, with running drills up and down the court, telling us that the Pfeiffer gym floor is much larger than our tiny one. By the time of the county tournament (played at Pfeiffer College), I was in the best condition of my life. I felt I could run the floor from sun-up to sundown and not be tired. It was such conditioning that kept us in contention for the county championship, but Stanfield proved too strong for us.
Wednesday night, as I stood in line at Stanly Funeral Home to visit with Mrs. Owens and her children, I spoke briefly with Ted Furr, a lifelong friend of “Diz” and a fellow Optimist Club member. Ted recounted to me the labor of love that “Diz” invested in the Optimist Park and their Little League baseball program. Ten years ago or so, a great flood raged along Carolina Avenue and completely washed away the Optimist Park facilities. “Diz” worked tirelessly to replace the field – constructing, painting, and mowing the grass. His tireless effort, Ted told me, was not a one-time project for “Diz”. It was on going – year after year after year.
True to his character “Diz” was hard at work until the very last, mowing around his home during the heat of the day on Monday.
It must have been Coach’s genuine character and gentle spirit that B.G. Short recognized when hiring “Diz” for his first teaching position.
We in my generation at Norwood High School were fortunate, indeed, to have known “Diz” and to have had him as our coach, teacher, and friend. We honor Coach Owens’ memory, and with his lovely family and many friends, we mourn his sudden departure from this earth.
Printed in the Stanly News and Press, Albemarle, NC, June 24, 2007