Mark Story

Mark Story: Dallas Owens and the play that launched a 10-1 UK football season

Kentucky defensive back Dallas Owens returned an interception against LSU in Baton Rouge in 1977. Owens died Sunday after a battle against brain tumors.
Kentucky defensive back Dallas Owens returned an interception against LSU in Baton Rouge in 1977. Owens died Sunday after a battle against brain tumors. Herald-Leader

Since Bear Bryant bailed on Kentucky as the Cats' head coach after the 1953 season, UK has fielded exactly one football team that deserves the mantle of "great."

Though banned from a post-season bowl by NCAA probation in 1977, Fran Curci's Wildcats went 10-1 and became the only Kentucky football squad ever to compile an undefeated SEC record (6-0).

Yet that UK football season to remember actually got off to a rocky start. That is, until Cats defensive back Dallas Owens made a single play in State College, Pa., that sparked UK on a run to greatness.

Owens died Sunday after a protracted battle with brain tumors. The former Lafayette High School star was 56.

On Oct. 1, 1977, Owens was the UK strong safety in Beaver Stadium as the Cats fell behind No. 4 Penn State 10-0. For Kentucky, which entered the '77 season with high hopes coming off a Peach Bowl-winning year in 1976, it was the continuation of a sour beginning to the year.

The Cats had opened the season needing a late touchdown to survive North Carolina 10-7 in Commonwealth Stadium. They were waxed the next week, 21-6, at Baylor. The Cats had returned home and beaten West Virginia 28-13 in week three — but the Kentucky offense had been so sluggish early on in that game that the Commonwealth fans rained boos down on the team.

So sour was the mood leading into the season's fourth game at Penn State, Curci spent the week refusing to speak to the Kentucky sports media.

Against a Penn State team that UK had beaten decisively (22-6) in Lexington in 1976, the Cats fell behind 10-0 in the first period.

"That damn thing was going downhill, and it was going downhill fast," Derrick Ramsey, the 1977 UK quarterback, recalled Monday of that Penn State game. "Then Dallas made the play that changed everything."

Up two scores and hungry for more, Penn State sent its star receiver, Jimmy Cefalo, in motion. To this point in the season, Nittany Lions quarterback Chuck Fusina had not thrown an interception all year.

He was about to.

"They sent Cefalo in motion," Owens said in a 1998 interview. "We were so well-prepared, when I saw that, I knew what play they were running, I knew they were going to throw it to him in the flat. So I just stepped in front of him and (Fusina) threw me the ball."

Owens took the pick 23 yards to the house. The touchdown not only launched UK to a 24-20 comeback victory over Joe Paterno. It seemed to alter the arc of Kentucky's entire season.

"It absolutely revved our engine," ex-UK linebacker Kelly Kirchbaum said Monday. "(Owens' pick) completely changed the momentum of that game, and after we won like that at Penn State, we felt like there wasn't anyone we couldn't beat."

Owens was an Army brat. He was born at Fort Campbell, and lived in North Carolina, Texas, Kansas and Germany. After his father retired from the military, the family moved to Lexington.

Dallas Owens became a football star at Lafayette, and a "must-get" recruit for Curci early in the coach's UK tenure.

"There were not a lot of good football players in Lexington. Heck, there were not a lot of good football players in (the state of) Kentucky," Curci said. "Dallas was a very good player. It was a big boost to us when we got him to stay home."

Owens came to UK as a wide receiver and started as a true freshman. After a disappointing sophomore year, he moved to defense. He played cornerback as a junior and then was "the Wildcat" (strong safety) as a senior.

He became a player others would follow.

"(Owens) was a good guy, would look out for you a little bit," Kirchbaum said.

Once, in a practice, Kirchbaum said he was on the receiving end of a big hit. "I got my world rocked," he said. "I was woozy, literally teetering" and about to fall to the ground.

Owens saw him wobbling, Kirchbaum said, and grabbed him to steady him. While holding Kirchbaum up, Owens whispered into his ear.

"He said 'Weebles wobble but they don't fall down,'" Kirchbaum said, laughing, of the famous marketing slogan for the 1970s-era toys. "From that time on, Dallas always called me 'Weeble.'"

Former UK receiving star Felix Wilson said when he came to Kentucky as a freshman in 1976, he was part of a recruiting class that did not include many black players. "Dallas, starting on day one, sort of looked out for us," Wilson said. "He sort of showed us how we needed to carry ourselves, where we need to be, just how we needed to handle things."

In recent months, as Owens saw his health decline, several of his teammates from the UK days came to see him.

"He was a trouper to the end," Wilson said, "he fought it to the end."

Said Kirchbaum: "His memory in terms of remembering the things from our past was better than mine."

Owens had much worth recalling from UK's 10-1 magic carpet ride in 1977. The 5-foot-11, 194-pound safety made a key pick against West Virginia, returned an intercepted pass 81 yards for a TD in a road victory at LSU and was chosen first-team All-SEC.

"Nobody made more big plays for that '77 team than Dallas Owens," Ramsey said.

Included is the one play that ignited the only great football season the University of Kentucky has had since the Bear wore blue.

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