Tinker Owens sure would like a cold beer right now, but he's not going to get it. He sure would like to sleep past 6:45 tomorrow morning, but he's not going to do that, either.
"Preseason practice is the worst part of football," Owens says. "It turns your whole life around. But most of us put up with it because it works. When the season starts next month we'll be ready to play."
Tinker is always ready to play. He's always ready for anything. "Tinker," says a duly impressed teammate, "is the most hang-loose guy I know."
Being hang-loose is sticking with it in the sweltering heat of August while a dozen teammates steal away in the night. It is ignoring the frustration of being the best receiver on a running team. And, finally, it is accepting the fact that good as that team may be, it must reside in purgatory—ignored by television, bowls and the UPI weekly ratings. Just as last season, when the Sooners won 10 games and tied one, Oklahoma is shackled by the punishment of its own deceit—a two-year probation caused by serious recruiting irregularities.
"Probation bothered us more last year than it will this year," Tinker says. "There's nothing we can do about it, so nobody has much to say. People can look at our record and know how good we are. It will be obvious to everyone that we should be ranked. We know we can win every game. We may even run up the score if we have a chance just to make the UPI look stupid."
These are not bitter words; they are spoken matter-of-factly. If Owens has any regret at all, it is the television proscription. "I play my best games on TV," he says.
Wishbone offenses do not often provide high moments for pass catchers, but Tinker has enjoyed some nonetheless. As a freshman he was the Most Valuable Player in the Sugar Bowl, and last year he caught two touchdown passes in a 52-13 blitz of Texas. Both games were televised, of course.
His best catch—"the most important pass I ever completed," Quarterback Steve Davis said at the time—came against Miami. It brought the Sooners from behind in the third quarter and spurred them to a 24-20 victory.
Owens' well-run patterns and sure-handedness have enabled him to achieve career totals of 35 passes for 815 yards and six touchdowns. Defensive Coordinator Larry Lacewell says he has never seen a receiver make so many great catches with so few opportunities. Offensive Coordinator Galen Hall calls Owens "the best damn receiver in the country."
Even so, Tinker had to share playing time last year with another gifted end, the bigger, faster Billy Brooks. Competition between them was so great that they hardly spoke—even though they were roommates on the road. Brooks threatened to transfer if he did not play more and Owens felt frustrated because he was playing less.
The situation improved this past spring when the Sooner coaches introduced a Wishbone with wings that puts the two receivers on opposite flanks. "We threw so much it was ridiculous," Tinker says happily. "I think we should pass more. Defenses are learning a lot about the Wishbone, and passing will make the running game even better."
Owens admits he "might like to stand out a little more," but he hastens to add, "I haven't let it bother me. I'd rather be right where I am than take a chance of having something bad happen somewhere else."
Oklahoma was the natural choice for Steve Owens' little brother. A natural choice, but not necessarily an automatic one. When Tinker was named Oklahoma's outstanding high school athlete his senior year, comparisons to Steve were numerous.
"Fortunately, it doesn't happen as much anymore," Tinker says. "After all, I'm a receiver and he's a running back. I'm small and he's big."
But the comparisons were so oppressive at the time that Tinker seriously considered enrolling at pass-minded Arkansas. "I knew I'd have a better chance of making a name for myself there," he says, "but Arkansas turned out to be a bad scene. When I visited there a big guy, about 6'5", 250 pounds, tried to pick a fight with me. He kept saying, 'I don't care if you are Steve Owens' brother.' Heck, he was the only person who had even mentioned Steve. But it's a good thing he didn't hit me because there was another fellow behind him with a bottle, ready to bust him over the head."
Tinker decided that his chances for survival were greater at Oklahoma. "People here act the way I act. They're plain Oklahoma people, just like me."
Since his arrival from Miami, in the northeast corner of the state, Tinker has been no ordinary Okie, however. His hot flashes of success quickly won him a following. A baby was named after him. A heifer was named after him. A laundromat that didn't even exist was named after him. The sign outside Miami that once read HOME OF STEVE OWENS now includes an addendum: AND TINKER, TOO.
And, finally, he has received the ultimate tribute. When a Norman traffic cop began writing out a speeding ticket for one Charles Wayne Owens last year, the perpetrator, hanging loose, casually mentioned that he was better known as "Tinker."