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Burgess Owens leaps high in a playoff win against the Jets in 1981. The Utah congressman won a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders that year.
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From the Super Bowl to Congress, with a BYU assist

They were just two teammates on the Oakland Raiders team Burgess Owens joined in the fall of 1980. They didn’t have a ton in common.

He was a Black man from the University of Miami. They were white guys from BYU.

He played defense. They played offense.

He was a starter. They were reserves.

He made a team-leading seven tackles when the “Just Win Baby” Raiders won Super Bowl XV 40 years ago in the Louisiana Superdome. They barely played.

But of all his Raiders teammates, Todd Christensen and Marc Wilson would play a bigger role in his future than any of the rest.

If not for them, he wouldn’t have changed churches; and if he hadn’t changed churches he almost assuredly wouldn’t have wound up in Utah; and if he hadn’t wound up in Utah, he would not be a member of the 117th Congress of the United States of America.

The two teammates influenced him by basically not saying anything.

“They lockered just down from me, to the right,” Owens said, reflecting on the Raiders’ locker room back in the day. “I’d see them every single day. They were just different. They had a light about them, I didn’t know what it was.”

He knew they were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion he had little knowledge of, “other than I heard they didn’t like Black people.”

Owens purposely didn’t talk religion with Christensen and Wilson, “because I didn’t want to not like them.”

As time wore on, though, he and Christensen became friends. “Our children were the same age,” he said, “our families did things together.”

Finally, after three seasons, he asked Christensen what he believed.

“My mother had passed away six years earlier. She was the glue to our family; I missed her, I wanted to know where she went,” remembered Owens.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who ever knew the late Todd Christensen (who died at the age of 57 in 2013 during kidney transplant surgery), or heard him as a network TV analyst after his playing days were over, that he was not at a loss for words.

Within two months the Owens family joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on the last day of December, 1982, at the conclusion of Owens’ 10 seasons in the NFL.

Owens didn’t move to Utah after his playing career, but when time came for his six children to go to college, he made a deal with them: they could apply to any school in the country, as long as they spent their first year of college in Utah.

“I wanted them to have a soft landing (after high school),” he said. “I went to the University of Miami, a party school; that was not a soft landing. I wanted them to have a different kind of start.”

The Owens kids went to BYU or Utah Valley University. Four graduated from BYU.

When all six decided to settle down in Utah and begin having families of their own — 15 grandkids so far and counting — Owens could see the handwriting on the wall. Eight years ago he moved to Utah to be near them.

An ardent conservative — “I used to be a cocky liberal,” he says, “until I had a business fail and I was humbled” — he decided to throw his hat in the ring for the 2020 4th Congressional District race as a Republican. In a close election, he defeated incumbent Democrat Ben McAdams by 1 percentage point.

Just over a month into his new role in Washington, with Super Bowl LV as a backdrop, Owens took time to reflect on the football career and the teammates that connect a Super Bowl championship 40 years ago to walking the halls of Congress today.

“It’s amazing to look back and see the things that influence our lives,” he said. “I never thought I’d be in this position after my career in football. I really thought years and years ago that I’d be on a (church) mission by now. I guess I am on a mission, just not the way I thought it would be, representing our great state and its values. I do it unapologetically and with gratitude. It’s just so cool to be here.”

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