Career finale seals bond between SCSU star and family he saved

South Carolina State star Reggie Owens, rushing the passer against Clemson, says he has "adopted another family" after rescuing them after a car accident. SC State Athletic Media Relations Office

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- The drunk driver of the white Chrysler 300 in front of Reggie Owens barreled into the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and West Gwinnet Street, T-boning a Nissan Altima. Metal crumbled and windows shattered, as three small bodies were ejected from the Nissan.

Maybe football had prepared the 21-year-old senior South Carolina State University defensive end for the most important moments of his young life. Football is based on split-second decisions that often make or break a team's season. In the early morning hours of April 4, Owens reacted as he had been taught to by the sport he loves. Rush to the point of attack. Make a play.

Owens, 10 minutes from his mother's house, on the tail end of a two-hour trip he had made countless times down I-95 from campus in Orangeburg, South Carolina, sprinted toward the Nissan with a fourth-quarter adrenaline rush. Aside from the initial impact, the scene was eerily quiet. No car alarms, no horns, no mass panic. The only sound he recalls were faint shrieks from the kids, which he credits for helping him maintain focus.

Owens pulled 8-year-old Dontrell Griffin from the path of the still-rolling Nissan, stabilizing him and his broken foot on the sidewalk. He quickly placed Dontrell's 5-year-old cousin, Charles James, who suffered lacerations and head bruises, beside him.

Owens then turned around to make an even more frightening discovery: Dontrell's little brother -- 2-year-old Messiah -- lay in the middle of the street, his face a mass of cuts and blood.

"He was partially breathing. He wasn't crying. The shock had hit him," the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Owens said. He used his shirt and jacket to stanch the bleeding. Doctors say Messiah, who later needed facial reconstructive surgery, would not have survived without Owens' intervention.

Dontrell and Messiah's mother, Sharkia Griffin, and her sister, Ericka Griffin, were still in the Altima, both trying to deal with concussions. Ericka eventually was able to phone Toshi Griffin, her mother and the children's grandmother, from the scene of the accident.

"That was the most ..." Toshi's voice trailed off. She sighed deeply. "I thought I had lost everything."

Owens phoned his mother to tell her he was fine, but that he would be staying with the three children until the paramedics, police and fire departments arrived. He didn't say a word to Fredrick Cobbs, the driver of the Chrysler who was arrested and charged with a DUI.

BY THE TIME Owens awoke hours later at his mother's house, local media had pounced on the story. That's how Owens' father found out about the lives his son had saved.

"My colleagues were coming to me in droves!" exclaimed Star Corporal Reginald Owens, a 26-year veteran of the Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department. "When I got to work, they were really coming in to congratulate me about his heroic efforts."

Word quickly circulated that a South Carolina State student and Savannah native was the first responder to the horrific crash. That's when the Griffin family began trying to find Owens. An aunt knew one of the Griffins, and they connected on Facebook.

Despite the traumatic events, when Owens and his family arrived at the hospital, the mood was joyous. Had it not been for Owens, teardrops and closed caskets might have replaced laughter and hugs. The only words Toshi Griffin could utter, again and again, were, "I love you." She didn't hesitate to give him a "big ol' hug," a literal and symbolic embrace connecting the two souls.

For those who know Owens well, his actions weren't surprising. With a mother in the medical field at the Neurological Institute of Savannah and a father in law enforcement, helping people in his hometown is, in essence, the family business.

"He's just that kind of guy. He's volunteering and doing things in the community," SCSU head coach Oliver "Buddy" Pough said of his preseason All-MEAC second-team standout. "He's doing the kinds of things that you really think guys in college sometimes really wouldn't take the time to do, especially a big-time college football player."

Those "kinds of things" Pough is referring to saturate Owens' resume. He advocates for domestic violence awareness. He reads to preschoolers at the Child Development Learning Center on campus. He performs community service with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. And it wasn't solely step shows or strolling that led him to join Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. this past spring. The historically black organization's commitment to uplifting community was the selling point.

Fame wasn't on Owens' mind when he bolted out of his 1999 Yukon. The senior lineman isn't totally comfortable with being called a "hero," not when he knows in his heart the accident could have easily been prevented. He struggles to consider his actions the night of April 4 as anything other than normal.

"It's something anybody should've done," he said. "It shouldn't be no biggie for real."

Removing himself from the equation to understand its true magnitude is understandably difficult. Those closest to Owens see how the accident has deeply resonated with him, even if he is still coming to terms with his courageous act.

"It's made a significant difference in his life," Michelle Michael, Owens' mother, said. "His reaction to what he saw made a major difference not just in one person's life, or five people's lives, but anybody who has ever heard the story."

Despite Owens' mixed feelings about public acknowledgement, the honors rolled in anyway. In April, the Savannah-Chatham Police Department and Savannah City Council honored him with the Citizen Award for Commendation. On July 30, Owens received the 2015 Community MVP from Pough at the Sixth Annual South Carolina Coaches For Charity conference.

Owens' on-field senior campaign has lived up to the preseason hype, too. He is responsible for 40 tackles, 17 for loss; his seven sacks are second on the team (behind the MEAC's reigning defensive player of the year Javon Hargrave's 11.5), and third in the conference.

But Pough is thrilled by how the chain reaction of Owens' humanitarian work has sparked the team. "Since this has happened, our guys have had a chance to actually see how Reggie has been rewarded, treated and honored," he says. "I think it's kind of created a team of guys who want to be involved, who want to help people. I think that may be as important as anything."

BEYOND MEDIA CLIPPINGS, plaques and every honor short of a key to the city, the most profound impact comes from the unconditional love only a family should provide -- or, in this case, two families. The Owens and Griffin families have become part of each other's lives since the incident. They visit. They call. They swap Facebook messages. The Griffins constantly tell the Owenses -- playfully yet seriously -- "Y'all are stuck with us. We aren't going anywhere."

Now, seven months later, Owens is preparing to compete in his final college football game Saturday against Savannah State, just five miles from the scene of the crash. Owens' lone wish, other than a win, is that both families attend and tailgate. Messiah wants to wear a No. 42 SCSU jersey with "Owens" on the back.

Playing football for the historically black SCSU has been the best experience of Owens' life, he says. He is well aware the familiar trip down I-95 South will be more emotional than usual Saturday. It's the last time he'll ride the team bus with his band of brothers on game day. And the last time he'll wear a helmet for South Carolina State, the school that helped him grow into manhood.

Life tends to turn realities into memories while raising the question, "What's next?" It's no different for college athletes, the great majority of whom don't turn pro. Owens said he might consider a tryout at the next level if presented to him, but the NFL probably isn't an option for an undersized defensive lineman who'd have to move to linebacker. He's at peace with his football career coming to a close Saturday afternoon at Ted Wright Stadium in Savannah. And he has already begun preparing for life's next phase; much of his time these days is spent researching graduate schools and scholarships.

On everyone's mind supporting Owens this weekend is the realization he gave Messiah a second chance at life before the toddler had an opportunity to truly take advantage of his first. The Griffins reciprocated with the highest form of trust, love and adoration: Owens is now Messiah's godfather.

"The fact they want me to be Messiah's godfather is beyond humbling," Owens said. "And I'll be there. I'll continue to help him and support him throughout his life."

Reggie Owens is thankful to close out his college football experience in front of two families who love him, and he's eternally thankful he was in the wrong place at the absolute right time.

"I guess I didn't realize how much grief I saved them from," Owens said. "After realizing that, I began to accept that I saved these kids' lives. I adopted another family."

Toshi Griffin, the children's grandmother, knows Owens rescued her from any parent's worst nightmare.

"Without God and Reggie, I probably would've been burying them," she said. "I don't think I could've handled that."