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Master's Plan

Owens could end up playing pro baseball after giving up a football career at UCLA

June 02, 2003|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

At one time, Jerry Owens envisioned himself as the next great UCLA wide receiver. His decision to attend the school was as easy as hauling in a long pass.

His decision to leave and everything that has happened since, now that's another story.

Spring football practice has come and gone and yet Owens never felt an itch.

There was no wondering what might have been and, most of all, no regrets about giving up football and leaving a university he loved.

"I grew up a ton by going to UCLA," Owens said recently. "At the same time, if I didn't come here, I wouldn't be where I'm at today."

Where Owens landed is tucked away in the quiet foothills of Santa Clarita. Master's College, a small, private school with a Christianity-influenced curriculum and an athletic program that competes at the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) level, doesn't even have a football team.

But that didn't matter to Owens, 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, and a former star receiver at Newhall Hart High. He switched to baseball, a sport he hadn't played since his freshman year in high school, and has been opening eyes ever since.

Owens played a big role in the Mustangs (29-17-2) winning their first Golden State Athletic Conference championship. In only his second season of college baseball, he led the conference with a .451 batting average, 73 runs, six triples and 30 stolen bases.

The Master's season came to an end at the NAIA Region II playoffs last week, but the season probably isn't over for Owens. He is expected to be selected in baseball's amateur draft that begins Tuesday.

"All I want to do is make the best of my opportunity," he said.

There are those who still wonder why Owens would rather chase down fly balls in center field than catch touchdown passes for UCLA. At Hart, Owens teamed with Kyle Boller, a first-round NFL draft choice from Cal, to form a devastating passing combination.

Owens caught 63 passes for 1,430 yards and 18 touchdowns before he suffered a broken leg in the final regular-season game of his senior season.

Leaving UCLA, Owens said, "was tough. A lot of people told me, 'What are you thinking? How could you leave a great school like that? A great program?' I heard a lot of people say, 'He's stupid.'

"I just followed what the Lord was telling me to do."

Hart Coach Mike Herrington said Owens sometimes wondered if people viewed him as a failure.

"He was a little hesitant to come around [the school]," Herrington said. "I think he might have thought he let some people down.

"It was a tough decision for him. But with all the injuries, you didn't know if he was ever going to play."

Gary Bernardi thinks about what might have been. Bernardi has been an assistant at UCLA for nine years and is in charge of the Bruins' recruiting operation. He convinced Owens to go to Westwood.

"I saw him make some spectacular catches in high school," Bernardi said. "I thought he was the kind of kid who would mature into a great player. I felt he would be a good player in this conference.

"I wish he'd been more patient. He did get nicked up a little bit. There was always a setback."

Owens was a redshirt his freshman season, then got onto the field the next year primarily on special teams. With a receiving class thinned by standout Freddie Mitchell leaving early for the NFL draft, the 2001 season looked promising.

Near the end of fall practice, Owens was making a sharp cut on a pattern.

He turned to grab an under-thrown ball, planted his leg and felt his ankle collapse.

Coupled with the memory of the broken leg and other football ailments, he decided enough was enough.

"I had been working hard," he said. "I was in the training room every day. I wanted to make my name heard again. And then I got hurt.

"After that injury, that was the last straw."

Baseball, which had been in the back of his mind, became a new focus. Owens dropped a letter in the office mailbox of Master's Coach Monte Brooks, asking for a tryout.

"He really wanted to pitch," Brooks said. "But I had him taking fly balls and running a little bit. He was extremely green but you could tell he had some abilities."

Two years later, the decision doesn't look so foolish. He is making believers of everyone, most notably pro scouts.

Teams are now viewing the outfielder as a hidden, unpolished gem that could flourish with experience.

Who wouldn't want to take a flier on a fleet-footed player with a powerful physique who is only starting to realize his potential?

"He has a legitimate chance because he has the tools and he's driven," Brooks said. "I think scouts are foaming at the mouth. This diamond in the rough has been exposed."

However, Owens' time away from the game could make for a tough transition into professional ball, a major league scout said.

"In terms of an athlete, he's one of the better guys around," the scout said. "As far as baseball skills, he falls on the lower end. With him, it'll be about merging the two."

Even as he once dreamed that he and his good friend Boller would be on the same pro football team, Owens is happy with the path he is on.

"It's turned out better than I ever imagined," he said. "Not one regret."

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