Meet Burgess Owens, the Utah Republican who seeks to replace Rep. Ben McAdams

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Burgess Owens, former NFL player and now 4th District GOP nominee for Congress, pictured near his home in Draper, Utah on Thursday, July 3, 2020.

Washington • Burgess Owens’ conversion to the Republican Party came after playing a decade of professional football, watching the rise of Ronald Reagan and yearning to start his own business.

“I’ve always been a conservative, and that’s what I realized,” says Owens. “I grew up conservative, but I was voting as a Democrat because we would talk [about how] that was the party in our favor.”

He left the NFL as a “cocky liberal,” but years later, he says, “I found myself as a very humbled and appreciative conservative.”

The 68-year-old Owens is now the Republican nominee in the 4th Congressional District of Utah after besting three contenders in last week’s primary. He hopes to topple Rep. Ben McAdams, a freshman Democrat, in the November election. This race is expected to be one of the most competitive in the nation. And it pits McAdams, who has long been involved in Utah politics, against Burgess, who is new to campaigning.

The Ohio-born, Florida-educated Owens says his life was shaped by being a Black man growing up in the deep South — how his father’s ambition to overcome obstacles helped build his character. And how he believes a strong work ethic and conservative policies are more effective than government handouts that have not helped people who look like him.

“I happen to be drawn to a party that believes in freedom — No. 1,” Burgess says, “and believes that each and every one of us can succeed if we pay the price to do so.

“So we’re finding right now, more and more Black Americans leaving the Democrat plantation, literally,” Burgess adds. “I’ve never seen anything like it because of President [Donald] Trump, because the success he’s given the Black community, the lowest unemployment in history of our country, for Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women, veterans.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Burgess Owens, former NFL player and now 4th District GOP nominee for Congress, attends a rally in support of police officers at City Hall in Salt Lake City on Saturday, June 20, 2020.

Of course, that was before the coronavirus pandemic hit and sunk employment numbers for every category.

Owens is a full-throated supporter of Trump — he donned a Make America Great Again red cap at a Blue Lives Matter protest June 20 — because he says the president is “getting the job done.”

“I support any person, any president who will fight for the American way,” Owens says. “And by the way, I have no problem with his tweets. … I look at it very simply. If the tweets drive the left nuts, it makes me happy.”

And he received Trump’s endorsement Friday in one of those tweets. Trump wrote, “A Super Bowl Champion, Burgess knows how to WIN.”

In reaction, Burgess tweeted, “From a childhood in segregation to being endorsed by the President. It’s an honor to live in a country that has made that possible.”

Owens says his campaign will focus on prioritizing “God, country, family first,” and he has choice words for Democratic leaders, who he says have gone so far left they’re Marxists and socialists.

“This will come down to a very simple decision this time in 2020,” Owens says. “Do we keep our country, our culture, our way of life? A rule of law, security? Or do you go the way that we’re now seeing on the streets of inner cities: chaos, destruction, damage, death, bullying.”

The GOP contender, who still sports his Super Bowl championship ring, came a long way from his Southern roots to find his home in the GOP, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Utah.

From the NFL to WordPerfect

Owens was born in Columbus, Ohio, where his father had moved to obtain a graduate degree he couldn’t get in Texas because of Jim Crow laws at the time. The family later moved to Tallahassee, Fla., where his father was a college professor.

Owens, who spent time in college labs during the summers, eventually sought a degree in biology at the University of Miami, where he was only the third Black student to earn a scholarship. Playing football was an added bonus, he says, but education was first.

Football, though, became a livelihood after Owens was drafted by the New York Jets during the first round of the 1973 NFL draft. A safety, he played 10 seasons, including as part of the Oakland Raiders 1980 team that won the Super Bowl.

Toward the end of his pro career, Owens said he converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of some teammates who shared the faith.

Playing pro didn't earn him as much money as he had hoped and a business he started with his brother selling electronic gadgets to track business expenses failed, causing his first bankruptcy.

He later moved with his kids to a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., and worked as a chimney sweep during the day and a security guard at night.

“That was a very humbling moment,” Owens says. “It was also a very key moment in my life that at the end of the long day, standing in the basement apartment, looking outside and just thinking that I knew this was not the way it was going to end because I believe in the American promise of second chances.”

Soon after, a friend told Owens about a job with WordPerfect, at the time a fast-growing, Utah-based computer software company. The sales job was in Philadelphia, and Owens picked up and moved.

But he had a fondness for Utah.

“I made one promise with all my kids that [they] could look at any college across the country as long as they spend their first year in Utah,” Owens says, “because I wanted them to have a nice soft landing.”

Eventually, Owens moved west and settled in Draper.

He founded Second Chance 4 Youth, a nonprofit aimed at helping troubled kids “begin a new chapter experiencing their American dream,” and echoes the four tenets of Owens’ campaign: Head, Heart, Hand and Home.

Owens has also penned a couple of books, including “Liberalism or How to Turn Good Men into Whiners, Weenies and Wimps,” and his most recent, “Why I Stand: From Freedom to the Killing Fields of Socialism.”

Documents filed with the House show Owens taking a salary of $70,000 a year from his foundation as well as income from his books and speaking engagements. A December filing showed Owens with up to $5 million owed to the IRS but that was changed to $6,500 in an addendum posted in January. Owens says the original filing was a “big mistake,” and most of the IRS debt is paid off now.

Owens’ rhetoric matches the books and he’s not shy about the threat he sees from Democrats. He says Americans need to do what they can to “win our country back” from the left.

On to the general

Owens has never met McAdams.

“I hear he’s a really nice guy,” Owens says. “And I don’t doubt that. But it’s not about Ben McAdams. It’s about the party he empowers.”

Owens takes issue with the congressman’s votes for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s agenda, McAdams’ support to impeach Trump and the ideology of Pelosi and liberal Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which Owens calls “very much anti-American.”

In contrast, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee notes Owens’ support for Trump, his plan to jettison the Department of Education and his opposition to the Affordable Care Act’s protections for preexisting conditions. The DCCC also notes that while McAdams has fought against restarting nuclear weapons testing in the West, Owens has voiced his support.

“His out-of-the-mainstream agenda is the wrong fit for moderate Utah voters,” the DCCC said in a memo after Owens’ primary win.

The arguments preview the general election campaign messages Utahns will likely see, a barrage of Democrats tying Owens to Trump and Republicans linking McAdams to Pelosi. Right now, political handicappers say McAdams is a slight favorite. Cook Political Report says the normally conservative 4th District “leans Democratic.”

Owens says he can win because of his focus on “God, country, family first” — things he says all voters in the 4th District believe in.

“It all comes down to what I really stand for,” he said. “This is something that resonates with Republicans, independents and Democrats who take the time to listen to it and just think about what their future is.”