Giant perspective: Gervarrius Owens recalls day of life-changing tornado
Gervarrius Owens remembers the gruesome sights. The houses blown off their foundations and flattened, the horses from the nearby farm lying on the ground skewered by two-by-fours. He remembers the smell, too, an acrid mix of sulfur and burning wood that stung his nostrils.
“I can still recall that day perfectly,” Owens, a seventh-round pick of the Giants last weekend, told Newsday, 10 years removed from the disaster.
Most of all, though, he has never shaken the feeling he had when he hopped a fence, walked down his block and saw what was left of the home in Moore, Oklahoma, that he recently had moved into after growing up in Alabama and Georgia. It was ripped to shards by an EF-5 tornado on May 20, 2013 . . . and he still had no idea whether his mother, who had been inside it at the time the storm hit, was alive.
“My heart just dropped,” he said of first laying eyes upon the destruction. “There was no way she survived that.”
He was still in junior high school at the time, just finishing up his eighth-grade year, when the skies began to rumble and the sirens started blaring. All of the students were ushered into the safety of the cafeteria. A mix of excitement and terror swirled over them, their teenage sensibilities unsure how to handle the situation.
For many of them who had grown up in the area, events like this were fairly common. For Owens, new to Oklahoma, it was his first.
By the time the all-clear was given, most of the phone and power lines had been cut, making communication almost impossible. Some parents were able to get through, some came to the school to collect their children. Owens didn’t have anyone. He was signed out by a friend’s mother, still not quite sure what fate his own had met.
So they started walking toward his home.
“We had to walk because all of the power lines were down and you couldn’t drive,” he said. “I had never seen a tornado, so I didn’t know how it worked. The street before mine, everything was perfectly fine. Maybe the mailbox was a little bent or something. So we were like, ‘OK, we’re good.’ We took a deep breath. And then we hopped a fence into the neighborhood, and it was just flattened.”
Thirteen years old and everything he owned, everything he loved, everything that made him feel safe, had been wiped clean. As if it were never even there.
And Mom? She wasn’t anywhere to be found either.
It wasn’t until Owens was able to secure a phone connection with his grandmother later that evening that he learned his mother, Kimberly Owens, had survived and was at his aunt’s house. Somehow she managed to tuck herself into a closet and wedge the heavy box spring of a nearby bed on top of herself to support the walls.
“That was the only part of the house that was left,” Gervarrius Owens said. “My room had completely caved in.”
The Red Cross and the community were able to help a little, and Owens never has forgotten that kindness, either, but he had to move to Norman, about a 15-minute drive south, to find shelter.
Later that summer, he began making that journey every day to attend Southmoore High School, where he was a starter at wide receiver and safety as a freshman. He was a four-year varsity player for the SaberCats. He originally committed to Kansas State but never attended the school, transferred to a junior college, then eventually played safety for four seasons at the University of Houston.
These past few days, he has been taking part in the Giants’ rookie minicamp.
As a seventh-rounder, his roster spot is far from guaranteed. Giants general manager Joe Schoen said he believes G.O. — that’s what they call Owens, after his initials — can find a role on special teams and provide some depth on defense to make it worth keeping him around.
It’s still a long journey from here for him to get on an actual NFL field. But 10 years ago this month, he was a boy who had been stripped of nearly everything. He — with the help of many others, but mostly he himself — was able to rebuild from that moment. Making an NFL roster doesn’t seem like too big of a hurdle compared to that.
G.O. may sound like “Gio,” but it also spells “go.” And now there are plenty rooting for him to do just that, and keep going.
Owens said the moment the Giants selected him last Saturday evening is a memory that supersedes the horrific sights and smells and feelings he experienced from the tornado that tore his life apart, sent him back to start, but eventually made him stronger and more appreciative of what he has.
“It was crazy to say the least, just hearing my name called,” he said. “It’s a childhood dream since I was like 8 years old. Just kind of waiting on this day, so for it to come full circle was just a blessing. All my family and friends were around me. Being surrounded by all that love, it just really put everything in perspective for me.”