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Arena football: Receiver Thomas Owens is thriving while warming up for Pirates

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WORCESTER — Whether he’s been indoors or outdoors, Thomas Owens has had to get used to a few new things since signing with the Massachusetts Pirates in early March.

First, there’s the weather.

Owens was raised in Boynton Beach, Florida, where he began playing football as a 5-year-old. When it came time for college, he elected to attend Florida International University in nearby Miami.

The average annual temperature of those oceanfront communities in March and April is about 76 degrees. So a tad more comfy than Central Mass. in the spring.

“Yeah, big difference,” Owens said Tuesday prior to practice. “We played UMass when I was at FIU, always at the beginning of the season before it got real cold. So I kind of witnessed it, but I’m not used to the cold.”

What the 6-foot-1, 205-pound rookie receiver, who goes by the handle “TO” and wears No. 81 — just like a certain Pro Football Hall of Famer — has warmed to is indoor football in the National Arena League.

The ball comes out of the quarterback’s hands quicker and the field is 50 yards shorter than the outdoor game, meaning there is less time and space to gain separation against defenders.

Then there are the unyielding, hockey-style boards that enclose the confined field and test one’s commitment to make a play.

“I was a little shaky with the boards at the beginning,” Owens said. “But Coach AP (Anthony Payton) and the veteran receivers gave me confidence. So I’m used to it now.”

The Pirates, fresh off their first win after opening the season with two losses, will look to reach .500 when they face the 1-1 Jacksonville Sharks at 8:20 p.m. Saturday at the DCU Center.

The Pirates lost two of three meetings to the Sharks last season, the teams combining to average 96.3 points a game with the margins of victory being 5, 7 and 9 points.

Owens lined up at quarterback, receiver and safety for Atlantic Community High, from which he graduated in 2014. He capped his senior season by representing Palm Beach County against Georgia in the High School Clash of Scholar Athletes all-star game.

Recruited as an “athlete” by Florida International, the Panthers initially tried Owens at safety. Then the coaching staff decided to give the freshman a look at receiver one day.

“I made a one-handed catch, and they were like, ‘Yeah, you’re staying there,’ ” said Owens, who went on to make 21 touchdown receptions in 31 career games and lead Conference USA with 98.5 receiving yards per game as a senior in 2017.

Owens graduated with a degree in sports marketing and then participated in the Seattle Seahawks minicamp after being bypassed in the NFL Draft. He also played in The Spring League, a development league and scouting event for pro prospects, in Florida before landing here.

“Hopefully, I get another shot at the big league,” Owens said, “but I’m thankful for this opportunity and would never take it for granted. I appreciate it.”

Owens has certainly taken advantage of his opportunity with the Pirates. He leads the team in receptions (19) and receiving yards (156) and scored his first touchdown in a 45-12 win over the Orlando Predators last weekend.

With nine receptions in his NAL debut in the season opener and five each of the past two weeks, it’s obvious Owens has quickly gained the trust of quarterback Sean Brackett. Credit that to a combination of athleticism and studiousness.

“He’s a big, physical kid — strong, fast, tough, runs good routes,” Brackett said. “But I think what’s impressed me the most is his off-the-field demeanor. He’s always in the meeting room watching film, diving into the playbook, asking me questions.

“We’re doing extra work after practice. So he’s a guy who just loves football. He loves football, he loves to compete, and I see a lot of similarities with myself. Just always talking football and bouncing ideas off each other and stuff like that.”

So Owens has rapidly adapted to the indoor game, but he’s been slow — like the rest of us — to come around to the weather this purported spring.

—Contact Rich Garven at rgarven@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RichGarvenTG.

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