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A Black conservative former NFL player who had been harshly critical of player protests in the league has won his bid for Congress in central Utah after making racial issues part of his election effort to win white voters.

Burgess Owens, a Republican who played safety for the New York Jets in the 1970s, beat Rep. Ben McAdams, the white Democratic incumbent who first was elected in Utah’s 4th Congressional District in 2018.

The ballot count took two weeks after Election Day but ended up like this, as of Monday: 47.5% for Owens and 46.9% for McAdams, a difference of 2,139 votes out of more than 372,000 votes cast.

McAdams conceded the election Monday and called Owens to congratulate him.

“He expressed appreciation for the opportunity to serve #UT04 and his commitment to a smooth transition,” Owens wrote in a post on Twitter. “My sincere thanks to him for both. Thank you my fellow Utahns, I am committed to have an open ear to serve you. Thank you for the opportunity.”

The victory launches the political career of Owens, 69, whose campaign website described him as a “cultural counterweight to the hatred that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has spewed for the last few years.”

It also flips back another U.S. House seat in a district that had been decided by less than 700 votes two years ago, when the vote counting took nearly as long. The GOP has added several seats to its gains in the House in this election, though Democrats retained a narrow majority in that chamber.

In an effort to win this one back for his party, Owens made football and race part of his political identity in a district that is about 84% white and 1.5% Black, according to U.S. Census estimates from last year. Endorsed by President Trump, Owens has called Black Lives Matter a “Marxist” organization that is “against God.” His campaign even describes himself as the “anti-Colin Kaepernick,” contrasting him with the NFL outcast who kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 to protest racial injustice.  

This followed appearances on Fox channels in recent years that compared NFL player protests to Americans being bombed at Pearl Harbor.

“Pearl Harbor, when they attacked us, the American people were sleeping,” Owens said on the Fox Business Network in 2017. “I remember the enemy saying, `We fear we’ve woken a sleeping giant.’ Well when they start attacking our flag the way they have and our culture, they have woken a sleeping giant.“

In 2018, Owens also criticized a Nike advertisement featuring Kaepernick, describing it as part of an attack on America.

“We have to look at the bigger picture and understand in America that we’re under assault,” he said in another interview on Fox Business. “It’s like 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. We’re being assaulted by the left. And we need to understand who they are. They’re globalists. And they’re leftist globalists. The worst thing that can happen to our country is to let them get away with it and not understand what their long game is. It’s not American.”

Owens grew up in racially segregated Florida and played at the University of Miami before the Jets selected him in the first round of the NFL draft in 1973. He later played for the Oakland Raiders when they won Super Bowl XV against Philadelphia in January 1981, 27-10.

In late 1982, he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after learning about the religion through Raiders teammate Todd Christensen. He told the Salt Lake Tribune he was a “cocky liberal” around the time he left the NFL shortly after that but since changed his views. He worked various jobs since then and later founded a Utah-based nonprofit called Second Chance 4 Youth, which is dedicated to helping troubled youth.

His opponent, McAdams, 45, had been mayor of Salt Lake County before he was elected to Congress by just 694 votes in the 2018 midterm election. In that race, he beat Rep. Mia Love, the first Black Republican woman in Congress. This time he lost after portraying himself as an independent who puts “people over party.” He had called on Owens to condemn the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon after Owens appeared to flirt with supporters of it.

“I worry that extreme elements of both political parties interfere with our ability to find agreement on issues that matter to hard-working families,” McAdams said in his concession statement Monday. “I fear deliberate misinformation is too often unchecked and seen as truth in our society. This is a time for all of us to be engaged in civic affairs and to sort from fact from fiction the best we can.”

Trump congratulated Owens on Twitter Nov. 14, before the close race was called and ballots were still being counted.

“Great going Burgess, you continue to be a STAR!” Trump wrote.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com