Look into his eyes. There's everything you think you know about Terrell Owens, and there's everything you don't know about him. There's a youngster who faced poverty and identity confusion growing up in hardscrabble Alexander City, Ala., a steward of his grandmother Alice Black's deeply religious beliefs and cast-iron will.
There's an 11-year-old who grew up not knowing his father. One day he noticed a young girl who lived across the street, the first girl Owens had a crush on, and the two quickly became friends, spending stolen moments together away from Owens' mother and grandmother, both of whom worked long shifts at the nearby Russell Athletic mill. They expected their boy to be at home, inside with the TV off and the shades down, fearing God. But it was the girl's father who stepped in. "You can't be interested in her," he told Owens. "That girl is your half-sister." L.C. Russell and Marilyn Heard, T.O.'s mother, had lived across the street from each other for years without telling Owens who Russell was.
Then there's the time that Owens, after he discovered football in high school as an escape from a stringent home life, fell asleep on the team bus on the way back from a game. His mouth drooped open, and a teammate spit between his lips and into his mouth.
And there's the adult Owens, returning to his hometown for an uncomfortable visit a few years ago. Sitting in a restaurant, Owens saw a young white boy sitting with his family staring and pointing at him, the boy asking his father who the black man was. Except substitute a six-letter racial epithet for "black man." It kept up. Who was he, daddy? Owens sat, trying to ignore
the boy, knowing he was only a product of his racist parents. When someone
informed the family who Owens was, they sent the boy over for an autograph.
Owens signed politely, stamping it with his standard "81" after his name. He
thought then that he never wanted to come back to "Alex City."
Owens has carried these experiences with him through a professional career
that has been different parts sublime, tumultuous and absurd. Together
they create the man in whom the Eagles have invested heavily -- less in terms
of compensation traded away, more in terms of money paid and more still in
terms of talent and potential -- and so far the results have been, well,
terrific. For now.
In the expectations he carries every day lies a message that Owens wants
the world to know. There's more to T.O. than a Sharpie pen or a blistering
comment to the media, more than a touchdown celebration or a highlight
"I had a successful career [in San Francisco], but for whatever reason, I got
on the bad side of the media. And my basis for whatever I was saying out
there was because I wanted to win. [People] haven't always understood what I
am all about," Owens said.
And it's one of the reasons why Owens, 30, decided to write his
autobiography, "Catch This! Going Deep with the NFL's Sharpest Weapon," thus
opening his life further to anyone who pays 23 bucks. Owens knows the yin
and yang of doing this -- that perhaps it will cast more doubt about one of
the NFL's most often criticized players, but perhaps it will shed a more
positive light on one of the league's most complex personalities.
"I have never been one to shy away from my feelings and anything I have to
say, so I knew that came with the territory of writing a book. So there
really was no reason for me not to do it and be honest and open about
everything," Owens said.
This offseason, when his fate hung in the wind because of confusion over his
contract and supposed free-agent status, he publicly called for a trade to
Philadelphia after a deal had been struck by the 49ers to send him to
Baltimore. Owens and agent David Joseph rode the storm that included a
weeklong hearing with an NFL-appointed special master and got their wish
with a deal to Philadelphia, home of the perfect team with the perfect
quarterback and the perfect opportunity to get Owens what he covets: a chance at a championship.
Did the Eagles know what they were getting into?
"Sure we did," said Eagles assistant head coach Marty Mornhinweg, who spent
1997-2000 with Owens in San Francisco as the 49ers' offensive coordinator. "[Eagles head coach] Andy [Reid] and I had a few
conversations on Terrell. I just put it all on the table and told him
exactly what I thought, what my experiences were with him, and almost all of
them were positive. And he's a heck of a player."
There were warnings, to be sure, from different coaches and
personnel people that the sensitive and recalcitrant Owens might not fit the
Eagles' steady-as-she-goes locker room under Reid's watch.
Despite the odd-sounding mix, it's beginning to appear that both sides really
needed each other. Owens, faced with the impossible task of replacing Jerry Rice, a
legend and his boyhood idol, and perpetually chastised by the
San Francisco media and fans who had grown increasingly weary of the
receiver's act, needed new digs.
The Eagles -- oft bridesmaids but never brides -- had fallen short of the
Super Bowl despite making three straight NFC championship games and being favorites in the past two title games. They badly needed a
down field weapon to loosen things up for quarterback Donovan McNabb.
As one Eagle, who requested anonymity, said, "We needed a big-time receiver.
That was crystal clear."
The early returns have been roses. With six touchdowns through four games,
Owens is on pace to break his own personal mark of 16 for a season. If he does so, it would more
than quadruple the touchdown output of Eagles receivers from a year ago
(five), and call Reid on a bet he made with Owens during training camp
that the receiver could wear his preferred tights in practice if he hit the
If Owens gets that many? "I told him I'd wear the tights," Reid said.
* * *
For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to
whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
-- Luke 12:48
Terrell Owens' talent always has been natural but raw. He grew up skinny and
dark-skinned, scared of bullies, afraid of his grandmother, usually alone,
typically silent. The bicycle Owens got for Christmas followed one path:
from one end of the driveway to the other, and he rode the path until it
wore out a patch of ground. Alice Black would let T.O. go no farther.
His path in childhood was similar; God was first in command, Black a close
second. When Owens' grandmother -- who owned the house in which her daughter and
her daughter's children, including T.O., lived -- was at home, her rules
applied. In most cases, those rules were to serve Him. Read the Bible.
Live simply. Keep to yourself. Sit quietly. Don't stray. Stay away from
girls. God is watching. And so am I.
Owens adapted his grandmother's homespun, almost Victorian beliefs about
personal restraint. The paths he etched in boyhood were from home to
school, home to church, or a return trip from either. There were few, if
any, friends. But one of the early lessons defying restraint that Black
taught her family was to speak their minds. Say what needs to be said
because the best place to turn for answers is from within. Owens -- no
surprise -- listened.
There was a conflict with Black's message. When Owens won a
Michael Jackson moon-walking contest at age 10, he discovered he liked being
the focus of attention. He wanted people to watch him. And he wanted to make
"I saw the reaction Mom had, how happy she was of me, and I just loved it,"
Owens said. "I wanted to always make her feel that way."
As far as Mom was concerned, Owens had done that since the day he was
born. She always felt there was something different about her boy, something
"I always knew God had a different plan for him. I don't know how I knew, but
I always knew. I don't know exactly why I feel I can say that, but I have
always believed that," Heard said.
Owens was not a high school football star right away, only earning a starting
spot when a teammate got hurt. Bobby Johns, a
recruiter from Tennessee-Chattanooga came to look at one of Owens'
teammates, but saw Owens' raw skills and sent back a good report to
then-Moccasins head coach Buddy Nix. Nix, now the assistant general manager for the Chargers, offered Owens a partial scholarship.
Nix and Owens often didn't get along, and though Owens showed flashes of
brilliance that mostly produced mixed results in college, he showed enough
promise to catch the eye of NFL people and earn a trip to the Indianapolis
Scouting Combine. The moment T.O. became a star, at least in a scout's
eyes, was his pro-day workout.
Owens and Joseph, who worked closely with his father, Fred, prepared for
Owens' pro day, where he'd run his 40-yard dash and work out for scouts.
With torrential rain soaking the football fields and the basketball arena
already being used, Owens was forced to run in the concourse outside the
arena where they sell snacks during UTC hoops games. They measured off 120
feet, but T.O. ran a terrible first attempt on the slick floor for the
handful of scouts, one of whom wondered aloud why he was even there.
No one who was there would ever forget his second attempt. Owens took Fred's advice to stay focused and run with power and determination. He turned on his "look" -- something his grandmother probably taught him without even realizing it. There was hardly enough room to run
the 40 yards, much less pull up in front of a chained set of double doors
barely 10 yards past the finish line.
Fred had some interesting advice: "Don't run 40 yards. Run at least 50."
Owens blasted out of his start and flew down the hallway, passing the finish
mark with a personal-best time (4.47 seconds) and busting through the locked
iron doors, which flew open to the outside. Owens stood panting in the
pouring rain when a Packers scout, agape, summed up Owens' display: "Let's
go. I've seen enough."
It was his first moment as a star, and he hadn't caught an NFL pass yet.
* * *
There's a lot of time to think about things when you are hurt.
When their playoff chances, still a fleeting possibility, were dashed a week
earlier in a loss at Cincinnati, the 49ers and Terrell Owens headed to
Philadelphia a bifurcated team late in the 2003 season. There was the team,
and there was T.O. A clear division had been made: between T.O. and fans and
media, between T.O. and quarterback Jeff Garcia, and, to a certain extent, between T.O. and himself.
"I was committed to winning a championship there," Owens said, "and that's
where I got the extra incentive to work hard and let it all hang loose.
But a lot of the guys I just didn't feel like they had the same swagger
Even though Owens had shredded the Bengals and Cardinals the previous two
weeks for a combined 15 catches for 219 yards and three touchdowns
(including two on his birthday in Arizona), the edge was gone.
"You could see that he felt like he was never dealt with properly," said
former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, now an ESPN analyst. "He never felt like people
were up front with him. To me, I think he was crying out for stability, for
some structure. That was gone."
More than a month earlier, Owens had stopped making his postgame rants, the
most damaging of which -- "We have no heart" -- long ago had sunk in and been
taken as gospel. The team had, in many folks' eyes, called it a season.
The result in Philadelphia, a 31-28 overtime win by the 49ers, was almost
anticlimactic. With the 49ers driving, down 14-7 with a little more than
three minutes left until halftime, Garcia connected with Owens on a 20-yard
reception, and the receiver was tackled awkwardly out of bounds, landing on
his left shoulder. Pain. His day would be over as the trainers kept him out
of the second half, and though no one knew it at the time, it would be his
final catch as a 49er.
Perhaps Owens, on some level, did know it. The throbbing pain of his broken
collarbone worsened as the team sat and waited on the plane on the runway
for six hours after a bomb threat had been called in. It was time Owens
spent thinking about his future.
Up until then, even amid all the controversy, Owens said he still considered
returning to the 49ers and trying to work through things. After all, he had
been anointed Rice's successor, and he had come out of his shell in
San Francisco, enjoying his personal life away from football. But the
writing was on the wall, even though his impending free agency meant the
team could send him packing just as easily as it could shackle him with the
dreaded franchise tag.
There was also the issue of the collarbone, broken in two places, with
different treatments proposed by two doctors before it was eventually
treated. If news of it came out, the injury could have prevented Owens from
cashing in on the market. Or perhaps enough damage had been done with Owens'
antics and questionable character. For the first time since making an NFL
roster, his NFL future was clouded with doubt.
A trip to Hawaii (Owens was selected to the Pro Bowl but didn't play) and
some quality time with McNabb convinced both receiver and quarterback that they
needed each other. McNabb went to his coach and made the plea: We need this
guy. He went to the media. So did T.O. All that was left was the coach.
After Owens' contract problems were figured out in court, a trade with the
Ravens to the Eagles was facilitated following Owens' clear preference not
to set a single cleat in Baltimore.
Most of the questions people had with Owens entering the season were
extracurricular issues, but there are also those who feel as if Owens played
parts of last season with lassitude, dropping easy passes and
running lazy routes, those who suggest he was sloughing off to discourage the 49ers
from placing the franchise tag on him.
One NFL offensive coach whose team was interested in adding Owens as a free
agent this offseason reviewed game film of every pass thrown to Owens last
season and noticed a few head-scratchers.
"There were three balls thrown to him where I went, 'What the heck was that?' " the coach said. "One of them in particular I questioned, 'Did he pull off
of it?' Two other ones, (I said) 'That's not Terrell Owens.' "
The other major fear, of course, was that Owens would be an interloper in a
relatively docile and self-governing locker room. None
of that appears to be a problem so far. "He's basically contradicting what
everybody said he would do," wide receiver Freddie Mitchell recently told the
Philadelphia media while wearing a hat to plug his new favorite receiver's
Web site -- terrellowens.com. "He's not stuck on himself. He's a caring
person. He cares about the team."
* * *
No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who
have been made in God's likeness.
-- James 3:8-9
Speaking his mind had, as his grandmother taught him, led Owens to
prosperity of the heart, but it had also made him a public target in San
Francisco. Sure, his rise to fame on the football field came first, rapidly
turning Rice's and Young's team into T.O.'s team. But the solitary displays
of perceived selfishness and showmanship -- the Sharpie incident, posing on
the Dallas Cowboys' star in Texas Stadium, the acidic tongue -- ran him afoul
in the Bay Area.
Owens had developed his reputation as a dream-maker and a heartbreaker with
the 49ers, the only team he knew until this season, and only his new coach
knows just how T.O. can single-handedly win a game and change the course of a
Reid, Green Bay's quarterback coach in 1997-98 under Mike Holmgren, and the visiting
Packers appeared to be on their way to the NFC divisional round game in '98 with a
27-23 lead over the 49ers at San Francisco and time left for one play.
Having a terrible game, Owens appeared the most unlikely of targets,
but Young threw a dart through triple coverage that Owens snagged -- "but was
shocked to see," he said -- ending Green Bay's season. Reid, technically a
free agent with the Packers out of the playoffs, accepted the Eagles'
head-coaching position a week later.
From there, the Owens lovefest broke down, piece by piece, each year
thereafter either through public record or private dispute. What ran Owens
out of town, eventually, was an irreparable relationship with his teammates
(namely Garcia) and coaches (Steve Mariucci), whom he had called out a good
portion of his final few seasons there.
Philly fans can't get enough of T.O. And provided Owens
doesn't blast McNabb in the papers -- tantamount to sacrilege -- they appear
quite cozy with their new star, the man who they think can give the city its
first NFL championship since 1960.
You can't spell "hot dog" without T and O, and there's no question that
Owens' celebrity has risen to incalculable levels -- unexpected, perhaps, for
a meat-and-potatoes town.
"Well, he might not need any more cover stories," Mornhinweg says, laughing.
For most NFL players, the bye week is usually a week of rest. It's time to
spend with family and friends and put football as far out of the mind as
possible. So check out how Owens spent last week: Last Thursday he was a
guest on Fox SportsNet's "The Best Damn Sports Show Period," followed by
ABC's "The Jimmy Kimmel Show." Sunday, he joined the Fox NFL
Sunday pregame show. All this was sandwiched between a few book signings and
appearances around Philly. Though teammate and friend Mitchell said, in
relation to Owens's reborn glory, "you can't please everybody," Owens
certainly is doing his best -- mostly on the field, of course.
Owens had a harder time fighting pregame traffic than he did getting around
the Giants' secondary in Week 1. He got stuck and realized he wasn't
likely to make it on time. Owens stopped and asked a cop for directions, and
the surprised officer -- no doubt himself swept up in T.O. mania -- delivered
the message: "Dude, you're not going to make it."
The cop called for a police escort, guaranteeing his safe arrival before
kickoff. Once Owens made it to Lincoln Financial Field, his opening game
would be a three-act performance, complete with signature curtain calls.
Owens scored three touchdowns, each with its own tailor-made celebration: a
flexing pose with his foot on the ball, a ball spin for the second, and his
best effort that day, arms flapping in a full-fledged Eagle walk for the
third. Eight catches, three touchdowns, one city filled with hope. All in a
"I want T.O. to be T.O.," Reid said in typical boilerplate fashion after the
Week 1 win. Mission accomplished.
Just as the Young-to-Owens hookup in the 1998 playoffs became the signature
play for Owens' emergence as an NFL star, the second of Owens' Week 1 touchdown
receptions could go down as the dayspring of the McNabb-Owens partnership.
McNabb, flushed from the pocket with Giants defensive end Michael Strahan steaming
toward him, looked back against the grain to find Owens, who had broken off
his route away from McNabb into the end zone. And just as McNabb appeared to
have run out of real estate, he fired the ball across his body and into the
tumbling Owens' hands for the score.
It's the kind of unscripted play McNabb and the Eagles have had too few of in
recent years. It's the kind of play T.O. thinks they can perfect.
"That's the type of ability [McNabb] has. That is the chemistry that we have
developed," Owens said. "It's similar to situations that we have had at the
Pro Bowl -- him scrambling, and me coming across with him. Just having that
Fast-forward to Week 4 in Chicago -- a 19-9 Philly win -- where Owens and
the Eagles would play a game reminiscent of last year's team, when it would
win games with Chinese water-torture efficiency, dripping other teams to
death. But Owens managed to sneak in a little fun when he took a quick slant
into the end zone and did six sit-ups with the ball between his knees. Six
for six points or six touchdowns? "You can look at it however you want," he said.
And as for the Bears players who apparently felt Owens should have been
handed an excessive-celebration penalty?
"Oh well," he shrugged. "Tell them to keep me out of the end zone then."
Not exactly Dale Carnegie stuff. But it's the stuff of Alice Black and
Marilyn Heard, and, transitively, Terrell Owens. So far, minus the
scoring and celebration spree, Owens Redux has kept relatively quiet in
Philadelphia -- just the way Reid likes it.
"[Owens] is a professional and loves playing the game," Reid said. "It's the
most important thing in his life, with the exception of his family."
* * *
Look deeply into his eyes, and maybe then you can see that T.O. is, first
and foremost, an entertainer. He has that twinkle, that "look" he had the
day he busted through the iron doors. In that look, Owens carries a lot
of heft from a strange and burgeoning life.
There will always be dark corners, and to go with his fame he must carry the
responsibility he took on when he essentially became the head of the family
because of his earning power and stature. There was another reason. Black,
who for so long had ruled over the family with the iron fist and velvet
glove, has succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. She might be healthy in body
("She just celebrated her 70th birthday," Heard said, "and she looks very
young still"), but Black is not able to communicate with Owens, Heard and
the rest of the family anymore.
Owens has fought for her, speaking on her behalf to a Senate subcommittee for
greater funding for research for the disease, and though she knows nothing
of T.O. the hot dog or T.O. the clubhouse cancer, he keeps the silent
promises he made to her years before: Be true to yourself. Speak your mind.
So for every touchdown celebration or expression of youthful desire to win,
Owens feels he is exuding a piece of her.
"I know she can see me in some way," Owens said, "and I just want her to know
that I haven't forgotten anything she taught me. I want her to know I am
keeping her with me in everything I have done."
To suggest that Owens can still taste the spit of the high school player or
hear his grandmother's words in every one of his actions would be contrived,
but to reject the notion that he has been cut from the same rough, sturdy
cloth as his family is missing half the man.
So, what to make of it all?
What's left is the portrait of the perfect antihero: dedicated and
judgmental, privileged and flawed, pious and confrontational, skillfully
blessed and brutally frank.
It's Terrell Owens in a nutshell. Got it?
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
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