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The Life

November 27, 2002
Marked Man
ESPN The Magazine

It's a colorful journey, the one from sportsmanship to showmanship to penmanship, so permit us a peek into the past before unwrapping our present.

The evolution of the revolution of sports behavior began loudly with a rabid, flexing Muhammad Ali redundantly shouting his greatness to a flattened Sonny Liston. It was liberating and fun for the pioneering Ali, discarding the shackles of sportsmanship not only to predict and administer this beating but to enjoy the holy hell out of it publicly. Ali's revolution gathered momentum and soon spilled like a rock slide into another violent sport, where it gathered up a guarantee-making Joe Namath, a knee-knocking Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and ground-breaking Homer Jones, inventor of the celebratory spike, a ritual that endures as an incongruous manifestation of joy and defiance.

Terrell Owens
Soon the sack dances of Mark Gastineau would give way to shuffles by everyone from the Super Bowl Bears to a grown man named Ickey to Deion Sanders, who didn't even wait to get to the end zone to commence shimmy-shaking. And it paid, being like them. Commercials. Music videos. Movies. As that TV screen went from black-and-white to color, our athletes morphed into show-business entertainers right before our eyes, Ali's singing evolving into Deion's dancing, and this rebellion was not unlike rock 'n roll's, the older generation decrying it even as the younger one swayed in its grasp.

So here we are, at a place in sports where those of us not laughing and swaying along with Terrell Owens are saying with grave consternation that our games have lost their way. The celebrating of self that Owens and his brethren so enjoy is viewed in certain too-serious circles as unbecoming, and the relentless criticism of it is enough to turn Owens' smile into a snarl and leave him wondering why he has to apologize for the way he likes to play. What started out as fun -- as all games do -- has turned into something else now, making him defensive about being offensive.

A lot of what kids love about the sports revolution and a lot of what their parents hate about it can be found within Owens, this vain, cocky, riveting diva who spends $45,000 on earrings, stays in unfathomable shape because he wants to go into modeling and would be created by caricaturists if he didn't already exist. Have a problem with this wide receiver from the Jackass Generation with his cartoon muscles, ungodly gifts, outsized defiance and a Sharpie in his sock? Owens suggests that, like a cornerback, you might want to back the hell off.

"I'm smart enough to know when I've done something wrong, but I don't understand this," Owens says. "Guys are beating their wives, getting DUIs and doing drugs, and I get national attention for a Sharpie? People are personally attacking me, calling me a classless asshole because I did something creative during a game. Why?"

Fair question. Owens, a paid entertainer, made a game more entertaining. Owens was having fun, not urinating on an ideal, when he scored a game-winning touchdown against Seattle on Oct.14, pulled a marker out of his sock in the end zone, autographed the ball -- "like Picasso signing off on his work," to use his words -- and then handed the ball to a financial-adviser friend in the stands.

What exactly was Owens guilty of? Having too much fun? Isn't going to a game and becoming indignant about a player enjoying himself too much like going to the circus and becoming outraged by the presence of clowns?

What Owens did was clever and funny, but it shouted me-me-me too much for the staid citizens of Sports America, as it had two years before when Owens twice ran 50 yards after touchdowns to dance on the Dallas Cowboys' star. Is the me-me-me element what makes it so different from, say, Sammy Sosa grabbing a little American flag from his first base coach during a home-run trot last season?

Both acts were choreographed. Both acts showed up the opponent. Both acts brought attention to an individual instead of team -- though Owens, unlike Sosa, actually did us the courtesy of doing it during a victory. Sosa's act was clumsy and not clever, but it was met with universal applause because it shouted the politically correct we-we-we. And, of course, one of the acts was carried out by a defiant black man and the other by a vastly more agreeable one, but that is part of a larger question.

Owens' sign of the Apocalypse, as it were, triggered an instant onslaught of criticism. Chad Eaton called Owens "a punk." John Randle called the act "embarrassing." And coach Mike Holmgren called it "a dishonor to everyone who ever played the game."

Never mind that all this came from what Owens had just turned into the losing locker room. Never mind that Randle once celebrated a sack by crawling around on all fours and pretending to pee on a fire hydrant doggie-style. Never mind that Holmgren was probably mad in part because, with every genius-diluting step he's taken away from Brett Favre, he's looked less like a master strategist when covering his mouth with that playsheet and more like a fat guy reading a menu. A small spark, per usual in the media age, was about to rage into a national flame. Gentlemen, start your opinions.

There's a very easy way to stop Owens from behaving this way. Just keep him from scoring. Shut him up by shutting him down. Oh. That's not so easy now, is it? The Seahawks certainly couldn't do it, and Owens knew they couldn't with such certainty that -- even in a sport where Ed McCaffrey uses exceptionally thin pads to make himself more aerodynamic and Rocket Ismail wears only seamless uniform pants for the same reason -- this guy was out there running around in the fourth quarter of a tie game at the highest level of football with a freaking pen in his sock.

Asked for one word to describe himself, Owens says, "Confident." Asked for another, he adds, "Very." Insecurities? "None whatsoever. People are scared of that. Intimidated." Such arrogance is wonderfully helpful on the field, but it doesn't serve him so well elsewhere. Sports America, especially white America, older America, tends to prefer its athletic heroes humble, more like aw-shucks Boy Scout Peyton Manning. That may explain why the best-selling NFL jerseys are those of Tom Brady and Brian Urlacher. Sports America tends to be more comfortable with modesty, even if it's patently false, than arrogance, even if it's the God's honest truth. Owens' greatest sin isn't knowing that he's better than everyone on the field as much as it is letting you know he knows it.

No less an authority than Jerry Rice counseled Owens to turn down the volume on that, but ...

"Man, that's not me," Owens says. "I wasn't raised like that. I'm stubborn. Jerry talked to me about how to talk to the media, how to play the game, but I'm not interested. I'm going to have my fun. And if I get attacked, I'm going to put my armor on and my shield up."

Owens has always been a loner, ever since a suffocating childhood with a grandmother who drank, whipped him and rarely allowed him to leave her yard. Owens put a barrier of icy distance between himself and his 49ers teammates when he arrived in 1996. Dana Stubblefield, who says he now likes Owens, acknowledges that most guys in the league and in his own locker room don't. Jeremy Newberry once threatened to beat up Owens if he didn't stop whining about not getting the ball. And Kevan Barlow, a rookie last year, called him antisocial.

Antisocial? "Probably," Owens says. Does he care if he's disliked? "Not really. This isn't a nice game. I find joy within myself."

There's a certain independence associated with his position. Even the reinvented Rice was, by his own admission, a world-class ass his first decade in the league, often walking away in midsentence from even 49ers employees trying to talk to him. So Owens says, "I don't mind being called selfish. I didn't get where I am being unselfish." Owens believes, correctly, he's the best player on his team and therefore extrapolates, correctly, that getting him the ball gives his team the best chance to win. Joe Montana, patron saint of the 49ers way, whatever the hell that is, thought the same way. A lot of guys in sports are selfish like that. The "good guys" are just far better at hiding it.

This year, after having a friend die last off-season, Owens has tried to be more affable in ways his teammates have noticed. He's smiling more, mingling more, leaving rambling thank-you messages on answering machines, but it is not nearly as natural for him as distance is.

"I didn't talk to nobody at all when I got here because I really didn't know how to interact," Owens says. "I didn't have a lot of affection in my childhood, so I don't know how to be affectionate. I still have trouble with that at times, but I'm getting better. I'm still moody, but I'm getting better. Growing up, I never heard 'I love you' from my mother, my grandmother, my father. I heard it from my mom the first time two years ago, and it still seems awkward. There's hesitance."

Owens grew up caged in a small rectangle between his grandmother's steps and her mailbox in Alexander City, Ala. He was never allowed to play football or bicycle with the kids out front. Through high school, he couldn't watch TV or leave that yard. He'd sneak away sometimes when his grandmother passed out, but the other kids would tell him he had better get back home.

Terrell doesn't hate his grandmother for that, saying, "I've never questioned it." He figures he wouldn't be where he is without her keeping him from trouble. In fact, he begins crying now when discussing her Alzheimer's, saying his biggest regret is that she can't recognize him, or what he's become. The tears come again later, when talking about -- of all things -- Wheel of Fortune. He froze during a guest appearance on it, awed by touching and hearing the wheel, because that was the only show his grandmother had ever allowed him to watch, and now she wasn't lucid enough to be proud of him for appearing on it.

Something else that shapes his shield: Owens was 11 years old when he developed a huge crush on a girl across the street. The girl's father found out and, none too pleased, came over to talk to Terrell. The subsequent conversation revealed that Terrell was not allowed to have a crush on that girl because, well, she was Terrell's sister. And that was how Terrell learned who his father was.

So he's okay with being a loner, alone with his excellence, very good at insulating himself in his go-to-hell shell like another athlete he admires: Barry Bonds. "I've heard we're similar in so many ways," says Owens. "I listen to him in interviews, and I hear myself. He answers exactly the way I would."

So how does Owens think sports fans feel about him? His mouth has the tendency to move faster than his mind, and even his legs, but he pauses a long time here. "Terrell is a great player but ... " Owens says. "There's always a 'but' in there." Another long pause. "There shouldn't be the 'but,'" he finally says. "He's a great player, period."


We grieve differently. Celebrate differently. Pray differently. Get arrested differently. Stands to reason, then, that blacks and whites would play and view their games differently, too, because sports is merely the funhouse mirror where society goes to see its reflection. Our color colors everything from our weddings to our funerals to the viewpoints we form in all the time between them, so blacks and whites are perfectly capable of seeing opposites even when looking at exactly the same thing. It was a sports figure who illustrated that most overtly to America the year Owens entered the NFL. His name was O.J. Simpson.

So what a white fan might dismiss as hotdog, a black fan might enjoy with relish. You can't generalize about these things because race is the most flammable topic of our time -- and, besides, there's an awful lot of gray between black and white. There are plenty of black folks who think Randy Moss is a punk, plenty of white folks who are bored by the been-there-before of Barry Sanders, and plenty of both who can't agree on much of anything except for perhaps the joys of having an unhealthy urge to punch Brian Bosworth in the face.

But when an old, white guy like Bill Walsh, once the face of the 49ers, calls the swashbuckling on-field style of the University of Miami teams of Jimmy Johnson "the most disgusting thing I have ever seen in college football," as he did when he was a broadcaster, and a young, black guy like Terrell Owens, the face of the 49ers now, thinks that sort of flamboyant taunting is off the chain, you have not only a pretty enormous gulf but the start of a pretty interesting discussion, don't you?

If you care to see this through Owens' eyes, you can't be colorblind about the way he is viewed, especially since he certainly isn't. He tosses race at you with all the subtlety of a Molotov cocktail, pointing out blacks generally are more "expressive" than whites, and the reason you see blacks being expressive so often after touchdowns is because they're the ones doing all the scoring.

When you head down this road with him, beginning a question by telling Owens that some of white America might be uncomfortable with a black man too defiant about his blackness, Owens interrupts and says, "Well, here I am. And I ain't going anywhere." Not that defiance is the exclusive domain of the black man, obviously, but it has served Owens well, getting him from Tennessee-Chattanooga to the top of the NFL, so he isn't going to meekly accept being told to put it away.

Defiance has helped fracture his relationship with his coach. When Steve Mariucci, not the league, suspended Owens for the Dallas star incident, Owens thought it betrayal of the highest order, wondering why his coach didn't have his back. He didn't speak to Mariucci for a year and would stare at his coach's extended hand when offered after a good game. "Did Cris Carter the same way at the Pro Bowl," Owens says now, just because Carter had described the 49ers receivers as mediocre. He did broadcaster Cris Collinsworth the same way, too, after Collinsworth had been critical.

"Don't ever disrespect me," Owens says. Mariucci flew to Atlanta to repair his relationship with Owens last off-season. Had to. Owens certainly wasn't coming to him, and Mariucci knows Owens is more important to San Francisco's success than Mariucci is. Owens was still so mad, though, he thought about standing Mariucci up, saying now, "At one point, I thought I'd never talk to him again. I was done with him. I wasn't going to that meeting. My friends kept saying, 'F him! F him!'"

It isn't that Owens has a problem with authority. It's that he has a problem with authority when he thinks it is wrong, which is why Owens is perpetually having problems with the NFL, where it is generally older white men making rules for younger, black ones. The league, for example, arbitrarily banned the do-rags favored by black athletes, whites telling blacks how to dress and getting away with it because, well, the white players have to conform to the dress code too. As if there are a lot of kickers in cornrows.

Terrell Owens
Exhibit A -- the Sharpie incident.
The defiance in Owens resists this by pushing his chest out, fighting the league because he likes to make his gloves all black by painting over the NFL logo (not allowed) and put his number on his cleats (not allowed) and wear a certain cap on the sidelines (not allowed). Owens says the worst thing about being an NFL player is "the fun taken out of the game by nitpicking rules set by old-school people digging in our pockets." He knows a lot can be hidden under a positive term like "old school" without anyone remembering the old schools were the ones that sent blacks to the back of the bus.

"Everybody is stuck in the past," Owens says. "The game has evolved, but the league wants us all to be robots. They want the game to stay in the '70s. No bandanas, no wristbands, no jerseys out. It's ridiculous. Stupid. It stifles personality. No jerseys out? Man, I'm playing football. People are trying to kill me out there, grabbing at my jersey. I'm trying to concentrate on the next play, and you want me worrying about tucking my shirt in?"

Almost to a man, Owens notes, black fans have been supportive of him for being creative, colorful and defiant while the loudest outrage has come from older, whiter journalists who make up most of the media. This is an oversimplification, but it is a matter of fact, not opinion, that the blacks playing sports don't have a great deal in common -- in skin color, in age, in upbringing, in thinking -- with the majority of journalists covering them. The sportsmanship Terrell Owens allegedly keeps trampling is their sportsmanship, not his.

Asked what he considers the most annoying thing in the world, inside or outside of sports, Owens doesn't hesitate: "Media." But what of the media criticism of Owens by black men like Tom Jackson and Dennis Green? "White black dudes."

Now Owens goes off on a rant about Green, the former Vikings coach: "The criticism that hurt me most is that I'm dishonoring the game, have no class, no respect. Who is Dennis Green to say that, when he couldn't control Randy Moss? I'm disrespecting the game? I'm not the one with the rap sheet. Randy has one, Dennis drafts him, goes out on a limb for him and look how that worked out. I've never taken a play off or not blocked. I guess walking off the ball and not blocking anyone like Randy is respecting the game, huh, Coach?"

If you believe Owens is wrong to hotdog with relish, this is him excusing bad behavior by pointing out worse behavior. But the truth is Owens has never turned a police officer into a hood ornament, and the only thing you can assail about his overwhelming game -- 97 catches two years ago, 93 last year, on pace for 100 this season -- is what he does after plays, not during them. His greatest crimes are that he speaks without thinking sometimes, showboats after touchdowns and can be selfish about wanting the ball so he can score those touchdowns.

But, oh, he respects the game. He doesn't know the names of many people he plays against, nor much about the game's history because he wasn't allowed to watch sports on TV. He didn't even know after being drafted that the team was allowed to cut him. But he respects his sport by practicing and playing and caring about winning as zealously as anyone, by producing like few in the world can and by turning his body into a sculpted machine, fueled by little more than chicken, fish and egg whites. He drinks huge amounts of water, no amount of alcohol and denies himself so much as a single bad calorie even when, say, on a team flight back from Japan, there's nothing else to eat but pizza.

A basketball player in a football uniform who vastly prefers the round ball to the oblong one, Owens suffers the football week, a fuse burning toward the explosion of game day. Where's the joy in football for him? "There is none," he says, then amends himself: "Sundays. Touchdowns." And the celebrations, of course, when he won't be caged up the way he was in that yard throughout childhood.

"We don't get many chances to get in the end zone," says Owens, who's enjoyed attention ever since winning a $25 prize in a Michael Jackson look-alike contest that included glitter and moonwalking. Sundays are his concert tour and stage. "Basketball players flex and growl after dunking, but it ain't but two points. Touchdowns are a big deal. Even the best get only a few a year. I'm not a bad example. Hockey lets fights go on, blood all over the place. That's a bad example for kids ... not me having some fun after helping my team."

So what is it, then? Whom or what is he disrespecting with his arrogance, exactly? You best believe Joe Montana was arrogant. You can't get into the huddle 92 yards from Super Bowl victory and point out to nervous teammates that John Candy is in the stands, as Montana did, unless you damn well believe you are better than everyone else in the stadium. You can't tell everyone in a room they're playing for second place in a three-point contest, like Larry Bird did, unless you know you're the best shooter in it. Not to be too black and white about this, but Curt Schilling is considered a vocal and opinionated ambassador for his game. If he were black, might he be, say, Keyshawn Johnson?

To get where Owens is coming from, you have to understand something else about where he comes from. The time, not the place. If what makes him polarizing is indeed a cultural discussion, it may be as much about American culture as black and white culture. The society Owens grew up in over the past three decades is more in your face, more jagged, than the generation that preceded it, the face of rebellion morphing from Elvis to Eminem, talk radio going from '60s folksy to Howard Stern, even cool, tuxedoed James Bond now pushed off stage by the flexing, tattooed muscle of XXX-treme Vin Diesel.

We've gone from Ozzie Nelson to Ozzy Osbourne, so it makes sense that a new sneaker company -- noting the attitude in that sports-funhouse mirror reflection of society -- would choose as its spokesman the player known best for choking his coach. Makes sense, too, that the attitude would come into play when a team from Harlem, of all places, reaches the Little League World Series, and the children of the sports revolution, children who love Terrell Owens, would get reprimanded for showboating -- for playing a game that is screaming and defiant, for pointing to centerfield with Ruthian flair, hitting a double and then chest-pounding and spitting, "That's what I'm talking about!" We hear you, kid, loud and clear, even though nobody was really asking what you were talking about.

"Carry a Sharpie with me at all times now," Owens says. "In my car, in warmups. Got to flip the script. I'm brainstorming for my next one. They thought the Dallas thing was hard to top, but I topped it. Took me two years, but I topped it."

He laughs here, a child of the sports revolution, rebellious as rock 'n roll was once.

"I might not put out songs all the time," he says, "but when I do they're hits."

This article appears in the December 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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