Terrell Owens is one of the most popular—and controversial— players in the National Football League (NFL). The Alabama native is considered one of the most talented wide receivers in professional football, but has drawn added attention for his battles with his coaches, team executives, and even his fellow players that often play out in the media. In 2004,he was involved in a tense contract dispute with his longtime team, the San Francisco 49ers, over a planned move to the Philadelphia Eagles roster. He has been scorned by sportswriters for what they view as his unsportsmanlike behavior. Those critics, along with "many NFL owners and league executives," Owens wrote in his 2004 autobiography Catch This! : "don't know where I came from or what I believe in. They don't want to know too much about the hired hands who make their football machines go. They want us to do our jobs and stay in our places and shut up."
In his autobiography, Owens recounts a childhood in which he grew up lonely and poor. He was born Terrell Eldorado Owens on December 7, 1973, to Marilyn Heard, a seventeen year old from Alexander City,Alabama. He was raised primarily by his grandmother in Alex City,as his hometown is known. He wrote about a great-grandmother he never knew in his book. She disappeared one day when his grandmother was twelve years old, and in the pre-civil rights era Deep South, little was done to solve the disappearance. She was simply assumed to have run away, or been murdered. (Before the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that pushed for equal rights for all races, blacks suffered severe prejudice and persecution, especially in the former slave states of the South.) The tragedy left a scar on the family that carried over well into Owens's youth. His grandmother was so overly protective of Owens, along with the brother and two sisters of his she also raised, that she did not permit them to leave the front yard to play with other children. Even when Owens received a bike as a gift, he was only allowed to ride it in the driveway or on the sidewalk in front of the house. If the rule was broken, they could expect a whipping. Owens recalls crying as he looked out his bedroom window and watched the other kids play freely on the street.
Owens's mother was not absent from his life, but she had to work double shifts at the nearby Russell Athletic textile mill to support her children, whose fathers did not play a part in their lives. One of the most traumatic events of his early life, Owens wrote in Catch This!, was the time he fell in love with the little girl
"I'm not going to keep quiet or stay inside a box, the way many pro athletes do, even some very famous ones who've told me that the best road was to be politically correct at all times."
who lived across the street from him. The girl's father—a man in his forties—made fun of the eleven-year-old's crush on his daughter and said dating her was impossible because the girl was Terrell's sister. With this, Owens realized that this neighbor man was his father. He and his family had lived across the street all this time, and neither his grandmother nor his mother, Marilyn Heard, had ever told him about it. He was devastated by the news, and he never went near the house again. Nor did his father make any attempt to have a relationship with him.
Owens and his siblings were allowed to leave the property for two reasons: to go to church and to school. There, kids of his own race teased him because of his darker skin. As a teenager Owens found more acceptance on the football field, and he was a standout player at Benjamin Russell High School as a wide receiver, the member of the offense who can run and catch passes. His hero was San Francisco 49er Jerry Rice (1962–), considered one of, if not the best, wide receivers to ever play in the NFL. Owens even wore Rice's number 80 jersey on his high school team.
Owens was a four-sport athlete at Russell High. He ran track and field, played baseball,and was a talented basketball player as well. He was not even sure that he wanted to devote his energies to football if the chance for an athletic scholarship came—he preferred basketball as his sport of choice instead. Once, he tried to quit the high school football team before his senior year, but the coach convinced him to stay. Owens chose to attend the University of Tennessee (U.T.) at Chattanooga, mostly because the school's athletic director did not object to him playing two sports at the school.
Once again, Owens distinguished himself on the football field with the Mocs, as the U.T. team was called. He set a single-game touchdown record at the school—four in all—in one 1993 game and helped lead the basketball team to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament in 1996. That same year, he was a third-round draft pick by the 49ers, taken eighty-ninth overall, and he was thrilled to be joining the team of his longtime idol in the very same position. But his rookie season was a tough year for him, and he didn't get much field time. Few sportswriters thought he would become a strong player on the 49ers roster. That same year, Owens was devastated when his friend from high school, Cedric Kendrick, was killed in car accident back in Alabama.
Owens spent eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, but he was a second-string player until Rice was forced out by injury. Owens was eventually teamed with quarterback Jeff Garcia (1970–) and emerged as a strong, if a bit inconsistent, player with game-winning abilities. He could evade defensemen and make amazing catches, and he became known for his antics when he did help the team score. Sometimes he even did a little dance in the end zone, which critics said was a display of unsportsmanlike gloating.
Before the start of the 1999 season, the 49ers signed Owens to a new contract. It was a seven-year,$35 million deal. The team was rewarded the following year when on December 17, 2000, Owens broke an NFL record that had stood for fifty years: in a game against the Chicago Bears, he caught twenty receptions in one game, beating the previous pass-reception single-game record of eighteen set by a Los Angeles Ram player named Tom Fears (1922–2000) on December 3,1950.
Earlier that season, Owens had moved beyond dancing in the end zone during a September 2000 game against the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium. After a touchdown, he went out and did a joyous dance on the Cowboys' midfield logo. When he did it a second time,the Dallas crowd erupted in anger. "I was just being creative and having fun," Owens said in his defense in an interview with Thomas George in the New York Times. "My intentions were not bad ones. But then,after Emmitt Smith did it after Dallas scored, I felt I had to go back a second time after I scored. The second time I did do it out of spite. But I didn't expect it to create such a stir." Steve Mariucci (1955–), the 49ers respected head coach, suspended Owens for a week and fined him one week's salary as well, which amounted to a $24,294 penalty.
Even behind the scenes, Owens was not the most popular member of the team. Fellow players considered him aloof, and he had some battles with the 49ers coaching staff, too. Once, he told the press that the team had lost to the Chicago Bears because Mariucci was pals with the Bears' coach, Dick Jauron (1950–), and did not give it his best coaching effort that day. On another occasion, Owens criticized Mariucci for the coach's play-calling during one game, claiming that Owens had not been given the ball enough. Mariucci, asked by a reporter about Owens's remarks, called them "devoid of thought" according to Paul Attner in Sporting News. The two spent an entire season not speaking more than a minimum of necessary words to one another, but they finally patched things up after Owens met with the 49ers general manager and team owner to talk about it after the 2001 season ended. Two months later, Mariucci flew out to visit Owens at his Atlanta home, where "we just put it all on the table,positive and negative," Owens told New York Times sportswriter Damon Hack. "He expressed things he didn't like about me and vice versa. He told me there may have been some things he did wrong—maybe he should have gotten me the ball more— but you live and learn."
Owens was involved in another highly publicized incident in October 2002 during a 49ers game against the Seattle Seahawks. When he caught a game-winning touchdown, he took a Sharpie magic marker out of his sock, signed the football, and handed it to his financial advisor, who was sitting in the stands. In response, the NFL issued what became known as the "Sharpie rule," which called for a fifteen-yard penalty or even ejection from the game for any player who takes a foreign object onto the field. All of this controversy did not hinder Owens's performance on the field. He had another career-defining moment during a playoff game against the New York Giants in 2002. He caught 177 yards' worth of receptions and helped the team, which had been losing by 24 points,beat the Giants 39–38.
Despite the talents of Owens and quarterback Jeff Garcia, the 49ers consistently failed to make it to the Super Bowl. It was a source of concern for the team, its owners, and Bay Area fans alike. Owens was not happy about being on a losing team, and he and Garcia did not have a good working relationship, either on the gridiron or off. Owens began dropping hints in the media that he hoped to move on when the 2003 season was over. A clause (part) in his contract gave him the option to become a free agent early in 2004, and that would let him sign with another team. Before that happened, however, the 49ers announced that they had traded Owens to the Baltimore Ravens. An angry Owens told the media he would not play in Baltimore. There was a question of whether he and his sports agent had missed the February 21, 2004, deadline, when he was expected to declare himself a free agent. Owens claimed that in 2001 he had negotiated a March 15 deadline instead and was in contract negotiations with the Eagles when the Ravens trade was announced. The NFL players' association took his side, and a legal battle seemed possible. That was avoided when all parties met at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a deal was struck: Owens would go to Philadelphia, and Philadelphia would give San Francisco a defensive end player, Brandon Whiting, and also give up its fifth-round 2004 draft-pick slot to Baltimore.
The Eagles signed Owens to a seven-year, $48 million contract, which included a $10 million signing bonus. His number 81 Eagles jersey became the NFL's top-selling piece of merchandise, with sales boosted by his performance during the 2004 season. But controversy still followed him: During a pre-game show for ABC's Monday Night Football on November 15,2004,Owens appeared in a promotional spot with Nicollette Sheridan (1963–), one of the stars of the hit ABC prime-time series Desperate Housewives. The skit showed the pair in a locker room, with Sheridan wearing just a towel; she asks Owens to skip the game to be with her and drops the towel to the floor. He says the team will have to do without him, and she jumps into his arms. The promotional spot was produced by ABC Sports, and it prompted a flood of angry phone calls and letters to the network, for it had aired at a time when many under-age viewers were watching. There was even a formal inquiry by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government
Terrell Owens and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb (1976–) were predicted to become an unbeatable combination as Philadelphia fans anticipated Owens's first season with the team in 2004. The expectations were satisfied with a record-setting season, and one in which McNabb finally emerged as a star quarterback after five somewhat undistinguished years with the team.
The Eagles started the 2004 season with an astonishing seven-game winning streak. They became the division's first-place champs when there were still five weeks of games left to play. In NFL history, only two other teams ever achieved a first-place finish that early. In all, McNabb threw thirty-one touchdowns, and Owens caught fourteen of them. This helped McNabb end the regular season with statistics that made him the NFL's fourth-ranked quarterback. "Owens has given the Eagles a dimension they had lacked," noted sports broadcaster and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman in Sporting News in early October. "He's not a great route runner and doesn't have the best hands, but he's fast, he's big and physical, and he's deadly after the catch. McNabb has never had a weapon like Owens before."
The Eagles went on to Super Bowl XXXIX, but lost to the New England Patriots. A few months later, Owens—with what his critics said was his characteristic verbal recklessness—made some comments to the media that seemed to question McNabb's performance. "I wasn't the guy who got tired in the Super Bowl," he told ESPN.com, according to a Houston Chronicle article by John McClain. There
agency charged with regulating the airwaves. ABC Sports was attacked for the spot, which seemed to be using sex to promote professional sports, but Owens was also criticized for participating in it. He issued a public apology, as did the NFL.
A month later, Owens sprained his ankle and fractured a fibula, one of the bones in his calf, in a game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Eagles said he would likely be out the rest of the season, but Owens contradicted that and said he would play in the coming Super Bowl, when the Eagles would meet the New England Patriots. He underwent leg surgery and played well during Super Bowl XXXIX, with nine receptions. The Eagles lost, however, 24–21. Later, Owens made negative remarks about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, and he announced he had a new agent— the aggressive and controversial Drew Rosenhaus—and wanted to renegotiate his Eagles contract. As summer neared, he asked Eagles management to let him play on a summer-league squad of the Sacramento Kings of the National Basketball Association, but they refused. At one point, he even hinted that he might not show up for the official start of training camp, but in July said he would return to the Eagles roster for the 2005 season. He did appear, but in characteristic form was suspended for a week for disrespectful behavior. He then began appearing with his agent on talk shows, during which he made negative comments about his coach,Andy Reid,and his fellow players.
Owens has a son, Terique, who was born in 1999. He has contributed his time and celebrity to the Alzheimer Foundation and has spoken publicly on several occasions about his grand-mother's diagnosis with the debilitating condition that deteriorates the memory and other mental activity. In his autobiography, he wrote about the troubles he has had with authority figures and teammates over the years, but says that a deep spiritual strength has helped him grow. "My grandmother and my mom taught me that I need to walk through this world with a strong mind and a big heart, so that's my goal," he wrote. "I don't always reach it. Sometimes I stumble, and sometimes I come close to falling, but then I refocus and try to learn and get better."
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Attner, Paul. "Turned on but Still Ticked Off." Sporting News (June 14,2004): p. 28.
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Rhoden, William C. "In 'Monday Night' Fallout, a Deeper Racial Issue." New York Times (November 21,2004): p. SP11.
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