"You never want to cross him because if you cross him up, he's always going to be out to get you," says former teammate Jerry Rice on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Terrell Owens, who is known as much for his behavior as his pass-catching skills, will be profiled on ESPN Classic on Saturday, Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET.
The student watched and listened as the master presented a life model to emulate. Terrell Owens took to heart much of what NFL teammate and fellow receiver Jerry Rice, his idol, offered him.
Ah, but not everything.
"Jerry always told me that when you're in the spotlight you have to be a politician," Owens said in 2001, the sixth of his eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. "That's one thing I never agreed with. I know I can't change the way people feel about me, but that's fine. Because they will never change the way I play."
And so T.O. embraced the legendary Rice's work ethic and absorbed the finer points of the receiving game, morphing into an All-Pro by his fifth season. But he clearly came to play his way, a style that symbolized the me-first modern athlete. Diplomacy be damned.
Owens' coaches became verbal sparring partners, his teammates the subjects of ridicule, touchdowns a reason for celebratory chest-beating of the most creative fashion. After scoring, Owens could prance with a cheerleader's pom-poms, grandly sign the ball with a Sharpie pen hidden in his sock or simply mock a rival.
"Terrell wants to be a great player," 49ers guard Ray Brown said, "but he also wants to be a personality."
Said Owens, "I see my work like Picasso. He signed off on his work. I signed off on my work."
The sports world noticed, scratching its head as it sought the proper measuring stick for a man who:
started as a quiet, lonely child in a broken home and eventually made the entertainment A list as a brash young adult.
could sport a charming personality one day and complain endlessly the next.
was shrewd enough to lure the media's attention to him but clueless as to why the same media portrayed him as selfish and arrogant.
inspired teammates with extraordinary plays, then divided them with his vitriol.
seized the chance in 2004 to join a championship-caliber team in Philadelphia, then played a big part in almost destroying it.
Owens served suspensions with the Niners and Eagles, who also banned him from training camp for a week.
He has dazzled fans with his performance, not just his personality. The 6-foot-3 wide receiver stirred the national consciousness for the first time in January 1999 when his late touchdown catch lifted the 49ers to a dramatic playoff victory over Green Bay. His 20 catches in a 2000 win against Chicago broke the NFL's single-game receiving record, and his 114 touchdown receptions rank fourth all-time.
"He has the size over the middle, the ability to break tackles," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "He's a deep threat and a possession guy. All that makes him very scary."
Terrell Eldorado Owens was born on Dec. 7, 1973, in Alexander City, Ala., the first of Marilyn Heard's four children. Owens grew up under the guidance of his strict grandmother, Heard's mother, who wouldn't allow him to stray far from their yard. He never knew his father, L.C. Russell, who lived across the street, until a chance meeting when he was 11.
Owens played four sports in high school, but didn't start in football until his senior year and once had to be talked out of dropping the sport for basketball, his first love. He received a scholarship from Tennessee-Chattanooga, which allowed him to compete in basketball and track as well as football. Wearing uniform No. 80, the same as Rice, Owens developed into an all-Southern Conference receiver, finished with 144 career receptions for 2,320 yards and 19 touchdowns, and was drafted by the 49ers in the third round in 1996.
Playing with Rice and quarterback Steve Young, he made 10 starts as a rookie and kept a low profile. An injury to Rice the next year broadened Owens' role and he responded with eight touchdown catches in helping the 49ers win the NFC West title and advance to the NFC championship game. He had 14 touchdowns and his first 1,000-yard receiving season (1,097 on 67 catches) in 1998.
Two years later, he was an All-Pro for the first time with 97 receptions and 1,452 yards. That year, fans saw T.O. as Totally Outrageous. In a victory at Dallas, he caught two touchdown passes and celebrated by posing on the Cowboys' blue star logo at midfield. Coach Steve Mariucci showed the pose no pause, suspending Owens for one game.
"Just a spur of the moment thing," said Owens, who said he'd repeat his antics if given the chance.
Rice didn't approve, saying that T.O. needed to "channel" his emotions.
Owens was just heating up his toxic mix of talent and theatrics. While T.O. helped San Francisco to four winning seasons in Mariucci's six years, he created chaos. In 2001 he ripped his coach for his play-calling and reluctance to run up the score, and the next year -- a 100-catch season -- complained about his offensive role. In 2003, Owens criticized quarterback Jeff Garcia's play, even though he himself had 18 drops.
He pulled his Sharpie surprise in a 2002 Monday night game at Seattle, when he scored a touchdown and then took a pen from inside his sock to sign the ball before delivering it to his financial consultant in the stands. "I was just trying to be creative and have fun," Owens said. "I had a feeling I was going to score."
The gesture drew criticism and laughter, angering Seattle coach Mike Holmgren but amusing many players. The NFL let it pass but fined Owens $5,000 for playing with an untucked jersey.
T.O.'s act traveled to Philadelphia in 2004. After a muddled dispute during which he missed a free agent filing deadline, the 49ers dealt him to Baltimore. Unhappy about being a Raven, he landed in Philadelphia after a three-way trade was made among the Niners, Ravens and Eagles. After signing a $49-million, seven-year contract, Owens anticipated happy times in Philly, as did many others.
The thinking: The Eagles needed a big-play receiver to launch them to the Super Bowl, and Owens would fit with no-nonsense coach Andy Reid and quarterback Donovan McNabb, a strong leader with a stronger arm than Garcia.
"It is so refreshing," Owens said, "knowing you are getting a new start."
But the old T.O. remained. In a 2004 magazine interview, Owens sinisterly suggested that Garcia was gay. Later, he questioned Reid's rule of wearing shorts in practice and the team's "live" training scrimmages, mimicked the Ravens' Ray Lewis in an end zone celebration and screamed at McNabb on the sideline. The biggest buzz came after a spicy ABC-TV promo in which he was flashed by towel-dropping actress Nicolette Sheridan.
On the field, he pushed Philadelphia toward its goal. Owens, generating his fourth All-Pro season, had 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns before breaking an ankle against Dallas in a win that lifted the Eagles to 13-1. Without him, the team won twice in the postseason, taking the NFC title.
Owens rehabbed quickly and played in the Super Bowl, disregarding doctors' orders. He couldn't run full speed, but caught nine passes for 122 yards in Philadelphia's 24-21 loss to New England.
Though the media generally praised his courage, Owens railed at critics. "Had it been someone like Brett Favre," he said, "they would have called him a warrior. But they used me and said I was selfish."
In the offseason, Owens began a series of attacks on McNabb and Eagles management that continued well into the 2005 campaign. Unhappy with his contract, he threatened a holdout, argued with Reid and was sent home from training camp.
In November, Owens rapped the Eagles for not publicly honoring his 100th touchdown catch and suggested that the team (4-3) could be unbeaten if it had Favre rather than McNabb. Management then suspended Owens for four games before de-activating him for the rest of the season. The wideout filed a grievance, but the ban was upheld by an arbitrator.
The Eagles, who finished 6-10, released Owens in March 2006, and four days later he signed a $25-million, three-year contract with Dallas. In late September, Owens was taken from his Dallas-area condo to a nearby hospital amid reports that he had tried to kill himself by overdosing on a pain medication. Owens denied he was depressed and said he hadn't overdosed or attempted suicide. The Dallas Police Department concluded that the incident was an "accidental overdose."
On the field, Owens was far from spectacular in his first season with the Cowboys, ranking ninth in the NFL with 1,180 receiving yards (on 85 catches) and leading the league in drops with 15. However, he was first with his 13 touchdown receptions.