Owens off to good start in Philly

Terrell Owens hopes his new start in Philly will shed light on his real character.

Updated: October 19, 2004, 9:16 AM ET
By Eric Edholm | Pro Football Weekly

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.

Terrell Owens
Terrell Owens has caught 26 passes for 364 yards and six TDs in four games.
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 reception.

"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 15 mark.

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 Mom happy.

"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 special.

"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 I did."

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.

Terrell Owens
APOwens created a stir two years ago with the Sharpie incident.
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 career.

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 day's work.

"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 relationship."

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."

*  *  *

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.
Terrell Owens

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. Revere Him.

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?

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