Inside a creaky, concrete basketball arena on the campus of his alma mater, about 600 miles from Canton, Ohio, Terrell Owens stood on the stage for what he later called one of the most important days of his life. His family filled rows of plastic chairs in front of the stage, former teammates dotted the crowd, and about 3,000 fans ringed the lower bowl of McKenzie Arena at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the place from where Owens would make one last show of defiance.
“Many of you may be wondering why we’re here,” Owens said, leaning into a microphone. “Instead of Canton.”
His presence raised an obvious question: Why? Later Saturday night, at a hallowed museum in Canton, Ray Lewis and Randy Moss would headline the induction ceremony for an eight-man Hall of Fame class, only seven of whom attended. Owens, 44, had complicated his own induction to the Hall of Fame, a fitting capstone to a life and career shot through with complexity. He made the unprecedented choice to hold an independent ceremony, honoring himself on his terms, rejecting embrace from elsewhere.
The ceremony started at 3:17 p.m. sharp, to coincide with Owens being the 317th player inducted into the Hall of Fame. In his speech, which lasted a shade less than 40 minutes, Owens quoted Martin Luther King Jr., the Bible and Albert Einstein. At one point, he declared, “I am a man of courage — courageous enough to choose Chattanooga over Canton.” At another, he said, “I will leave a legacy that will leave an imprint on this world forever.”
Owens cast his ceremony as a stand against injustice. He drew a shaky distinction in claiming why he had chosen not to attend the event in Canton. It was not, he said, because it had taken three years to be voted in. It was because of “the mere fact that the sportswriters were not in alignment with the mission and core values of the Hall of Fame.” Essentially he believes voters had taken his character into question, and he said he thought taking a stand would prevent it from happening again.
“I’m not going to do a dog-and-pony show and smile in people’s faces and be fake,” Owens said afterward. “I had to harbor all these feelings all these years. And this is the way I needed to do it. Chattanooga gave me an opportunity to do it my way.”
Some friends had tried to talk Owens out of snubbing Canton for his college, and others worried he had missed an opportunity to mend fences. Some supported him, and some felt it was an unconventional choice by an unconventional man, an all-timer who had started as an ungainly, shy kid from Alexander City, Ala.
“I think it’s strange,” said Mack McCarthy, who coached Owens in basketball at Chattanooga. “But I think in a way, it makes sense. Because this is who he is. Everybody else knows T.O. T.O. is the celebrity and the superstar. To these people, this is Terrell.”
Owens’s speech followed a theme throughout. He would identify a person who had supported him, explain what that person meant to him and declare, “This is for you.” He began his list with “critics and doubters” and “those who smiled in my face but defamed me behind my back: This is for you.”
Owens’s assertion that he belonged in the Hall of Fame sooner is unarguable. He gained more yards receiving than any man in NFL history other than Jerry Rice, his idol and, for a time, his mentor. He ranks eighth all-time in receptions and third in receiving touchdowns. He caught all nine passes thrown his way in the Super Bowl on a broken leg, snared the game-winning touchdown in an iconic San Francisco 49ers playoff victory and three times led the league in touchdown catches.
He created a new paradigm of touchdown celebrations. He demanded the ball and erupted when he didn’t get it. Seeking a new contract from the Philadelphia Eagles, he called a news conference at his home and did sit-ups in the driveway on live television. He once proclaimed, “I love me some me.” In not enshrining him for two years, voters codified those notions. But they had also, ultimately, accepted him.
In the most fundamental reading, Owens had been accepted in the way he always wanted. And when it happened, he rejected it. It led, again, to an obvious question: Why?
As Owens spoke, George Stewart tended to a personal matter across the country, wishing he could have been there. Stewart met Owens when they both joined the 49ers in 1996, Owens a third-round draft pick, Stewart as special teams coach. Stewart became a confidant and father figure, a man Owens said knows him better than anyone else. When Owens had been chosen for the Hall, he chose Stewart to introduce him. Stewart had planned out his speech.
“Some people see the cover and don’t read the book,” said Stewart, now the Los Angeles Chargers’ wide receivers coach. “I would have tried to explain the book. Peeling back the layers. Sometimes you have to go to the center of the Earth.
“I think he’s so misunderstood by so many people.”
Owens grew up in Alexander City, raised by his mother and grandmother, an alcoholic who demanded discipline and religious study. In his early years, he didn’t know his father, a man named L.C. Russell. Owens had to be home at 6 p.m. He read his Bible every night. His grandmother would not let him play sports until high school and forbade watching them on television — he didn’t know Rice played for the 49ers until he arrived in college. Gangly and dark-skinned, he was teased and bullied as a child; one kid spat in his mouth. He made few friends.
At 11, Owens took a liking to the girl who lived across the street. The crush led him to learn the hidden truth about his parents. He was told he could not see the girl across the street because the girl was his half sister.
Owens’s father had an affair with Owens’s mother when she was 16, and the tryst resulted in Terrell Eldorado Owens. Owens’s father carried on, raising kids and living with his wife while his son lived next door, not knowing any of it for more than a decade, then learning all of it and trying to process it on the edge of adolescence.
“He had those scars,” Stewart said this week in a phone conversation. “And I think those scars are still with him today.”
For all the brashness and charisma the initials T.O. evoke, he entered adulthood reserved and uncertain. As a 49ers rookie, teammates pronounced his name wrong, Te-REHL instead of TEH-rehl. Owens, the bullied kid from Alexander City, was too embarrassed to correct them. Stewart could tell what was happening, and to make it easier on him, Stewart called him T.O. in meetings. The name stuck.
Teammates revered his work ethic. Coaches marveled at his appetite for and skill at blocking. “Ferocious,” Stewart said. For all the ire his touchdown celebrations kicked up, and for all the barking he did at quarterbacks, members of his teams seldom had issues.
“T.O. is one of the most coachable guys I’ve ever had,” said Andy Reid, Owens’s head coach in Philadelphia.
“You won’t find a player that would say he was a bad teammate at all,” said Jimmy Farris, an undrafted free agent with the 49ers whom Owens befriended. “He set the example of every team he was on.”
But Owens’s downfall rested in his inability to manage relationships. When he ran to the Dallas Cowboys’ star logo to celebrate a touchdown, San Francisco Coach Steve Mariucci publicly chastised him. For Owens, the slight was unforgivable, and it would lead to his breakup with the 49ers in his prime. His time in Philadelphia soured when he perceived quarterback Donovan McNabb as jealous of him. Farris, a close friend for more than a decade, has not spoken to him in years, the product of a simple argument.
“Terrell was never able to see the big picture,” Farris said. “He always had to win the battle, and he never really contemplated the effort and blood he might spill trying to win that battle could cost him the war. He would go to battle over things that weren’t worth fighting about.
“He’s a fun, cool, outgoing, good-looking guy. He’s always going to have friends. I wonder how many people he’s got with him right now who have been with him through thick and thin that knew him when he was a skinny, uncoordinated kid out of Alexander City, Alabama. If he doesn’t, it’s not because they left. It’s because he pushed them away.”
When Owens made the Hall of Fame, Farris viewed it as a perfect chance for Owens. He could use a huge platform to set the record straight, to charm the football world, to set himself up for financial opportunities. When Owens announced he would hold a separate ceremony, Farris had another thought: Classic T.O. — he slapped everybody in the face after they gave him what he asked for. It made him sad for his former friend.
“You’re talking about a guy who has never gotten a DUI, never had a domestic abuse charge, never been in trouble for drugs, never been on trial for murder, never had a speeding ticket, can’t find a teammate that really has ever had a problem with him,” Farris said. “There’s still this horrible image of him out there. He had an opportunity at his Hall of Fame speech to change that. Tell some jokes about yourself, tell people about your childhood and why it caused you to be that way and ride off into the sunset as a guy everybody loves. And he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t see past what everybody said he had in his mind. Now he’s doing his own thing, and nobody cares.”
Owens’s life after football steered into hardship. He discovered a financial adviser had essentially stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from him. The NFL rejected him, another product of his perceived poor character, and he toiled for part of a season for the Allen (Tex.) Wranglers in a second-tier indoor league. He has six children by four different women and was sued for child support. He struggled through bankruptcy and property foreclosures.
In late October of 2012, his assistant called 911 after she found an empty bottle of painkillers, prescribed to treat torn ligaments from the final year of his career, at his house. On the 911 call, she could be heard chastising herself for not counting how many pills Owens had in his possession. Owens later insisted he was not trying to commit suicide. “A lot of people have to deal with the feeling that their worlds are caving in,” Owens told a reporter during his season playing in Allen.
In his speech Saturday, Owens said: “I’m not a perfect man. I have made a lot of mistakes.” But he also added later, “I like who I’ve become.” Matthew Hatchette, a former NFL wide receiver and friend of nearly 20 years, said Owens is the happiest he has seen him since he stopped playing. He credited it to Owens’s rededication as a father.
“He wasn’t there a lot at the beginning,” Hatchette said. “Now he’s trying to get some of that time back. I think he had to be open to accept, ‘Yeah, I do have to be better than how I was brought up.’ Now he’s accepted that.”
L.C. Russell sat in a plastic chair five rows from the stage, a seat reserved with his name on it, surrounded by family. He wore a safari hat, glasses and a tan suit, listening to his son.
“It turned out better than I thought,” Russell said. “The people came. Everything was just great.”
Despite the trauma of his childhood, Owens has a relationship with his father. Owens has twice confronted his father about his childhood on reality television shows, including once in 2013, when he broke down in tears and said he forgave him. About a year ago, Russell said, Owens started to try to strengthen their connection.
“It’s better than it’s been,” Russell said. “A whole lot better. It’s just building itself up, stuff like that. That’s something that he built. That’s his idea. It wasn’t my idea.”
At various times during his speech, Owens referenced the difficulties he had been through. What, Russell was asked, went through his head when Owens said that?
“We all have challenges in life,” Russell said. “We all have challenges we have to go through. It ain’t no different than anybody else. I had to go through them.”
Before his speech, Marilyn Heard, Owens’s mother, brought his Hall of Fame gold jacket — which a friend had hand-delivered from Canton after a morning flight — to the stage. Owens hugged her, burying his head in her shoulder.
Owens’s speech had light moments, hyperbolic flair and emotional touches. He thanked a strength coach for a physique that “some have called like a Greek god.” When he brought up his grandmother, he covered his face with a white towel and paused for 45 seconds before he could compose himself.
“I love you!” one fan shouted during a pause.
“I love you, too,” Owens replied. “But I love me more.”
Over and over, Owens told people whom the speech was for. His PR team. Old coaches. Former teammates. Family members, including his children and siblings.
At the end, he added a flourish. He asked members of the crowd to stand up if they had ever “felt like an outcast” or “felt isolated” or “misunderstood” or been bullied, on and on. He kept going until the whole arena was on its feet. One last time, he told the assemblage, “This is for you.”
There was one person he did not mention, at least by name. He never addressed the man sitting in the fifth row, wearing glasses and a safari hat.