terrellowens_feature.jpgIt didn't matter that his season ended weeks earlier when the San Francisco 49ers lost in the NFC Divisional Playoffs—the talented playmaker was on top of the world. Or better yet, hovering over his limousine. With San Francisco 49ers team photographer Michael Zagaris and his wide-eyed cousin, Owens was cruising San Diego's historic, yet trendy Gaslamp Quarter en route to an NFL Players Association party. The entourage wouldn't remain intimate for long.

"People were going nuts everywhere we went,” Zagaris remembers. "They were all pounding on the windows, calling out ‘T.O.! T.O.!' The girls wanted him to open the door so they could get in and really show him the love. This one girl raised her sweater up and had her tits up against the window.”

"Roll down the window!” Owens' cousin begged. Instead, Owens elevated through the sunroof and soaked it all in. "He wasn't being an asshole, like a Barry Bonds, thinking, ‘Yeah, they know who is on top,'” Zagaris says. "I thought, ‘[This] is probably everybody's dream.'” Terrell Owens included. Owens didn't look like a future star while growing up in Alabama idolizing Jerry Rice, or at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC), where he was known more for his hard work than raw talent. Even early in his NFL career, he acted like a small-town rube. "It's kind of like I'm still in awe,” he told the San Francisco Examiner during his rookie year. But that naive kid would eventually become one of the most controversial players—both on and off the field—in NFL history. Here's how T.O. became a star attraction.
BUDDY GREEN  (OWENS' HEAD COACH AT UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE AT CHATTANOOGA NOW SECONDARY COACH AT NAVY)  He was one of my favorites because I saw him as a raw guy that had a chance to keep getting better. I knew his best days were ahead of him, because I knew how hard he worked to get faster and better. Most of his college career before I was there, he split his time as a basketball/football player and never had time to grow as a football athlete. Then he gave up basketball and lived in the weight room. A lanky kid with potential turned into what you want every day in the NFL. He had a great attitude. If everybody had his work ethic, we'd have won a lot more games. He was the first to come to practice and the last to leave.
MIKE BOYSTER (LONGTIME FOOTBALL AND BASKETBALL EQUIPMENT MANAGER AT UTC) Terrell never caused a problem. The unique thing about his situation [at UTC] was that he played for three different head coaches in football, and it's an adjustment every time you have a new coach green. I'm an old DB coach and was very tempted to move him to free safety. He'd have been very good at that position. He was on punt teams, kickoff returns. That's one reason San Francisco liked him so much.

MICHAEL ZAGARIS (SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS TEAM PHOTOGRAPHER)
When he first came to the Niners, he was extremely shy. He didn't say a lot. He grew up in the fucking country and wouldn't even come into the city. He wanted to see some pictures, and I told him he should come to my apartment in the Haight-Ashbury district. He said, "No, man, I'm not going to San Francisco. That's way too big. It's scary in there.”

IRA MILLER (RETIRED SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE FOOTBALL WRITER, MEMBER OF FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME)  He came into the NFL as a kid from a small college, kind of shy, and every question he answered "Yes, sir” and "No, sir.” As John Crumpacker of the Examiner said: In two years Owens went from "Yes, sir” and "No, sir,” to surly.

ZAGARIS  I saw a big change in him when he came back from doing Any Given Sunday (1999). It was the first time he'd been exposed to all that, and he came back with big shades, dressing like he was a big star. That was fine, but when a few guys laughed, T.O. was like, "It's not funny.” Guys started asking, "Has he gone Hollywood?” T.O.'s grandmother raised him, and she would not let him go out. He was very skinny, and I guess he got beat up and picked on in junior high; probably all the resentment he was harboring from being sheltered and picked on, all boiled to the surface.
BOYSTER  I don't know what happened with him, but yeah, there's no doubt he changed. Let's face it: He played on the basketball team and was not a star. He wasn't even the first one off the bench, but he never complained.
RAY BROWN (RETIRED OFFENSIVE LINEMAN, OWENS' TEAMMMATE ON S.F. 1996–2001) T.O. played with Jerry Rice and saw the way Jerry was. Jerry wanted the football. Jerry wasn't a big "team” guy per se when he played the game, because he cared about getting the football and scoring touchdowns, and T.O. saw that. Jerry wasn't a nurturer as a veteran. He was not a guy to say, "OK, T.O., come under my wing. I'm going to show you how to do it.” Jerry is going to do his thing, and he has an agenda for Jerry. T.O. saw that.
SHAWN SPRINGS (CORNERBACK, THE PLAYER T.O. BEAT ON THE FAMOUS "SHARPIE” TOUCHDOWN)  He came up with a scheme, just like Deion [Sanders], to get as much attention as he can… I took a lot of shit for that Sharpie deal, and most people didn't realize what I thought about it: I thought he made a helluva play. It was an underthrown ball and he got there and made a play. He wasn't really trying to show me up. He's not like that, man.
JIMMY FARRIS (WIDE RECEIVER, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS, OWENS' TEAMMATE ON S.F. 2001,TRAINING CAMP)  He's crazy with studying game tape. We would lose a game and he would go right into the facility and turn on the game film right then and there. He would sit and watch the game film all night. He never, ever worked out with the strength coach the way the rest of the team did. He would pass by the weight room, kind of look at it, and keep right on walking. The strength coach and some other players were in there thinking, "T.O. doesn't lift. He doesn't work out.” They didn't know that we used to get something to eat, go to his house and play pool. Whoever lost, however many balls he had left on the table, he had to do that many push-ups and sit-ups—times 25 or 50. So if you lose a game and have three balls on the table, that's 75 push-ups and 150 sit-ups right there. Then at 9 p.m. we'd ride back to the 49ers facility and work out when nobody else was there.

 JOE GIBBS (REDSKINS COACH) Everyone thinks [Owens] is a heck of a performer. He gets a lot of attention around the league. Everybody's going, "Hey, we can't let that guy do this, this and this, or he's going to hurt us.” I think that's the way you look at him.

After the 2001 release of Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens became the face of the San Francisco 49ers. Beginning in 2000, he was selected to five consecutive pro bowls, but his athletic accomplishments were overshadowed by his self-promoting antics. Among the controversies: disparaging his own teammates, quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb; mocking the Atlanta Falcons' dance, the Dallas Cowboys' logo and Ray Lewis' pregame boogie; claiming to have never read his autobiography; engineering a trade to the Philadelphia Eagles and then being sent home after a season and a half; holding open workouts/press conferences on his home porch; and filming a sexy promo with a Desperate Housewife. Why is Terrell Owens always the center of controversy? In the words of his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, "Next question!”

HOWARD BRYANT (WASHINGTON POST FOOTBALL WRITER AND AUTHOR) In football, because it's a sport that does everything it can to try to frown on the individual, they try to sell you on the team. The cult of personality in baseball goes back a century to Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. But football has no idea how to deal with a guy who doesn't need a logo to be a star. T.O. knows he doesn't need you, and that's more power than teams want players to have in a sport that's so coach- and authority-dominated that base salaries are not guaranteed. That's the trump card that keeps you in line—unless you're T.O. Unless you have so much talent, so much charisma and so much ability that you can say "fuck you” to them and they can't do anything about it.

SPRINGS There are probably better receivers in the NFL, but to market himself and create an image where he went from being Terrell, just a guy, to T.O., some people can hate that if they want to. But more power to him. He's got brand recognition. Marvin Harrison might have more yards in the long run, but everybody will always remember T.O.

PHIL SHERIDAN (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER SPORTS COLUMNIST) I think it's crucial to understand the deep reservations the Eagles had when they obtained him. Owens went against everything [Eagles head coach] Andy Reid looked for in players up to that point. The team proceeded only because Owens and his agent were not only willing, but also enthusiastic about splitting his signing bonus into two chunks. He got a total of about $10 million in 2004, a lower salary in 2005 and another bonus after the '05 season. Again: One reason the Eagles decided to take a chance on his personality was that he was eager to literally put his money behind his promise to be a good teammate.

BROWN T.O. wants to compete and he wants to do it for himself. Somehow, through doing that, you're doing it for the team, too, and I think guys appreciate that. He can take it a little overboard when the cameras are rolling, but he's a good guy. I think his outbursts turn a lot of people off. Any time you have a football team with 53 guys, the outburst takes the attention to one guy and not too many people care for that. But I'll say this: Guys like playing with him.

FARRIS  When I was a rookie free agent in San Francisco, Terrell took me under his wing during training camp. I stayed at his house for a while until I got settled. One night we went to dinner and I told him, "Man, training camp sucks! This is so different from college. I don't have a TV.” The next afternoon I came back to my room after morning practice and there was a big-screen TV hooked up in my room.

SHERIDAN The 2004 season was unforgettable for Philadelphia sports fans. McNabb and Owens were electrifying to watch. The fans adored T.O. and he basked in the attention. After [one] game, thousands of Eagles fans gathered in the corner near the tunnel to the visiting locker room chanting "Tee-oohh, Tee-Ohhhh-ooooh” in the manner of European soccer fans' "olé” chant. When Owens limped off the field after injuring his leg, you could hear, feel, smell the dread. No one really expected him to come back for the Super Bowl. He probably shouldn't have, if you look at it strictly from a health perspective. But he did, and he played tremendously in a game the Eagles could have won.

GREEN I called to tell him I was proud of the way he played with the injury. He was just crushed that they lost the ball game. He really didn't care about his personal performance. All he cared about was losing the Super Bowl.

SHERIDAN The hell started in March 2005, when Owens fired his agent and hired Drew Rosenhaus, who informed the media when he would meet with club president Joe Banner about revisiting Owens' contract.

STEPHEN SINGULAR (T.O.'s GHOSTWRITER ON HIS FIRST AUTOBIOGRAPHY, CATCH THIS!: GOING DEEP WITH THE NFL's SHARPEST WEAPON)  I thought that David Joseph, Terrell's [former] agent, played a critical role in keeping everything with him together. He took the bullets for Terrell. He did a thousand things apart from just being a sports agent. When Terrell got rid of him I thought, "Uh-oh, this may not be good.” Terrell needs somebody to be around him to give him good advice, to take care of him and to help him. He's a complicated character. He's a very emotional guy. I just felt worried…you just didn't want to see him do something self-destructive.

SHERIDAN [Those re-negotiations] happen. What doesn't happen, unless Owens is involved, is the carefully orchestrated attack on McNabb. Owens told [ESPN's] Len Pasquarelli, "I wasn't the guy who got tired in the Super Bowl.” There was, by the way, no rational reason for Owens to attack the QB this way. He just couldn't help himself. He has a rare cruel ability to take whatever's in the air about someone—Jeff Garcia's sexuality, for instance—and fashion it into a dart that he throws for a direct hit every time. [In a 2004 interview with Playboy, Owens was asked if he thought Garcia was gay. He responded, "If it looks like a rat, smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat.” Garcia, who in 2007 married 2004 Playboy Playmate of the Year Carmela DeCesare, called the comments, "ridiculous” and "untrue.”] When the season started, McNabb and Owens were fine on the field, but there was no relationship off the field. Owens agreed to do a TV interview with that college kid from ESPN and agreed that the Eagles would be undefeated if they had Brett Favre and some other sundry things that infuriated Reid all over again. Meanwhile, Owens and former Eagle Hugh Douglas had gotten into a fistfight in the locker room. That's when Reid basically fired him. Owens got paid for the rest of the year but was not permitted anywhere near the team.

On March 18, 2006—just four days after the Eagles officially released Owens—he signed a three-year $25 million contract with the Dallas Cowboys. During the tumultuous 2006 season, Owens reportedly clashed with head coach Bill Parcells, was scolded for nodding off during team meetings and accidentally overdosed on pain medication. Dallas was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

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