CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – At 2:45 p.m. on Saturday, a man enters a makeshift green room inside McKenzie Arena. He’s both wearing a suit and carrying a garment bag.
The man’s name is Dave Brown. He happens to know two members of the 2018 class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One is Ray Lewis, the Ravens linebacker who attended the Friday night ceremony where the Hall’s newest members received their gold jackets in Canton, Ohio. Every member, that is, but one.
The absentee is Brown’s other friend, one Terrell Owens, the I-love-me-some-me wideout who played for five teams in his illustrious and controversial 15-year career. Owens asked Brown to pick his jacket up in Canton and bring it here, to his alma mater, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where for the first time ever a Hall of Famer elected to throw his own ceremony; where Owens, essentially, chose to induct himself.
Which is how Brown found himself at the airport in Canton on Saturday morning, desperately trying to get onto a flight to Atlanta, the garment bag tucked under his arm. He made it on as one of the last standby passengers, landed and was driven roughly 120 miles to what locals call the Scenic City. Then he found Owens inside the arena. “Is the jacket in there?” Owens asks.
Right about then, Brown realizes he’d never looked inside. He sure hopes so, as he unzips the bag. And there it is: gold jacket, perfect fit. “Saved the day,” Brown says.
The ceremony is scheduled to start in half an hour, and it’s the crescendo of 48 unprecedented hours, in which Owens made multiple trips to Waffle House, played pick-up basketball, was toasted by his closest friends with T.O. shots (an abominable mixture of Crown Royal whiskey and Red Bull) and delivered an impassioned speech in which a fan cried out, “I love you, T.O.!” and Owens responded, “I love you, too,” before pausing, then adding, “But I love me more.”
As the crowd filters in, with fans clad in Owens jerseys from the 49ers, Cowboys and Eagles, the receiver’s friends and family wait in the green room, drinking sweet tea, snacking on apples and potato chips. Many know Owens from his UTC days, before he became a star, when from 1992 to ’95 he played football and basketball for the Mocs and ran track.
Others, like his mother, Marilyn Heard, hail from Alexander City, Ala., a three-hour drive away. Her son’s antics stopped surprising Heard a long time ago. “He’s an emotional person anyway,” she says. “We all are. That’s just a family trait.”
Then there are his teammates. Dozens made their way here, men like Derrick Deese, an offensive tackle who played with Owens in San Francisco. Over the years, Deese watched as public perception turned against his friend. He read stories that detailed how Owens was selfish, that he complained at halftime of games, and that didn’t square with the speeches he had heard himself—speeches that sounded exactly like those given by the great Jerry Rice. Deese read how Owens had divided the Eagles locker room, and then he went to Owens’s birthday party one year in Philadelphia—and something like 40 of his teammates showed up.
He knew why Owens was here, knew that Owens was fiercely loyal until he felt betrayed, and then he tended to lash out. He knew it bothered Owens that Marvin Harrison went into the Hall before him (in 2016) and that Randy Moss had joined him in the ’18 class, in on his first ballot, where Owens needed three rounds of voting to tug that gold jacket on.
“Once people hear him today and what he has to say, they’ll shut up,” Deese says.
Friday morning, 10:20 a.m.
The festivities kick off the day before, as Owens enters the Dick’s Sporting Goods on Gunbarrel Road through the back door. He’s decked out in Nike, donning white Jordans and wearing sunglasses indoors.
Thirty-five children from the Independent Youth Services Foundation wait for him inside. Many live in poverty or come from single-parent homes. All attend the mentoring and ministry program that Book McCray started in 1993, and today, they will receive $120 gift cards to spend on anything in the store, except guns.
The kids linger in, of all places, the exercise equipment area, for the receiver who once famously conducted an interview while doing sit-ups in his driveway. Owens tells them his career started right here, in Chattanooga, his second home. He points to Don Jenkins, a foundation employee and his former UTC basketball teammate. Jenkins remembers the time Owens nearly broke a backboard in practice with a dunk. “Some of our kids are so far from that level, that life,” Jenkins says. “They don’t really understand the magnitude of what this man did. This is the Hall of Fame.”
This is the T.O. his team wants to present to the world, as dozens of humans follow him around the store. There’s his publicist, Cathy Cardenas, who’s phone is on the fritz from so many phone calls related to the weekend; his manager, Heather Mesalam; her team; store managers from Tennessee and several neighboring states; his friends; their friends; television crews; writers; autograph seekers and the kids themselves plus their chaperones.
Owens actually seems more comfortable around the children than the adults. He eases into the role of personal shopper, helping one kid select swim trunks and another find football cleats. When a high school player tells him his coach says he talks too much, Owens says “you’ve gotta use that talking to your advantage.”
He tells another child he should select a certain kind of socks, the ones that tuck into shoes, so they’re not visible.
“No show socks,” he calls them.
Friday, 12:30 p.m.
Owens enters the UTC basketball practice facility wearing Vans personalized for the weekend. The front features the Hall of Fame logo, along with his catchphrase—Getcha Popcorn Ready—and “2018” is stitched across the heel.
“This just feels right,” he says.
What did not feel right: Canton, not after Owens fell short of the necessary votes in both of the last two years, despite ranking second all-time with 15,934 receiving yards and third all-time with 153 receiving touchdowns. He blames the voters for his prolonged wait and challenges the widespread notion that for all his greatness, for the five All-Pro seasons and the prolific playoff performances, he didn’t deserve immediate inclusion because he was a divisive presence in various locker rooms. “They hate me,” he says, meaning writers, not his teammates.
The game starts and Owens reminds those present why he’s one of the greatest athletes to ever play pro football, a guy who at age 44 recently ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.45 seconds—twice—then posted video of his runs on Instagram.
“Your screens, man,” one of his opponents says. “Those things hurt.”
“I’ve got a year of eligibility left,” Owens says, smiling.
He wills his team to victory in the third and final game, calling for the ball near the end, scooping in a reverse lay-up for the game-winner. Then he reclines on a folding chair with Doug Sanders, his friend and brand manager. What people don’t realize, they say, is that Owens did go to Canton. He went in March, for an orientation. He and Sanders toured the grounds, seeing his jersey from a 2000 contest against Chicago, when he set the single-game league record with 20 receptions. They soaked in the history, as their guide listed the Hall’s five values: commitment, integrity, courage, respect and excellence. Owens turned to Sanders. “That’s interesting because those don’t align with what happened to me at all,” he said.
After returning to Los Angeles, Owens asked Sanders to come over to his house, and when they sat down at the kitchen table, he told Sanders that Canton didn’t feel right and he had an alternate idea. He would have gone in 2016, or even ’17, he said. But not now. “I didn’t feel like that was the place I want to spend the best weekend of my life,” he said.
“I was dumbfounded,” Sanders says, and he tried to talk Owens out of the plan and failed. Owens called David Baker, the Hall’s president, the day before he announced his plan. He told Baker his decision wasn’t personal, that it wasn’t because of the Hall or his classmates.
When Sanders arrived here late Tuesday, he found Owens in his hotel suite at the Doubletree, watching the Hall of Fame preseason game between the Ravens and Bears. He turned the volume up when the announcers started to talking about him, but didn’t react to anything they said. Then they went to Waffle House, where Owens ordered his usual: 10 eggs whites, 10 tomato slices and, on this night, a waffle thrown in for celebration.
Friday, 2 p.m.
The planning of an event that had never taken place before fell to Mesalam, Owens’s manager, who visited Chattanooga in late June to scout locations. She spent half the weekend on FaceTime with Owens, who was at Reggie Bush’s charity golf weekend in San Diego. What he wanted most was to retain control, to be around his people, do the weekend his way. But control is relative in Owen’s orbit, and the guest list started to balloon, reaching 160 people. Mesalam had to account for a Big Unc who wasn’t actually anyone’s uncle, a J-PZY and a Stew Dog.
Mesalam figured Saturday would be the most emotional day in Owens’s life since his grandmother’s funeral in 2012. She also remembered his speech upon induction into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame this year, when he could hardly get through the speech. But as their rental SUV drove from the practice facility to the arena, with Owens pointing out his old dorm and the new library that covers what was once the football field, he makes sure to say, “I’ve been on point all day.”
“I’m proud of you,” she says.
Owens first returned to campus three years ago for homecoming and told friends he “felt love like he never felt before.” He’s come back every year since. It was at the Alabama Hall of Fame that he first broached his idea with UTC’s athletic director, Mark Wharton.
He greets Wharton and other familiar faces when he enters the arena for a run through of the ceremony. The stage is all set up. A huge banner hangs behind it, featuring Owens in various NFL uniforms; in the center, he’s clad in Cowboys gear, throwing a full tub of popcorn into his helmet.
When the meeting finishes, Owens climbs the steps onto the stage with his speechwriter, Knyja Gadson. He tests out the lectern, fiddling with different places to put his hands, then leans into the microphone, seeking the right sound. It’s clear how much the ceremony means to him.
Gadson says the two spoke on the phone almost every day for the past month, working on the speech. It’s supposed to run about 17 minutes and she predicts many will find it “mild” compared to his reputation.
On the first call they had, she asked him what tone he wanted.
“Respectful,” Owens said.
Friday, 7:30 p.m.
After another trip to Waffle House, while his fellow nominees receive their jackets in Ohio, Owens and company head to The Walden Club for dinner. It’s held inside a ballroom with ornate chandeliers and an open bar. Owens wears a blue patterned blazer, a large silver chain and white sneakers as he works the room, catching up with family, old coaches, former teammates and university officials.
There’s more family there than anyone expected, because Owens chose to invite his relatives on his father’s side of the family. He didn’t find out that L.C. Russell was his dad until age 11, but Russell is here, and Owens thanks him when he speaks to the crowd before the buffet opens. “I love you guys,” he says.
Plates fill with salmon, fried chicken, white fish and the best sweet potatoes anyone has ever eaten. And when those plates are cleared and the wine bottles are emptied, Owens grabs the microphone again. “Now you understand why I’m doing this,” he says. “You guys are the reason.”
Anyone who expected Owens to show up in Tennessee with a verbal blowtorch and rail against the injustice of it all would be disappointed in the day. He says that Moss called him to fill him in on the happenings in Ohio, but otherwise the other ceremony hardly comes up. This is Owens as his friends know him, Terrell more so than the character T.O.
As the dinner winds down, Owens turns to David Walker, his bodyguard for the weekend. “As long as you’re in a room with everybody you love that’s all that matters,” Walker says.
“I’ve had no second thoughts,” Owens says. “No regrets.”
Saturday, 12:05 a.m.
Owens orders a mojito at the hotel bar. He doesn’t drink much, but on this night, he downs two of them. SportsCenter is showing clips of Johnny Manziel’s four-interception CFL debut, while the celebration kicks into a Hall of Fame gear. Tequila shots are ordered, then T.O. shots, then more T.O. shots, then Domino’s pizza and not once but twice. Arguments break out but none center on the Hall or its voting process. “You can’t get this in Canton,” Sanders says. “The more I see this, what he did here, the more it made sense to me. He made the right decision.”
Mesalam closes her laptop at 12:45 a.m. and joins the fray.
“To 15,934 yards!” she says, holding a shot aloft.
“To 1,078 receptions!” she says.
“To the first person to score against all 32 teams!”
“Hell yeah!” someone shouts.
To my best friend!” she says.
Owens smiles. “You didn’t get my touchdowns,” he says.
Saturday, 3:17 p.m.
Owens walks down a corridor toward the stage, wearing an audacious dark suite stamped with dozens of Hall of Fame logos, along with his favorite accessory, sunglasses worn indoors. A tribute plays on the video boards high above the stands, before Owens climbs the stage and fist bumps a series of former coaches who are there to introduce him. Chants of “T-O, T-O!” grow louder with each step.
The MC, broadcaster Jim Reynolds, makes light of using the words “humble” and “Terrell Owens” in the same sentence. Owens’s college receivers coach, Frankie DeBusk, tells a story about the time he made Owens run laps around this very concourse, and how afterward, Owens told him, “Coach, let’s meet here again tomorrow. I need this. You won’t break me.” His basketball coach, Mack McCarthy, jokes that if Owens had listened to him and chosen basketball over football, “we wouldn’t be here today.”
All the coaches make some variation of the same argument. That, sure, Owens hid a Sharpie in his sock and signed a football after scoring. And, yes, he celebrated on The Star and did sit-ups in his driveway. But, as one his NFL coaches, Ray Sherman says onstage, “People often confuse anger with passion.”
“I never knew an angry T.O.,” Sherman says. “He was never defiant or disrespectful. He was honest.”
Owens’s speech is last. His mother slips the gold jacket his friend fetched the day before in Canton over his broad shoulders, and he stops at the lectern, pausing twice to collect himself, wiping sweat from his brow. “I’m here to speak truth to power,” he says. “And power to truth.”
He thanks God and his mom and his grandmother and the rest of his family and his various managers and brand experts, his coaches and his teammates. He thanks Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Jerry Rice. He thanks his strength coach for “creating a monster.” He thanks his five children. He thanks the doctor with the Eagles who helped him play in Super Bowl XXXIX on a broken leg.
Then, to the surprise of no one, he says he’s going to do something unconventional. He tells anyone who ever felt like an outcast to stand up. Tells anyone who felt isolated to stand up. Anyone who felt misunderstood. Who had “been lied on, mischaracterized.” Soon enough, everyone inside the arena is standing.
“The entire speech you thought was about me—this was for you,” he says, as the crowd gives him a standing ovation.
Saturday, 4:55 p.m.
Owens decamps to the men’s locker room in the arena, with only his closest family and friends. Someone carries the green street sign—Terrell Owens Way—that university officials presented to him onstage. He grabs a blue bucket of popcorn and starts carrying it everywhere, eating handfuls and taking pictures.
“So perfect,” Mesalam says. “You didn’t even cry.”
Owens lifts one of his daughters in the air. “What’s up, princess?” he says. He hugs his mom. He eats a glazed donut. “He ain’t going to realize it until later, but this is really something special,” someone shouts from the back. “This is the first time!”
He carries the tub of popcorn out of the locker room, down the corridor, out of the arena and into his press conference. There, he calls for change in the Hall of Fame voting process and answers questions from a reporter holding a gold microphone and says, “You have to love yourself first and nobody loved me … more than me.”
Saturday, 11 p.m.
Owens arrives fashionably late to his after party at Southside Social and climbs onstage with D.J. Irie, who was flown in for the occasion. Pins crack on the bowling lanes in the back, while the music booms at a level only suitable for anyone under the age of 35. One partier wears a hat that says, “Sorry I’m so fresh”—T.O.’s kind of people.
Because this is Terrell Owens, and because this is his Hall of Fame party, he enters to “My Prerogative,” from Bobby Brown. Of course he does. It’s like the lyrics were written just for him.
They say I’m crazy/I really don’t care
That’s my prerogative
They say I’m nasty/but I don’t give a damn
That’s my prerogative
It’s not a party, Irie shouts into the microphone. It’s a celebration of greatness. And that’s true, just not in the way that seems most obvious. Owens is dressed in all black and again wearing sunglasses indoors. He does spend a few minutes onstage, dancing, filming the crowd, soaking in the adulation, and then he heads upstairs, where there are two Ping Pong tables.
Owens grabs a paddle and, for hours, takes on all comers. The crowd thickens. It’s women in tight dresses hoping for a photo and former teammates looking for a game and random Chattanoogans looking at the spectacle. Owens briefly returns downstairs for a champagne toast but doesn’t drink any, then heads back upstairs in search of another game.
For a less-disdained athlete, this might be described as the ultimate show of competitive nature. After all the angst, the salvos he aimed at writers, the unprecedented ceremony, when Owens finally got exactly what he wanted, all he wanted to do then was compete. Well, win. And not just win, but perform the way he once did on a football field, talking trash and yelling “Who’s your daddy!” and pointing his opponents and calling them punks and waving goodbye at them after each win. “That’s how he got in the Hall of Fame,” one onlooker says. “He f------ wants to win at table tennis.”
By 12:20 a.m. on Sunday, something like 30 people are crammed upstairs, watching Owens in his element, with his people, on his weekend. “Isn’t this the craziest thing ever?” someone says.
The answer to that: not really. The crazy thing would have been if Owens showed up in Canton and said all the right things and tried to bury any lingering beef. This? This was vintage Owens, love him or hate him, competition as celebration until the sun came up, without regard for convention or perception.
Then he probably went to Waffle House.