They say never meet your heroes because, at times, expectation doesn’t always live up to reality.
Well, whoever said that has clearly never met Terrell Owens.
I won’t lie. When my Zoom call connected with T.O., I nearly fainted. I was so nervous I even pronounced his name wrong. Rookie mistake. Even though we weren’t physically in the same room together, I could feel his presence. It’s like meeting your favourite fictional character in real life.
The prototype of perfection.
Which is fitting, since you can’t spell prototype without T.O.
It all began in Junior High when Owens laced up and joined the football team as a means of staying active.
“I didn’t really actually play. I was really skinny, scrawny, what have you,” Owens recalled. “So I didn’t really know much about football.”
He played both football and basketball but, when he realized he had an opportunity to potentially play in the NFL, teams began to work him out based on where Owens was on their draft board.
Growing up in Alabama, T.O. didn’t pay much attention to professional football. It was Alabama or Auburn. “The Roll Tide or War Eagle.” Outside of the two, young Owens wasn’t really familiar with all the NFL teams. However, one MNF, he caught a glimpse of the team who would eventually draft him.
“Walking into the dorm rooms, some guys are watching them play. I think it may have been the San Diego Chargers or somebody on Monday night. And so that's why I kind of got my first glimpse of Jerry Rice. And so obviously him being one of the superstars with the Niners, along with Steve Young and Joe Montana, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to go to the Niners and play.”
With the 89th pick, the San Francisco 49ers drafted Terrell Owens in 1996.
Just a kid out of UT-Chattanooga who fit the description of what the 49ers wanted in a receiver: big, tall, and long range. The scrawny frame from his past was nowhere to be found.
“I was pretty much considered a prototypical type of athlete that kind of fit the mould of what they were looking for,” Owens explained.
That mould was broken the moment T.O. scored his first touchdown against the Bengals on a pass from then quarterback, Steve Young. A 45-yarder that helped seal the 49ers 28-21 victory.
The following year, Owens replaced Rice after he suffered a torn ACL early in the season. He beat out first rounder J.J. Stokes, finishing the season with nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns, adding another TD in the playoffs against the Vikings.
And it was within those touchdowns where Owens added a new layer to the game: creativity. Nope. I’m not referring to some lame championship belt celly (sorry, Aaron Rodgers).
I’m talking about smuggling-a-sharpie-onto-the-field-in-socks-and-signing-a-football kind of celly. Renegade grade celebrations that are so badass, they have their own name. Like Sharpie-Gate, The Pom Poms, Get Your Popcorn Ready, and The Star (x2), just to name a few.
Owens broke records, but more importantly, he broke barriers.
He became the first NFL athlete to incorporate creativity into his celebrations, which essentially sparked a conversation between the masses. Folks who had never watched a football game in their lives knew the name Terrell Owens.
And they still do.
“Football is a form of entertainment. And that's how I looked at it,” said Owens. “Although we have a job to do, we're entertaining, you know, millions and millions and thousands of people there at the stadium that come to watch us play.”
His celebrations weren’t necessarily meaningful—they were just a way for T.O. to have fun with it.
“From high school to college, I really wasn’t an integral part of team’s success. So when I started to score, or if I made a big play, that was really an opportunity for my mom to see me play, to see me make a play. And again, to score touchdown and then celebrate afterwards…it was kind of like my reward.
“It was kind of like my dessert,” he grinned.
That tasty dessert tempts current players in the NFL, like Pittsburgh Steelers JuJu Smith-Schuster, who bee-lined towards the middle of the field to attempt an ode to Owens.
T.O. even gave his stamp of approval.
At the time of our interview, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had been taking a lot of heat for his inconsistencies. Owens spoke of his former quarterback Jeff Garcia in a similar light. How he sometimes didn’t completely mesh with his receivers. So I asked him to give some advice to the now injury-riddled Jimmy G and the team:
“Just put the ball in their hands. Being a quarterback, there’s a lot on their plate…but I think the most important thing for him is obviously protection,” he said. “That's what’s sometimes so misleading about a guy like Jimmy Garoppolo…a lot of it is predicated on how those guys up front protect them.
“That's why Tom Brady has six Super Bowl championships.”
T.O. said Garoppolo is very capable and once he can groom the receivers to be more of a core unit whom he can trust, then they’ll be able to put themselves into a position to make those crucial plays.
“It'll take a lot of pressure off the quarterback and then he'll have that confidence, no matter what, to throw the ball to whomever,” Owens advised. “That's what I ideally wanted to do and that's why I practised so hard when I was with the Niners. Because I saw how valuable plays were and players were to the quarterback.”
Looking around the league today, Owens admires players like Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf and even sees a bit of himself in Atlanta’s Julio Jones.
“I think it was Super Bowl three years ago when Julio Jones was going on a tear and obviously they lost the game to the Patriots, but you look at what he was doing in that game. He was unstoppable.”
Just like Jones, T.O. was unstoppable. Scratch that—he is unstoppable.
Every week, the former 49er hosts a podcast called Getcha Popcorn Ready with T.O. and Hatch, with cohost Matthew Hatchette. It’s probably the most real take on football and beyond. The two bring along a special guest each episode and have undeniable chemistry on the microphone.
Aside from the pod, T.O. has a new line of Athleisure wear—think Hugo Boss x Lululemon—dropping soon. The clothing brand is suitably named Prototype 81.
“Scouts looked at me as a ‘prototypical’ type of receiver based on some of my physical attributes,” Owens said about the concept behind the name. “So I took prototype out of prototypical and came up with my name, and then I came up a little bit more creative…with the word because you can't spell prototype without T.O.,” we both laughed.
“Based on how I got to the league, and I guess I can say I'm somewhat self made with a lot of help along the way with a lot of coaches. But when you think about desire, dedication, and discipline, that's how I got to the Hall of Fame when I reflected back on my career. And if you look up the word prototype, the definition is ‘the basis on which something is made or formed.’ And so I really feel that I kind of made myself into the receiver that I became; I was formed into the receiver that I became.”
The new line is expected to launch just in time for the Christmas holidays. And be sure to pair the new swag with 81 Vino, Owens’ very own selection of wines, hitting shelves in the next few months.
T.O. also plans to race against Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin in an event called “Erace Racism”—a play on the word erase, since they will be racing against each other. The whole experience will be live streamed and part of the proceeds will go to an organization to help combat racism.
Former NFL receiver Brandon Marshall will also race Owens on November 21st, 2020 (time and location TBA). The two will be competing for a whopping $100,000. Yup, that’s a lot of cheddar.
Even though the NFL has afforded T.O. the opportunity to explore these incredible endeavours, Owens’ says his biggest inspiration in life came in the form of his grandmother, Alice Black. She had grown up in the segregation era and despite racial inequality and injustice; she raised Owens to believe in himself, no matter what others may say about him.
“She was my motivation.”
Black passed away in 2012 after battling Alzheimer’s, a disease she had been diagnosed with in 1996—T.O.’s rookie season.
“Playing in San Francisco and living in the offseason in Atlanta, and obviously as her condition got worse, we had to put her into an assisted living home. So I got to see her maybe once or twice a year, if that. But I just made the moments count that I spent with her.”
When he wasn’t doing one of his epic touchdown celebrations, Owens’ educated himself on Alzheimer’s. And even though the disease took a toll on the entire family—including his mom and sister—T.O. leaned on his family through the ups and downs.
“I never thought I would play beyond the collegiate level. And so, obviously to have an opportunity to play, be drafted by the Niners in the third round 89th pick and, like I said nobody had ever done anything like that in my household. So for me to come out of Alexander City, Alabama and go to UT-Chattanooga, and for me to represent my hometown, represent Chattanooga…it was extra special.
“In my mind, I was representing a lot of people. But at the at the forefront, I was representing my family.”
He’s not your typical player.
Hell, he turned all the heads in every jersey he wore. But underneath those threads, there’s just a scrawny kid who wanted to stay active by playing football. With a lot of love from his grandmother and family, Terrell Owens grew into one of the most iconic NFL players to ever to play the game.
And while he may not be busting out a sharpie in the end zone anymore, Owens is celebrating more than just a touchdown these days.
He’s celebrating life, with an extra side of dessert.