The first team meeting at the Pro Bowl is a time for renewing acquaintances, signing footballs for charity and picking up itineraries for the week's activities in Honolulu. Last February, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens treated it as an opportunity for payback.
Slouched in a metal chair, he spied Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter strolling through the conference room at the Halekulani Hotel. When Carter approached and extended his right hand to congratulate him on his first Pro Bowl appearance, Owens responded with a smirk, then lowered his eyes and kept his hands in his lap. A puzzled Carter walked away without uttering a word, but news of the snub spread so fast that when Owens appeared at the hotel bar that evening, a knot of players grilled him for details.
"I told them that after we beat the Vikings in the playoffs in 1998, Carter had said to a reporter that their defensive backs made a couple of mediocre receivers [Owens and J.J. Stokes] look like Pro Bowlers," Owens says. "I took that personally. He's not the greatest receiver in the league, so who's he to say I'm mediocre?"
Carter had no regrets about the slight ("Trust me, he wasn't any good back then," he says), and like most of the NFC's players, he approached the pregame workouts in Hawaii as the relaxed sessions they were supposed to be. Owens, on the other hand, took as many practice reps as possible and chatted up teammates for tips. That he's on the verge of becoming a fixture at the Pro Bowl is due largely to Owens's willingness to outwork everybody--and to a chip on his shoulder that can be seen from the Goodyear blimp. He makes a mental note of anyone who has ripped him, despite having far better things to dwell on. He's the unquestioned catalyst of a team that's 7-2 after a 25-22 overtime victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, and he ranks fifth in the NFL in catches (63), third in receiving yards (867) and first in touchdowns (11). Yet he believes he's perceived as a pariah instead of as an A-list performer. "Even though I'm playing well, I know most of the handshakes and smiles I get aren't real," Owens says. "I realize a lot of people don't like me."
November 26, 2001
There actually is much to like about Owens. Only two receivers in the 1996 draft--Keyshawn Johnson and Marvin Harrison--have had more than his 384 receptions and 5,625 yards, and only Harrison's touchdown total of 57 exceeds Owens's 55. When it comes to relentlessness on the field, however, the 27-year-old Owens stands alone. He blocks with the zeal of a pulling guard, lugs would-be tacklers for extra yards and is so devoted to chiseling his sculpted 6'3", 226-pound frame that while playing pool at his home in Fremont, Calif., he does push-ups and biceps curls between shots. "He's big, he can run, and if you play him one-on-one, he can outjump a defensive back," says St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. "He's the complete package."
The only time Owens is predictable is when he lines up across from a defensive back. Then you can expect explosiveness, attitude and a reception that will move the chains. In front of reporters you often get the same things--minus the first down. Owens's latest case of bravado came after he mishandled a pass that Chicago Bears free safety Mike Brown intercepted and returned for the game-winning touchdown in San Francisco's 37-31 overtime loss on Oct. 28. Three days later Owens accused Niners coach Steve Mariucci of allowing the team to blow a 19-point lead because Mariucci didn't want to embarrass his good friend Dick Jauron, the Bears' coach. A livid Mariucci called the comments "completely void of any deep thought," and the public exchange heightened the tension in a relationship that has been deteriorating since Owens celebrated two touchdown catches in a 41-24 rout of the Cowboys last season by sprinting to midfield, raising his arms and gazing up like a man experiencing a religious awakening. Mariucci responded by suspending Owens for a week without pay.
When Mariucci attempted to start a conversation with Owens recently at the 49ers' practice facility in Santa Clara, he was rebuffed. Mariucci had better luck calling Owens's cell phone early last week, but that conversation went nowhere. "If I get rubbed the wrong way by someone, I don't want to be bothered with that person," Owens says. "I won't go out of my way to speak to [Mariucci], and I don't think he should try to speak to me."
Though Mariucci would like his standoff with Owens to end, it hasn't ruptured his team. San Francisco has won three straight games, in which Owens has made 24 catches for 324 yards and five touchdowns. After dropping two passes and catching only one in the first half against the Panthers, he finished with seven receptions for 99 yards, including a seven-yard TD catch that cut Carolina's lead to 22-20 with one second left in regulation. "This issue would matter if it affected the team's morale--but it hasn't," says Mariucci. "He's playing his butt off, and I'm coaching my butt off."
Owens can't understand why his behavior should taint his positive qualities as a polished receiver and a sensitive soul. Few people know the isolation Owens endured during his childhood in Alexander City, Ala. Other kids teased him mercilessly for the darkness of his skin and his beanpole physique. His main source of comfort was his grandmother, Alice Black, who now has Alzheimer's at age 67. Owens has been eager to prove his worth since entering the league as a third-round draft choice out of Tennessee-Chattanooga. Back then he was shy and humble, responding to questions with yessirs and thrilled to have a locker next to that of Jerry Rice, his longtime idol.
When the spotlight on Owens intensified last season, he didn't shrink. He established career highs in receptions (97) and yards (1,451) and set an NFL record with 20 catches in a 17-0 win over the Bears. That was Rice's last home game with the Niners, and while it was portrayed as a passing of the torch, others suggested the torch should have been passed three years earlier. Says Chicago cornerback R.W. McQuarters, who played for the 49ers in 1998 and '99, "They were still trying to get Jerry the ball even on his way out, but they knew that TO was pretty much their go-to guy."
As much as Owens achieved, his sharp tongue and inability to channel his emotions made him a divisive force. The low point came in that win over Dallas last year. During a walk-through the day before the game, Owens talked about running to the Texas Stadium star, and he did it twice after scoring. Older teammates deplored the act, but the younger ones found it inspirational. Owens still feels betrayed by the punishment. "The guys who didn't support me drew their conclusions from the media," says Owens, who after his suspension filed a grievance with the NFL Players Association and settled when the 49ers agreed to pay him $8,000, or nearly one third of his week's pay. "I know what I did wasn't wrong. If that incident is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I'll be fine."
After that victory Owens stared down 49ers director and owner's representative John York in the locker room. Four weeks later he accused the team of quitting in a loss to the Panthers. He became so unpopular among his teammates last season that he found his retainer smashed to bits in the locker room, where he'd left it during a position meeting.
Although Owens needed an image overhaul, he spent his off-season pondering life as San Francisco's featured receiver after Rice signed as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders. He frequently thought of Rice, who used to talk to him about learning from mistakes, keeping cool when the ball wasn't coming his way and not permitting double teams to frustrate him. "I knew I had to learn to stay more positive," Owens says.
Before the overtime loss at Chicago, he had been succeeding. He appreciates the younger 49ers who dominate the locker room because they create a looser atmosphere than the corporate environment veterans fostered in his earlier years. He has helped younger receivers learn route-running by showing tape of how raw he was as a rookie and has developed a strong bond with Jimmy Farris, a first-year wideout on the practice squad who is Owens's first close friend on the team in six seasons.
When center Jeremy Newberry sprained an ankle and was getting treatment on the field during the 49ers' 19-17 win over the New York Jets on Oct. 1, Owens left the huddle, trotted to the sideline and offered encouragement to reserve center Ben Lynch, who was practicing snaps. "Two years ago Terrell wouldn't have done that," says receivers coach George Stewart. "I think he's starting to knock down the walls around him."
Still, few athletes are as motivated by anger as Owens. He was so incensed after dropping four passes in a 30-26 loss to St. Louis on Sept. 23 that he scored six times over the next three games. He had 20 receptions and four touchdowns in the two weeks following his return from last season's suspension. The 49ers appear willing to tolerate the controversies (general manager Terry Donahue expects to see Owens on the roster next season) if they're accompanied by high production.
"Terrell wants to be a great player, but he also wants to be a personality," says San Francisco guard Ray Brown. "I don't write off everything he does to stupidity. He's a smart guy. He may come off twisted, but as long as he keeps playing like this, I'll take it."
So will the Niners, though they have abandoned the notion that Owens will become a leader. He's sincere, honest and loyal to those who back him. He's also a distrustful loner who doubts that a leadership role would fit him easily. As Rice says, "Terrell is one of those guys who's not going to loosen up. You want to play football with him, but after that he's off to himself." After running into Owens at the 49ers' facility one night in June, Rice gave him the game ball from the win over the Bears last year. It sits on Owens's nightstand, a reminder of all the lessons Owens learned from Rice, with one notable exception.
"Jerry always told me that when you're in the spotlight, you have to be a politician," Owens says. "That's one thing that I never agreed with. I know I can't change the way people feel about me, but that's fine. Because they will never change the way I play."