Big, Bad & Mad Whether he's screaming or scoring, there's no stopping fiery 49ers receiver Terrell Owens

November 26, 2001

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."

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."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BURGESS [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BURGESS Rip-roaring Owens's willingness to court controversy has led to a deep rift with Mariucci. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Count on him After a rough first half in Carolina, Owens hauled in the last-second touchdown catch against Rashard Anderson. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Get a TO, baby! Stoked by anger over past slights and dropped passes, the 6'3", 226-pound Owens is a handful in the open field.

The Niners have abandoned the notion that Owens will become a
leader.

"Terrell is one of those guys," says Rice, "who is not going to
loosen up."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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