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Hey, T.O. Are You Ready for Some Football?

July 24, 2006
July 24, 2006

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July 24, 2006

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Hey, T.O. Are You Ready for Some Football?

Terrell Owens is back--contrite (well, a little), happy and hungry to win a ring with the Cowboys. Believe him at your peril, hate him if you must, but don't ever question his desire

Terrell Owenswhispers the numbers to himself. Ten. Eight. Ten. Eight. Ten decline obliquecrunches. Then eight. Ten incline dumbbell presses. Then eight. Ten. Eight....As he pushes himself through another of his grueling weight roomsessions--decline sit-ups, hanging leg raises, hammer-strength lat pull-downs,dumbbell throws, hammer curls and a host of other lifts, curls, pulls andtwists that have made Owens, in his trainer James (Buddy) Primm's words,"the world's largest ectomorph," he keeps working in sets of 10 andeight. "October 8--10/8. That's when we play Philadelphia," Owensexplains between sets at the Ranch, a health club next to the Dallas Cowboys'training complex in Irving, Texas. "I'm not even gonna say that b.s. clichéthat it's just another game. It's already exciting, and we ain't even played adown yet." Owens smiles, and you expect a mischievous upturn of the lips,but instead he flashes a broad grin full of bright white teeth anduncomplicated joy. You anticipate villainy--years of bad press have had theireffect--but what Owens shows right now is only satisfaction at joining theCowboys and giddiness at the prospect of imminent revenge.

This is an article from the July 24, 2006 issue Original Layout

Terrell Owensmight be the most universally reviled supremely talented athlete of his era (atleast Barry Bonds is beloved in San Francisco), having assumed that mantle atsome point during his four-month broken-field run through the sports news cyclelast summer and fall. The controversial touchdown celebrations for which hebecame famous now seem quaint after his immolation of the Philadelphia Eagles'2005 season. There were days last year when ESPN seemed to be TOPN, constantlyairing interviews with Owens and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, following hiscomings and goings from training camp and his meetings with coaches and teamexecutives, Sal Paolantonio doing stand-ups in front of the Eagles' NovaCareComplex, looking as stern and concerned as if he were covering an unfoldinghostage situation.

In a sense, that'sprecisely what it was: a star player holding a team hostage. Owens andRosenhaus, of course, will lecture you on the unfairness of NFL contracts,asserting that the Eagles (who had signed Owens in March 2004 to a seven-year,$49 million contract, only $2.3 million of which was guaranteed) had nointention of paying Owens's $7 million roster bonus for 2006, and that T.O.'scause--to ensure that he was one of the best-paid receivers in the league--wasjust. (Entering the 2005 season he wasn't even in the top 10 if signing bonusesare included.) But even if you take the position that in America a man has aright to demand as much cheddar as he wants, you have to wonder at the methodsOwens used to make his case: being sent home for a week after feuding with hiscoach and offensive coordinator at training camp, then performing crunches infront of his New Jersey house on national television, was perhaps not the mostpersuasive negotiating strategy. And dissing his quarterback in an interviewthat ended up splashed all over ESPN was the surest way to lose those fewremaining fans still in his camp.

It was almostenough to make you forget what Owens had accomplished on the field. Actually,it probably was enough to make you forget, so let's review: If T.O. had leftthe NovaCare Complex after his suspension by the Eagles in early November andnever played again, you could easily make the case that he still belonged inthe Hall of Fame: In 10 seasons he had 716 catches, more than 10,000 yardsreceiving and 101 touchdowns, fourth most in NFL history. Owens holds thesingle-game reception record (20, San Francisco versus Chicago, Dec. 17, 2000),was named to five straight Pro Bowls from 2000 to '04, turned in five straight1,000-yard seasons and delivered riveting moments in big games: splitting twoPackers for a game-winning touchdown catch in a January 1999 playoff game;coming back from a broken leg and sprained ankle to turn in an MVP-worthyperformance in the 2004 Super Bowl. (And as any aficionado of Madden NFL willtell you, there has never been a better third-and-seven receiver in the historyof computer games.)

Now he's a Cowboy.His off-season move from Philadelphia, which released him on March 14, toDallas, with whom he signed a three-year, $25 million contract later thatmonth, has made the Cowboys a fashionable preseason Super Bowl pick and DrewBledsoe the happiest quarterback in Texas. Bledsoe believes that Owens'sability to draw double teams far outweighs his baggage. "What's past ispast," says Bledsoe. "He's an explosive, powerful receiver who runsgood routes and catches the ball well.... His impact is going to be felt notonly in his production but also in the production of the other people on thefield."

That sentiment wasexpressed more directly in the text message Bledsoe sent to Owens after theirminicamp in May: "This year is gonna be sick."

Owens pulls up ona muggy Dallas afternoon in his gold Cadillac Escalade, wearing Croc sandals,black Jordan shorts, a black T-shirt and wire-frame shades, and walks in hissurprisingly short, slightly pigeon-toed stride across the pavement to thefront door of the Ranch, flipping open his Nokia phone and reading textmessages as he goes. He is tight-end big--6'3", 226--but surprisinglycompact, as if extra helpings of muscle, bone and sinew have been coiled into atoo tightly wrapped package. The effect of this intricate overlaying of tendonand flesh is a kind of tension, like guitar strings strung too tight. Until hespeaks, you're afraid to utter a word, for fear of rubbing those strings thewrong way.

He nods hello.

Later, Owens willexplain that he has learned not to start conversations, because when he does,he's "misconstrued, misunderstood. People always making too much out ofwhat I say, what I mean. You have to look at all of what I say." In his newbook, T.O., he makes this point repeatedly, that in every interview--aboutPhilly quarterback Donovan McNabb, coach Andy Reid and his situation with theEagles--his comments were taken out of context. He insists that he would say 10positive things about McNabb and the media would only print or air the onenegative. And he says he has realized that once he starts talking, he hastrouble stopping. "I tell the truth, I'm honest about how I feel," hesays. His remedy? "Shut it down. Stop talking."

As he changes intohis workout gear, he remains taciturn before explaining that he has found abetter way to work through his feelings than venting into a reporter'smicrophone. He keeps a journal. Owens will grab whatever paper is handy--atakeout menu, a scrap of notebook paper, the back of an off-season conditioningguide--and begin scribbling. "Sometimes I'm asked questions," he says."I won't answer them, but it later gets me thinking. I decided I had tomake mental notes, and I started writing them down. Now more than ever, ithelps me get my thoughts together, especially after this situation with theEagles."

Owens takes a seatin a hallway next to the weight room, where a barber trims his hair for a photoshoot ("Knock it down a little," Owens instructs the barber), andreturns to the value of his journal. Some of it, he explains, went into thewriting of T.O. this off-season. And the rest of it? "I don't really keepit. Sometimes I'll misplace these notes and find them later and be surprised byhow I was feeling, or amazed at how something seemed so big and justwasn't."

Since arriving inDallas, he has discovered through his journals that he is feeling a littleanxious about being the new guy, "about being in a different environment. Ifeel like a rookie all over again. Even if I've done this before, it stillfeels strange.... It makes me sit back and go, Man, how can I be this good anathlete and still have to go team-hopping?"

How indeed?"Dude," Owens says, shaking his head. He uses this word all the time,"dude" this and "dude" that, a speck of Southern Californianvocabulary that's entered his native Alabamian lexicon. "Dude, I have toadmit there's something to that [question]."

In his book, whichreads like a mea non culpa, Owens usually lays the blame everywhere but onhimself. He describes in painstaking detail how he was misunderstood, takenadvantage of by reporters and finally, during an arbitration hearing lastNovember that upheld the Eagles' right to keep him out for the remainder of theseason after suspending him for four games, unfairly condemned by a footballestablishment that wanted to teach a recalcitrant player a lesson in gridironpolitik. Yet since writing the book, he has become more willing to acknowledgehis part in the troubles that have enmeshed him over the past two seasons. Hepoints to a team meeting after a practice at Dallas's May minicamp as acatalyst for his emerging self-awareness. Coach Bill Parcells had called theoffense together and told them to take a knee before laying into one of Owens'snew teammates for making excuses. There had been a few botched plays, andParcells wanted the Cowboy in question to acknowledge his role in the mishaps."It's funny," Parcells said. "Every time something happens, youalways have an excuse. And they're good excuses. But when you look at it,you're always involved. So at some point you have to look at the situation andask, Well, this isn't by chance. Why am I always involved?" Parcells thensaid that as a troublemaking kid, he offered similar excuses to his father, whoresponded with a simple question: "Then why are you always around thetrouble?'"

The team broke uplaughing, but Owens found himself nodding in agreement. "It hit home,"Owens says. "I had to ask myself the same question. I have to be truthfuland say some of [the Eagles situation] was my fault. I can't say everything,but some of it. It takes two to have that trouble. I know that now. A lot offans are really unclear as to what happened. I think I owe them an apology....I have to be accountable. I've learned."

Parcells hasdeclined to comment on Owens for this story, but in a press conference at thestart of minicamp he said, "I'm not approaching this with the idea thatit's going to be adversarial or that I'm going to be mandating every littlething that this player does. I don't do that with any player. I tell him, 'Beon time, pay attention, be in condition and play hard in the games.... And stayout of trouble in terms of issues that are in the community or with women orstrip clubs.'"

Owens immediatelyliked Parcells. "I have a coach who is actually similar in personality tome," he says. "People think he's one way, but really he's not. I'm avictim of that too. Dude, he's an enthusiastic, jovial guy. He likes to havefun. It's like being around family. He wants to win a Super Bowl; he knows hecan't coach forever. And I know I can't play forever. He has a problem when hisexpectations are higher than his players'. When you're not pushing yourself tomax out your potential, that's when he has a problem. When you're not takingyour job seriously, constantly making mistake after mistake, that's when youhave a problem [with Parcells]. And those aren't problems I have."

If anyone canhandle Owens, Parcells seems a likely candidate, having successfully dealt withsuch problem players as Lawrence Taylor and Bryan Cox. But not every Cowboy issold on the idea that this will be a team voyage through the season oftranquillity. "This is going to be fun," says fifth-year safety RoyWilliams. "Something is going to happen. Somebody is going to buttheads."

No one has everquestioned Owens's work ethic, his drive, his will--those psychologicalcomponents lumped together under the cardiological misnomer heart. With mostsuperstars who are labeled as malcontents, there's a whiff ofdon't-give-a-damn. But with Owens--throughout every contract dispute, everyfeud with a coach or a quarterback, every dalliance with a Desperate Housewifeon national television--no one could ever say he showed up out of shape ordogged it on the field. Spend a day with him in the gym and you realize thatthe Cowboys may have done more than pay a superstar receiver superstar money($10 million guaranteed for this season, plus a salary totaling $15 millionover the following two). They've also brought aboard the one player who couldsway the balance of power in the NFC East, a player so focused on making hiscase on the field (especially on 10/8) that he puts in hellacious hours offit.

During theoff-season Owens does four hard workouts a week and plays several hours ofbasketball every day, often at a high school gym in Miami, where the localpickup crew includes active and retired NBA players like Glen Rice, OldenPolynice and Damon Jones. He is also a compulsive weight trainer, spending freetime in the gym ever since he was at Benjamin Russell High in Alexander City,Ala., skipping recess and lunch breaks to head for the weight pile. Thatcompulsion only got stronger at Tennessee-Chattanooga after he arrived oncampus at 6 feet and just 175 pounds. "He was a late bloomer," saysBuddy Nix, his first coach at UTC. "He was kind of a lean cut guy--long,lean muscles. Just very explosive. You could see it."

Owens, athird-round draft pick of the 49ers in 1996, began training with Primm in '99,seeking to continue his transformation into a more muscular player withoutsacrificing speed or quickness. For the last two years Primm has had Owensfocusing on the transverse abdominal muscles, part of what players around theleague call "the core," the cluster of muscles in the pelvic regionthat determine direction and movement and, most important for wide receivers,the quickness and power of the first step. "This muscle group moves first,then the legs, arms, shoulders and head follow," says Primm. "This workallows Terrell to go better to the right or left, or straight up or down. Itcuts down the reaction time between thinking about a move and the moveitself.

"Most guysdon't want to do this work," Primm says. "What Terrell does ispainful." He points out the thick black bands that link Owens's ankles,hips and arms, providing maximum resistance as he performs a circuit ofexercises intended to show him how to keep his weight centered. "He's sofar ahead of other guys in terms of what he's doing and how hard he works,"says Primm. "This is stuff that other guys are just discovering. But I'mtelling you, most guys aren't gonna do it."

Primm recalls acatch-and-run Owens made against the Denver Broncos last year. On asecond-and-12 from the nine-yard line McNabb hit Owens in the right flat. T.O.made a jab step to his right, almost imperceptible to the naked eye, then blewby cornerback Champ Bailey for a 91-yard touchdown. "As soon as T.O. facesup on a guy, he's beat him," says Primm. "It's all about what the braindoes in that moment and how fast the muscles down there, where you turn,respond. What we're doing is training the brain as much as the body. When hedoes this work, he's balanced. Nobody can get him."

Ten. Eight. Ten.Eight.... As Owens takes a seat on stationary bike to warm up his legs, hetalks about being ready, about always being ready. "It is a state of mind,dude," he says, shaking his head. "I'm always ready."

He climbs from thebike and leans back on an incline bench. Owens doesn't keep a great deal ofweight-training equipment at his mansion in suburban Atlanta or at the newapartment in downtown Dallas. In fact, the new pad is far more modest thanyou'd expect of a $10 million-a-year player, just 2,000 square feet of stark,modern loft space. He explains that his previous agent and manager, DavidJoseph--who became famous for missing the deadline to submit the paperwork thatwould have allowed Owens to become a free agent in 2004, thus precipitating twoseasons of legal wrangling and contract squabbling--had, according to Owens,left his finances in a shambles, so he looked to simplify his life inDallas.

"I do have amillion things on my mind," Owens says. "With all that's happened tome--firing my agent, my assistant quitting on me, getting a new publicist,finding out how bad my financial situation is, my personal life going up anddown--I need to get on the football field just to find some peace."

In the comingyear, Owens says, he hopes to get two rings: one when he wins the Super Bowlwith the Cowboys and another when he marries Felisha Terrell, a model andformer dancer for the Phoenix Suns whom he met in July 2004. His friend andsecurity manager, Carlos (Pablo) Cosby, had shown Owens her photograph online."One night Terrell and I were up late in San Francisco," says Cosby,"and I was like, 'Look at these cheerleaders. Look at this one:Felisha.'" Owens tried to arrange a meeting through the 49ers' p.r. peoplebut had no luck. But after signing with the Eagles, he and Cosby flew toPhoenix to work out with McNabb. One evening Cosby and Owens headed out to theKona Grill for dinner. "We're sitting there," says Cosby, "andthese two girls walk by. Beautiful. We start talking to them, and I'm thinkingthis one looks familiar, so I asked her name."

"Felisha,"she told him.

Cosby turned andlooked at Owens, whose mouth was agape.

"My frame ofmind right now is to be a family man and take care of my kids and be a goodboyfriend and, soon, to be a good husband," says Owens. "I know what Ineed to do to make these things happen. This last six to eight months, I've hadto look at my life and think of what I really want. And if I want it, what do Ihave to do differently to get it?"

As he moves to anincline bench, he begins to work on a series of decline oblique crunches--morecore work--and he goes through those numbers again. Ten. Eight. Ten. Eight.

"As far as myteammates in Philly, I'm behind them 100 percent. And I think a lot of themwere behind me 100 percent. But life isn't always fair, and you have to dealwith the consequences, and I've learned to look at these things and to dissectand to move on. It helps you down the road. But still," he says with agrin, "I am looking forward to that game."

As he drives inthe late afternoon from the Cowboys' complex, down MacArthur Boulevard towarddowntown Dallas and his new apartment, Owens takes a few calls from friends andarranges the delivery of a new large-screen television. It's 103°, and Owens istalking about where he likes to eat. "Boston Market, right there, that'shealthy eating," he says. "I can eat healthy anywhere. I can go to theWaffle House and find a healthy meal."

Among his friendsOwens's strict diet is a joke. "Salmon and asparagus, salmon andasparagus," says Anthony Shaw, a basketball tournament organizer. "Oncein a while, he'll switch it up and eat salmon and spinach."

Owens has beentaking the Cowboys' rookies out, trying to show them how to eat healthily."These young players don't know how to feed themselves. If you want to lastmore than a season or two, you have to learn to eat lean and drink lots offluids, keep your muscles hydrated." A few rookies have been shocked whenthey're invited to dine with the team's star receiver, only to find themselveshunched over a plastic tray of roasted chicken and garlic spinach at a BostonMarket restaurant. "Dude," Owens says, "I want to win so bad, andthat means having all the guys in good shape and taking care ofthemselves."

During theoff-season Owens traveled to Maui with Felisha to celebrate his new contract.The couple was scuba diving from a boat moored off a reef in the lee of someverdant cliffs, the sun glistening on the tips of a windswept swell. The divemaster, misjudging Owens's lean muscle mass, overloaded him with extra weight,22 pounds of it, and when he splashed into the water, Owens felt the sickeningsensation of being pulled toward the bottom. His ears felt the pressure and hiseyes expanded to silver-dollar size as he frantically gestured toward the divemaster, jabbing two thumbs upward to signal that he needed to come up. But shewas frozen for a moment, watching the All-Pro wide receiver sink out of sight.Oh, no, Owens thought. This isn't how great careers should end, a man beingdragged down to the bottom by excess weight....

"Whathappened?" he's asked.

"Dude,"Owens says, laughing, "nothing can keep me down."

SI.COM
Read Don Banks's division-by-division training camp previews at SI.com/nfl.

"I feel like a ROOKIE ALL OVER AGAIN. Man, how canI be this good an athlete and still have to go team hopping?"
On Parcells: "When you're not PUSHING YOURSELF,that's when he has a problem. And that's not a problem I have."
"It takes two to have trouble, I know that now. Iowe the fans an apology. I HAVE TO BE ACCOUNTABLE. I've learned."
"With all that's happened to me, my life going upand down, I need to get on the football field just to FIND SOME PEACE."
PHOTOPhotograph by Gregory HeislerPHOTOGREGORY HEISLERBODY OFEVIDENCE - Owens hasn't played a game in nearly nine months but has keptin peak condition through rigorous workouts.PHOTOTONY GUTIERREZ/APBILL'SDUE - Parcells says the same rules apply to Owens and all Cowboys: Be on time,be in shape, play hard, stay out of trouble.THREE PHOTOSJAMES D. SMITH/ICON SMI (3) THERECEIVING END - Owens should see plenty of balls in the Cowboys' attack, addingto his already Hall-worthy numbers.PHOTOLAYNE MURDOCH/GETTY IMAGESSTARQUALITY - T.O.'s performance at May minicamp had his Dallas teammates pumped;Bledsoe: "This year's gonna be sick."TWO PHOTOSJAMES D. SMITH/ICON SMI (2)[Seecaption above]