The chant wasmusic to his ears, and Terrell Owens reacted accordingly, lifting his palms inunison, then placing his open left hand--his good hand--to the side of his headin an I-can't-hear-you pose. Hundreds of merry fans seated behind the DallasCowboys' bench at LP Field in Nashville dutifully pumped up the volume on their"T.O., T.O." cheer, serenading the All-Pro receiver with 1:58 left inthe Cowboys' 45--14 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. Thirteen daysremoved from surgery to have a plate screwed into the metacarpal bone attachedto his right ring finger and five days after a trip to a Dallas emergency room,the result of what police initially classified as a suicide attempt, Owensstood on the one place where his life is consistently stable--the footballfield--and felt the love. This, more than anything, was why he brought histurbulent act to Dallas: for bizarre occasions like Sunday, when, Titansquarterback Vince Young's first NFL start be damned, the Music City somehowbelonged to America's Team.
Fifteen minuteslater, standing by his locker as he prepared to meet the throng of cameras,boom mikes and notebooks that awaited him, the 32-year-old Owens laughed andassessed his place in the sporting pantheon. "I'm a rock star, dude,"he said, his smile as bright as the fat diamond studs in each ear. "I'm arock star."
If Sunday was arockin' good day for the Cowboys' front man, it was positively electric for thefranchise's impresario. Owner Jerry Jones, the NFL's answer to the late rockpromoter Bill Graham, had more passes thrown his way in the second half thanOwens (five catches, 88 yards) and fellow wideout Terry Glenn (five catches, 54yards, two touchdowns) combined. Peering down from a luxury box near thesoutheastern corner of the stadium, Jones snatched the hats, jerseys and othergear hurled skyward by the Dallas supporters who were chanting his name, signedthe items and indiscriminately tossed them back out the window. The strangestarticle of clothing, he later recalled, was a "sweaty, old-time, fat-manundershirt." Not that Jones minded signing it; to him it smelled like ...victory. "It's been so long since somebody asked for [an autograph],"he said. "I'd forgotten what it's like."
Remember in 1989when Jones, on his first official day as the Cowboys' owner, incurred the wrathof football fans everywhere--and especially in Texas--by firing iconic coachTom Landry and hiring the brash NFL neophyte Jimmy Johnson to replace him? Tosay that he and his organization have thrived on chaos and controversy sincethen would not be unfair; in that sense Jones is the managerial equivalent ofthe temperamental Owens, whose return to Philadelphia this Sunday to face theEagles team that banished him will keep the hype machine on full tilt.
Think that battlemight generate a bit of interest? After joining the Eagles in 2004, T.O. helpedPhilly reach its first Super Bowl in more than two decades and, six weeks aftersuffering a broken ankle, played brilliantly in defeat in that game. But hisnasty contract dispute and public feud with quarterback Donovan McNabb lastyear undid all of the brotherly love that Philly had to offer. Now the Cowboys,coming off their highest-scoring game in six years, are rolling. "If we canget out of our own way, we have a chance to beat anybody," quarterback DrewBledsoe said after Sunday's victory. "We'll find out next week, becausePhilly is good."
Jones certainlywon't be complaining about the pregame buildup. Though the Cowboys' ownerobviously would be deeply concerned about any employee's sudden hospitalizationand potentially fragile emotional and mental state, he thoroughly enjoys thekind of breathless, comprehensive attention his team and its lightning-rodwideout got last week. As Jones eagerly admitted shortly after his arrival atthe stadium on Sunday morning, he both expected and welcomed such spectacleswhen he signed T.O. to a three-year, $25 million contract last March."Apart from the very sensitive personal health issues, I compare thisincident to some earlier experiences that came during some very successfultimes," Jones said, seated on a folding chair in a small storage space nextto the Cowboys' locker room. "The times when we've had bigger-than-lifepersonalities, even when the criticism surrounding them was not all positive,were largely successful. We won three world championships not because of that,but inclusive of that. So when it comes to inordinate interest with inordinatesituations and inordinate personalities, those have been positive experiencesfor me and for our fans. And I can't get that out of my mind."
Over the yearsthere have been many surreal scenes at the team's Valley Ranch trainingfacility: the press conference at which Jones, after abruptly parting with hisold friend Johnson in March 1994, introduced the amped-up Barry Switzer as hisnew coach; another in which star wideout Michael Irvin, amid allegations ofdrug use and infidelity, tearfully took responsibility for tarnishing hisfamily's name; and another that found All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders invokingDelilah and Jezebel while conceding that "fornication is my drug," toname a few. But the drama that unfolded on Wednesday, Sept. 27, much of itcovered live by ESPN, may have been the most charged of all. As one teamexecutive said, "I thought the President had been shot."
While thecomparison was facetious, for the purposes of pop-culture intrigue "WhatWent Down with T.O.?" joined "Who Killed JFK?" and "Who ShotJ.R.?" in an unholy trinity of muddled Dallas mysteries. On the night ofSept. 26 Owens's publicist, Kim Etheredge, placed a 911 call from the wideout'sapartment when she found him unresponsive, telling a dispatcher that he hadtaken "too many pills." The accompanying police report said that Owensanswered yes when asked if he'd intended to harm himself. But Owens, afterbeing released following 15 hours in the hospital, insisted at a Wednesdaypress conference at the Cowboys' facility that he'd become disoriented from acombination of hydrocodone (a generic form of the pain medicine Vicodin) andnutritional supplements. Next at the podium was Etheredge, whose agitatedperformance made her resemble, in the words of one team official, "a JerrySpringer guest." In addition to accusing the attending police of"[taking] advantage of Terrell," Etheredge, as she was leaving thepodium, sneered that Owens "has 25 million reasons why he should bealive."
The next day GlennWhite, the head of the Dallas Police Association, demanded an apology fromEtheredge and Owens, saying of the officers in question, "They're being putunder a microscope by some fancy little football person. Those officers are 10times better than this man." Chief David Kunkle said the incident wasofficially being classified as an "accidental overdose," though he leftplenty of room for interpretation in standing by the officers' initial report.Meanwhile, The Dallas Morning News ran a story on Thursday in which Owens'spersonal trainer, James (Buddy) Primm, said the receiver had experienced a"perfect storm" of physically and emotionally devastating events,including his fiancée's breaking off their relationship earlier in the week.(Owens fired Primm the following day.) Last Friday, in an interview with SI,Owens said he was "hurt" that the fiancée, Felisha Terrell, whom Owenstold SI this past summer he planned to marry in the coming year, had failed tocontact him since his release from the hospital. "Her not reaching out tome really hit home," he said. "You can tell someone you love them allday long, but for her to not even show up, after all the years we've spenttogether--that's not love." On Sunday, Owens indicated he still hadn'theard from Terrell. (She declined to comment for this story.)
That Owens wasable to block it all out and flourish on game day was hardly a surprise; fewplayers are as adept at playing with focus and ferocity amid off-the-fielddistractions. His signature moment came with 5:23 left in the first half andthe Cowboys up 14--3. On second-and-eight from the Dallas 20, Bledsoe,recognizing that Titans cornerback Reynaldo Hill was pressing Owens at the linein man-to-man coverage, threw a gorgeous spiral down the left sideline. Owens,with Hill all over him, caught it for a 46-yard gain. Five plays later Owenscame within inches of making a spectacular juggling catch in the back of theend zone. Late in the third quarter he snatched a short pass in the right flatand juked a defender for an 11-yard gain.
By then theCowboys (2--1) were well on their way to a blowout. Nothing could stomp ontheir buzz, though Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth tried.Apparently frustrated after a five-yard touchdown run by tailback Julius Jones(23 carries, 122 yards) early in the third quarter, Haynesworth stepped on theface of Dallas center Andre Gurode, whose helmet had come off, opening gashesunder Gurode's left eye and on his forehead that required a combined 30stitches. Haynesworth, who was ejected, apologized publicly after the game. OnMonday the league suspended him for five games.
Tennessee (0--4)was equally overmatched when it had the ball. Though Young had a few nicemoments, completing 14 of 29 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown, the rookie'sdebut as an NFL starter was marred by two interceptions and a lost fumble."You're starting to see fireworks, point blank," said Cowboys strongsafety Roy Williams, whose physical play set the tone for Dallas's increasinglyimposing defense. "When we put it together and start jelling on offense,defense and special teams, you see that we're a force."
This was exactlywhat Jones envisioned on the February afternoon when he decided he wanted Owenson his team. Still under contract with the Eagles, Owens had been grantedpermission to seek a trade. Not wishing to attract attention, Jones had invitedOwens's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to meet with him, his son Stephen (Dallas'sexecutive vice president and player personnel director) and coach Bill Parcellsinside the Cowboys' custom bus, which was parked outside the RCA Dome inIndianapolis at the NFL combine. Midway through the 40-minute conversation,Jerry Jones silently concluded that "if we could make the numbers work out[once Owens became a free agent], let's get it done."
A month laterStephen Jones was on vacation with his family in Puerto Vallarta when hisdaughter, Jessica, handed him her pink cellphone, the only one of the family'sthat worked in Mexico. "Dad," she said, "it's Drew Rosenhauscalling about Terrell Owens!" By the end of the day the deal was done.
Beginning intraining camp, when Owens complained of a twinge in his left hamstring andmissed 14 straight practices, he has tested Parcells's patience. But he hasalso, as Stephen Jones says, "helped the brand" in terms of heightenedvisibility, and his jersey is the Cowboys' top seller. Teammates have taken thespectacle in stride. "I haven't had one single problem with the guy on oroff the field," said Bledsoe last Friday. "The first thing you learnabout him is that he takes his job very seriously."
Three games intothis grand experiment, it has never been clearer that Jerry Jones runs thefranchise--that he not only mandated this marriage between his high-profilecoach and this human distraction-maker, but that he also enjoys theaccompanying tension. As the owner said on Sunday, "It's the Cowboy Factor.Things that happen here take on added visibility and interest. You might say,to some degree, it's always been that way."
Suffice it to saythat as he said this, Jones was smiling--like it was 1995.
Read Michael Silver's Rollin' With ... on Wednesdaysand Bring on the Weekend on Thursdays, at SI.com/nfl.