CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Terrell Owens wore gold shoes instead of a gold jacket. He wore a custom suit with Hall of Fame logos. And when he came to the stage to the cheers of thousands in his old college basketball arena, he began to cry.
It was an unorthodox Hall of Fame celebration for an unorthodox football celebrity, held not in Canton, Ohio, but in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The flash of Owens’ threads was not matched by anyone around him in McKenzie Arena, but the words of praise glittered all the same.
Once Owens donned the gold jacket, given to him by his mother, it was vintage T.O. – for better or for worse. Owens began to air grievances from his perceived Hall of Fame snub, addressing what he called “the elephant in the room.”
“My character has been challenged for many years,” he said. “Today I stand here to put truth to power.”
Owens criticized NFL sportswriters for not being “in alignment with the mission and core values of the Hall of Fame.” He said he was “ostracized to keep me from what I rightfully earned, not once, but twice.”
And he said, “To the critics and doubters who defamed me behind my back – you know who you are – this is for you.”
That will not go over well with those critics, but it was met with no disagreement inside McKenzie Arena. One fan yelled, “We love you, T.O.!” Owens said, “I love you too.” Then, after a pause: “But I love me more.” The arena of about 3,000 broke into laughter and some applause.
Then came more of a humble Owens, breaking down again into tears as he spoke of his late grandmother, who has died. He needed several moments to collect himself before thanking her and his mother. He went on to thank former coaches and teammates, including a personal trainer, Jerry Rice and Michael Jordan.
As he began to conclude his speech, which lasted 39 minutes, he asked fans to stand if they had been overlooked, mischaracterized or bullied. As he listed these adjectives, most in the audience began to stand. They remained standing as he closed his speech.
“I am not a perfect man,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes.” He quoted Einstein, saying “Adversity introduces a man to himself.”
“Now at 43 years old,” Owens said, “I like who I’ve become.”
He then said he was “courageous enough to choose Chattanooga over Canton.” The crowd erupted.
In Owens’ mind, the day was always about paying tribute to his old school and his roots. He was presented by former Cowboys coach Ray Sherman, but nearly all of the other speakers were from UT-Chattanooga. The chancellor spoke, his football and basketball coaches spoke, and even the voice of the Mocs spoke. Erik Gray, who was the mascot when he was here in the 1990s, sat in VIP seating and spent most of the weekend with Owens. “Gracious and grateful,” is how he described Owens’ mood.
That applies to Chattanooga A.D. Mark Wharton, who suddenly has a windfall of exposure for his program. He compared the event on Saturday to Virginia Tech making the Sugar Bowl in 1999 – not in magnitude or money, certainly, but in the sense of a national moment for a regional school. Will it help recruiting? Well, it can’t hurt.
For the fans, Saturday was a big deal, whether they’re die-hard Mocs fans or first-time visitors to “Nooga.” Kegan Arrington left his home in Stuart, Virginia, at 4 a.m. on Saturday. He brought his girlfriend, Melissa, and they listened to music and sang songs in their silver Ford Taurus as they drove down I-81 for the ceremony. Arrington’s mom, who recently passed, loved Owens. Arrington did this in part as a tribute to her.
Arrington and a lot of the others here on Saturday would not have gone to Canton. This trip is simpler, the admission is free, and the occasion is more intimate. With all the controversy surrounding Owens, it’s easy to forget there are many fans who just loved watching him play. There were Cowboys jerseys, Niners jerseys, Eagles jerseys and Mocs jerseys (football and hoops).
“Once in a lifetime,” said Terrence Haskins, who brought his 3-year-old son, Jermichael, and arrived to be first in line at 10:45 a.m., four and half hours prior to the start of the ceremony. The boy wore his dad’s old Jerry Rice jersey and the two played hide-and-seek in the Tennessee heat as they waited. Maybe little Jermichael will make the NFL one day, and remember this day as a part of his journey. Maybe he’ll just remember a day with his dad.
Either way, for the people who came Saturday, there weren’t mixed feelings, remorse or regret. Terrell Owens gave them an NFL experience they’ll never have again.
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