CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — It should have never come to this.
Terrell Owens’ Hall of Fame celebration was a huge gift to his school, this city, and the 3,000 or so fans who showed up and watched his speech at McKenzie Arena for free. But the fact that it was held here reflects just as poorly on the Hall of Fame as it does the polarizing Hall of Famer.
Owens, who was passed over twice by voters before earning his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, should have been inducted sooner, and welcomed more warmly.
That was crystallized when he explained late on Saturday how his gold jacket made the trip from Canton. A friend of his had to fly it from Ohio through Atlanta, and when he missed his standby flight, he had to drive it the rest of the way. If not for that odyssey, Owens says, he would have had to wait for it in the mail.
You can say Owens chose Chattanooga, and deserves no sympathy. An honor this rare, even delayed, is not to be twisted into a slight.
You can say Owens is obnoxious, and wallows in his own plight. He can be, and he occasionally does.
Even when someone in the stands on Saturday yelled “We love you T.O.!” he replied, “I love you too … but I love me more.” It’s pretty easy to roll your eyes at Owens.
But there’s a wide chasm between WWE-heel-style misbehavior and actual wrongdoing. The NFL is a league that has found a way to work with players who have beaten their girlfriends and abused dogs. Is Owens really worthy of a cold shoulder because he’s been disagreeable at times?
The man is second all-time in receiving yards. He’s third all-time in receiving touchdowns (and he would be second if he played one more season). Those numbers are punctuated by the fact that he played in a Super Bowl with a broken leg. Highly respected NFL reporter John Clayton suggested that “it might have been the most courageous performance in Super Bowl history.”
Dislike him all you want. He earned that jacket.
Owens’ aired his grievances on Saturday, as most thought he would. He told the gathered crowd he wanted to “stand here to put truth to power.” He accused voting sportswriters of failing to live up to their task. “They overlooked my body of work, my accomplishments,” he said in a post-speech press conference. “I wouldn’t be here today if they adhered by the bylaws.”
When asked about his name not being mentioned up in Canton, he said that “stung.” That’s when the emotion got the most raw: “The continued attack on me as a person and not recognizing my skill set and ability – I’ll never forget it.”
There are a couple ways to look at Owens’ personality. The less charitable way is to see it as a calculated method for motivation. He seeks out criticism and bathes in it. He says incendiary things, then recoils when people call him on it, and then he’s aggrieved. If he didn’t really want to be the victim, he would extend the olive branch. Or he would tune it all out. The man is on social media and it’s not like he hears about criticism third-hand.
The more charitable way is this: Owens comes from a very sheltered background, where there wasn’t much money and (perhaps more salient to this discussion) much awareness of the ways of the world. His grandmother, Alice Black, rarely had the television on, and Owens says he didn’t even know who Jerry Rice was until he was a junior at Tennessee-Chattanooga. This town is hardly a major media market, so it’s not like he was used to reporters’ questions when he arrived in San Francisco to begin his NFL career.
“I didn’t understand how to be PC or what politics were,” Owens said. “My intention as far as my answers were pure. [Media] made it seem like I was throwing someone under the bus. I answered honestly, not really thinking of the after-effect. People misconstrued a lot of things I said. It was a hard battle. Now with the social media platform, guys can correct some of that.”
This is what befuddles many of the people who sat in the VIP section on Saturday. The T.O. they know is loyal and charitable. The recurring theme throughout the ceremony was how good of a teammate he was, and how he was just “one of the guys.” Revisionist history? Maybe. But the speakers on Saturday chided Owens for his ego, for being late to meetings, and for his wretched jump shot, too. He laughed right along. (He even theatrically dropped a towel he was holding when a coach described a key drop he made in a game.)
Even if you think Owens is an incorrigible diva, it’s hard to fully believe he tore teams apart, or undermined seasons. Teams he played on went .566; they went to the playoffs in eight of his 15 seasons. And if he was really so selfish, he would have protected his leg, his image and his future salary with the world watching his Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, right?
“My passion got misconstrued as arrogant,” Owens said. “Guys have been the same way, equally demonstrative. I took it personal. The writers chose to hold a grudge.”
Could Owens have buried the hatchet and showed up in Canton? Sure. It would have been a delight to see him and Moss, two legends of the past generation, on a stage together. But kissing the ring wasn’t true to what Owens felt.
“I’m not going to do a dog and pony show and smile at people’s faces and be fake,” he said. “People bought into what the media told them and I’m not that guy, so I had to harbor all these feelings all these years, and this is the way I wanted to do it.”
It became a big deal to a smaller athletic program who embraced him with open arms. Current UTC student-athletes showed up after practice, some sweaty, to take in a moment they would have never otherwise seen in person. Older fans felt just as delighted to be here. One who showed up was a woman named Renee Davis. She’s a Dolphins fan from Philadelphia who bought a ticket to Canton as soon as Owens got the call. When she found out he wasn’t going, she sold the ticket and bought a flight here. On Saturday she sat with a tub of popcorn and cheered on her idol. She said it was “awful” how Owens had been treated. She wasn’t alone in thinking that. It’s beyond challenging to look at Owens’ highlights, or his stats, and not think of him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Toward the end of his speech, Owens invited fans to stand if they had been isolated, misunderstood, bullied. UTC students stood. Entire families stood. Old people stood. “This is for you,” he announced. And suddenly, for a moment, Terrell Owens was everyone and everyone was Terrell Owens. The guy in the custom suit was the shy loner from Alabama. Owens is someone who didn’t see where he fit in the world, and he ended up being pretty proud of himself. That’s a story the NFL usually likes to celebrate. Unfortunately, the football society that finally gave Owens a place to stand is also the society that has made him feel cast out.
Sometime in the future, kids will learn Owens’ name and wonder why he gave his Hall of Fame speech in Chattanooga and not Canton.
There will not be an easy answer to that question. It’s a shame it will have to be asked.
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