Terrell Owens Biography
Played Multiple Sports in High School and College, Courted Controversy, Set New Records
Professional football player
Known as one of the National Football League's top wide receivers, Terrell Owens has made his mark in football history, not just for his talent as an athlete, but for his controversial behavior both on and off the field that gained him the label of football's most misunderstood star.
Born to a 17-year-old girl who eventually abandoned him to an abusive grandmother, Owens turned to sports in part to help him escape a tortured home life. He played basketball, baseball, and football, and also loved to swim. In high school, Owens' athletic talent blossomed and he was eventually recruited by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). He soon distinguished himself as an explosive receiver for the UTC Moccasins, and he gave the same high energy as a starting forward on the basketball team that qualified for the NCAA tournament in 1995. He also ran track for the school, anchoring the 4×100 relay team. The San Francisco 49ers drafted Owens in 1996, and he played there until 2003 amid increasing conflicts with teammates and media. After the 2003 season, Owens was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles where he quickly established himself as one of the most prolific receivers in Eagles history in just one season. Known as an inspirational leader who gives everything to his team, Owens is as divisive as he is talented. As a dominant figure in the football arena, he is considered by some the ultimate NFL athlete.
Played Multiple Sports in High School and College
Terrell Eldorado Owens was born December 7, 1973, in Alexander City, Alabama, to Marilyn Heard. Just 17 years old at the birth of her son, Marilyn continued living with her mother, Alice, after Terrell was born, and eventually had three more children. Bouncing from job to job, Marilyn eventually found a house of her own, taking her three younger children with her. Because there wasn't enough room for him in his mother's small house, young Terrell stayed with his grandmother, and when her failed marriage turned her to alcohol, Terrell often cared for her until she sobered up.
At Benjamin Russell High School in Alexander City, Alabama, Owens was a star football, basketball, baseball, and track athlete. He wore the number 80 on his football jersey to honor his idol, San Francisco 49er Jerry Rice. Terrell's athletic career blossomed when he entered high school, and he lettered four times in football and track, three times in basketball, and once in baseball. He was recruited by the UTC Moccasins out of high school, and for three years went on to prove his amazing athleticism and talent on the football field.
As a sophomore at UTC, he played all 11 games of the season and set a new Moccasin record with four touchdowns in a game against Marshall. During his junior year at UTC, Owens became the team's most powerful offensive weapon, earning him the honor of second-team All-Southern Conference. The following season, however, Owens' game statistics declined as a result of double coverage by the opposition. Although his statistics were not overly impressive, he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers to start the 1996 season. Owens was thrilled to be working alongside his idol, Jerry Rice. By the end of the preseason, Owens was second to Rice in catches and receiving yards; by the season's end his 35 receptions for 520 yards made him the likely successor to Jerry Rice as the 49ers number one receiver.
In the years that followed, Owens racked up increasingly impressive numbers and fulfilled that early promise. He caught 60 passes for 936 yards in 1997; 67 passes for 1097 yards in 1998; and 60 passes for 754 yards in 1999. Then, Owens' productivity exploded: he made 97 catches for 1451 yards in 2000, 93 catches for 1412 yards in 2001, and 100 catches for 1300 yards in 2002. With these stats, Owens was widely considered one of the great receivers in the league.
In his most productive season, however, Owens also displayed a real talent for generating controversy. Early in the 2000 season, after catching a touchdown pass against the Dallas Cowboys, Owens ran to the center of the field to celebrate. The 49ers had come off a disappointing 1999 season and Owens' could not contain his excitement over the 49ers lead. A second score by Owens brought on another celebration, much to the offense of both the Cowboys and the 49ers. He was suspended for a week and fined $24,000, leaving him feeling angry and abandoned by his teammates.
Owens' best season as a professional football player with the 49ers merged with Rice's final campaign with the 49ers, in which Rice was shown one loud ovation after another. But Owens did not let the tumult of Rice's departure distract him. In a December game against Chicago, Owens set a new NFL record of 20 receptions for 283 yards. By year-end, he was on his way to his first Pro Bowl in Hawaii.
During the off-season, however, Owens was hounded by the press. Criticisms of his attitude, his locker room explosions, and his touchdown celebrations came to define his reputation. Spending time alone, he isolated himself from reporters, fans, and teammates. His isolation was noted as discontent, and predictions for the 49ers 2001 season was grim. Owens made no excuses for his behavior. He just went out and played. By the season's end, Owens had another stellar season and was selected for the Pro Bowl a second time, earning him first team All-Pro honors.
In the coming seasons, Owens continued to court controversy. The first game of the 2002 campaign against the Seattle Seahawks ended with a gamewinning touchdown by Owens. After the score, Owens pulled a Sharpie pen from his sock and signed the football, then handed it to his financial advisor who sat in the stands. Seahawks' coach Mike Holmgren claimed that Owens had dishonored the game. After ESPN analysts ripped Owens for his on-field behavior, he invited a camera into his home in order to defend himself on live television. He argued that the league targeted black players with its strict rules against touchdown celebrations. "You'd have thought I committed a crime, like some other players we could talk about in pro sports today," Owens later wrote in his autobiography Catch This! Going Deep with the NFL's Sharpest Weapon. Not only that, Owens claimed that his mother, whom he is now very close to, is the reason for his touchdown tactics. "I wanted her to see me on television," he said in his autobiography. "Before each game I tell my mom to stay tuned for something new." But in spite of his motivations, the 2002 season ended with a mutual agreement that Owens and the 49ers would part ways after the next season.
Although the Sharpie incident spawned immense criticism by the media and fans, Owens found a way to turn it into good will, testifying to his claim that the most important things in his life are his faith and his family. The Sharpie Company agreed to pledge money to the Alzheimer's Association for every touchdown that Owens makes. Owens' grandmother, Alice, suffers from the disease, and he has testified to the U.S. Senate committee about its effects.
Set New Records
Over the eight years that Owens played for the San Francisco 49ers, he caught 592 passes, 100 of those in 2002. He ranks second among the 49ers for lifetime touchdown receptions, behind his idol Jerry Rice. He broke a 50-year record in 2000 with 20 receptions in a game against the Chicago Bears, and established himself as one of the best blocking receivers ever.
In 2003 Owens was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, where his impact on its offense was immediately obvious. During a seven-game Eagles winning streak, Owens topped 100 yards receiving per game—but he also increased his touchdown celebrations. The winning streak ended with a defeat against the Steelers, but a controversial television promotion that had appeared before the Monday Night football game overshadowed Owens' six receptions for 134 yards and three scores during the game. The sensual television promotion featured Owens in the locker room with barely clad actress Nicollette Sheridan from the television show Desperate Housewives. Ultimately Owens apologized for the promo, but not before a barrage of media criticism.
Although Owens may have made mistakes in the eyes of some fans and the media, his passionate personality and performance captured the hearts of many. In a 2004 game against the Lions he responded to e-mails from Navy and Air Force members stationed in the Middle East who had asked him to salute if he scored a touchdown. He gave the salute after scoring a 29-yard touchdown early in the game.
Played in the Super Bowl
Later in the 2004 season in a game against the Cowboys, Owens fractured his leg, causing concerns that the Eagles would be ineffective without their star receiver. But receiver Freddie Mitchell took up the slack for Owens, and after 20 years Eagles fans were celebrating a return to the Super Bowl. Owens was ready to play again by the Super Bowl XXXIX kickoff in Jacksonville, Florida, only 46 days after surgery on his leg. Although the team lost to the Patriots, Owens finished the game with a heroic effort of nine catches for 122 yards.
The second season of Owens' seven-year contract began badly. Owens wanted the Eagles to renegotiate his $48.97 million contract. When the Eagles refused, he threatened to skip training camp completely. Roundly criticized by players and the media, Owens reported to camp, but was distant and aloof. Soon, he was ejected for a week after arguing with head coach Andy Reid. As always, Owens refused to apologize for his behavior. "They don't pay me to go in there and talk to everybody and be friendly to everybody," he told reporters. "They paid me to play and they paid me to perform. That's what I've been going in there and doing."
Among his many accomplishments as a football player, Owens was the second NFL player to record five seasons with 13 or more touchdowns, and the first to score a touchdown in seven straight Monday Night Football games. He is known as an inspirational player and leader of his team—an athlete who gives the ultimate effort in each practice and each game. His intense drive to succeed has earned him the respect and admiration of his fellow football players, though many fans criticize him for his arrogant and antagonistic attitude. Terrell Owens seems likely to continue to grab attention, both on the field and off.
Owens, Terrell, and Stephen Singular, Catch This! Going Deep with the NFL's Sharpest Weapon, Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Lindy's Pro Football, August 2005, pp. 96-97.
Philadelphia Magazine, February 2005.
Pro Football Weekly, August 15, 2005, p. 119.
Sporting News, December 1, 1997; August 27, 2001; October 28, 2002; September 29, 2003; October 13, 2003; March 1, 2004; June 14, 2004; November 15, 2004.
Sports Illustrated, December 14, 1998; October 16, 2000; November 26, 2001; August 1, 2005.
Time, October 28, 2002.
"Eagles' Owens Returns to Training Camp," Fox Sports, http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/389502 (August 17, 2005).
"Terrell Owens," Philadelphia Eagles, www.philadelhiaeagles.com (August 17, 2005).
"Terrell Owens," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 5, 2005).
Terrell Owens, www.terrellowens.com (August 29, 2005).
—Cheryl A. Dudley