PHILADELPHIA — PHILADELPHIA - It is a few minutes after practice, and Terrell Owens is sitting on a black leather couch, telling a visitor why he thinks it's too late to change his image as one of the NFL's most controversial players.
Speaking barely above a whisper, he seems nothing like the trash-talker he was labeled during his days with the San Francisco 49ers. Now with the Philadelphia Eagles after rejecting an offseason trade to the Ravens, he leans back on the couch in an office at their training complex and shakes his head.
"No matter what I do, it's not going to change," the 30-year-old receiver said. "I've got a negative image with the public and people think, 'This guy's a bad guy.' "
Great receiver. Bad guy. Owens cannot separate the two, even though he desperately wants to be known as the former, not the latter.
"That's what I'm stuck with," Owens said. "I'm a monster on the field, but people think I'm a monster off the field, too. I don't think people really know me until they're around me. When they hang out with me, they'll pull me aside and say: 'I don't get it. I don't see why people say you're this way. You're a cool dude.' People expect something different."
Eagles receiver Todd Pinkston certainly expected something different. He expected to see a chronic complainer, a guy who bullies his teammates and snarls at his coaches.
"No, it's nothing like that," Pinkston said. "He had this reputation as an 'I-want-the-ball' type of guy, but he hasn't been like that at all. If you see his work ethic, you'll know. It's not like the reputation he had in San Francisco."
Owens is a star receiver who makes terrific catches and scores highlight-reel touchdowns, but his flamboyant celebrations and sideline tantrums have given him a me-first reputation that he believes has unfairly tainted his legacy.
To Owens and those who know him best, he is a complex man whose combative behavior on game day belies a gentle and charitable personality off the field. They know he is a gifted athlete whose continual search for attention and admiration goes back to a time when he was ready to quit the sport as a teenager because he almost never got a chance to play on his high school team.
A new team, a new contract and a new outlook on his NFL future probably won't change things for Owens, who forced the trade that sent him from the 49ers to the Eagles in March. He understands that the first time he complains about not getting enough passes from quarterback Donovan McNabb, or the first time he disagrees publicly with coach Andy Reid, or the first time he follows up a touchdown with one of his attention-getting celebrations, he will re-ignite the criticism that has followed him since he blossomed into an All-Pro receiver in 2000.
"People are going to pry, and they're going to be looking for something," he said. "That's the way it is. I understand that. I don't like it, but I understand it. I just try to be honest with my opinions, but it always seems to come out wrong."
Trying to fit in
There already have been a few Owens moments in Philadelphia. Such as the time he complained about Reid's rule prohibiting players from wearing form-fitting sweat pants without shorts during practice. With the 49ers, Owens routinely worked out in sweats without shorts.
"My biggest adjustment isn't the new team or the plays, but wearing shorts over my tights," Owens said when he learned of Reid's rule. "What does that have to do with how I practice? I understand having structure, and I guess that is him making a statement. I don't have any problem with that, but it's a big adjustment."
Or how about the comments he made a few weeks ago during minicamp, when he suggested he needed to get more work during seven-on-seven drills? Owens-bashers took it as more public whining, but Owens insists there was a perfectly logical explanation for his remarks.
"I was just trying to get on the same page with Donovan," Owens said. "If people want to see the touchdowns that they're expecting from me, then that's what I'm working hard for in practice. That's where I was coming from. It was a positive thing for me, but it turned into a negative thing when it came out. Granted, I've got a fresh start here, but I've got to realize that people are going to pry. They're going to try to find something, and maybe I've been too trusting. I'm going to have to be careful in what I say."
He realizes this is the price for what has gone before.
It is what happens when you are suspended by your coach for igniting a fight with the Dallas Cowboys by dancing on the star at Texas Stadium - not once, but twice - after scoring touchdowns.
It's what happens when you incur the wrath of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue for scoring a touchdown in a nationally televised game, pulling a Sharpie out of your sock, autographing the ball and handing it to a business acquaintance in the stands.
It's what happens when you berate your offensive coordinator on the sideline after a failure to convert on a fourth-and-1 running play during a blowout loss.
"I have people from all walks of life come up to me and say they enjoy what I'm doing and how I play, but everybody keeps saying I'm this terrible, selfish guy, so that's what people think of me," Owens said.
"I hate to bring other guys into it, but [former 49ers quarterback] Steve Young argued with the coach constantly. Jerry Rice did the same thing constantly. [Raiders quarterback) Rich Gannon did it where you could tell what he was saying, and it wasn't pleasant words.
"But when I come here to Philadelphia, it's all the media kept asking me: What if you have a blowup with your coach like you did during the Minnesota game? That's how I'm always going to be remembered."
Context is key
Greg Knapp isn't so sure. It was Knapp who was on the receiving end of Owens' sideline diatribe last Sept. 28, an incident that was caught on television and continually replayed for several days. Surely the next time Owens gets into a spat on the sideline, it will be replayed again. But Knapp, now the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator, said the incident should be taken in context.
"Once he apologized to me the next time we saw each other, it became a non-issue," Knapp said. ''It's part of the heat of the battle. It was a tough situation, and we weren't doing well. Knowing how he plays the game, it's part of his makeup. He plays the game angry.
"Look, that wasn't the first time I've been yelled at on the sidelines. Steve Young and Jerry Rice were yelling all the time, so it wasn't as much of a shock to me when Terrell did it as it was perceived by others. Terrell Owens and I are fine. It's just one of those things that was run over and over and over."
Teron Cooper might have an explanation for what makes Owens so hard to understand and so difficult to define. The man known as "Coop" befriended Owens long before his first NFL touchdown celebration, when Owens was a receiver at Tennessee-Chattanooga in the mid-1990s. He now is Owens' closest friend.
"T.O. is the most competitive guy I've ever met," Cooper said. "Whether it's playing football, shooting pool or playing cards, he's competitive. He likes to talk junk, to let the other person know he's better than you and you can't do anything about that. So when I see him on the field, he's having fun. There are guys who think he should just score and give the ball to the ref. But that's boring. That's not what got him to where he was."
Cooper also knows how driven Owens was to become a superior player.
"The first two years, he was just doing average stuff, but toward the end of his sophomore year, he started lifting weights really hard," Cooper said. "He became a weight-room rat. He'd come back from a party and lift weights at 3 a.m. It got to the point where he asked the coach for a key because he was in there so much. Toward the end of his senior year, people started to realize he had the talent to play in the NFL."
Owens almost didn't make it that far. A benchwarmer during his early years at Benjamin Russell High in Alexander City, Ala., Owens was ready to quit the team during his junior season. Besides, it was basketball that Owens really loved.
"At some point, you just get tired practicing every day, and you're not reaping the benefits of it," Owens said. "You're just out there to make the team look bigger. I told the coach I wanted to quit, and he brought me and my mom in the next day at 7 a.m. for a meeting. The coach urged her to encourage me not to quit, and he basically said he wasn't going to let me quit."
Owens' mother remembers. She had to take off a few hours from her morning shift at Russell Athletic, the town's biggest employer. It was one of two jobs she worked to support her four children.
"Being someone who had to work so hard to keep her family going, I understand there are times when you've got to take stuff from other people," Marilyn Heard said. "Sometimes you've just got to [deal with it], but I think it got to a point for Terrell that he didn't want that. So I would tell him, 'They want you to give up. Sometimes people think very little of you.' But he decided to keep playing and it was a good thing. He always wanted to be something, and he always said he was going to be somebody. It was kind of like a fantasy or a dream."
Owens didn't have a demonstrative personality on the field while growing up, mostly because he rarely got a chance to play. In fact, he was a relatively quiet child who was extremely close to his mother and grandmother, Alice Black. It was the relationship with Black that eventually prompted Owens to become involved with charitable work for the Alzheimer's Foundation.
"When he was growing up, Terrell was quiet and humble, yet a caring person," Owens' mother said. "He always wanted to go outside and play, but he helped me take care of my two younger children, who were about 10 years younger than him. I was having to work a second job, and being the older child of the family, Terrell grew up fast."
Owens spent time with his grandmother while his mother worked, and the two grew extremely close. Soon after Owens went to college, he noticed that his grandmother often repeated herself during the same conversation.
"I just thought it was my grandmother being my grandmother," he said. "Every time I came home, she wanted to buy me something. She pretty much said the same thing."
By the time Owens was drafted in the third round by the 49ers in 1996, Black had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She now is 69 and living at an assisted-living facility in Alexander City. She does not know a thing about Owens' NFL career.
Last month, only days after Ronald Reagan died of complications related to Alzheimer's, Owens hosted a weekend charity event to benefit the Atlanta Chapter of the National Alzheimer's Foundation. Owens also has testified before Congress to increase funding for Alzheimer's research.
"That's the hardest thing for me to deal with, because she was there for me for so many years," Owens said. "I'm a lot like my grandmother in so many ways. I just take pride in whatever I'm doing, and to me, it's extra special that I've achieved success.
"My grandmother always told me to be my own person, to be truthful to myself, and I think that's what I've done."
In a recent minicamp practice, McNabb hooked up with Owens for a long touchdown, prompting teammates and Eagles scouts to cheer. Tight end Chad Lewis pulled Owens aside. "'He told me he hasn't seen something like that around here lately," Owens said.
No, he hasn't. The Eagles haven't had a receiving threat like Owens since the days of Harold Carmichael. At 6-foot-3, 226 pounds and with 4.5 second speed in the 40-yard dash, Owens offers the kind of dynamic play that the Eagles' offense has lacked. His presence is a major reason the team is favored by many to reach the Super Bowl after three consecutive losses in the NFC championship game.
Making a difference
Even in practice, you notice the difference in the offense.
"Just going against our defense [in practice], you can see how some of the guys pay a little more attention to T.O. because he is the focal point right now," McNabb said. "It's not that you can just focus on T.O. Once you begin to focus on him, that's going to leave one or two guys open on the back side or maybe the same side. If you do that, you're taking a risk."
Reid, who is ultraconservative when it comes to tipping his hand about the offense, acknowledges that Owens offers the big-play capability the Eagles have lacked.
"There are certain things with Terrell that we can do that maybe we didn't do before," he said. "Therefore, you gain a couple of extra plays in there that you can do. That's not slighting the other guys a bit. Every player has the ability to do that. But yes, there are some things we can do."
Owens had hoped to reach the Eagles in much simpler fashion, but his agent, David Joseph, failed to submit the proper documentation to void the final year of his 49ers contract.
Owens initially was traded to the Ravens for a second-round draft choice, but he protested the trade and requested that his case be decided through arbitration. Once it appeared that Owens had a stronger case than many legal experts had thought, a three-way trade among Baltimore, San Francisco and Philadelphia landed Owens with the Eagles.
It will be interesting to see just how Reid deploys Owens, and whether he can keep the Pro Bowl receiver happy. Any advice from fellow coaches?
"The fact that T.O. actively went after the Philadelphia deal spells trouble for the rest of the NFL. He wants to be there and will buy into the program," said Falcons Coach Jim Mora Jr., who was the 49ers' defensive coordinator when Owens played there. "I talked to Andy Reid. I told him that communication is the key. Communicating constantly will earn his trust."
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.