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The Terrell Owens you've never heard about

Eric Adelson
Columnist
(Illustration: Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

He has to pull over to the side of the road to take this call, to make sure he doesn’t cut out. But he wants to tell a story.

“It was my junior year, 1994,” says Brandon Born, talking amid the cornfields in rural Minnesota. “We were playing Georgia Southern. This team takes us to overtime. The last play, they throw me the ball and I dunk it.”

Born says he has a video of this somewhere. It was 25 years ago, at a conference hoops tournament, but he kept the video.

“After the play ends,” he continues, “the game’s over, the guy I dunked on is trying to walk back. And you see someone on the bench with a towel and he’s doing the helicopter twirl right in front of this guy’s face.”

The phone call ends with that story, and a few minutes later, the video arrives by text message. It’s grainy – this is almost a quarter-century ago now – but sure enough, Born’s teammate at Tennessee-Chattanooga leaps off the bench and waves a white towel in some dude’s direction before hugging Born. And if you slow down the video in the ensuing celebration, you recognize the teammate’s face.

It’s Terrell Owens.

This weekend, the most famous athlete in the history of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The ceremony will not be at a museum in Ohio, but rather in an old basketball arena on the Chattanooga campus. That has irked many NFL traditionalists, but it makes perfect sense to the teammates of the T.O. who you’ve never heard about.

The story of Terrell Owens the hoops benchwarmer is in a way more illustrative than most anything we’ve read about his football legend. Stories from hardwood teammates give a bit of a different look at a football player who everyone seems to have figured out by now. In fact, one of the first people Owens told about his induction plans was the former UTC mascot.

“He made that decision [to skip the ceremony] well in advance,” says Erik Gray, who was “Chief Mocanooga” and is now one of Owens’ good friends.

To hear these guys talk about a much-maligned celebrity is to challenge your perceptions, even a little. To them, T.O. didn’t mean “flashy and petulant superstar.” To them, T.O. stood for “turnover.”

“He was a helluva teammate,” says Born. “You see the Tony Romo stuff. But if you were Brandon Born? That guy was your No. 1 fan. Period.”

*****
There’s a chance we would have never known of Owens if not for basketball. He was from a small town in Alabama called Alexander City. When Owens was in high school, the football coach at UTC was Buddy Nix. He came to town not to scout Owens, but a teammate named Derrick Hall.

“He was the third receiver on a two-receiver offense,” Nix says of Owens. “He didn’t start. It was during basketball season. We went to see him play basketball. He was a late bloomer. He was about 6-1. Weighed about 175 pounds. Skinny kid. Played above the rim. He stood out athletically.”

Nix thought early on that Owens had potential. He mused to an assistant that Hall would play on Saturday while Owens could play on Sunday. Those who played for the Mocs basketball team wondered if T.O. could play on any particular weeknight.

“When we first got him, he was just done with the football season,” says Johnny Taylor, who went on to be drafted into the NBA. “He struggled with it. It took him time to get into basketball shape.”

The Mocs were the toast of the town back then. Getting into the NCAA tournament was almost routine. (They went to the Sweet 16 the year after Owens left.) The team didn’t need Owens. In line with his give-me-the-ball reputation, that should have sent him off the deep end, right? The Mocs say it was just the opposite. Owens was happy to be the grunt.

“That period was one of the highest levels of basketball ever at the university,” Born says. “You’re not going to come in here and be The Man. You’re starting at the bottom. That’s what happened. He didn’t come in wearing sunglasses. He said, ‘Hey I’m ready to work.’ ”

Owens spent hours with Born in the very gym where he’ll be giving his Hall of Fame speech on Saturday. “I taught him how to shoot a basketball,” Born says. “How to hold it, how to release it. He was a sponge.”

Teammates and even a coach or two loved to watch Owens’ eyes light up when he got the envelope with the per diem. There was a quiet joke that he wanted to play on the team only for the meal money. Some even nicknamed him “Meal Money” for that reason. “I don’t know if he even had a car, to be honest,” Born says. “He was always around the student center. He had that smile. He had it back then. When you see him, you’d go up to him and hug him.”

But T.O. was not soft.

“He was incredible at practice,” says then-basketball coach Mack McCarthy. “He could guard any position. His effort was unbelievable. He was super in the weight room. You didn’t want to be embarrassed by him. He was a great, great teammate. He really cared about competing and winning. It was devastating to him when we lost. He positively made us better.”

This is the same guy who publicly ripped teammates throughout his NFL career – a guy who caused a schism among Hall of Fame voters because he was so caustic.

“I know the reputation,” McCarthy says. “He was a completely different person one-on-one with us.”

*****

It took Terrell Owens three years to be voted into the Hall of Fame. (Getty)

In his autobiography, “T.O.”, Owens starts out with a story from his high school days. He’s sitting on a bus after a track meet and he nods off. He falls into such a deep sleep that his mouth hangs agape. Another kid walks up to him, gathers up a ball of phlegm in his mouth, and drops it into Owens’ open throat.

It’s a bullying episode that stayed with him for years. “I had been a loner before that happened,” he writes, “and became even more isolated after.” He got some vengeance later in high school by chasing another bully with a brick, but it’s all but certain Owens walked into his college life with some anxiety about getting humiliated again. Those who remember the surreal scene of Owens pumping iron in his driveway while giving TV interviews as a pro could easily think his weightlifting is part of a vanity play. For Owens, though, the weight room was a haven and a den where he could prepare and protect.

“In college, you could always find him; he was somewhere eating, or somewhere lifting,” says Taylor. “Or he was in his room or on the football field. Or going to one of those destinations. Very, very routine. He’s still training now as if he’s in his prime. People take his emotion as a problem, but it’s because his passion runs deep. That’s who he is. He didn’t have issues with people; people had issues with him.”

Owens didn’t run into problems on the court, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t run into problems. “He had an edge to him,” says Isaac Conner, another hoops teammate. “No question about that.” Conner recalls one scuffle on campus: “He made mincemeat of this guy’s face. He didn’t start it. The guy was messing with him. That was a big mistake. He finished it. As I recall, T.O. was sort of just defending himself. The guy had a huge knot on his eye. It was a big knot. One punch. One punch.”

*****
Owens’ reputation as a playmaker on the football field grew as he put on weight – just as Nix predicted. He wasn’t the typical lanky speedster. He was a giant, and able to fight off almost anyone for a catch. Everyone around UTC back then remembers his four-touchdown performance against defending national champion Marshall in 1993. But he never had more than eight touchdowns in a single season.

“T.O. was never a bad actor,” says Nix. “Not a drug guy, a criminal. He kind of rebelled some early. That’s being immature. You deal with that all the time. He might be late getting back. Maybe five minutes late for a meeting. Nothing bad. Ever. No drinking, no trouble, never anything like that.”

Asked if Owens was a good listener, Nix let out a half-chuckle and said, “At times.”

Owens couldn’t really be a diva at UTC. It was still the Southern Conference. It was still a basketball school. “You figured if he was a great player, he would have been in the SEC somewhere,” says broadcaster Jim Reynolds. “You have one strike against you in the SoCo.”

He found his way onto the hardwood during games, but not all that often. He only scored 57 points in his three-year college career, with 49 rebounds, so he was far more Dennis Rodman than Kevin Durant. “There were no plays designed for him,” Reynolds says. “He would tell you he could shoot, but he’d be lying. I remember one time Coach Mack was upset and said, ‘I’m going to start the five guys who play the hardest.’ That’s when T.O. got in the starting lineup.”

(McCarthy on that decision: “To my dismay, he didn’t realize why he started. He thought he had worked his way into the lineup.”)

*****

Terrell Owens reaches out for the football while at University of Tennessee at Chattanoga. (Getty)

It’s a stretch to say Owens has been in constant touch with his UTC brethren since he left campus. But he’s certainly kept ties. He’s even friends with the one alum who may be more recognizable than he is – Mr. Belding from Saved By The Bell.

“T.O. is the celebrity; Terrell is the person,” says Dennis Haskins. “He’s my friend Terrell.”

Haskins, like pretty much everyone else interviewed for this story, is a little protective of Owens.

“When you have that kind of edge,” he says, “when you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re unique. Sometimes that’s welcome, sometimes not.”

There’s a sense that Owens has been tarnished unfairly.

McCarthy said his former player got a “raw deal” for being criticized after his decision to avoid Canton.

Born: “I can’t tell you how many times, when people find out I know T.O. they say, ‘Oh god what’s he like? Seemed like I was always saying, this guy is really a great guy.”

Taylor: “Why are you trying to hold him out, saying he destroyed the team? He made every team better. Do I agree with everything he did? No. Show me anyone who did it perfect in every sport.”

Haskins, before hanging up at the end of his interview, said, “Thank you for doing this.”

The most revealing relationship that’s lasted, however, might be Owens’ friendship with Erik Gray, the former Mocs mascot. It’s Gray who picks up Owens at the airport when he visits the campus. The two of them walk around, and Owens gives football pointers to Gray’s high school son.

“Once he retired, that’s when he realized, ‘I wish I came back [to UTC] more often,’ ” he says. “We talk about how much he missed the university. It’s real. This started five years ago. He talked about how much he missed it.”

Gray says he got a text almost right away when Owens found out he was initially snubbed from the Hall. “Didn’t get in,” it said. Then when Owens did get in, Gray got a text saying he planned to accept the honor in Chattanooga. “He had this on his mind for a while,” Gray says.

Most of Owens’ PR problems in the NFL were of his own doing. He can make excuses, but insulting Donovan McNabb or Jeff Garcia is deservedly a major demerit against him. It was maybe because of this that Owens never really had a home in the NFL. He left the Niners for the Eagles, then the Cowboys. Owens wasn’t in Buffalo or Cincinnati long enough for those communities to really claim him. As a Bengal, at age 37, he caught nine touchdowns and amassed nearly 1,000 yards in one season. Impressive. But who remembers that? Meanwhile, Ray Lewis was hardly overwhelming in his last season with the Ravens, at age 37. But he had been beloved in Baltimore for so many years, and he was the most famous face on a Super Bowl winner.

It’s not a huge stretch to say Owens’ true team is the Mocs, and his city is Chattanooga. That’s where he could do no wrong in part because that’s where he did no wrong. He was a superstar who emerged from a college town that was always overshadowed by Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and even Atlanta. Owens’ professional reputation, right to the end, was tainted by disloyalty. There was never disloyalty to UTC. And his decision to celebrate his Hall of Fame induction in the Mocs’ basketball arena is the ultimate love letter to the school. It’s historic for all the right reasons.

“He’s having it around the people who give two craps about him,” says Taylor. “The people who never wavered.”

The grainy video from long ago has more significance than it would first seem. It’s annoying if you’re the opponent, or maybe if you’re a casual fan. It’s a precursor to his stomping on the Dallas star: T.O. making himself visible when he should just keep to himself. But around Chattanooga, it’s raw energy and spirit from a guy who truly wanted the team to win. It’s T.O., standing up for his teammates, for his school.

For some, Terrell Owens doesn’t belong in Canton, doesn’t belong in the hallowed ceremony. That basketball arena, however, is somewhere he’s always belonged.

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