“My favorite quote’s by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Terrell Owens asserted during his Hall of Fame speech, which he delivered at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “It says, ‘the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’”
It was an ironic choice from a wide receiver who, during his stellar career and even in retirement, has seemed most comfortable when he was courting controversy. Owens’ decision to exile himself from the ceremony at Canton in favor of a celebration on the campus of his alma mater was unprecedented. Then again, Owens is a man so accustomed to burning bridges that he probably doesn’t mind living on an island.
A cynic would label the entire spectacle a publicity stunt, one last dash by Owens to seize a rapidly dimming spotlight. But Owens didn’t see it that way. You see, T.O’s quest was righteous, a principled stand against a flawed process. Just ask T.O. –
“There has been a lot of speculation and false reports as to why I chose not to be there. I would like to set the record straight. It’s not because [of] how many times it took for me to be voted into the Hall,” Owens explained, before revealing that his delayed induction was precisely the reason why he skipped the event.
In Owens’ estimation, the sports writers who serve as Canton’s gatekeepers had failed to remain “in alignment with the mission and core values of the Hall of Fame.” His three-year wait was tantamount to being “ostracized.”
“Whether it’s three years or forty-five years, you should get what you rightfully earned,” Owens noted to applause. It was apparently unclear to the gold-jacketed Owens and his assembled fans that he was being enshrined that very day.
Listening to the entire self-absorbed-screed-cloaked-as-altruistic-moral-crusade, I couldn’t help but think back to Owens’ short tenure as a Philadelphia Eagle. I remember him pacing the sideline during a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, relentlessly stalking Donovan McNabb and letting his quarterback know he was open.
T.O. was always open. And it was always important for him to let his coaches and quarterbacks know he was open.
McNabb had played miserably, throwing for just 109 yards on the day. The Eagles hit their first speed bump in what had been a charmed season until that point, falling to the Steelers by a score of 27-3 and dropping to 7-1. Compounding McNabb’s frustration was the nagging presence of a petulant receiver who showed his true colors at the first moment of crisis.
McNabb kept his composure in Pittsburgh, but lost his patience with Owens during a late-season contest against the Giants. After Owens complained that he did not get the ball on a play that was called for him, McNabb told his whiny teammate to “shut the F up.” McNabb admitted to using the salty language in a 2006 ESPN interview, rationalizing the brief spat as an attempt to re-establish focus on the next play.
“I’m running the huddle. This is my show,” the former Eagle signal caller related to reporter Michael Smith. “I’m going to see you a lot of plays and some plays I won’t see you.”
For anyone who’s played a competitive sport, it’s fairly standard business – words said in the heat of the moment and usually forgotten. Unless you’re T.O., who complained about this “incident” as recently as 2017 in an interview with Graham Bensinger and during a guest appearance on “Undisputed.”
“I’ve never disrespected any of my teammates to that degree,” Owens groused to Skip Bayless, seemingly forgetting that he once cavalierly implied his former 49ers teammate and quarterback Jeff Garcia was gay in an interview with Playboy magazine.
In his self-created dramas, Terrell Owens can only play the role of victim. He never had reservations about badmouthing his quarterback and coaches, but always took offense when criticism was redirected at him.
Even when he attempted to take responsibility for his shortcomings during his speech, Owens stopped short of assuming full agency.
“I’m not a perfect man. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But that’s what happens when you start a professional football career at 22 years old,” Owens stated.
For the record, Owens was 30 years old when he signed his 7 year, $49 million contract with the Eagles. He did so against the advice of the NFL Players Association. He also allowed agent David Joseph to negotiate the contract; Joseph had nearly blown his client’s chance to enter free agency when he missed a deadline to file paperwork.
Owens was 31 years of age when he decided that the contract he signed the previous year was unfair. After threatening to hold out, Owens reported to training camp, only to be sent home following an argument with head coach Andy Reid. Owens then decided to stage a “workout” in his driveway, causing a media circus.
Owens knew just the right buttons to push in his dispute with Eagles management. He publicly attacked McNabb for not supporting his case. He played right into the narrative of McNabb as the “company man,” the guy on the team who was paid handsomely while the rest were subjected to the hardball negotiating tactics of Joe Banner.
By exploiting this internal dynamic, Owens divided the locker room and undermined his quarterback’s leadership of the team. By November, Reid had enough of the circus and fired the ringmaster. Owens was suspended for three games and deactivated for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team.
To this day, Owens continues to take potshots at the best quarterback not named Steve Young with whom he played. At a time in McNabb’s career when he could have used an ally who had his back, Owens decided to stab him in the back. For years, McNabb had battled the noise machine. When he wasn’t being attacked for being black, he was taking heat for not being black enough. Moreover, had an uneasy relationship with the fan base, whose frustrations with the Eagles’ Super Bowl drought were exacerbated during the McNabb-Reid era.
Instead of silencing the machine, Owens fed it.
This is not to say that Owens does not belong in the Hall of Fame. Anyone who had the privilege of watching him play knows that T.O. earned his place in Canton. When Owens arrived in Philadelphia, he brought the Eagles exactly what they needed: a big-play receiver who could break through tight coverage and run short, intermediate, and deep routes. Gone were the days of depending on Torrance Small or James Thrash to get a critical first down and methodically move the ball down the field. In came Owens, who was a deep threat at any point during the possession.
The offense took off. McNabb had his finest season as a pro in 2004, posting career-high totals in completion percentage, passing yards, touchdowns, and quarterback rating. Although he broke his fibula in a Week 15 game against the Cowboys and missed most of the playoffs, T.O.’s presence in the lineup helped the Eagles secure home field advantage and break through the NFC Championship game ceiling that had kept them from advancing to the Super Bowl for three consecutive seasons.
Owens worked diligently to return in time for the Super Bowl. He rehabbed the injury during the day and slept in a hyperbaric chamber at night. Playing at less than full health, he still snagged 9 catches and netted 122 yards in a spectacular performance against the Patriots.
Should Owens have been inducted in his first year of eligibility? I think so. His all-time stats establish him as one of the greatest wideouts to play the game. According to Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier, there was a small bloc of voters on the selection committee who kept T.O. off the ballot in 2016:
The anti-Owens group consisted of nine or 10 selectors, a small minority of the 43-person board of selectors, but large enough and entrenched enough to block Owens from making the cut for the Class of 2016. A candidate needs at least 80 percent of the vote at the end of the meeting to be enshrined, and Owens did not have the numbers.
One could offer a compelling case that these voters were wrong. Indeed, there is a solid argument to be made that media members should remove themselves from the voting process altogether. However, the notion that Owens was somehow wronged because he had to wait a couple of years for his candidacy to gain the necessary traction is ludicrous. If he were truly “ostracized” by the committee, he wouldn’t have been considered at all.
Owens closed his speech with a quote from Albert Einstein: “Adversity introduces a man to himself.”
I completely agree. When presented with adversity, Terrell Owens revealed himself to be an incredible competitor. He also showed himself to be a man who wallowed in self-pity and undermined his teammates and coaches. When there were consequences for his behavior, he evaded accountability the same way he used to run past and through defenders.
“I am a man of courage, courageous enough to choose Chattanooga over Canton,” Owens proclaimed. Owens’ stand wasn’t courageous. It was an extension of his brand as a pervasive attention-seeker and chronic complainer.
Owens showed us who he really is on Saturday. But, as was the case during his playing days, T.O. was too wrapped up in his security blanket of perpetual victimhood to see it. So it goes.