Owens will be on the banners hanging around the Hall's campus and on the video boards of the main stage. He'll go down in history as one of eight to be inducted in 2018 into football's most hallowed place, the home of gridiron immortality. Merchandisers will likely sell plenty of gear with his likeness on it during the weekend. But in terms of the event, that's about where his time in the spotlight will end.
"We talked, and basically I told him -- it's unprecedented that this ever happened -- bottom line, I told him we were disappointed because we were looking forward to honoring him," Pro Football Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker told NFL.com on Wednesday.
"He had come here, probably around April -- we have all the guys come in for orientation -- and he had come in to be at the Hall and show him what we were going to do and all that stuff, and he seemed to have a good time," Baker said of Owens' visit to Canton. "He streamed the thing out of Facebook Live, I believe, the entire time."
Baker made it sound as though Owens initially seemed eager to be part of one of the most special weekends on the football calendar. But something changed along the way from April to early June, when Baker and the Hall first learned of Owens' decision to decline the invitation to attend the enshrinement ceremony.
Owens, of course, spent much of his career in the spotlight, for both his on-field achievements and his on- and off-field antics. His consistent, elite-level production made his Hall of Fame case an apparent slam dunk. But he wasn't inducted in his first year of eligibility, prompting months of arguments (and tweets) promoting Owens' case. Time allowed for resentment to build, it seems, especially after Owens was denied entry in his second year, too. By the time Owens got the call, it took him less than six months to decide he didn't want to take part in the enshrinement ceremony.
"You probably need to be asking him that question instead of me, but I think I can say this because it's out there publicly: His rationale was that he felt disrespected because he's not a first-ballot Hall of Famer," Baker said. "That's really what it was about. I explained to him that the selectors select the Hall of Famers, and the Hall of Fame, we are the ones that honor them."
Repeated attempts for comment from Owens on these matters proved unsuccessful. But the wideout did provide some insight into his thinking while announcing his plans for the celebratory weekend:
Upon the conclusion of his final season in the NFL, Owens' Hall case appeared about as firm as they come for a receiver. He stands second in all-time receiving yards (15,934), nearly 650 more yards than Randy Moss, who enters in the same class as a first-ballot selection. His 153 receiving touchdowns are third all-time and three less than Moss' 156.
But given the aforementioned statistical production and the fact that Owens never had any serious off-field issues, it's fair to see why the receiver would be upset by missing the final cut in his first two years of eligibility. Still, the decision to skip his own enshrinement took many by surprise, and it was the kind of development for which the Hall of Fame likely never thought it would have to prepare. It's difficult to honor someone who chooses not to be there.
Owens will not be a part of the parade, and, of course, he won't be speaking. There currently aren't plans to include a video tribute or other ceremonial presentation. The enshrinement event will showcase the inductees who are in attendance -- the seven other guys joining an elite club of legends who, Baker says, don't care how each individual gained entry.
"When you get those guys in the room, you're a Hall of Famer. You're one of the elite," Baker said. "At this moment, there are 310 bronze busts in the room, out of the 300 million or so who have played this game. Once you are a Hall of Famer, they're all Hall of Famers. It's not a gradation of first-ballot, first-year, second-year. I've never seen that amongst these guys. This is a fraternity that once you're in, you're in."
Baker says he has no hard feelings toward the five-time first-team All-Pro. Owens' invitation to enshrinement weekend still stands, and he will be welcomed into Baker's massive open arms at the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the rest of his life.
"The Hall of Fame and my successor's successor's successor will always guard his legacy, just like every other Hall of Famer," Baker said.