CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- More than four hours before the start of a Pro Football Hall of Fame acceptance speech unlike any other, Terrell Owens stood alone on a podium in The McKenzie Arena on Saturday morning, nervously rehearsing his lines. Clad in a long-sleeved Chattanooga Basketball hoodie, with stylish sunglasses to protect him from the dull glare of the gymnasium lights, Owens appeared detached and guarded as he prepared for his big day.
Then, a few minutes later, Owens took a short break, and his entire demeanor changed. After acknowledging a journalist with whom he has alternatively trusted to tell his story and heatedly clashed in the wake of depictions he considered unfair -- yeah, I'm that guy, though I'm hardly the only one -- Owens loosened up, removed the shades and smiled as he peered into his past.
Referring to the arena known locally as The Roundhouse, Owens recalled a nationally televised December 1994 game between UT Chattanooga and Michigan. "This place was packed, and the atmosphere in here was insane," recalled Owens, who, in addition to making plays for the Mocs' football team, was a reserve guard for the school's thriving basketball program in the mid-'90s. "Dick Vitale was here, and Michigan had Maurice Taylor, and it was so loud you couldn't even hear."
It wasn't quite that noisy at 4:03 p.m., when Owens took off his custom-made dark blue suit jacket (adorned by scores of miniature Hall of Fame logos) and put on his gold jacket (yep, the real one) before striding to that same podium, but the ovation he received from approximately 2,000 people was hearty and heartfelt.
No, Owens was not in Canton, Ohio with the other members of the 2018 Hall of Fame class, having decided to skip the induction ceremony as a protest against the selection process. He was, however, very much in his element, delivering an edgy and emotional speech drenched with defiance, gratitude, humor (some of it self-deprecating) and vulnerability -- but very, very few misgivings.
As Owens said near the end of his speech, "A lot of people say that I'll regret not being in Canton 10, 15, 20 years from now. But just like my choice not to be there today, I choose not to live in regret."
Later, at a news conference at a nearby athletic-facilities building on the campus of his alma mater, Owens added, "This is for the fans. This one of the most important days of my life, and honestly, I'll never regret this day. I feel comfortable here."
And -- to the chagrin of many of his fellow Hall of Famers, and of numerous football fans across the world -- he is not comfortable in Canton, at least as things currently stand.
When Owens, who has more receiving yardage than any player in NFL history other than Jerry Rice (the former San Francisco 49ers teammate he acknowledges is "the greatest receiver of all-time"), was absurdly passed over in each of his first two years of eligibility, it took a greater toll on his psyche than many of us could have imagined. And while he insists decision to skip Saturday's ceremony and stage his own event wasn't a direct response to those earlier snubs, the emotions they provoked certainly set him on this course.
"After he was voted in, T.O. went to Canton to meet with the people who run the Hall of Fame, and he had a lot of questions about the process," explained former 49ers guard Derrick Deese, who flew in from California to attend Saturday's event. "He wasn't satisfied with some of the answers. The voters aren't supposed to consider factors outside of the game, and yet they clearly seemed to let personal grudges impact their decision when it came to him. The people who run the Hall basically distanced themselves from the committee, but that's not right, because they're the ones who appointed them in the first place. So, he decided to take a stand."
And make no mistake -- while Owens went out of his way to say nice things about all of his fellow Class of 2018 inductees, including Randy Moss, the fact that another polarizing receiver who sometimes alienated coaches, teammates and media members breezed in as a first-ballot selection (only the sixth wideout ever to do so, and the first since Rice in 2010) in the same year Owens was honored on his third, added napalm to the fire within.
"It's a hug with a slap in it," Deese said of Moss' first-ballot coronation coinciding with Owens' induction. "Those are the two who were always compared to one another, and a lot of people debate which one of them, behind Jerry, is the second-best of all-time. And Moss is the first to go in as a first ballot since Jerry? That stings."
Owens and I have argued on plenty of occasions over the past two decades -- something he made sure to remind me of toward the beginning of our otherwise cordial NFL Network interview following his news conference -- but when it came to his Hall of Fame credentials, I was among his biggest advocates. It should be noted that he and Moss have very similar statistics, but here's one huge difference: one receiver was accused of quitting on his team on numerous occasions, and infamously proclaimed "I play when I want to play." The other played his heart out on every single play of his 15-year NFL career, whether he was breaking tackles after a catch in traffic, blocking for a teammate downfield or selling a decoy route on the backside.
As someone who is not and has never been on the Hall of Fame selection committee, I acknowledge that they have a tough job when they meet every year, and I have zero problem with Moss going in on the first ballot. When it comes to T.O.'s snubs during his first two years of eligibility, and his belief that some of the voters deviated from their mission in rejecting his candidacy, I'm squarely on his side.
Early in his speech, Owens explained his reasoning thusly: "Today, I stand here to put truth to power. Or power to truth. So I want to address the elephant in the room. Many of you may be wondering why we're here instead of Canton. There's 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 me [to be] voted [into] the Hall; it's because the sportswriters are not in alignment with the mission and core values of the Hall of Fame. These writers disregarded the system, the criteria and bylaws in which guys are inducted and ultimately the true meaning of the Hall of Fame and what it represents."
Later, he added, "I am a man of courage ... courageous enough to choose Chattanooga over Canton."
At his news conference, Owens conceded that his feelings were "something I've been harboring all these years," adding, "I just got tired, basically, of all the media that lies to me and said I was a bad teammate and that I was divisive. And I'm not gonna do some dog-and-pony show and go there and act like everything is fine. That's never been me."
Owens also said he was angered by Hall of Fame executive director Joe Horrigan's statement that, because he chose not to come to Canton, the receiver would not be honored during the ceremony (other than being acknowledged as a member of the class). That said, he did not rule out visiting Canton in the future, and said he hoped that in the wake of his boycott, "I'm hoping the Hall of Fame and the committee are open to having the dialogue" that could lead to an improvement in the process for future candidates.
Whether the stand he made on Saturday will have the effect Owens intended, he certainly made the most of his moment.
He got choked up while talking about his mother, Marilyn Heard, calling her "the real Hall of Famer," and especially while thanking his late grandmother, Alice Black. As he wiped away tears with a white towel, Owens got encouragement from many attendees, some of whom yelled, "Take your time, Terrell ... it's OK, baby."
At one point, a fan screamed, "We love you!" Owens gestured to the admirer and said, "I love you back." Then, with perfect comic timing, he added, "But I love me more."
Owens got a standing ovation at the end of the speech, which included a sequence in which he referenced his struggles to fit in as a child in Alexandria City, Ala., where, as he revealed to me in a 1998 interview, peers picked on him relentlessly for his dark skin color, shyness and many other things.
During our on-camera interview, Owens elaborated, saying that those experiences "molded me. Like you said, I was teased. I was bullied, before I even knew what the term meant, being bullied. Again, I got picked on a lot for either being skinny, scrawny, dark-skinned. I didn't have the best of childhoods. My grandmother, my mom, they made the most of what they could do for me. I just took advantage of a lot of the opportunities that were presented of me."
On Saturday, in a gym where he once threw down flashy dunks and tried to fit in as a role player with limited minutes for a conference champion, Owens rose to the occasion on his induction day. And afterward, while he made it clear he's still stung by the earlier slights of the selection committee and the criticism of fellow Hall of Famers working for various media outlets (including NFL Network) -- not to mention other journalists, one of whose byline is on this story -- Owens insisted he was at peace with himself, Canton be damned.
"I don't need a gold jacket to make me feel at peace," he told me. "I deny and defy what critics have said about me. ... I know a lot of people, as I said in my speech, that have smiled in my face and talked behind my back. Coaches, players, I know who they are. But at the end of the day, I was in control of what I did on the football field.
"Everything that I did today was about my family. It was about the people that really truly loved me, supported me and they understood me. You saw who was in there today. My high school coaches, my college coaches, as a professional, my coaches that coached me throughout the course of my career. If I was that bad of a person, if I was that divisive in the locker room, those guys wouldn't have been there to support me. So it's a shame that people that call themselves journalists that have lied about me and who I am as a person. Like I said, I'm going to defend my character to the nth degree, and that's what I did today."
He did it in a way that only he could have, in a place near and dear to his heart. And, quite fittingly, he didn't hold anything back. That's the way Owens played football, and that's the way he accepted his gold jacket. There were 2,000 people in Chattanooga, at least, who loved it -- and, rest assured, the guy onstage loved it more.