Talented, hard-working, competitive, independent, charming, mercurial. Former teammates, colleagues, coaches and reporters bear witness to the alternately awe-inspiring and polarizing career of a player ahead of his time.
By Brooke Cersosimo | Published July 30, 2018
Terrell Owens and Randy Moss. These two prolific -- and polarizing -- wide receivers will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, along with fellow Class of 2018 members Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Brian Dawkins, Jerry Kramer, Robert Brazile and Bobby Beathard.
Owens and Moss were two of the most spectacular wideouts of their era -- or any era. Not only are they tied together through sheer dominance at the turn of the millennium, but they both displayed larger-than-life personalities and brash antics, on and off the gridiron.
Unlike first-ballot selection Moss, though, Owens was inducted into the Hall in his third year of eligibility, provoking him to publicly announce earlier this summer that he will not be in attendance for enshrinement in Canton. Rather, he will give his Hall of Fame speech Saturday at his alma mater, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, in McKenzie Arena.
Selected in the third round (No. 89 overall) of the 1996 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, Owens played for five NFL teams throughout the course of his 15-year career: the 49ers (1996-2003), Philadelphia Eagles (2004-05), Dallas Cowboys (2006-08), Buffalo Bills (2009) and Cincinnati Bengals (2010). The Alabama native currently ranks second all-time in receiving yards (15,934), third in receiving touchdowns (153) and eighth in receptions (1,078). His nine seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards are tied for third-most in NFL history, and his eight seasons with at least 10 receiving touchdowns are tied for second. A three-time league leader in receiving touchdowns (2001, '02, '06), Owens held the record for catches in a single game (20) for nine years (set against the Chicago Bears in 2000). The six-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro was named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000s.
But Terrell Owens' impact on the NFL goes beyond stats and accolades. Here's a look at the Hall of Fame receiver through the eyes of players, coaches and media members who experienced his rise to football immortality ...
When I came to the 49ers, he was not starting. Jerry Rice was the starter with J.J. Stokes. He played some as the third receiver. Played a little bit, got his feet wet. He was a gentleman, always "yes, ma'am," "no sir." He was soaking it all in, watching Jerry and learning how to be a professional. He was very humble, just a player from a small school trying to make it in the big time. He was that person when I met him.
I remember having a really good conversation with him early on where he opened up, and we just seemed to connect. I thought, Wow! Not only is he going to be a good player, but that's going to be one of my guys I can rely on. The next time I saw him, and it wasn't long after, I walked up to him waving, and he walked right by like he didn't know me. It was the other side of Terrell.
My first impression of T.O. was his crazy work ethic and his intense competitiveness in everything that he did. He was in the second year of his career when I got [to San Francisco], and Jerry was there. He was observing what Jerry was doing, from a work-ethic standpoint, attitude standpoint, competitive standpoint, and not only was he trying to match it, but exceed it. It was very evident that every time you were going to match up against T.O., you were up against a guy who was going to go all out on that rep. Whether it was 1-on-1, 7-on-7, team drills, a meeting or when the guys were playing dominoes in the locker room or lifting weights, there was this absolute competitiveness in him.
My first encounter with him would've been his [third] year in the league. I think it was the 1998 NFC Wild Card Game, and it was just a barnburner of a game. He had a number of drops before he made what's been called "The Catch 2.0." What I remember was after he made the touchdown, the one where Steve Young threw it between four defenders and Terrell made the catch and was so overcome with emotion, he was crying and teammates were trying to cheer him up and get him to embrace the moment. When he was done, he was supposed to come to me for the postgame interview, and he just went and sat on the bench. So I went and sat on the bench and did not talk to him until Pat Summerall threw it down to me. That was one of my first encounters with him, and I thought, Wow, what a sweet kid and a humble kid. I thought he was going to do very well in the league.
My first impression of him on the field was in my rookie year (with the Carolina Panthers). They beat us in overtime, and he did almost single-handedly. I grew up a 49ers fan, so it was really cool, because the things he does on television, I was seeing then in real life. As an opponent, yet as a fan, it was surreal to experience that.
He was one of the first receivers to wear his emotions on his sleeve at all times. Odell (Beckham Jr.) is very emotional and passionate; T.O. was the same way. Dez Bryant getting into it with teammates on the sideline, demanding the ball and that his teammates play at a high level. That was T.O. all the time.
For a guy that big, that strong, that fast, he was a playmaker. He could take a 2-yard slant and take it for 80 yards, and he did that no matter what team he was on. It followed him wherever he played.
[When I arrived in San Francisco], I heard he was going to be a good, young player. Then you start watching him kind of mimic Jerry, like how he worked and warmed up and all that kind of stuff. When we got into 7-on-7s or 1-on-1s, you saw how big he was, yes, but more so how quick he was at that size. That wasn't normal.
For a guy to plan celebrations, that means you know you're about to score. For the simple fact that you're walking into a game thinking you're going to score once or twice and have celebrations planned, do you know how cocky you gotta be? The defense's job is to stop you, and to you, there's no question that you're going to get into the end zone. His confidence was through the roof. People said he was disrespecting this game, and now it's 2018 and these guys are doing celebrations that would make his seem elementary.
At that point, he was quiet. Jerry was a very vocal person, a competitor, and we had Steve Young. We had a lot of personalities on the team, so I don't think he really had a voice at that point. He wasn't real vocal, but we saw that when he grew with confidence, that's when his personality came out.
It depends on what day you're talking about. The first couple of years I had him … [were much different than the final years]. Jerry Rice got hurt in my first game, in Tampa, so T.O. became the starter across from J.J. Stokes, and he had a good season. When Jerry came back the next year in '98, I wanted to start T.O. across from Jerry. He came up to me and said, "Coach, J.J. Stokes is a friend of mine, and you can start J.J. at X and Jerry at Z. I'll be your third receiver." He was a very good teammate. He didn't want to stir it up. But when he said that, I thought it was really unselfish.
He can be a little different in a moody way. Sometimes it's just a matter of how you catch him on that day. Otherwise, he does have qualities that are really positive, but he also had some issues just sort of playing along if he had a bad day. It was clear when he had a bad day.
He can be super charming and does have a sweet side to him. He's been through some things in his past, and I think he's tried to evolve into a sensitive person. But then he so clearly has a dark side that takes him into places where he thrives on conflict or creates conflict. It makes it unpredictable for people who interact with him.
I coached T.O. for six years -- that's longer than anyone else ever coached him. I saw the transformation from a young, third-round Terrell Owens to who we know today as T.O. That's significant.
Most of the time, he was quiet. The only time I really heard him was when we were on the field doing 1-on-1s, and when he was playing dominoes in the breakroom. Very competitive in terms of playing dominoes.
He's somewhat quiet and reserved, but intense and opinionated. Once you get to know him and earn his trust, then I think he's really a good person. I enjoy him.
He was a fun-loving guy. I remember him scoring a touchdown and grabbing the pom-poms, and [he] did this little dance in the end zone. He enjoyed the game, and he never forgot how much fun the game should be when he was playing.
He was always fun to be around because he brought out the best in all of us -- not just the players he competed against, but the coaches on the staff.
Yes, [he was a talker], but not so much at you. It was more about himself. Like, "I'm strong. I'm fast." He talked to himself a lot, especially when he got into that zone.
I've run into him a couple times, post-football. There was a group of folks at a golf tournament, and he was so engaging, not standoffish, like so many assumed he would be. There was a panel of folks, and he answered all the questions.
The 1990s were rough for the 49ers against the Packers. It's third down in the [1998 NFC Wild Card Game], and they didn't look right all game and had a choppy last drive. They somehow got the ball down to striking range. Steve Young took a snap under center and stumbled backward. It looked like he was going to fall, and it's a metaphor for his entire time against the Packers and what Steve Mariucci was going through, and Steve (Young) magically rights himself, stands in the pocket and throws this strike. In quadruple-coverage -- there was no way that ball was going to be completed -- and you see one guy transcending and saving the day, and that was Terrell. And that was a really, really, really emotional play for that franchise. They've won five Super Bowls and so many big games, but on some level at that time, that's one of the biggest moments that's ever happened in [Candlestick Park]. It was a symbolic passing of the torch from Jerry to Terrell. I don't think it was a coincidence that he made that play.
When we needed to sign him to a long-term contract after the '98 season, it was after he proved himself, after "The Catch 2.0" against Green Bay. That began a time where he was a good player -- he knew it, everybody knew it -- and wanted a hefty contract. He didn't want to be franchise-tagged. Those contract negotiations became the time when he had a strained relationship with the club. It was really the turning point for him. You wonder, had he dropped that ball, what kind of contract would he have signed that offseason? It would certainly be different.
We saw a different side of T.O. at the end of [the 1998 NFC Wild Card Game]. We saw him kind of crumble into Steve Mariucci's arms in tears. But it was like there was a misunderstanding, where people thought his intensity was a selfishness. I thought it was an intensity to help his team win.
Kids always mimic game-winning catches, throws and shots. Terrell was that guy that, after he made ["The Catch 2.0"], everyone was trying to do that same thing. That catch will forever be imprinted in my mind as a wide receiver.
That catch (against the Packers in the playoffs) was his defining moment where [his confidence] came out. From there, the T.O. we knew -- some loved him, some didn't -- was the person he wanted to be.
The Sharpie game up in Seattle. It was the fourth quarter, two-minute drill. He was playing against Shawn Springs, who was a really good corner. T.O. scores the touchdown to seal the deal and pulls a Sharpie out of his sock and signs the ball. I didn't see him do that at all, because I was getting the right personnel on the field for a two-point conversion. I heard it in the press conference, so I had T.O. stay on the bus when everyone else got off to go to the plane. He was sitting a few rows behind me, and I turned around and said, "Did you pull a Sharpie out of your sock and sign a ball?" He goes, "Yep." I said, "Who gave you the Sharpie?" He said, "I can't tell you that." I'm sure it was one of the managers, and he put the Sharpie into his sock before the drive started. So I said, "Why did you do that?" He said, "Coach, I just knew I was going to win the game, and I just wanted to do that." Then I said, "Can you do me a favor and not do that anymore?"
I was the defensive coordinator and T.O. a receiver. There was a lot of competition between my [defense] and him. There'd be days when T.O. and I would give each other a look, like, Hey, we need to get this thing going today. Then we might create a little friction amongst ourselves to create a spark. Then there were other days where I'd be protective of my guys, and T.O. might spike the ball or talk smack, and my response would be, "Hey, listen, T.O.: Pop off when you make a Pro Bowl." Then all of a sudden, he started making Pro Bowls, and I had no response.
It was the time we played the Dallas Cowboys. He scored a touchdown and ran to the middle of the field, and he did a celebration in the middle of the star. When that happened, I was thinking, What is he doing? But based on what we knew about him, we thought on the sidelines that that was probably something he came up with previously.
I was there in Dallas with the star. I was there in Seattle with the pom-poms. And I was there with the Sharpie. People would see that intensity on TV, or maybe what looked like defiance in his actions, but I would say firsthand that it was nothing more than a competitiveness and a will to help his team win. Now, some of the antics were just his pure, raw emotion that at the time seemed a little crazy. Now, everybody's doing them. But you'd see him on the sideline, and it might look like he's getting into an argument with our OC, Greg Knapp, but really it was just, "Give me the ball. I need the ball. I can help us win."
Nobody expected him to play in [Super Bowl XXXIX] when he was with Philly because of his leg. Then, when he said he was playing, nobody expected much. But he had [nine catches for 122 yards]. Phenomenal performance. Outstanding. To have ligament damage on the biggest stage and still be the No. 1 guy and be effective, he was like a superhero out there. He almost won that game by himself.
I just remember that Super Bowl where [he had broken his leg and tore a critical ligament in his right ankle a couple months prior] and still played. That's crazy. For people to call him selfish and say he's one of those guys you don't want on your team, that's nonsense. T.O. was passionate. Was he over the top sometimes? Yeah, but that's this game. That Super Bowl is the first thing that comes to mind. It's tremendously hard to bounce back from any injury, let alone a broken leg.
I do know he took care of his body and did whatever he needed to do physically to be ready. He might be the one receiver that I can remember who took care of his body that way. Obviously, I didn't take care of my body that way. I know Marvin Harrison didn't.
Brian Billick (NFL coach, 1992-2007)
We actually tried to get him in Baltimore (in free agency). When we were trying to acquire him, coaches were complimentary about the guy and how he worked, which was the thing you were always interested in. But it didn't work out.
Any time you're a guy with a lot of confidence and you're learning from Jerry (Rice). Jerry's a competitor, and most competitive people who are great at what they do, they're kind of selfish. Players can sometimes forget the bigger picture and lose the aspect of, it is a team sport. They know it's not about them as an individual, but they want it to be about "me" because they want to be the person everybody talks about, not the kind of player or person everyone wants them to be. Sometimes that competitive nature gets in the way.
He was moody at times, so you didn't know what you were going to get. Let's leave it at that.
The challenges are, you have to be patient. You have to factor in that he is prone to inconsistent moods. You have to sort of meet him where he's at. But it doesn't matter what mood he's in -- you still have a job to do. I always felt that even though he could be mercurial, that he did want to talk on a big stage. I don't ever remember being denied a postgame interview with him. I thought he did like the big stage and responded differently on the big stage as far as availability to the reporter.
He's one of the moodier people ever. Forget the antics. For people who knew him, he was just as polarizing. He was defiant, but not in the way that a lot of fans would find relatable.
He was ornery at times. But again, I didn't take that in a negative way. Anybody who is trying to be at the top of their game and is as focused and intense as T.O. can get a little bit ornery at times. The challenges that he presented I loved, because it brought out the best in me and in the guys I was coaching. My players had to be at their very best to win in practice. It was really awesome.
The challenges that I faced didn't have anything to do with locker room stuff; it had to do with covering him one-on-one. He was a challenge to cover as a defensive back. I was asked often after I got done playing who was the toughest receiver I ever had to cover, and that was easy to answer. It was Terrell Owens at practice every day.
Great players do the little things right every day in every way. Being excellent is a habit. You're doing the little things right every single day, every play, series, week, every single year, and it becomes second nature. Those players separate themselves from others. Everyone is talented coming into the league, but players who can take that talent -- but still use their mental capacity -- separate themselves from the other players.
Jerry Rice and John Taylor just blocked their asses off on the back side, and Jerry had this brilliance of making every play look the same. Terrell followed that lineage and blocked his ass off on the back side. He went hard and valued that part of it. He played with so much passion, and he was a complete wide receiver. He really valued the little things, the blocking and faithfully executing a full-speed route on the back side when he wasn't getting the ball.
He didn't take plays off. He's one hell of a blocker and did it in the pass game and run game. To be that big and to constantly use that speed and aggressiveness for four quarters, he wore DBs and defenses out. On top of that, you could move him around, and you weren't supposed to do that with guys his size. They used him in reverses, inside, outside, all kinds of positions.
His physique. He was big, strong, fast. I think he worked hard -- and still does to this day, for some strange reason. He was kind of one of the guys who set the tone for big receivers coming into the league and playing wideout. The Julio Joneses. The Megatrons.
I think he is one of the most determined people I have ever met. I don't know if that was influenced by his upbringing, third-rounder syndrome or whatever, but he would leave no stone unturned when it came to being a great player. He took his lumps, he was hard on himself. I don't think there was a bigger critic on T.O. than himself.
When he had to be at his best, he was going to be at his best and was going to bring other players along. He never quit. His physical nature and the way he ran after the catch was just, Wow. You didn't want to tackle him. You wanted him to run out of bounds. He was going to bring it all the time.
He was confident. He was also physical, strong and he could run. He was also committed to his craft. I remember getting treatment late one night at the facility in San Francisco. Terrell was training, and there wasn't anybody else there besides his personal trainer. He was often working after the lights went off.
His behavior was just so shocking in a lot of ways. I don't know if he believed he was a diva, but he was a complete and total diva. It felt like because he felt he was good at his job, he could do or say whatever came to mind. The pre-planned star [gesture in Dallas], popcorn thing, it kind of fed into this thing of, not giving people the middle finger, but just that, This is my way, I'm an impact player in the game and a star in the NFL. I don't remember him apologizing too much for the comments he made or behavior. He was fine with any kind of fallout or consequences, because he was flamboyant, a showboat. But at the end of the day, he could catch a damn football.
He said a lot of crazy things. Even when he was with the 49ers, he said some negative things about (San Francisco quarterback) Jeff Garcia. Then went to Philly and said some negative things about (Eagles quarterback) Donovan (McNabb), and went to Dallas and said some negative things about the quarterback. Just being divisive in the locker rooms; people say they don't like it, but that is all that's talked about. He was that guy in that generation where he would say whatever was on his mind -- right, wrong or indifferent.
I don't think everybody could relate to his level of intensity at times. And he wasn't necessarily a guy, in terms of dealing with the media, that was very patient or was going to tell you everything that was on his mind. He took everything as a bit of a challenge, and that created some misconceptions of who he was.
He was himself and emotional, and he was OK with being emotional on the field. T.O. wanted the ball and he wanted to make plays. He demanded more from everyone. He was selfish, but being selfish is good sometimes.
His touchdown celebrations. When he got in the end zone, you knew there was going to be a surprise. A lot of times, you wanted to see what he was going to do. He had something every week and prepared for touchdown celebrations, like Steve Smith, Chad Johnson and those guys. He kept it entertaining that way.
The last three years I had him in San Francisco were three of his best years. He was the best receiver in the National Football League at that time. I thought, If this guy continues this at this pace and stays healthy, he's got a chance to be a Hall of Famer. Those three years were really something. He could block, catch in traffic, run you over. He was impossible to tackle, a nightmare for any linebacker to cover, or safety.
Probably when he made the catch against the Packers, because part of the whole Hall of Fame thing is those indelible moments. If Stefon Diggs has numbers that are Canton-worthy, everyone's gonna point to the "Minneapolis Miracle." Those are the moments we remember forever, and Terrell has had a few of those. In the Super Bowl, most people wouldn't have played with that [lower leg] injury. When he went down low on the sideline and made that catch with so much stress on that ankle, that's a guy who's doing something extraordinary when his team needs him the most, against all odds. Had [the Eagles] scored another touchdown in that game, he probably would've been Super Bowl MVP, and it would've been epic.
We all thought [the Chicago Bears game in 2000] was Jerry Rice's last home game as a 49er. We all thought Jerry was going to be the guy, and T.O. went out and caught 20 passes. He set a record, and it was like, Holy crap. This guy is insane.
I would say watching him every week for the four years I was his teammate, I would put him up there being one of the top receivers in the game. The thing that really solidified it for me was when he played in the Super Bowl. He played on a broken leg, and to have the game he had when he wasn't 100 percent -- if he was on the edge of being a Hall of Fame receiver, that put him over.
I very, very strongly campaigned the last three years to get voters to recognize that this was ridiculous, that he wasn't in the Hall of Fame. At my Super Bowl party in Minneapolis three nights before he got voted in, he sees me and shakes his head, basically treating me like I had been one of the people campaigning against him. My former colleague, Jeff Darlington, loudly informed him that I was the guy who had been ride-or-die for him. Then we had a discussion, and I told him, "I've been trying to get you in, not because I like you, because I clearly don't" -- and we laughed -- "no, but because you deserve it."
I thought it would be even later than it was, simply because it's a difficult process and harder than people think. Sometimes you have to wait your turn. I absolutely felt like he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. I just didn't know when that was going to be. I was glad for him when it did happen, and sad for him when he decided to opt out of the ceremony.
What people don't realize is that a really good athlete doesn't decline when they age. They quietly go away, but they do it in a way where they don't fall off the Earth. There are some guys who say, "Oh, he's past his prime," but T.O. was catching almost 1,000 yards into his late 30s. That's hard to do.
After he left the 49ers, he still played well in Philly, and then in Dallas. Barring injury, like a Gale Sayers or Terrell Davis, if you have a 12-13-year career, you want a guy balling out and playing at his best, not just a three-year window and play OK for another 10 years. He was one of the best to play at that position throughout his whole career once he started to play in San Fran. When a guy is consistently great for a long time, that's when he's deserving of a gold jacket.
I realized he was Hall of Fame-worthy when, at every stop he made, he immediately made an impact. San Francisco. Then in Philly. Then in Dallas. Everywhere he put on a jersey, he was damn good. There was never really a drop-off.
Wes Welker (NFL receiver, 2004-2015)
Once he retired and you looked at his numbers, it's hard to deny him.
I gave him a lot of leeway, because he always played hard. I've heard a lot of people who've played with him say he's a nightmare and he's done all these things, but I've never heard one person who played with him say anything other than he played his ass off and was reliable as a teammate on the field. That goes a long way with me.