How T.O. Saved Us

Even sidelined with a broken leg, Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens has a zest and swagger that transformed his team, and our connection to it

Terrell Owens  rescued Philadelphia. He brought glamour and glitz and an electrifying jolt of good vibrations to the city, which was suffering in the spiritual desert of the 10-year regime of Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie.

Ever since the fading of the old guard of the Quaker and Main Line elite after World War I, Philadelphia has been a dynamic brew of the fine and popular arts, fusing ethnicities and races. With their factory-district South Philadelphia stadium, the Eagles are rooted in a bare-knuckles proletarian past, before the slick era of Center City’s gleaming, aquamarine, postmodern skyscrapers.

But the pasty, robotic Lurie, a pampered dabbler who inherited his cash, has never understood the mercurial energies of this city. He and his socially ambitious, chichi wife have tried to yuppify the Eagles, and many diehard fans have responded with open contempt.   

Things weren’t helped by coach Andy Reid’s stoic, laconic style, which belongs in Nordic snow country but doesn’t fly here. Known privately as a decent, amiable fellow, Reid has exasperated Eagles fans with his stonewalling press conferences — all those grunting, bearlike monosyllables. Modern Philadelphia is a city of showmanship and emotional expressiveness, from Leopold Stokowski’s flamboyant orchestrations of Bach to Patti LaBelle’s coloratura pop trills. Its reigning sports king, the multi-tattooed and intricately cornrowed 76ers guard Allen Iverson, is a bristling icon of street attitude and eccentric individualism. But except for sunny, ebullient quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Eagles of the Lurie/Reid era have been as constipated and buttoned-up as the conformist 1950s man in the gray flannel suit.

Enter Terrell Owens, bringing a surge of hope and new confidence. Everything about him was beautiful, from his perfectly proportioned, statuesque figure — unusually massive for a wide receiver — to his easy, dazzling, wall-to-wall smile.

He was an alpha male in a team sport, taunting opponents in a way that provoked officials but gladdened Philadelphia hearts. With his extravagant end-zone dances, he seemed to embody a raging lust for life, a victory over doubt and fear. Even Reid seemed magically transformed by Owens. Instead  of displaying the short fuse some had predicted for T.O.’s stunts and antics, Reid fairly glowed with fatherly pride and hinted at a new humor and relaxation on the sideline. And T.O.’s satiric theatricality was in perfect sync with the daffy, show-off Philadelphia of prancing Mummers in sequins, feathers and Goldilocks wigs.

A football game became T.O.’s blank canvas. He liberated it from mundane supervisors — the dyspeptic coaches and prissy officials — and turned it into improvisational performance art. Football became simple, primitive fun again, as the all-star gallery of hot-dogging T.O. performances expanded week by week. There was his cheeky dance parody of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis; his elegantly smooth ice-skating waltz and in-your-face treading on the Dallas Cowboys helmet star in the Texas Stadium end zone; his busy crunches and schoolyard calisthenics vs. the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins.

Even when things threatened to go bad — as when Owens intrusively trailed a seething McNabb on the sideline during an embarrassing loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers — they were miraculously transformed by humor. At the very next game, the two did a vaudeville send-up of their confrontation, mocking the sportswriters and commentators who had tried to pin a spoiled-brat tail on Owens. And T.O.’s vaunting arrogance was answered, of course, by genuine achievement — a season team record of 14 touchdown receptions, and 77 catches for 1,200 yards. His on-field performances made the ancillary dramas a gas. Reid’s stern dictum that T.O. wear shorts over his clinging spandex tights in practice raised the titillating question of what monumental sights were being puritanically shrouded from public view. And T.O. was enmeshed in a mini-scandal when ABC’s Monday Night Football cast him in a tacky scene of locker-room seduction with a wan Nicolette Sheridan in a towel. (For heaven’s sake, put that woman in a suede miniskirt and a Maserati!)

Both those farcical episodes broke up the Eagles’ corporate facelessness and dramatized how Terrell Owens has become a major personality in Philadelphia and across the nation. Whether the Eagles do or do not make Super Bowl XXXIX, T.O.’s place in the pantheon of Philly sports superheroes is assured because of his guts and grit after his right leg was mutilated by the hated Dallas Cowboys. He waved off all aid and, severely wounded yet proudly solitary, valiantly insisted on hobbling toward the end-zone tunnel on his own.

Heading for surgery in the days after his injury, Owens did not brood or sulk. He gave remarkably serene and centered interviews, promising to be the Eagles’ number one cheerleader through the playoffs that have ended so badly for three consecutive years. Even incapacitated, he was a generous infuser of healing energy for a shocked city.

“T.O., T.O., T.O.,” exuberantly sang drunken Philadelphia fans all last fall. He had become a folk ballad.