The Passion of T. O.

Everything you need to know about the spectacular rise and stunning fall of Terrell Owens can be found in a single place: the Alabama town where he was born

The name Alexander City sounds vaguely epic, and mighty grand for a little Methodist town in middle Alabama. So most locals shorten the name to the decidedly un-epic Alex City. They’re modest people.

The town sits a long way from anywhere else, surrounded mostly by the dying foothills of the southernmost Appalachian Mountains. The whole community huddles around the Russell textile mills, where its citizens work turning out sweatpants and jerseys for the rest of America. In the evenings they might stroll to the Russell Library, or bob on the lake in boats from Russell Marine, or — heaven forbid — seek care at the Russell Hospital. Their children attend Benjamin Russell High School. On Friday evenings, their boys go to war on the football field, protected by Russell’s finest gear. And the whole town cries out: Go Wildcats!

Across the Norfolk Southern Railroad’s tracks, on the town’s north side, a little green house sits on a street called Emerson. It’s a clapboard house, small but neat. It’s here that the baby Terrell arrived just over three decades ago. He came so tiny, so fragile. Women in the family had a tradition of going by their first names, because the men rarely stuck around long enough to pass along a family name. The grandmother, Miss Alice, hadn’t known her father, and her mother disappeared when she was a child. Terrell’s mother, Miss Marilyn, hadn’t known her father. It seemed natural that Terrell didn’t know his.

The house belonged to Miss Alice, and she ruled it jointly with God. She shut out the world — literally closed the doors and drew the blinds — and in the darkened house she taught her grandchildren Bible verses for recitation. She liked her home clean, and her children well-mannered. Peeking through the blinds, Terrell watched other children play outside, and emotion welled inside him, spilling from his wide-set eyes. Terrell wept.

I met recently with his mother, Marilyn, who remembered her mother as disciplined but loving. “People may not understand,” she said. “It may seem hard to them. But after everything she had lost in her life, she wanted to protect her family.”

Terrell’s mother and grandmother worked at Russell in alternating shifts, taking turns watching the children. The only respite for the family came when Miss Alice tipped a bottle of booze too far. Sometimes, when she passed out drunk, the children sneaked out to play.

About the time Terrell turned 12 years old, he strung together enough illicit rendezvous to develop a crush on Felicia, the girl across the street. She had almond-shaped eyes and round cheeks. She seemed sweet, and they shared a lot in common. They played hide-and-seek in her family’s yard, ducking and running in the grass.

I talked with Felicia recently. “Oh my goodness, Terrell was skinny,” she said. “But he was nice.”

They played in their clubhouse, where Terrell worked on his Michael Jackson dance. They even played football. They grew closer, until one day Felicia’s father sat them down in his living room. He settled on the sofa and looked Terrell in the eyes. Strange: Terrell had lived his whole life across the street from Mr. Russell, but never really talked with him.

“You can’t be liking her,” the man said, indicating Felicia. “She’s your sister.”

And that’s how Terrell met his father.