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

Seasons passed, in Alabama. Always the miserable season, then the easy: In summer the days trickled slowly, like sweat drops squeezed from the town’s collective forehead; then autumn brought relief, sweet fog swirled in the low spots, and the hills rang with Go Wildcats!

Emerson Street remained as ever, eternal and unchanging.

Miss Alice didn’t suffer foolishness. She didn’t like sports. She didn’t care for television, to be sure. But she did enjoy that Wheel of Fortune. The whole family gathered to watch the show, and every turn of that glittering wheel seemed dramatic, full of comedy or tragedy. Each night, Pat and Vanna — the gilded narrator and his silent, mysterious muse — presided over the buying of vowels and solving of puzzles; on Emerson Street they suffered the exquisite pain of landing on Bankrupt, and soared with each Free Spin. They wondered — marveled! — that any thinking person could not solve “Sw_ _t Home Alabama.” Ah, children: The world is full of fools.

Terrell carried his grandmother’s lessons to school, and remembered them when other kids made fun of him for studying hard, or laughed at his frail frame. One day on the school bus, he suffered the most dreaded nightmare: A girl beat him up. Her name was Brooke Trout, and she hit him with a slobber-slinger of a punch. “Was he skinny? Oh my goodness,” she said recently, holding up a pinky finger. She gave a good-natured laugh, overcome by the preposterousness of punching the now-mighty Owens. “I just remember saying ‘Leave my sister alone!’ and then swinging,” she said. “But really, he was so nice. Sort of shy, even.”

His bashfulness endeared him to one teacher in particular. Gayle Humphrey taught middle-school history, and felt compassion for the thin boy from the poor side of town. “It would have been easy for him to take a wrong turn, early in his life,” she told me. “But he had such discipline in everything he did. His grandmother gave him that.”

Each Sunday the family walked a mile or so to Great Bethel Baptist Church, where pastor Emerson Ware preached about Jesus Christ, and the sweet words from the third chapter of Matthew, where Jesus’s father showed up in spectacular fashion:

At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

“It’s common in black families here that Daddy’s not around,” Pastor Ware said recently. “It’s a problem. Other male figures have to step in.” It’s hard to estimate the power of God the Father on the boy: Terrell couldn’t cling to hope his own father lived thousands of miles away, unable to express his love because of sheer distance; the man lived across the street. His own father expended more effort crossing the pavement to pick up trash than he had to acknowledge his son. Jesus’s story must have tasted like honey to him: My Son. I love. Well pleased.

One Sunday morning the pastor picked up Terrell in his car, and on the way to church he asked him what he wanted to do with his life. “I want to be a professional athlete,” he said. The quiet boy’s answer caught Ware off guard. “Terrell was such a serious boy,” he said. “Very aloof. Not the kind to joke around.”

He paused.

“I suppose he always had that other side in him, the side that wanted the limelight,” he said. “I think we all have dual personalities, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. With Terrell, it was just under the surface.”

Sometimes that alter ego flashed through. At the height of Michael Jackson’s pop-star powers, Alex City held a King of Pop contest. Terrell had the moves, but needed the look; his mother, Marilyn, put her Russell mills sewing skills to a more glamorous use and fashioned him a costume complete with studded floppy socks, multi-zippered jacket and a glistening glove. At the contest, his mirrored glasses looked like solar panels powering him across stage, moon-­walking, spinning — winning. He pocketed the $25 prize check, and posed for a photo that showed up on the front page of the local paper. He described the incident later in his book, Catch This!, and between the lines, it’s not hard to see his dual personalities — lovable and hateable — forming:

With twenty-five dollars in my pocket, I thought I was rich and got so excited that I moon-walked all the way back to our house. People came outside to watch me and point and whisper my name.

He glided past the corner store, the railroad tracks, his own father’s house: a boy so desperate for attention, he moved backward through the world.

He needed to bleed out that desperation, or burst. But what outlet could little Alex City offer? Where, among the mills and foundries, could he find a venue for glory?