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 Alex City football stadium rose from the landscape like a Sphinx in the nighttime desert, looming and lit up from every angle.

As we navigated the parking lot outside, we could already hear the thwackita-thwackita of snare drums and the trumpets proclaiming: It’s Friday night in Alex City, people, and when the bouncy girls down front call out Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar — well, by gum, you’d better stand up and holler.

Inside the stadium, a pom-pom ocean broke in waves of crimson and white. Brooke Trout — the school-bus slugger — guided me toward a seat down front. “Tons of fun,” she said. Her eight-year-old son wore a Wildcats jersey with “Trout” across the back, and Brooke hopes he’ll make quarterback one day, or at least wide receiver. She shouted, “He’s tall for his age.” And he was.

This particular Friday night came fraught with heartache and history. The Wildcats faced the Aggies from Sylacauga, Alabama, just a half-hour up the road. It’s more than just football between the two; it’s an old rivalry between the Russell and Avondale mills and their workers. It’s sweatpants vs. denim, and no small stakes. Times are tough in American cotton mills. But a yard still costs what it always did on the football field: just sweat and effort and blood in your chin strap. A touchdown still counts for six points. And Saturday morning always seems a little brighter after a win on Friday night.

None of which meant it was a fair fight. It wasn’t. It was a gruesome, horrific display, painful even from the bleachers, like watching a nature documentary where the antelope continues squealing long after the lion starts dinner. I’m not certain — taking notes felt unseemly after a while — but I believe the score at halftime was 40-0, in the Wildcats’ favor. Even the halftime show was like watching the food chain in action. The Aggie band played an adequate, polite set of music, and stepped aside. Then the Wildcat band marched on to Darth Vader’s theme song, hoisting banners and waving flags, ducking as a platoon of majorettes heaved — wait for it — flaming batons.

The Wildcats, mercifully, slacked off in the second half and finished at 47-17.

Throughout the game, coach Willie Martin prowled the Wildcats’ sidelines, barking orders, nodding, signaling. He’s a large man, towering over the players despite their pads and helmets. I caught up with him later, and asked what he remembered of Terrell Owens. He started like most others — “skinny” — but unlike them, Coach Martin witnessed the start of Owens’s transformation into something else.

When Terrell started high school, he joined the football squad against his grandmother’s wishes, and didn’t play much the first couple of years. He just wasn’t big enough. He almost gave it up for basketball, but Coach Martin encouraged him to stick with football. He saw something in the boy. “He had big hands, and wore something like a size 14 shoe,” he said. He looked like a big puppy, loping down the field.

“Let me tell you something about Terrell Owens,” Martin told me. “We had two weight-lifting sessions every day. Players could come in the morning or in the evening. Terrell showed up at both. He worked so hard.”

Before long, Terrell earned a spot on the team, and soon after that, he found his way to the end zone. He wasn’t a star, but he had potential. And he had a powerful work ethic. But then again, he did have another side.

“When players act up in practice, we send them ‘to the trees,’” Coach Martin said. “This means they have to go take a knee at the tree line and think about what they’ve done.” But for really special disciplinary cases, the coach used more creative methods. Like the game when Terrell scored a touchdown and started his Jesus-in-the-end-zone routine. He basked in the crowd’s praise: Go Wildcats!

Big Coach Martin could have wrapped the kid’s neck around the goalpost; instead, he waited until the next practice. “I told him his punishment was to run laps, but I wanted him to do it like he did in the end zone,” Martin said. “With his arms up in the air.”

After that day, Terrell kept his hands at his sides, and celebrated like a mortal. For the moment, at least.