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 house seemed normal enough, from the outside. Brick, well-kept, several vehicles in the driveway. Nice. Terrell’s mother, Marilyn, offered a welcoming wave.

The inside, though, looked like a battlefield involving multiple generations and tax brackets. Every light in the whole place remained switched off, a money-saving technique perfected by Terrell’s grandmother. Miss Alice now lives in a nursing home, suffering from Alzheimer’s, but her influence stays strong. When Marilyn needed to examine some artifact more closely, she briefly flicked on the lights. And when she did, the place exploded in a riot of — everything, really. A multicolored fur rug lay on the floor, cut and dyed in the shape of a lion on the savannah. “That’s 100 percent genuine alpaca,” Marilyn said. Beyond it stood a whopper of a big-screen television, and a billboard-sized poster. But one piece of artwork dominated the room, and almost defied categorization, except maybe “electric art,” of the type that usually involves a moving waterfall; this one featured the Golden Gate Bridge, lit with miniature street lights.  It represented a specific meeting of money and taste rarely seen outside Saudi royal palaces.

The most shocking fixture was Marilyn herself. In the pomp and roar of the setting, she stood out because she seemed the opposite: so quiet, so shy. She spoke softly of her son, of his rise from the local high school to little University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, from there to the San Francisco 49ers and ultimately to Philadelphia. She spoke in lovely understatements. “Terrell helps out everybody around here,” she said. As she spoke, Terrell’s young nephew toddled in and out of the room. His sister sat on a chair in the doorway of the two-car garage, enjoying the weather. A man grilled hamburgers out back. Terrell supports a vast multitude, extending to siblings and cousins and their families. Marilyn smiled. “He’s a good son to me.”

She described him, foremost, as “humble.” And as for “all that other stuff,” she scolded the world for even noticing. “People misinterpret it, you’ve got to understand,” she said. “It’s his personality. He’s having fun. He’s not offending anybody, or hurting anybody. So with all the things going on in the world right now, it seems silly to be worried about what dance he does. It’s just fun.”

The fun started in earnest about five years ago, when Owens danced — twice — on the revered Dallas Cowboys’ star at the center of their field. His second boogie-woogie that day started a small riot and earned him an unpaid suspension.

Two years later, in Seattle, after scoring a touchdown, he reached into his sock, where he had hidden a Sharpie marker, whipped it out, and autographed the football while standing in the end zone. Football celebrations should hence be recounted as “Before Sharpie” and “After Sharpie,” because the little antic precipitated a crackdown on unsportsmanlike displays in the NFL. And thousands of high-school players probably now sport bulges in their socks, just waiting for a touchdown worth expulsion.

That same year, playing against Green Bay, Owens scored, ran to the sidelines, grabbed a pair of pom-poms from a cheerleader, and danced his heart out. Green Bay, I should note, won that game.

Last year, viewers of Monday Night Football saw Owens appear in a promotional sketch with actress Nicollette Sheridan. She stepped into the Eagles’ locker room wearing a towel and proposed he skip the game. Football fans, apparently forgetting years of beer commercials, rose up in indignation.

And finally, this October, after Owens caught the 100th touchdown pass of his career, against the San Diego Chargers, he flipped a small towel over one arm and held the football aloft with the other, like a waiter serving up a particularly fine vintage of smart aleck. The play-by-play announcers seemed to criticize it as performance art. “I’ve seen him do better,” one said. And, “I’d give it a C-minus.” Owens, embarrassed, ridiculed his team on television a few weeks later for not pausing the game to acknowledge his catch. He called this oversight — which visibly cramped his towel-flipping display — a “lack of class” by the Eagles. Almost in the same breath, Owens took a jab at quarterback Donovan McNabb, furthering a feud that had started months before, when McNabb said the Eagles could reach the Super Bowl even if Owens didn’t play. Owens, apparently, found this absurd, so he reminded the team of his own greatness, frequently and at high volume. Finally the Eagles, in November, said that no matter how great a weapon he was, he too frequently damaged his own team. He’s a switchblade that tends to spring open in its owner’s pocket. And so they cast him out.

Owens claims he only sizzles and pops that way for his mother’s benefit, so she can watch him on television and feel proud. At first it’s hard to believe the exaltation of a million fans is only a by-product of his effort to reach one, sitting on a sofa in Alex City, Alabama. But when you sit with her, and her pride illuminates an otherwise darkened house, the big-screen television starts to make sense; it’s a conduit between the two, by which the life-sized son communes with his mother.

For all his preening and posing, Terrell Owens did seize up in the spotlight once. In 2000 he appeared on Wheel of Fortune as a celebrity player; he stood at the wheel in a well-cut suit, as cool as the diamonds gleaming in his earlobes. He grinned for the camera and then — just froze, grinning. He looked for all the world like a six-foot-three little boy, standing in his grandmother’s house, watching Pat and Vanna glow. He grinned, awestruck, even as his spins landed on Bankrupt, again and again.