Terrell Owens: 10 Years After the Eagles

Ten years after his Super Bowl season, Terrell Owens is as riveting as ever — and has a message for Chip Kelly.

Photograph by Drew Hallowell, Getty Images Sport

Photograph by Drew Hallowell, Getty Images Sport

The wide receiver explodes off the line of scrimmage, shakes his defender, and curls hard to the right sideline. He’s a step ahead of his man, more than he needs to make a catch. The football sails high, but he reaches up and pulls it down, tiptoeing to stay in bounds.

“I would cut all that chit-chatter out!” he hollers to the defensive back he just beat, without so much as a glance in the man’s direction. “Let’s go!”

I’m on the sidelines of an empty football stadium at Pierce College in suburban Los Angeles, on a cloudless Tuesday morning in August. All across the country, NFL teams are midway through their training camps, and the start of the season is just weeks away. Here, the handful of athletes who work out twice a week are mostly in their 20s, with pedigrees from big-time schools like USC and stints in the pros. They’re staying in shape, hoping for the football equivalent of a winning Powerball ticket — a call inviting them back to the big show. Then there’s that receiver who looks so familiar. The long, chiseled frame, factory-built for highlight reels. The trash talk. It’s Terrell Owens.

He’s not waiting for his phone to ring, right? Owens is 40, four years removed from his last NFL game and a decade from his lone appearance in the Super Bowl with the 2004 Eagles. He was last seen in a Carl’s Jr. commercial, mocking his relationship with Birds fans, which began as lust and ended in the type of hate usually reserved for despots and Kardashians. While his old teams take the field this fall, Owens will begin a season of a different sort — as a cast member on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. He’ll never say the “r” word, but this sure looks like retirement.

Except for these crisp routes he’s running. Owens lines up again with another d-back, and fights through some physical hand-checking off the line. The aggressive coverage kicks him into another gear, and he pulls away from his defender. “Bye-bye! Bye-bye!” Owens yells, sprinting to the goal line. He backs up the smack with a 45-yard touchdown catch.

Running his mouth, making big plays, commanding attention — it all sounds familiar. But in some ways, Owens is a very different guy from the T.O. we remember. He’s here with two of his kids, 15-year-old Terique and Kylee, nine. Between drills, he encourages his teammates, bestowing advice on a young wideout from Pierce: “Don’t think,” Owens says. “If you’re thinking, you’re not running full speed. Be confident. Know what your plan is before you step up to the line. When I was a rookie, I was scared. I was nervous. No one knew who I was. John Madden gave me the name ‘T.O.’ when I started making plays.” When Owens speaks, nearly everyone stops to listen.

Coach and supportive teammate are only two of the roles Owens plays these days. He’s just a few steps ahead of being broke, according to published reports he doesn’t deny, and so he’s throwing a few Hail Marys — at an acting career and a clothing line, all while trying to keep up with child support for his four kids with four different women. But here on the field, it’s déjà vu. Owens is still T.O., the man who became a myth, flapping his arms in the end zone and sending grown men and women into song.

As the workout winds down, the defenders lose a competition with the wideouts and drop to the grass for push-ups as punishment. Owens joins them. “I’ma get some just because I feel good!” he yells, punctuating each dip with a loud “Ah!” I’m no pro scout, but it looks to me like Owens could still play in the NFL — perhaps even for a team like the Eagles, who could use a veteran target for Nick Foles. I ask him if he’ll be ready if that call comes. Owens looks me in the eye and speaks the only way he knows how, with utter confidence: “Absolutely.”

TEN YEARS AGO, the arrival of Terrell Owens in South Philadelphia marked the beginning of the most exciting season in Eagles history. More than 25,000 fans descended on Lehigh University to watch him at training camp (not a game, not a game — practice). The first pass of the first preseason contest was a beautiful portent of things to come, a touchdown to a streaking Owens for — get this — 81 yards, matching the number on his jersey. Plenty of prime-time players have nicknames; only Owens had an anthem: “Tee-OH! Tee-oh tee-oh tee-OHHHH. Teee-ooooh! Teee-ooooh!”

Today, there are no serenades, no autograph seekers when the workout ends. But the T.O. Show plays on. Inside an airless locker room at the stadium, Owens smiles as a camera crew bathes him in light. He’s shooting a public-service announcement for the Thirst Project, a nonprofit that raises money for freshwater wells around the globe. Watching is the daughter of beauty magnate Vidal Sassoon, Eden, who met Owens and invited him to a gala for the charity hosted by actress Jennifer Garner. A few days ago, he Instagrammed a photo of his cameo on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. (When you live in L.A. and you’re T.O., that’s how you roll.) He needs a few takes to nail the script, but he’s a natural, with that Cheshire Cat smile and charisma that fills the room. He’s also no diva — doesn’t complain about the heat or the fact he hasn’t read the copy in advance, and happily throws on a Thirst Project tee, which he starts to sweat through. I’m told he’s not paid a dime for his effort. Three days earlier, he flew east for a military veterans’ fund-raiser in Mount Laurel, then back to Los Angeles the same day.

Owens was, and still is, a complicated guy. Reports in the daily papers and ESPN soundbites only provide a glimpse of the full picture. As a father, he can be playful and childlike — chasing Terique around the field and, as we head to lunch off-campus, locking his son out of his white Range Rover and driving away, as Terique laughs and sprints after him. When we pull up to CiCi’s Cafe, a jam-packed brunch spot on Ventura Boulevard, and go straight to the counter, Owens is on the phone. I hand the kids menus and ask what they’re having. It’s a boring day for them, but time visiting their dad, even when he’s distracted, is rare. They’re both looking forward to bowling with him today, whenever all his work is done.

Owens hangs up and places an order — egg-white omelet, turkey sausage, one pancake with syrup — and I ask him about his early days in Philly, back in 2004. For me as an Eagles fan, not a journalist, that year was magic. I don’t mention this to Owens, but by the time the Birds opened the season by thumping the Giants at home, I had a midnight green number 81 jersey. My McNabb jersey sat on the shelf.

“That was amazing,” he says of the turnout at training camp. “Totally unexpected. It wasn’t like I fed into it for the wrong reasons — I tried to embrace it like they embraced me. It was like their prayers had been answered. In one of the early press conferences, I said, ‘I’m not here to steal anyone’s thunder.’ I came to get to the Super Bowl.”

After three straight Eagles trips to the NFC Championship game that ended in losses, Owens seemed to be just what the team needed — a legitimate number one receiver. With three games left in the season, their record was 12-1, and the city was giddy with thoughts of Owens leading a parade down Broad Street. This being Philadelphia, of course, misfortune awaited; at home against the Cowboys, a horse-collar tackle left Owens in a heap on the turf. Doctors said that with a fractured leg and a sprained ankle, he’d be lucky if he could walk in time for the Super Bowl — if the team made it that far. McNabb said the team didn’t need Owens to win a championship. At the time, it sounded like a pep talk from the quarterback to both his team and the fans — All hope is not lost, people. Owens saw it differently. “Everybody knows how diplomatic Donovan can be in his press conferences,” he says. “There was a way of saying that: ‘T.O. has helped us get this far, but he’s injured. We wish him well and hope he can rehab and recover and get back to help us. But right now, we have to focus on the people we have.’ But he never did that.”

Owens cocooned himself in a hyperbaric chamber, trained in water, and perhaps made some sort of unholy pact in order to keep his word — the Eagles reached the Super Bowl, and he not only played; he caught all nine passes thrown his way, for 122 yards. But the Birds lost, and from there, the wheels of the Eagles victory bus didn’t just fall off — the damn thing caught fire and exploded.

Aside from taking bites of his food and voicing his hunch — a correct one — that his orange juice here at CiCi’s isn’t fresh-squeezed, Owens is fully engaged in discussing that season and the disastrous one that followed. I ask him if he realizes that for better or worse, he created one of the two most iconic off-the-field moments in Philadelphia sports. Number one is Allen Iverson’s aforementioned “practice” soliloquy. Right behind it is T.O. doing sit-ups in his driveway. It’s an image most fans, here or in any other city, can recall — after Andy Reid kicked Owens out of training camp in the summer of 2005, Owens held a press conference at his home in Moorestown, New Jersey, while he curled weights and did crunches, shirtless. “This is not disrupting the team,” he told a throng of reporters. “I’m trying to stay in shape!”

Owens laughs at the notion that his impromptu workout is one of the greatest off-field spectacles in our city’s history. He never thought of it that way. In fact, Owens didn’t see a lot of his actions and antics the same way the rest of the world did. T.O. stood in the eye of a hurricane, a storm born when his star power blew into a football-rabid town, generating quotes, controversy and wins. He claims he was oblivious to the destruction swirling around him, including the driveway circus that became national breaking news. It was, he says, simply a reaction to the absurdity of his circumstances. “I was so pissed-off and mad about what was transpiring, I tried to make light of the situation,” he tells me. “I tried to have fun with it.”

Owens appears to have gained some perspective since then. “There are things I could have done differently,” he says. “I can’t imagine what Donovan could have been feeling to hear 70,000 fans chant my name when ultimately it was his team. I never even thought about how that could have made Donovan feel. The city embraced me with open arms. He got drafted and the city didn’t particularly embrace him. When I got there, I set that town on fire.”

He’s also firm on a few positions, chiefly that he’s a better teammate than he was ever given credit for; every star receiver wants the ball more, but Owens says he also understood his role was often to draw coverage and create space for weapons like Brian Westbrook and Chad Lewis. His attempt to redo his contract, with newly hired agent Drew Rosenhaus? That only became public because the Eagles used it as leverage, he says, to make him look disgruntled. His swipes at McNabb? Twisted by the media and played up to fit the narrative of him as the outlaw to McNabb’s white-hat-wearing sheriff. When I ask about the Michael Irvin jersey he sported on the team plane after a loss to Dallas in 2005, his eyebrows point downward and his face tightens, like he just smelled a rotten egg. “What about it? It was almost like being coy to the enemy. It wasn’t any disrespect to my own team.”

Okay, so maybe he doesn’t completely get it. I don’t mention this to him, either, but in the aftermath of his flameout with the Eagles and his swift adoption by Jerry Jones — he signed with the Cowboys less than a week after being released from his Eagles contract — I wanted to burn that jersey of mine. Instead, I tried to unstitch his nameplate, but like Owens with the underperforming Birds in 2005, it left a nasty residue that wouldn’t wash off. I donated it to the homeless instead. That felt like an act of tainted charity, like giving a starving man a moldy bagel.

As Owens sits here today — still hungry for the game, on the outside looking in — his brief but unforgettable legacy with the Eagles looks different. He was once a millionaire superstar. Now, his story evokes more sadness than anger in my inner Birds fan, at the thought of what could have been, and what T.O. has become.

BRUNCH IS OVER, and Owens and I are alone. His kids asked for the car keys a while ago so they could go sit and entertain themselves. The check arrives, and I offer 15 bucks for my blueberry crepes. The guy who made roughly $11.5 million in his two seasons as an Eagle takes the cash and puts the rest on his credit card.

As we walk through the parking lot, Owens looks back one last time on his tour of duty in Philadelphia: “I think the pie chart of who’s responsible for what happened would look a little different today.” I asked him earlier if his reputation for being difficult is the reason he’s not running routes in training camp instead of at a community college. “Absolutely,” he said.

Owens’s stats support his case. Only two players in NFL history have scored 15 touchdowns in a season after the age of 32 — his mentor and 49ers teammate Jerry Rice (15 TDs, age 33), and Owens (15 TDs, age 34). He says an ex-girlfriend turned him on to yoga, and now his range and flexibility are greater than ever. He’s still ripped like a fitness-magazine model, and claims he ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash this summer; by comparison, Jordan Matthews, the Eagles’ top draft pick at wide receiver, posted a 4.46 at the NFL combine. Owens should be to football what Bernard Hopkins is to boxing. If anyone could contribute to a young man’s game at his age, it’s the guy who sprinted in the Super Bowl when doctors said he wouldn’t even walk.

Fairly or not, the risk-reward ratio doesn’t add up for any team in the league (especially not for Chip Kelly, who cut DeSean Jackson for minor insubordination). It’s not the salary they’re worried about — it’s the price of the nonstop media coverage and the drama that would surely follow him, much like the TMZ camera crews that still track Owens’s every move. T.O.’s catchphrase — “Get your popcorn ready” — still fits today. Since leaving the game, he has been on Dr. Phil with the mothers of three of his kids, had a reality series, got married and was served divorce papers three days later, sued a former financial adviser, sued Rosenhaus for $6.5 million, was the subject of a Real Housewife’s ire on a TV show, had a dick pic shopped around the Internet, and racked up nearly $700,000 in tax liens. A few days after I see him, he stops by the Cowboys training camp and takes a photo with Mr. Belding from Saved By the Bell. The T.O. Show never stops.

Hollywood is fun and helps pay the bills, as do that clothing line, a mobile app, and a workout video he’s pushing. But what I realize is that football isn’t what drives him — he admits he watches more NBA than NFL these days, and doesn’t follow his old teams, the Eagles or any other. What he misses is competition. Celebrity Apprentice fills the void, but it’s the football field where Terrell Owens, the skinny, scared kid from Alabama, earned a nickname and became somebody. A career away from the gridiron, being a father, what passes for a “normal” life — he’s still trying to find himself in those arenas. Without the game, he seems less
than whole.

This is usually where the journalist asks to tag along and watch Owens bowl a few frames and just be a dad. Instead, I wave goodbye to Terique and Kylee; his children don’t see him often, and after this long, boring day, they need him more than I do. Owens shakes my hand. “You tell Chip Kelly I’m ready,” he says, flashing that T.O. grin one more time and speeding away.

Originally published as “The T.O. Show” in the October 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.