When I told people I had chosen Terrell Owens as my Sportsman of the Year, most people understood immediately. "Well, Time magazine did pick Hitler and Stalin as Man of the Year," they said.
And those were T.O. fans. You should have heard what Owens-haters had to say.
Owens touched a deep nerve with American sports fans in 2005. He was a lightning rod for opinions on the state of sports, the NFL and this country in general. His tale had it all: Redemption, greed, selfishness, immaturity, rebellion, combined with flair, creativity, and athletic prowess.
Owens is the ultimate anti-hero in America. For all bitterness the media has toward him, he's as popular as ever in some circles. I was in Philadelphia recently and his No. 81 jersey easily outnumbered Donovan McNabb's No. 5. When this mess blows over, I wouldn't be surprised if Owens was the most popular player in the NFL.
I can't condone Owens' actions. If I were the Eagles I would want nothing to do with T.O. On a personal and team level, he's a train wreck. But instead of ripping him, I think it's more important to understand why he touches off such a strong reaction. And it's why I'm nominating him for Sportsman of the Year.
On a symbolic level, Owens represents the perfect storm of modern athletics. In an age where players are bigger and stronger than ever, Owens is the most physically impressive specimen in sports. In an era when the media covers contract negotiations as close as the action on the field, Owens opened up a nationwide debate on the NFL's practice of non-guaranteed deals. Touchdown celebrations, in some circles, are now as important than the actual touchdown. And that's in large part because of Owens' end-zone theatrics.
The ultimate irony of the Owens story is that on some level the NFL needs T.O. The suits in the league office probably hate him, but they have no problem cashing those huge checks from their corporate sponsors who market T.O.-like behavior all day long. When SportsCenter dedicates the first 20 minutes of its nightly show to Owens, it leaves every other sport to scramble for the remaining scraps of air time.
Love him or hate him, Owens is the story of 2005. His speedy recovery from a broken leg and outstanding play in Super Bowl XXXIX overshadowed the Patriots' championship. His offseason contract squabble kept the NFL on the front page in August. His performance in the first seven games of 2005 was brilliant. And his collapse had the nation enthralled.
It's hard to imagine there's anything more Owens could have done this year. When a helicopter circled his front yard as he did sit-ups for a throng of media, I thought T.O. had reached the ultimate plateau in absurdity. But a week later, he took it to a whole new level with the Drew Rosenhaus-led press conference at his New Jersey home. Owens is going to keep on topping himself as long as someone is willing to watch. And in 2005, he had the entire nation's attention.