Terrell Owens is back -- contrite (well, a little), happy and hungry to win a ring with the Cowboys. Believe him at your peril, hate him if you must, but don't ever question his desire
By Karl Taro Greenfeld
Terrell Owens whispers the numbers to himself. Ten. Eight. Ten. Eight. Ten decline oblique crunches. Then eight. Ten incline dumbbell presses. Then eight. Ten. Eight.... As he pushes himself through another of his grueling weight room sessions -- decline sit-ups, hanging leg raises, hammer-strength lat pull-downs, dumbbell throws, hammer curls and a host of other lifts, curls, pulls and twists that have made Owens, in his trainer James (Buddy) Primm's words, "the world's largest ectomorph," he keeps working in sets of 10 and eight. "October 8 -- 10/8. That's when we play Philadelphia," Owens explains between sets at the Ranch, a health club next to the Dallas
Cowboys' training complex in Irving, Texas. "I'm not even gonna say that b.s. cliché that it's just another game. It's already exciting, and we ain't even played a down yet." Owens smiles, and you expect a mischievous upturn of the lips, but instead he flashes a broad grin full of bright white teeth and uncomplicated joy. You anticipate villainy -- years of bad press have had their effect -- but what Owens shows right now is only satisfaction at joining the Cowboys and giddiness at the prospect of imminent revenge.
Terrell Owens might be the most universally reviled supremely talented athlete of his era (at least Barry Bonds is beloved in San Francisco), having assumed that mantle at some point during his four-month broken-field run through the sports news cycle last summer and fall. The controversial touchdown celebrations for which he became famous now seem quaint after his immolation of the Philadelphia Eagles' 2005 season. There were days last year when ESPN seemed to be TOPN, constantly airing interviews with Owens and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, following his comings and goings from training camp and his meetings with coaches and team executives, Sal Paolantonio doing stand-ups in front of the Eagles' NovaCare Complex, looking as stern and concerned as if he were covering an unfolding hostage situation.
In a sense, that's precisely what it was: a star player holding a team hostage. Owens and Rosenhaus, of course, will lecture you on the unfairness of NFL contracts, asserting that the Eagles (who had signed Owens in March 2004 to a seven-year, $49 million contract, only $2.3 million of which was guaranteed) had no intention of paying Owens's $7 million roster bonus for 2006, and that T.O.'s cause -- to ensure that he was one of the best-paid receivers in the league -- was just. (Entering the 2005 season he wasn't even in the top 10 if signing bonuses are included.) But even if you take the position that in America a man has a right to demand as much cheddar as he wants, you have to wonder at the methods Owens used to make his case: being sent home for a week after feuding with his coach and offensive coordinator at training camp, then performing crunches in front of his New Jersey house on national television, was perhaps not the most persuasive negotiating strategy. And dissing his quarterback in an interview that ended up splashed all over ESPN was the surest way to lose those few remaining fans still in his camp.
It was almost enough to make you forget what Owens had accomplished on the field. Actually, it probably was enough to make you forget, so let's review: If T.O. had left the NovaCare Complex after his suspension by the Eagles in early November and never played again, you could easily make the case that he still belonged in the Hall of Fame: In 10 seasons he had 716 catches, more than 10,000 yards receiving and 101 touchdowns, fourth most in NFL history. Owens holds the single-game reception record (20, San Francisco versus Chicago, Dec. 17, 2000), was named to five straight Pro Bowls from 2000 to '04, turned in five straight 1,000-yard seasons and delivered riveting moments in big games: splitting two Packers for a game-winning touchdown catch in a January 1999 playoff game; coming back from a broken leg and sprained ankle to turn in an MVP-worthy performance in the 2004 Super Bowl. (And as any aficionado of Madden NFL will tell you, there has never been a better third-and-seven receiver in the history of computer games.)
Now he's a Cowboy. His off-season move from Philadelphia, which released him on March 14, to Dallas, with whom he signed a three-year, $25 million contract later that month, has made the Cowboys a fashionable preseason Super Bowl pick and Drew Bledsoe the happiest quarterback in Texas. Bledsoe believes that Owens's ability to draw double teams far outweighs his baggage. "What's past is past," says Bledsoe. "He's an explosive, powerful receiver who runs good routes and catches the ball well.... His impact is going to be felt not only in his production but also in the production of the other people on the field."
That sentiment was expressed more directly in the text message Bledsoe sent to Owens after their minicamp in May: "This year is gonna be sick."
Owens pulls up on a muggy Dallas afternoon in his gold Cadillac Escalade, wearing Croc sandals, black Jordan shorts, a black T-shirt and wire-frame shades, and walks in his surprisingly short, slightly pigeon-toed stride across the pavement to the front door of the Ranch, flipping open his Nokia phone and reading text messages as he goes. He is tight-end big -- 6'3", 226 -- but surprisingly compact, as if extra helpings of muscle, bone and sinew have been coiled into a too tightly wrapped package. The effect of this intricate overlaying of tendon and flesh is a kind of tension, like guitar strings strung too tight. Until he speaks, you're afraid to utter a word, for fear of rubbing those strings the wrong way.
He nods hello.
Later, Owens will explain that he has learned not to start conversations, because when he does, he's "misconstrued, misunderstood. People always making too much out of what I say, what I mean. You have to look at all of what I say." In his new book, T.O., he makes this point repeatedly, that in every interview -- about Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb, coach Andy Reid and his situation with the Eagles -- his comments were taken out of context. He insists that he would say 10 positive things about McNabb and the media would only print or air the one negative. And he says he has realized that once he starts talking, he has trouble stopping. "I tell the truth, I'm honest about how I feel," he says. His remedy? "Shut it down. Stop talking."
As he changes into his workout gear, he remains taciturn before explaining that he has found a better way to work through his feelings than venting into a reporter's microphone. He keeps a journal. Owens will grab whatever paper is handy -- a takeout menu, a scrap of notebook paper, the back of an off-season conditioning guide -- and begin scribbling. "Sometimes I'm asked questions," he says. "I won't answer them, but it later gets me thinking. I decided I had to make mental notes, and I started writing them down. Now more than ever, it helps me get my thoughts together, especially after this situation with the Eagles."
Owens takes a seat in a hallway next to the weight room, where a barber trims his hair for a photo shoot ("Knock it down a little," Owens instructs the barber), and returns to the value of his journal. Some of it, he explains, went into the writing of T.O. this off-season. And the rest of it? "I don't really keep it. Sometimes I'll misplace these notes and find them later and be surprised by how I was feeling, or amazed at how something seemed so big and just wasn't."
Since arriving in Dallas, he has discovered through his journals that he is feeling a little anxious about being the new guy, "about being in a different environment. I feel like a rookie all over again. Even if I've done this before, it still feels strange.... It makes me sit back and go, Man, how can I be this good an athlete and still have to go team-hopping?"
How indeed? "Dude," Owens says, shaking his head. He uses this word all the time, "dude" this and "dude" that, a speck of Southern Californian vocabulary that's entered his native Alabamian lexicon. "Dude, I have to admit there's something to that [question]."
In his book, which reads like a mea non culpa, Owens usually lays the blame everywhere but on himself. He describes in painstaking detail how he was misunderstood, taken advantage of by reporters and finally, during an arbitration hearing last November that upheld the Eagles' right to keep him out for the remainder of the season after suspending him for four games, unfairly condemned by a football establishment that wanted to teach a recalcitrant player a lesson in gridiron politik. Yet since writing the book, he has become more willing to acknowledge his part in the troubles that have enmeshed him over the past two seasons. He points to a team meeting after a practice at Dallas's May minicamp as a catalyst for his emerging self-awareness. Coach Bill Parcells had called the offense together and told them to take a knee before laying into one of Owens's new teammates for making excuses. There had been a few botched plays, and Parcells wanted the Cowboy in question to acknowledge his role in the mishaps. "It's funny," Parcells said. "Every time something happens, you always have an excuse. And they're good excuses. But when you look at it, you're always involved. So at some point you have to look at the situation and ask, Well, this isn't by chance. Why am I always involved?" Parcells then said that as a troublemaking kid, he offered similar excuses to his father, who responded with a simple question: "Then why are you always around the trouble?'"
The team broke up laughing, but Owens found himself nodding in agreement. "It hit home," Owens says. "I had to ask myself the same question. I have to be truthful and say some of [the Eagles situation] was my fault. I can't say everything, but some of it. It takes two to have that trouble. I know that now. A lot of fans are really unclear as to what happened. I think I owe them an apology.... I have to be accountable. I've learned."
Parcells has declined to comment on Owens for this story, but in a press conference at the start of minicamp he said, "I'm not approaching this with the idea that it's going to be adversarial or that I'm going to be mandating every little thing that this player does. I don't do that with any player. I tell him, 'Be on time, pay attention, be in condition and play hard in the games.... And stay out of trouble in terms of issues that are in the community or with women or strip clubs.'"
Owens immediately liked Parcells. "I have a coach who is actually similar in personality to me," he says. "People think he's one way, but really he's not. I'm a victim of that too. Dude, he's an enthusiastic, jovial guy. He likes to have fun. It's like being around family. He wants to win a Super Bowl; he knows he can't coach forever. And I know I can't play forever. He has a problem when his expectations are higher than his players'. When you're not pushing yourself to max out your potential, that's when he has a problem. When you're not taking your job seriously, constantly making mistake after mistake, that's when you have a problem [with Parcells]. And those aren't problems I have."
If anyone can handle Owens, Parcells seems a likely candidate, having successfully dealt with such problem players as Lawrence Taylor and Bryan Cox. But not every Cowboy is sold on the idea that this will be a team voyage through the season of tranquillity. "This is going to be fun," says fifth-year safety Roy Williams. "Something is going to happen. Somebody is going to butt heads."
No one has ever questioned Owens's work ethic, his drive, his will -- those psychological components lumped together under the cardiological misnomer heart. With most superstars who are labeled as malcontents, there's a whiff of don't-give-a-damn. But with Owens -- throughout every contract dispute, every feud with a coach or a quarterback, every dalliance with a Desperate Housewife on national television -- no one could ever say he showed up out of shape or dogged it on the field. Spend a day with him in the gym and you realize that the Cowboys may have done more than pay a superstar receiver superstar money ($10 million guaranteed for this season, plus a salary totaling $15 million over the following two). They've also brought aboard the one player who could sway the balance of power in the NFC East, a player so focused on making his case on the field (especially on 10/8) that he puts in hellacious hours off it.
During the off-season Owens does four hard workouts a week and plays several hours of basketball every day, often at a high school gym in Miami, where the local pickup crew includes active and retired NBA players like Glen Rice, Olden Polynice and Damon Jones. He is also a compulsive weight trainer, spending free time in the gym ever since he was at Benjamin Russell High in Alexander City, Ala., skipping recess and lunch breaks to head for the weight pile. That compulsion only got stronger at Tennessee-Chattanooga after he arrived on campus at 6 feet and just 175 pounds. "He was a late bloomer," says Buddy Nix, his first coach at UTC. "He was kind of a lean cut guy -- long, lean muscles. Just very explosive. You could see it."
Owens, a third-round draft pick of the 49ers in 1996, began training with Primm in '99, seeking to continue his transformation into a more muscular player without sacrificing speed or quickness. For the last two years Primm has had Owens focusing on the transverse abdominal muscles, part of what players around the league call "the core," the cluster of muscles in the pelvic region that determine direction and movement and, most important for wide receivers, the quickness and power of the first step. "This muscle group moves first, then the legs, arms, shoulders and head follow," says Primm. "This work allows Terrell to go better to the right or left, or straight up or down. It cuts down the reaction time between thinking about a move and the move itself.
"Most guys don't want to do this work," Primm says. "What Terrell does is painful." He points out the thick black bands that link Owens's ankles, hips and arms, providing maximum resistance as he performs a circuit of exercises intended to show him how to keep his weight centered. "He's so far ahead of other guys in terms of what he's doing and how hard he works," says Primm. "This is stuff that other guys are just discovering. But I'm telling you, most guys aren't gonna do it."
Primm recalls a catch-and-run Owens made against the Denver Broncos last year. On a second-and-12 from the nine-yard line McNabb hit Owens in the right flat. T.O. made a jab step to his right, almost imperceptible to the naked eye, then blew by cornerback Champ Bailey for a 91-yard touchdown. "As soon as T.O. faces up on a guy, he's beat him," says Primm. "It's all about what the brain does in that moment and how fast the muscles down there, where you turn, respond. What we're doing is training the brain as much as the body. When he does this work, he's balanced. Nobody can get him."
Ten. eight. ten. eight.... As Owens takes a seat on stationary bike to warm up his legs, he talks about being ready, about always being ready. "It is a state of mind, dude," he says, shaking his head. "I'm always ready."
He climbs from the bike and leans back on an incline bench. Owens doesn't keep a great deal of weight-training equipment at his mansion in suburban Atlanta or at the new apartment in downtown Dallas. In fact, the new pad is far more modest than you'd expect of a $10 million-a-year player, just 2,000 square feet of stark, modern loft space. He explains that his previous agent and manager, David Joseph -- who became famous for missing the deadline to submit the paperwork that would have allowed Owens to become a free agent in 2004, thus precipitating two seasons of legal wrangling and contract squabbling -- had, according to Owens, left his finances in a shambles, so he looked to simplify his life in Dallas.
"I do have a million things on my mind," Owens says. "With all that's happened to me -- firing my agent, my assistant quitting on me, getting a new publicist, finding out how bad my financial situation is, my personal life going up and down -- I need to get on the football field just to find some peace."
In the coming year, Owens says, he hopes to get two rings: one when he wins the Super Bowl with the Cowboys and another when he marries Felisha Terrell, a model and former dancer for the Phoenix Suns whom he met in July 2004. His friend and security manager, Carlos (Pablo) Cosby, had shown Owens her photograph online. "One night Terrell and I were up late in San Francisco," says Cosby, "and I was like, 'Look at these cheerleaders. Look at this one: Felisha.'" Owens tried to arrange a meeting through the 49ers' p.r. people but had no luck. But after signing with the Eagles, he and Cosby flew to Phoenix to work out with McNabb. One evening Cosby and Owens headed out to the Kona Grill for dinner. "We're sitting there," says Cosby, "and these two girls walk by. Beautiful. We start talking to them, and I'm thinking this one looks familiar, so I asked her name."
"Felisha," she told him.
Cosby turned and looked at Owens, whose mouth was agape.
"My frame of mind right now is to be a family man and take care of my kids and be a good boyfriend and, soon, to be a good husband," says Owens. "I know what I need to do to make these things happen. This last six to eight months, I've had to look at my life and think of what I really want. And if I want it, what do I have to do differently to get it?"
As he moves to an incline bench, he begins to work on a series of decline oblique crunches -- more core work -- and he goes through those numbers again. Ten. Eight. Ten. Eight.
"As far as my teammates in Philly, I'm behind them 100 percent. And I think a lot of them were behind me 100 percent. But life isn't always fair, and you have to deal with the consequences, and I've learned to look at these things and to dissect and to move on. It helps you down the road. But still," he says with a grin, "I am looking forward to that game."
As he drives in the late afternoon from the Cowboys' complex, down MacArthur Boulevard toward downtown Dallas and his new apartment, Owens takes a few calls from friends and arranges the delivery of a new large-screen television. It's 103°, and Owens is talking about where he likes to eat. "Boston Market, right there, that's healthy eating," he says. "I can eat healthy anywhere. I can go to the Waffle House and find a healthy meal."
Among his friends Owens's strict diet is a joke. "Salmon and asparagus, salmon and asparagus," says Anthony Shaw, a basketball tournament organizer. "Once in a while, he'll switch it up and eat salmon and spinach."
Owens has been taking the Cowboys' rookies out, trying to show them how to eat healthily. "These young players don't know how to feed themselves. If you want to last more than a season or two, you have to learn to eat lean and drink lots of fluids, keep your muscles hydrated." A few rookies have been shocked when they're invited to dine with the team's star receiver, only to find themselves hunched over a plastic tray of roasted chicken and garlic spinach at a Boston Market restaurant. "Dude," Owens says, "I want to win so bad, and that means having all the guys in good shape and taking care of themselves."
During the off-season Owens traveled to Maui with Felisha to celebrate his new contract. The couple was scuba diving from a boat moored off a reef in the lee of some verdant cliffs, the sun glistening on the tips of a windswept swell. The dive master, misjudging Owens's lean muscle mass, overloaded him with extra weight, 22 pounds of it, and when he splashed into the water, Owens felt the sickening sensation of being pulled toward the bottom. His ears felt the pressure and his eyes expanded to silver-dollar size as he frantically gestured toward the dive master, jabbing two thumbs upward to signal that he needed to come up. But she was frozen for a moment, watching the All-Pro wide receiver sink out of sight. Oh, no, Owens thought. This isn't how great careers should end, a man being dragged down to the bottom by excess weight....
"What happened?" he's asked.
"Dude," Owens says, laughing, "nothing can keep me down."