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Tip-top Tandem
Michael Silver
December 14, 1998
Move over, Jerry Rice! Wideouts Terrell Owens (left) and J.J. Stokes of the 49ers have gotten their games in gear. No wonder San Francisco's offense remains on a roll
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December 14, 1998

Tip-top Tandem

Move over, Jerry Rice! Wideouts Terrell Owens (left) and J.J. Stokes of the 49ers have gotten their games in gear. No wonder San Francisco's offense remains on a roll

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Throwing My Way

DESPITE HIS complaints about not getting the ball enough, Jerry Rice not only is tied for fourth in the NFL in receptions but, according to Niners statistics, is also the most frequent target of San Francisco passes. Maybe the 49ers should turn a deaf ear to Rice's pleas: They have been more efficient when throwing to J.J. Stokes (below, 83) and Terrell Owens (right).

RECEIVER

PASSES TO

RECEPTIONS

COMPLETION PCT.

TDs

J.J.STOKES

89

55

61.8%

8

TERRELL OWENS

92

56

60.9%

11

JERRY RICE

140

69

49.3%

7

All Terrell Owens wanted to do was dance. As a tall, dark and lonesome adolescent outcast in his hometown of Alexander City, Ala., he aspired to be part of the Quiet Storm, a popular high school dance ensemble. Derided for his raven skin, beanpole physique and reticence, Terrell, at 14, was presented with a humiliating offer: He could be in the group—but only as the stooge who ran out and collected the dancers' hats after they tossed them at the conclusion of one song.

Desperate for acceptance, Terrell took the gig. He'd go onstage and get hooted at, but that wasn't the worst of it. He got no play from girls and tons of grief from almost everyone else. Other blacks with skin lighter than his called him Purple Pal and Shine, and schoolmates teased him for being skinny. They also picked fights with him, leaving Terrell with two choices: get his butt kicked or run. One time an older boy confronted him at a crowded rec center, and when Terrell bolted, the boy chased him all the way home. A quarter mile later, after Terrell had made it safely to his front door, he felt as if the whole neighborhood was laughing. "Everybody wanted to fight me," Owens says. "I was pretty much the most picked-on guy in high school, and I took a lot of beatings. Being dark-skinned wasn't in back then, so I'd hear stuff like, 'You should be glad you don't go to night school, because the teacher would call you absent.' "

Owens can laugh about it now, as he sits in a restaurant near the San Francisco 49ers' training facility in Santa Clara, Calif., and talks about the fame and fortune headed his way. Having turned 25 on Dec. 7, he's a superstar-in-waiting, a dazzling third-year wideout who has emerged as the successor to Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver of all time. Along with fourth-year wideout J.J. Stokes, Owens has brought renewed zest to the NFL's longest-running air show, a 19-year revue that began with Joe Montana throwing to Dwight Clark and has produced five Super Bowl victories.

With the Niners (10-3) having achieved a record 16th consecutive season of at least 10 victories, Owens has 56 catches for 935 yards and 11 touchdowns, and was recently featured in a calendar highlighting the NFL's best bodies. "I want to be a guy everyone notices," Owens says. "I feel like it's just a matter of time before I get a lot of exposure and recognition."

Like characters out of a cheesy cop flick, Owens and Stokes have vastly different backgrounds and personalities but bring out the best in each other. They emerged as reliable playmakers after Rice tore anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee during last season's opener. This year the three wideouts have combined to give the Niners a triple-threat passing offense rivaling that of the Minnesota Vikings' triumvirate of Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jake Reed. However, there has been one unhappy side effect: Rice has felt threatened by the presence of Owens and Stokes. Though he's tied for the lead in the NFC with 69 receptions, Rice has twice complained about not getting enough balls thrown his way. Most recently, after San Francisco's 31-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 22 (the 49ers were sparked by a pair of Owens touchdown catches), Rice suggested he might retire because of his frustration with his role.

Even with the 36-year-old Rice winding down, the San Francisco pass-receiving duties could be in good hands for another decade, with one catch: Owens and Stokes both have contracts that will expire at the end of this season, and each figures to command annual compensation in the $4 million range. With Rice scheduled to earn $7 million in 1999, it might seem imprudent for San Francisco to commit so much salary-cap money to one position. But given the importance of receivers to the 49ers' run of success—deep threat Freddie Solomon complemented Clark on the Niners' first two Super Bowl teams, and Rice and John Taylor formed the league's best tandem in the late '80s and early '90s—it's hard to conceive of San Francisco's allowing either Owens or Stokes to leave. "Getting them back will be our top priority once the season ends," San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci says.

Owens will be a restricted free agent, meaning that if the 49ers match an offer he accepts from another team, he must remain with San Francisco. Stokes, 26, will be an unrestricted free agent, but the Niners have the option of designating him their franchise player, which, in effect, means he has to stay in San Francisco. John McVay, director of football operations, says he anticipates both players returning, which, in turn, would provide ample incentive for 37-year-old quarterback Steve Young to keep playing.

The muscular Owens, who stands 6'3" and weighs 217 pounds, combines Rice's effortless bursts and penchant for slipping loose after the catch with the relentlessly physical style of Taylor. Garrison Hearst's 96-yard touchdown run in San Francisco's season-opening victory over the New York Jets was punctuated by Owens's coming out of nowhere to deliver a crushing block on 280-pound defensive end Anthony Pleasant. Stokes is bigger (6'4", 223), slower and a bit softer than Owens, but he has a knack for getting open, using his body to screen off defenders and grinding out extra yards after making tough catches in stride. "Defensive backs are getting bigger and bigger because of bigger receivers, but I don't know how you're supposed to deal with those two," Kansas City Chiefs safety Jerome Woods says.

As long as the money is there, Owens and Stokes plan to keep making the Niners' opponents pay. Says Stokes, who this year has 55 catches for 671 yards and 8 touchdowns, "I'd love to continue to play with Terrell. We could lead this team to championships for years to come."

While Owens, a third-round draft pick from Tennessee-Chattanooga in 1996, was regarded as a pleasant surprise upon his arrival, Stokes struggled under the weight of being hailed as the Next Jerry Pace. After the Niners traded four draft picks, including a future first-rounder, to snag him from UCLA with the 10th selection of the '95 draft, Stokes arrived with a passive approach to practice, which was in stark contrast to Rice's obsessiveness. Other Niners quickly got on Stokes, but even after he picked up his energy level, the stigma endured in the media. As a result, Owens, a man so hungry for publicity that members of the San Francisco public relations staff call him X—short for exposure—stopped doing interviews for several weeks last season in a show of support for his teammate. "I'm a compassionate, emotional person, and I was feeling his hurt," Owens says. "If you start hearing a lot of negative stuff, it's going to affect you sooner or later, and I think it did get to J.J."

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