As much as Owens achieved, his sharp tongue and inability to channel his emotions made him a divisive force. The low point came in that win over Dallas last year. During a walk-through the day before the game, Owens talked about running to the Texas Stadium star, and he did it twice after scoring. Older teammates deplored the act, but the younger ones found it inspirational. Owens still feels betrayed by the punishment. "The guys who didn't support me drew their conclusions from the media," says Owens, who after his suspension filed a grievance with the NFL Players Association and settled when the 49ers agreed to pay him $8,000, or nearly one third of his week's pay. "I know what I did wasn't wrong. If that incident is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I'll be fine."
After that victory Owens stared down 49ers director and owner's representative John York in the locker room. Four weeks later he accused the team of quitting in a loss to the Panthers. He became so unpopular among his teammates last season that he found his retainer smashed to bits in the locker room, where he'd left it during a position meeting.
Although Owens needed an image overhaul, he spent his off-season pondering life as San Francisco's featured receiver after Rice signed as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders. He frequently thought of Rice, who used to talk to him about learning from mistakes, keeping cool when the ball wasn't coming his way and not permitting double teams to frustrate him. "I knew I had to learn to stay more positive," Owens says.
Before the overtime loss at Chicago, he had been succeeding. He appreciates the younger 49ers who dominate the locker room because they create a looser atmosphere than the corporate environment veterans fostered in his earlier years. He has helped younger receivers learn route-running by showing tape of how raw he was as a rookie and has developed a strong bond with Jimmy Farris, a first-year wide-out on the practice squad who is Owens's first close friend on the team in six seasons.
When center Jeremy Newberry sprained an ankle and was getting treatment on the field during the 49ers' 19-17 win over the New York Jets on Oct. 1, Owens left the huddle, trotted to the sideline and offered encouragement to reserve center Ben Lynch, who was practicing snaps. "Two years ago Terrell wouldn't have done that," says receivers coach George Stewart. "I think he's starting to knock down the walls around him."
Still, few athletes are as motivated by anger as Owens. He was so incensed after dropping four passes in a 30-26 loss to St. Louis on Sept. 23 that he scored six times over the next three games. He had 20 receptions and four touchdowns in the two weeks following his return from last season's suspension. The 49ers appear willing to tolerate the controversies (general manager Terry Donahue expects to see Owens on the roster next season) if they're accompanied by high production.
"Terrell wants to be a great player, but he also wants to be a personality," says San Francisco guard Ray Brown. "I don't write off everything he does to stupidity. He's a smart guy. He may come off twisted, but as long as he keeps playing like this, I'll take it."
So will the Niners, though they have abandoned the notion that Owens will become a leader. He's sincere, honest and loyal to those who back him. He's also a distrustful loner who doubts that a leadership role would fit him easily. As Rice says, "Terrell is one of those guys who's not going to loosen up. You want to play football with him, but after that he's off to himself." After running into Owens at the 49ers' facility one night in June, Rice gave him the game ball from the win over the Bears last year. It sits on Owens's nightstand, a reminder of all the lessons Owens learned from Rice, with one notable exception.
"Jerry always told me that when you're in the spotlight, you have to be a politician," Owens says. "That's one thing that I never agreed with. I know I can't change the way people feel about me, but that's fine. Because they will never change the way I play."