The first team meeting at the Pro Bowl is a time for renewing acquaintances, signing footballs for charity and picking up itineraries for the week's activities in Honolulu. Last February, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens treated it as an opportunity for payback.
Slouched in a metal chair, he spied Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter strolling through the conference room at the Halekulani Hotel. When Carter approached and extended his right hand to congratulate him on his first Pro Bowl appearance, Owens responded with a smirk, then lowered his eyes and kept his hands in his lap. A puzzled Carter walked away without uttering a word, but news of the snub spread so fast that when Owens appeared at the hotel bar that evening, a knot of players grilled him for details.
"I told them that after we beat the Vikings in the playoffs in 1998, Carter had said to a reporter that their defensive backs made a couple of mediocre receivers [ Owens and J.J. Stokes] look like Pro Bowlers," Owens says. "I took that personally. He's not the greatest receiver in the league, so who's he to say I'm mediocre?"
Carter had no regrets about the slight ("Trust me, he wasn't any good back then," he says), and like most of the NFC's players, he approached the pregame workouts in Hawaii as the relaxed sessions they were supposed to be. Owens, on the other hand, took as many practice reps as possible and chatted up teammates for tips. That he's on the verge of becoming a fixture at the Pro Bowl is due largely to Owens's willingness to outwork everybody—and to a chip on his shoulder that can be seen from the Goodyear blimp. He makes a mental note of anyone who has ripped him, despite having far better things to dwell on. He's the unquestioned catalyst of a team that's 7-2 after a 25-22 overtime victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, and he ranks fifth in the NFL in catches (63), third in receiving yards (867) and first in touchdowns (11). Yet he believes he's perceived as a pariah instead of as an A-list performer. "Even though I'm playing well, I know most of the handshakes and smiles I get aren't real," Owens says. "I realize a lot of people don't like me."
There actually is much to like about Owens. Only two receivers in the 1996 draft—Keyshawn Johnson and Marvin Harrison—have had more than his 384 receptions and 5,625 yards, and only Harrison's touchdown total of 57 exceeds Owens's 55. When it comes to relentlessness on the field, however, the 27-year-old Owens stands alone. He blocks with the zeal of a pulling guard, lugs would-be tacklers for extra yards and is so devoted to chiseling his sculpted 6'3", 226-pound frame that while playing pool at his home in Fremont, Calif., he does push-ups and biceps curls between shots. "He's big, he can run, and if you play him one-on-one, he can outjump a defensive back," says St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. "He's the complete package."
The only time Owens is predictable is when he lines up across from a defensive back. Then you can expect explosiveness, attitude and a reception that will move the chains. In front of reporters you often get the same things—minus the first down. Owens's latest case of bravado came after he mishandled a pass that Chicago Bears free safety Mike Brown intercepted and returned for the game-winning touchdown in San Francisco's 37-31 overtime loss on Oct. 28. Three days later Owens accused Niners coach Steve Mariucci of allowing the team to blow a 19-point lead because Mariucci didn't want to embarrass his good friend Dick Jauron, the Bears' coach. A livid Mariucci called the comments "completely void of any deep thought," and the public exchange heightened the tension in a relationship that has been deteriorating since Owens celebrated two touchdown catches in a 41-24 rout of the Cowboys last season by sprinting to mid-field, raising his arms and gazing up like a man experiencing a religious awakening. Mariucci responded by suspending Owens for a week without pay.
When Mariucci attempted to start a conversation with Owens recently at the 49ers' practice facility in Santa Clara, he was rebuffed. Mariucci had better luck calling Owens's cell phone early last week, but that conversation went nowhere. "If I get rubbed the wrong way by someone, I don't want to be bothered with that person," Owens says. "I won't go out of my way to speak to [Mariucci], and I don't think he should try to speak to me."
Though Mariucci would like his standoff with Owens to end, it hasn't ruptured his team. San Francisco has won three straight games, in which Owens has made 24 catches for 324 yards and five touchdowns. After dropping two passes and catching only one in the first half against the Panthers, he finished with seven receptions for 99 yards, including a seven-yard TD catch that cut Carolina's lead to 22-20 with one second left in regulation. "This issue would matter if it affected the team's morale—but it hasn't," says Mariucci. "He's playing his butt off, and I'm coaching my butt off."
Owens can't understand why his behavior should taint his positive qualities as a polished receiver and a sensitive soul. Few people know the isolation Owens endured during his childhood in Alexander City, Ala. Other kids teased him mercilessly for the darkness of his skin and his beanpole physique. His main source of comfort was his grandmother, Alice Black, who now has Alzheimer's at age 67. Owens has been eager to prove his worth since entering the league as a third-round draft choice out of Tennessee- Chattanooga. Back then he was shy and humble, responding to questions with yessirs and thrilled to have a locker next to that of Jerry Rice, his longtime idol.
When the spotlight on Owens intensified last season, he didn't shrink. He established career highs in receptions (97) and yards (1,451) and set an NFL record with 20 catches in a 17-0 win over the Bears. That was Rice's last home game with the Niners, and while it was portrayed as a passing of the torch, others suggested the torch should have been passed three years earlier. Says Chicago cornerback R.W McQuarters, who played for the 49ers in 1998 and '99, "They were still trying to get Jerry the ball even on his way out, but they knew that TO was pretty much their go-to guy."