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The Cowboy Factor
October 09, 2006
Dallas owner Jerry Jones expected a circus when he signed Terrell Owens--and he couldn't be happier that his Boys are once again center ring in the NFL
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October 09, 2006

The Cowboy Factor

Dallas owner Jerry Jones expected a circus when he signed Terrell Owens--and he couldn't be happier that his Boys are once again center ring in the NFL

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The chant was music to his ears, and Terrell Owens reacted accordingly, lifting his palms in unison, then placing his open left hand--his good hand--to the side of his head in an I-can't-hear-you pose. Hundreds of merry fans seated behind the Dallas Cowboys' bench at LP Field in Nashville dutifully pumped up the volume on their "T.O., T.O." cheer, serenading the All-Pro receiver with 1:58 left in the Cowboys' 45--14 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. Thirteen days removed from surgery to have a plate screwed into the metacarpal bone attached to his right ring finger and five days after a trip to a Dallas emergency room, the result of what police initially classified as a suicide attempt, Owens stood on the one place where his life is consistently stable--the football field--and felt the love. This, more than anything, was why he brought his turbulent act to Dallas: for bizarre occasions like Sunday, when, Titans quarterback Vince Young's first NFL start be damned, the Music City somehow belonged to America's Team.

Fifteen minutes later, standing by his locker as he prepared to meet the throng of cameras, boom mikes and notebooks that awaited him, the 32-year-old Owens laughed and assessed his place in the sporting pantheon. "I'm a rock star, dude," he said, his smile as bright as the fat diamond studs in each ear. "I'm a rock star."

If Sunday was a rockin' good day for the Cowboys' front man, it was positively electric for the franchise's impresario. Owner Jerry Jones, the NFL's answer to the late rock promoter Bill Graham, had more passes thrown his way in the second half than Owens (five catches, 88 yards) and fellow wideout Terry Glenn (five catches, 54 yards, two touchdowns) combined. Peering down from a luxury box near the southeastern corner of the stadium, Jones snatched the hats, jerseys and other gear hurled skyward by the Dallas supporters who were chanting his name, signed the items and indiscriminately tossed them back out the window. The strangest article of clothing, he later recalled, was a "sweaty, old-time, fat-man undershirt." Not that Jones minded signing it; to him it smelled like ... victory. "It's been so long since somebody asked for [an autograph]," he said. "I'd forgotten what it's like."

Remember in 1989 when Jones, on his first official day as the Cowboys' owner, incurred the wrath of football fans everywhere--and especially in Texas--by firing iconic coach Tom Landry and hiring the brash NFL neophyte Jimmy Johnson to replace him? To say that he and his organization have thrived on chaos and controversy since then would not be unfair; in that sense Jones is the managerial equivalent of the temperamental Owens, whose return to Philadelphia this Sunday to face the Eagles team that banished him will keep the hype machine on full tilt.

Think that battle might generate a bit of interest? After joining the Eagles in 2004, T.O. helped Philly reach its first Super Bowl in more than two decades and, six weeks after suffering a broken ankle, played brilliantly in defeat in that game. But his nasty contract dispute and public feud with quarterback Donovan McNabb last year undid all of the brotherly love that Philly had to offer. Now the Cowboys, coming off their highest-scoring game in six years, are rolling. "If we can get out of our own way, we have a chance to beat anybody," quarterback Drew Bledsoe said after Sunday's victory. "We'll find out next week, because Philly is good."

Jones certainly won't be complaining about the pregame buildup. Though the Cowboys' owner obviously would be deeply concerned about any employee's sudden hospitalization and potentially fragile emotional and mental state, he thoroughly enjoys the kind of breathless, comprehensive attention his team and its lightning-rod wideout got last week. As Jones eagerly admitted shortly after his arrival at the stadium on Sunday morning, he both expected and welcomed such spectacles when he signed T.O. to a three-year, $25 million contract last March. "Apart from the very sensitive personal health issues, I compare this incident to some earlier experiences that came during some very successful times," Jones said, seated on a folding chair in a small storage space next to the Cowboys' locker room. "The times when we've had bigger-than-life personalities, even when the criticism surrounding them was not all positive, were largely successful. We won three world championships not because of that, but inclusive of that. So when it comes to inordinate interest with inordinate situations and inordinate personalities, those have been positive experiences for me and for our fans. And I can't get that out of my mind."

Over the years there have been many surreal scenes at the team's Valley Ranch training facility: the press conference at which Jones, after abruptly parting with his old friend Johnson in March 1994, introduced the amped-up Barry Switzer as his new coach; another in which star wideout Michael Irvin, amid allegations of drug use and infidelity, tearfully took responsibility for tarnishing his family's name; and another that found All-Pro cornerback Deion Sanders invoking Delilah and Jezebel while conceding that "fornication is my drug," to name a few. But the drama that unfolded on Wednesday, Sept. 27, much of it covered live by ESPN, may have been the most charged of all. As one team executive said, "I thought the President had been shot."

While the comparison was facetious, for the purposes of pop-culture intrigue "What Went Down with T.O.?" joined "Who Killed JFK?" and "Who Shot J.R.?" in an unholy trinity of muddled Dallas mysteries. On the night of Sept. 26 Owens's publicist, Kim Etheredge, placed a 911 call from the wideout's apartment when she found him unresponsive, telling a dispatcher that he had taken "too many pills." The accompanying police report said that Owens answered yes when asked if he'd intended to harm himself. But Owens, after being released following 15 hours in the hospital, insisted at a Wednesday press conference at the Cowboys' facility that he'd become disoriented from a combination of hydrocodone (a generic form of the pain medicine Vicodin) and nutritional supplements. Next at the podium was Etheredge, whose agitated performance made her resemble, in the words of one team official, "a Jerry Springer guest." In addition to accusing the attending police of "[taking] advantage of Terrell," Etheredge, as she was leaving the podium, sneered that Owens "has 25 million reasons why he should be alive."

The next day Glenn White, the head of the Dallas Police Association, demanded an apology from Etheredge and Owens, saying of the officers in question, "They're being put under a microscope by some fancy little football person. Those officers are 10 times better than this man." Chief David Kunkle said the incident was officially being classified as an "accidental overdose," though he left plenty of room for interpretation in standing by the officers' initial report. Meanwhile, The Dallas Morning News ran a story on Thursday in which Owens's personal trainer, James (Buddy) Primm, said the receiver had experienced a "perfect storm" of physically and emotionally devastating events, including his fianc�e's breaking off their relationship earlier in the week. ( Owens fired Primm the following day.) Last Friday, in an interview with SI, Owens said he was "hurt" that the fianc�e, Felisha Terrell, whom Owens told SI this past summer he planned to marry in the coming year, had failed to contact him since his release from the hospital. "Her not reaching out to me really hit home," he said. "You can tell someone you love them all day long, but for her to not even show up, after all the years we've spent together--that's not love." On Sunday, Owens indicated he still hadn't heard from Terrell. (She declined to comment for this story.)

That Owens was able to block it all out and flourish on game day was hardly a surprise; few players are as adept at playing with focus and ferocity amid off-the-field distractions. His signature moment came with 5:23 left in the first half and the Cowboys up 14--3. On second-and-eight from the Dallas 20, Bledsoe, recognizing that Titans cornerback Reynaldo Hill was pressing Owens at the line in man-to-man coverage, threw a gorgeous spiral down the left sideline. Owens, with Hill all over him, caught it for a 46-yard gain. Five plays later Owens came within inches of making a spectacular juggling catch in the back of the end zone. Late in the third quarter he snatched a short pass in the right flat and juked a defender for an 11-yard gain.

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