In 1988, the metal band “Poison” released its most famous song, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” According to lead singer Bret Michaels, he wrote it when he called his girlfriend on a payphone, and upon hearing a male voice in the background, he realized she was cheating on him.
The song’s theme seems to be that every good thing or person has a downside, some more than others.
Poison’s song seems like an apt description of former National Football League wide receiver Terrell Owens. In the late 1990s and 2000s, he was arguably the most gifted and talented wideout in the game.
However, for whatever reason, he kept clashing with teammates and coaches, and he gained a reputation as a toxic, divisive figure on each team he played for.
Perhaps another song that also accurately describes Owens is the 1999 hit “My Own Worst Enemy” by the rock band Lit.
Growing Up In The South
Terrell Eldorado Owens was born on December 7, 1973 in Alexander City, Ala. to Marilyn Heard and L.C. Russell, her neighbor.
Owens was raised by Heard and his grandmother, and he went a good part of his childhood without knowing who his father was. It wasn’t until he was 11 years old that he made the discovery.
Owens liked a girl who lived next door to him, and that’s when he found that Russell wasn’t just her father, but his father as well.
It turned out that when Heard was just 16, she had an affair with Russell, who was married.
Russell said years later that he gave Owens financial support, but that he couldn’t have a relationship with him because he had two kids of his own with his wife.
“I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. I would like to have took him fishing, ball games,” he said.
Eventually, life coach Iyanla Vanzant helped the two reconcile, not just by meeting each other but also through the power of forgiveness.
“Well, son, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive,” Russell said to Owens. “I thought I was doing the best that I could do at the time and I hope you can forgive me. I want you to know that I love you.”
Owens accepted his father’s request for forgiveness.
He grew up with one brother and two sisters, and their grandmother was very overprotective of them.
She wouldn’t let them leave their front yard to play with other kids, and even when Owens got a bike as a present, he was only allowed to ride it directly in front of the house, lest he received a spanking.
It was a rule that often left him in tears as he would look out the window and see other kids blissfully playing outside.
As a young child, Owens fell in love with the game of football. Although he grew up on the other side of the country, his favorite player was Jerry Rice, the legendary wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers.
Unfortunately for Owens, playing sports was also on grandma’s list of Things Thou Shalt Not Do.
But once he got to high school at Benjamin Russell High, his grandmother relented and allowed him to play sports. And play he did, as he ran track and field and got spots on the basketball, baseball and football teams.
At first, basketball was his first priority, as he didn’t start a game on the gridiron until his junior season – only because one of his teammates got sick and couldn’t get on the field.
Even before his senior year, Owens thought about quitting football, but his coach talked him out of it. It was a fortunate decision, as his exploits on the field earned him a scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Blossoming in College
While at U.T., Owens would start to emerge as a powerhouse wide receiver, but he was still a multi-sport athlete. He also played basketball for the Mocs and even appeared in the NCAA tournament one year.
Owens ran track as well, and he anchored U.T.’s 4 x 100 relay team at the NCAA championship as a senior.
But it was on the football field where he started to show the nation how special he was. As a sophomore, he put up 724 yards and eight touchdowns on 38 passes, and at one point he caught at least one pass in 20 straight games that spanned two seasons.
Also in his sophomore season of 1993, he had four touchdowns in a single game, setting a U.T. record.
At 6-foot-3, Owens was quite a target, and as his college career progressed, he started to see double coverage more often. Still, he caught 43 balls as a senior for 667 yards.
At U.T., as he did in high school, Owens wore No. 80 in honor of his hero, Jerry Rice.
Time To Play In The Bay
Although Owens’ talent and skills were undeniable, he wasn’t high on the list of hot draft prospects, as he played at a college that didn’t have a prominent football program.
He was still available late in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft, where the 49ers took with him the 89th pick.
The Niners were just a year removed from winning the Super Bowl, and they still had a strong team, led by quarterback Steve Young, who had been the MVP of the big game when they won it all.
Of course, they featured Rice, who at age 33 was still considered by most the best wideout in the NFL.
Playing for the Niners gave Owens the luxury of being able to break in slowly with less pressure while learning the wide receiver position from his idol Rice, who was the best to ever to do it.
The Alabama native didn’t play a ton as a rookie, starting just 10 of his 16 games, but he offered a glimpse of what he would become, posting 520 yards and four touchdowns.
His big opportunity would come in his second season, in the form of a blessing in disguise.
Rice tore his ACL and MCL in the first game of the 1997 campaign on a tackle by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Warren Sapp. Against doctors’ wishes, he returned towards the end of the regular season, only to injure the patella in his left kneecap.
Head coach Steve Mariucci threw Owens into the fire, and he proved that he belonged in the pros. He put up 936 yards and eight touchdowns, and thanks to his play, the Niners finished 13-3.
Without Rice, however, they were up against it come playoff time. They lost to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, and it wasn’t even close.
Still, Owens had 100 receiving yards against Brett Favre and company, and it was a message to the rest of the league: I’m here to stay.
The Catch II
Although Rice made a full recovery from both knee injuries and started every game of the 1998 season, he turned 36 and wasn’t quite the same dominant player he had been for the past decade-plus.
Luckily for San Fran, Owens was emerging fast.
He didn’t start every game that year, but he had his first 1,000-yard season, to go along with 14 touchdowns.
Just as they were in the days of yore, the Niners were one of the NFL’s most prolific offensive teams, and they finished 12-4.
Finishing second in their division, they had to play a wild card game, which once again pitted them against the Packers. By now, they had established themselves as the Niners’ Kryptonite, having beaten them in each of the last three postseasons.
The Packers led for most of the contest, and when wideout Antonio Freeman scored a touchdown with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, San Fran looked done.
With eight seconds remaining, Young threaded the needle to Owens in the endzone, who scored the game-winning touchdown. The play became known in California as simply “The Catch II.”
Steve Young ▶️ Terrell Owens.
— OurSF49ers (@OurSf49ers_) May 7, 2020
Alas, that would be it as far as playoff highlights for the Niners that year. In the next round against the Atlanta Falcons, star running back Garrison Hearst broke his ankle on the team’s first offensive play.
Owens helped fill the void with another 73 yards, but his team fell short by two points.
Hearst’s injury was the start of the unraveling of San Francisco’s dynasty. He would miss the next two seasons, while Young suffered a concussion early in the 1999 season, forcing him into retirement.
The Niners needed Owens to step up, and step up he did. After a dip in his production in ’99, he had 1,451 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2000 while leading the league in receiving yards per game.
His output led to his first Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro bids that year, and he was just getting started.
The Niners played poorly in ’99 and 2000, but 2001 saw them return to form. With Jeff Garcia under center, Owens had 1,412 yards and a league-high 16 touchdowns.
Buoyed by the return of Hearst and a strong year from him, San Francisco won 12 games that year but lost to Green Bay in the wild card round.
But Owens was now a force to be reckoned with. Once again, he made the Pro Bowl and got First-Team All-Pro honors.
He not only possessed wonderful speed and quickness, but he had the ability to fake defenders out of their cleats and shake loose.
In one memorable contest, T.O. had an NFL record 20 receptions as he made fools of the Chicago Bears.
Terrell Owens @TerrellOwens 20 reception game on 12/17/2000:
20 receptions (Set NFL-Record)
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) July 27, 2018
He was also gaining a reputation as a flamboyant personality, and his touchdown celebrations were the stuff of legend.
Terrell Owens’ touchdown celebrations were unmatched 🏈
— TodayInSports Co. (@TodayInSportsCo) August 19, 2021
— New York Post Sports (@nypostsports) December 15, 2016
— OurSF49ers (@OurSf49ers_) October 31, 2020
In 2002, Owens had 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns, again leading the league in the latter category. It was the third straight year he earned First-Team All-Pro recognition.
But it didn’t translate into postseason prosperity. After winning the NFC West with a 10-6 record, San Francisco lost in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It was around this time that Owens also started to become a disruptive presence. He clashed with head coach Mariucci, and the problems may have started in 2000, when Mariucci suspended Owens without pay for one game after his infamous touchdown celebration at center field of Texas Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys.
In a 2001 overtime loss to Chicago, Owens publicly implied that Mariucci wasn’t aggressive enough in his play-calling because he wanted to go easy on his friend, Chicago coach Dick Jauron.
“His buddy system with all the coaches around the league — it’s like he doesn’t want to embarrass a team,” Owens said. “But you’ve got to understand, if you’re trying to win a championship, you’ve got to spare feelings sometimes.”
Owens also sparred with Garcia, whom he felt didn’t get him the ball enough. On HBO’s “Inside The NFL,” he said that if he had played with a better QB than Garcia, he would’ve been more productive.
“He (Garcia) threw the ball behind me, out of bounds,” Owens said in 2004. “I left a lot of touchdowns on the field throughout the last two or three years.”
The pièce de résistance came when, in an interview with “Playboy” magazine, he accused the signal-caller of being a homosexual.
“Like my boy tells me,” Owens told the magazine when asked if he thought Garcia was gay. ” ‘If it looks like a rat and smells like a rat, by golly, it is a rat.”
By 2003, the Niners were again in disarray, and Owens became the symbol of their dysfunction. Although he had yet another Pro Bowl season, the team won just seven games and missed the playoffs.
With the organization in full rebuild mode, it felt it had no need for someone like Owens. When his agent missed the deadline to void the final years of his contract, it provided the Niners with the perfect opportunity to move on.
They traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles, but all they could get in return was a conditional fifth-round draft pick and defensive end Brandon Whiting, who lasted only five games before his career ended.
It seemed to symbolize how little the rest of the NFL thought of what it considered to be a diva.
Flying High as an Eagle
In the early 2000s, the Eagles were one of the best teams in the NFC, but it lacked something to get to the next level. It appeared that Owens could be that final piece to a championship puzzle.
Teaming up with Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb, Owens made Philly look like a powerhouse in 2004. Seven times that season he had better than 100 receiving yards in a game, including a five-game streak of such numbers.
Of course, he continued to drop some epic touchdown dances.
— Load More O.G. (@mattfsu77) May 2, 2018
The Eagles won 13 of their first 14 games, and the Delaware Valley was stoked about the opportunity to win its first Super Bowl.
Then disaster struck.
In Week 15, Cowboys safety Roy Williams hit Owens with a horse-collar tackle, resulting in a severe leg injury. He would require surgery and was expected to miss the rest of the season, including the playoffs.
Without him, the Eagles lost their last two regular season games, but their 13-3 record was still tops in the NFC. They got past the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons to advance to Super Bowl XXXIX against Tom Brady and the defending world champion New England Patriots.
Against the advice of his doctors, Owens played in the big game. Sporting hardware in his right leg, he did his part with 122 receiving yards, but unfortunately, the Pats pulled away in crunch time and won, 24-21.
Although simply playing, let alone playing well, in America’s biggest sporting event just weeks after a severe injury was an inspiring accomplishment for Owens, he still felt disrespected.
“Before we came down here, I knew I was going to play all along,” Owens said. “The media made it a situation to where they thought I was grandstanding. But like I told a lot of people. If [that was] Brett Favre, they would have called him a warrior. For me, they said I was selfish. If I’m selfish, I’m selfish because I want to help my team win.”
It would only be downhill from here. Most concerning was Owens’ beef with McNabb, which would spiral out of control.
Coming into the 2005 season, Owens wanted to renegotiate his contract, and he suggested he should earn more money than his QB because “I’m not the one who got tired in the Super Bowl.”
After a Week 5 loss to the Cowboys, Owens wore a throwback jersey of Michael Irvin, the legendary Cowboys wideout from the 1990s, which seemed to ruffle many feathers.
Then a few weeks later, he got into a fistfight with Hugh Douglas, a former Eagle who had been hired to work in the front office. Douglas had said, “I know there are people in here faking injuries,” which apparently started the donnybrook.
But that wasn’t the end of the T.O. drama. The very next day, he made several critical and quizzical comments in an interview with ESPN, and among them was one that inflamed the already-bad relations between him and McNabb.
When Irvin suggested that the Eagles would probably be undefeated if they had Brett Favre under center instead, Owens failed to have the back of his quarterback.
“A number of commentators will say he’s a warrior, he’s played with injuries,” Owens said of Favre. “I feel like him being knowledgeable about the quarterback position, I feel like we’d probably be in a better situation.”
Perhaps he wasn’t truly agreeing with Irvin, but McNabb later admitted that it felt like a “slap in the face” to him.
Head coach Andy Reid suspended Owens, and he ultimately appeared in only seven games. It was a shame, as he had put up 763 yards and six touchdowns already.
At first, Philly was stoked about Owens, but the City of Brotherly Love was now fed up with him. The Eagles released Owens the following March.
Downhill In Dallas
Just a few days later, the Cowboys signed Owens to a lucrative three-year deal. If he was the NFL’s king of drama, he was still one of the best on the field, as he had 1,180 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2006.
In late September, it was reported that Owens had been treated at a Dallas-area hospital for an overdose of hydrocodone, a pain medication. He quickly recovered and went home, but he denied that it was a suicide attempt.
In Week 4, he made his return to Philly, and the partisan crowd jeered him at every chance, which included chants of “O.D.,” a reference to his apparent drug overdose. Owens played poorly and the Cowboys lost.
Then in Week 15, Owens spit at Atlanta Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall while the two had words during the game. No one noticed it until after the game when Hall said it happened and Owens confirmed it.
Hall claimed Owens did it intentionally, while Owens said it was an accident. Still, the wideout was fined $35,000, and Hall said that he had “lost all respect for” Owens afterward.
Dallas didn’t fare too well that season, finishing 9-7 and losing in the wild card round.
But in 2007, the Cowboys felt they had a real shot at their first world title since the ’95 season. With Owens doing his thing, putting up 1,355 yards and 15 touchdowns, the team finished 13-3, winning its division.
But it was all for naught as Dallas lost to the New York Giants in the divisional round. Owens was emotional after the game, which provided a meme for the ages.
📽️ Jan 13, 2008: The Giants 21-17 upset of 13-3 Cowboys in NFC Divisional was one of most enjoyable playoff wins in #NYG history. Most satisfying was [watch until end] Jerry Jones' absolute shock & Terrell Owens crying. #ThatsMyQB 😂#TBT #NYGvsDAL #NYGiantsFilms #TogetherBlue pic.twitter.com/0yr4W1eI2x
— NY Giants Films (@NYGiantsFilms) October 8, 2020
After a fruitless 2008 campaign, the Cowboys released Owens. He would play the next season with the Buffalo Bills, and the one after that with the Cincinnati Bengals.
In the 2011 offseason, Owens tore his ACL and underwent surgery. He would never play another NFL game again.
Life After Football
Over the years, Owens has had two sons and two daughters, although he may not be the type of family man that some may want him to be.
He fathered his kids with four different women, and he got in some hot water with one of those women, Melanie Paige Smith.
In September 2011, Smith sued Owens for failure to make child support payments. The former Pro Bowler claimed that he had missed some payments because his NFL salary had gone down.
Luckily for him, the two reached a settlement before the matter went to trial.
But in 2012, three of the four women of Owens’ kids confronted him on the “Dr. Phil” show and accused him of missing some or all of his child support payments to them.
Owens has done some things in retirement that just about everyone can agree on, however, as he has been involved in several charities.
He did some work to help raise awareness for Alzheimer’s disease, hosting multiple events to generate funding for research. His grandmother was diagnosed with the condition in 1996, and it inspired him to get involved in the cause.
Owens also helped launch the “81 Tackles Hunger” initiative for the Food Bank of Western New York and hosted the “81 Cares Celebrity Bowl,” both of which helped feed impoverished families.
He even started his own organization, the “Catch a Dream Foundation,” which assists poor families with basic needs so their children can have food, clothing, shelter and an adequate education.
Over the years, Owens has also made some appearances in film and TV. He appeared in the 1999 movie “Any Given Sunday,” as well as TV shows such as “Punk’d,” “Superstars,” “Celebrity Apprentice,” “Dancing With The Stars” and MTV’s “The Challenge.”
For a few seasons, he even had his own reality show, which was called “The T.O. Show” and aired on VH1.
Yet Owens wasn’t done being the figure that polarized locker rooms and living rooms across the nation. After not being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first two years of legibility, he finally got the nod in 2018.
True to his flamboyant, irreverent style, he skipped the official ceremony in Canton, Ohio and instead held his own on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
There, he took the opportunity to take numerous shots at his critics.
Terrell Owens Hall of Fame Speech at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga where he address why he is boycotting Canton tonight@terrellowens has no regrets about skipping HOF induction; takes shot at voting sports writers@6abc@espn@NFL#TerrellOwens#Eagles#FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/tMChKUVUX9
— Jeff Skversky (@JeffSkversky) August 4, 2018
It seemed just like T.O. to maintain the huge chip on his shoulder.
No one has ever doubted Terrell Owens’ abilities on the field, where he was one of the greatest wideouts ever. But one has to wonder how much more he would’ve accomplished, individually and team-wise, if he had managed to stay out of his own way.