I remember the moment I first realized Terrell Owens was one badass football player. I remember it, clearly, because it also coincides with the moment 16-year-old Terez’s interest in professional football heightened.
It was Sept. 24, 2000, and Owens’ San Francisco 49ers were facing America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys. I didn’t watch it live – as a Detroit native, the great Barry Sanders had just retired from my perpetually cursed Lions and I was more interested in college football at the time – but back in those days, on Sunday night, you always flipped in to “NFL Primetime” with Chris Berman and Tom Jackson, more for entertainment than anything. You’d see some highlights, listen to some killer background tracks and enjoy some prime Boomer before flipping to “Sunday Night Raw” or something.
Anyway, on that specific night, “NFL Primetime” it was. And, sitting in my room in my mom’s house on the West side of Detroit, I clearly remember Owens scoring a touchdown – wearing that redone red Niners’ jersey, trimmed in gold and black – sprinting to the massive star in the middle of Texas Stadium and standing on it, arms stretched, eyes lifted toward the heavens.
Genius, pure genius.
And ballsy, too.
And while some older, gray-haired sportswriters everywhere raced to demolish Owens for his selfishness and poor sportsmanship faster than 2012 Usain Bolt, 16-year-old me – and all of my friends – loved every second of it.
It was the ultimate troll move, one Owens would attempt to replicate with his next score (which predictably started a small fracas led by proud Cowboys safety George Teague) and generally, throughout the rest of his career, which is why his unprecedented decision to skip his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony in August should hardly come as a surprise. As Chris Rock would say: That tiger went tiger!
Owens, to the uninitiated, is frustrated with the fact it took him three years – and two failed candidacies – to be elected into pro football’s greatest shrine, and, in turn, he has made a look-at-me decision that is the retired Hall of Famer’s equivalent with what he did that day in Dallas.
And guess what? It’s OK. Not ideal, but OK. The decision is short-sighted, at best, and petty, at worst – and I’m saying that as a 34-year-old black man who nearly bought Owens’ jersey as a kid and personally spoke up for him in the nine-hour Pro Football Hall of Fame selection meeting this February. But in the end, he is only hurting himself (and we’ll get to that later, I promise).
I really do hope – and yes, I’m absolutely going Mark Jackson on you right here – that as tempting as it may be to express retroactive regret over Owens’ selection, the other 47 sportswriters who comprise the Hall of Fame selection committee don’t, because we shouldn’t feel any regret. The man simply deserves to be in, period, point-blank, not only because was he a great football player, but also because of the generational impact he made and the eyeballs he brought to the game.
Let me explain.
While Owens’ all-time numbers speak for themselves – second in yards, eighth in catches and third in touchdowns – his impact on the game of football goes far beyond that. The man resonated that way for a generation of millennial teenagers of all races, because if there’s anything all teenagers love, it’s the rebel. That’s what made The Rock and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin so popular with my generation, in the same way N.W.A. and Public Enemy – and before that, even the Fonz and James Dean – resonated with older folks.
For us, Owens and Randy Moss – another dynamite wideout with an “eff-you” attitude who didn’t necessarily do well with rules – made the No Fun League entertaining. Personalities drive viewership, and these two guys had plenty of it, two versions of the WWE’s “Attitude Era” in pads.
So, yes, I was definitely pumped in January to see both Owens and Moss among the 15 modern-era finalists, joining other millennial heroes like Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Brian Dawkins, and I would have the opportunity to vote for all these guys and maybe have a “semi-millennial class,” so to speak. These were the guys we used in video games, the guys me and my buddies used as templates for the create-a-players we named ourselves. Yes, it was unbelievably dorky. But, man, was it great.
And on the morning of Feb. 3, the day before the Super Bowl – when we all gathered in a hotel ballroom to commence with the Hall of Fame selection process bright and early – all those memories came flooding back to me. As the youngest voter in that room, I did feel compelled to make a case on Owens’ and Moss’ behalf when their candidacies were discussed, and this was rare for me; I just joined the committee in 2016, and for my first two years, I largely kept my mouth shut out of respect for the well-sourced, long-tenured scribes that have served on the committee for nearly as long as I’ve been alive.
This was different, though. Owens and Moss were guys who had a massive impact on an entire generation of fans, and I’d seen and heard the discussion surrounding Owens the previous two years, when his entire body of work – and let me be really careful here, lest I violate the committee’s pledge of Omerta and end up getting Tony Soprano’d – was, um … discussed at length.
In an effort to protect sources and encourage honest dialogue, voters are essentially sworn to secrecy about what is said and discussed about each candidate, and I respect the process too much to violate that rule. However, this is probably a really good time to point out that it only takes a small voting bloc to keep a guy out of the Hall as the candidates get whittled down from 15 to 10, and ultimately the final five. So, in reality, this legion of writers that Owens imagines kept him out of the Hall doesn’t even exist.
While it’s probably at least somewhat fair to blame his reputation for keeping him out the first two years, it’s also important to remember that, historically, receivers have had to wait to get in. (Marvin Harrison and Michael Irvin waited three years, Cris Carter and Tim Brown six.) There are only five modern-era spots each year, after all, and committee members like to spread those spots around to players at different positions, since there’s a backlog of worthy players at less-heralded spots (like safety and offensive line, for instance).
So in a way, the fact Owens made it on his third try – and made it with Moss, a fellow receiver, no less – to form a killer five-man class of millennial icons (with Lewis, Dawkins and Urlacher) actually speaks quite well of the respect the committee had for Owens’ career, despite his well-earned reputation as a distraction.
What’s more, he still got in, despite the fact it wasn’t exactly inconceivable that Owens wouldn’t show up for the August ceremony. Instead of waiting in a hotel room for news of his possible induction – like the other 14 finalists, by the way – Owens skipped town a day before the meeting, making his frustration with the lack of control about his fate crystal clear. This was known, and yet he still is set to be enshrined in Canton.
But to me – and, yes, I’m going Mark Jackson on you again here – Owens is missing a golden opportunity to prove he’s matured, and he’s giving the people that stood in opposition to his initial induction more ammunition.
What’s more, if he thinks he’s getting revenge on the committee or the Hall of Fame for making him wait, he’s sorely mistaken. The people who run the Hall will continue to do so with class, and the men who make up the committee will continue to do so with pride and honor. I truly believe that.
So at the end of the day, the person Owens is most hurting with this decision is himself, and for proof, he should ask any Hall of Famer who has had the pleasure of going through the ceremony. Year after year, we see the proud inductees wear wide smiles as they slip on that gold jacket, stand next to their bronze busts and beam with pride as they recall all the workouts and injuries and struggles they endured to reach football immortality.
I don’t want Owens to miss out on that, and I personally hope he reconsiders. I’m sure I’m not alone. There’s an entire legion of millennials who remember some of his greatest moments – who can forget “I love me some me!” and “Get your popcorn ready”? And, of course, that September day in 2000 at Texas Stadium where he stood on the star and emerged as the next football rebel for an entire generation of teenage boys, who would love to cheer for a more mature version of him in August.
But if he doesn’t, it’s fine – we knew what we were cheering for way back then. A tiger’s gonna tiger, after all.
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