Tallapoosa County native Terrell (T. O.) Eldorado Owens (1973- ) is considered one of the greatest professional wide receivers of his era. He spent eight of his 15 seasons in the National Football League (NFL) with the San Francisco 49ers, earned six Pro Bowl selections, and was a first-team All-Pro wide receiver five times. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019 for a remarkable career that often was marked by controversial behavior and comments on and off the field.
Owens, Terrell Owens was born on December 7, 1973, in Alexander City to L. C. Russell and Marilyn Owens Heard; he had three siblings. Owens and his siblings lived in a home with their mother and grandmother, Alice Black, who raised the children in a strict, highly protective environment; they were not allowed to go out with friends or even play outside beyond the family’s front yard. Not until Owens was 12 years old did he know that his across-the-street neighbor, L. C. Russell, was his father. Given his family’s issues at home, Owens longed for approval from his peers. He enrolled in and won first prize in a local Michael Jackson look-a-like contest in 1984, having mastered the popular singer’s many dance moves.
His athletic career began at Benjamin Russell High School, where he showed promise as a multi-sport athlete in football, track, baseball, and basketball. He soon began to doubt his own talent, however, because he never made All-American, was not the team’s starting wide receiver until his senior year, and was not a highly recruited prospect. As a sophomore, he almost quit the team until his coaches talked him out of it. Nevertheless, the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC) noticed his potential and offered him a scholarship.
Owens’s ability as a wide receiver became evident in his sophomore year in 1993, when he caught 38 passes for 724 yards, made 8 touchdowns, and played in all 11 UTC games. In addition, he became the first player in UTC football history to catch a pass in 11 consecutive games. As a junior, he was the face of the UTC offense, posting 58 receptions for 836 yards and scoring 6 touchdowns; he was awarded second-team All-Southern Conference honors. His reputation as a speedy, athletic wide receiver spread around the league, and during his senior year, he noticed opposing defenses guarding him with multiple players. Still, he caught 43 receptions for 666 yards and one touchdown. Despite a falloff in his numbers, Owens was named to the Senior Bowl and entered the NFL Draft. He was not a highly touted prospect because of concerns that he did not face a high level of competition at his Division 1-AA (now known as FCS) school and because UTC never had a winning season while Owens was there. Regardless, his speed, strength, and overall athleticism was noted by NFL scouts.
Owens was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the third round of the 1996 NFL Draft, as the 89th overall pick. He joined a notable 49ers offense, anchored by quarterback Steve Young, and at wide receiver, he would line up alongside his idol, Jerry Rice, whose jersey number 80 Owens had worn in college. Future Hall-of-Famers, both Young and Rice were in their mid-30s, entering the latter stages of their careers, which meant that Owens was expected to be among the “new blood” of the 49ers offense and eventually take the reins from Rice.
Owens’s talent became evident almost immediately. In the 1996 preseason, he was second only to Rice in receptions and receiving yards. During the regular season, he began as the team’s third-string receiver behind Rice and J. J. Stokes, but when Stokes suffered a broken hand, Owens was promoted to second-string, meaning he was now one of the team’s two starting receivers. His first start came on October 20, 1996, against the Cincinnati Bengals, during which he caught four passes for 94 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown. He emerged as a key offensive player and finished the season third on the team in receptions (35) and second in receiving yards (520), once again second only to Rice.
The following season, Owens became the 49ers’ top receiver following an injury to Rice in the first game. Owens finished the season with 60 receptions, 936 yards, and 8 touchdowns. Despite low expectation for the 49ers’ prospects in postseason play, given injuries to both Rice and Young, Owens helped the team reach the National Football Conference (NFC) Championship Game, where they lost 23-10 to the Green Bay Packers. Rice and Young returned to their starting roles for the 1998 season, but Owens continued to excel, posting posted 67 receptions, 1,097 yards, and 14 touchdowns. One of the greatest moments of Owens’s career came in a playoff game against the Packers on January 3, 1999. Down 27-23 with three seconds remaining in the game, Owens caught the winning touchdown pass from Young, giving the 49ers a 30-27 win. Considered one of the NFL’s greatest games, it became known as the “Catch II” in reference to the game-winning catch made by the 49er’s Dwight Clark in 1981 against the Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers would lose 20-18, however, in the subsequent game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Although his statistics dropped off in 1999, Owens returned to form in 2000, tallying 97 catches, 1,451 yards, and 13 touchdowns despite his team posting a losing season. On December 17, he caught 20 passes for 283 yards and scored a touchdown against the Chicago Bears. His 20 receptions broke a 50-year old record held by Tom Fears. At the end of the season, he earned his first Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections. In both 2001 and 2002, he led the NFL in touchdown receptions, posting 16 and 13 respectively, and the 49ers returned to the playoffs.
Despite Owens’s consistently elite performance, he sometimes sparked tension in the locker room and controversy in the press. His flamboyant on-field celebrations, temper in the locker room, and tendency to avoid reporters strained his relationship with the 49ers. In one game against the Seattle Seahawks in 2002, after catching a touchdown, he memorably pulled out a Sharpie pen, signed the ball he caught, and handed it to his financial advisor in the stands, who also happened to be the advisor of the cornerback covering him on the play. Although not fined for this incident, Owens was heavily criticized in the press.
Owing to his provocative tendencies, the 49ers traded Owens to the Philadelphia Eagles before the 2004 season. Although he was still productive and was named to the Pro Bowl at season’s end, he once again found himself the subject of controversy and at odds with his team. Prior to a Monday Night Football broadcast on November 15, 2004, he appeared in a skit that critics deemed sexually inappropriate. During the 2005 season, he was involved in an altercation with a member of the coaching staff and criticized Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb in an interview with ESPN, after which the Eagles suspended him. After only two seasons, he was released by the Eagles and signed by the Dallas Cowboys four days later.
In his first season in Dallas, he led the league with 13 touchdown catches, despite playing almost the entire season with a broken finger. In 2007, he tallied 81 passes for 1,355 yards and set a Cowboys franchise record with 15 touchdown receptions. He was named to the Pro Bowl again at the end of the season. The 2008 season was Owens’s last in Dallas, and he was released on March 4, 2009. Once again, he was quickly signed by a new team, the Buffalo Bills. He spent one season in Buffalo, during which he caught his 1,000th career reception, becoming only the sixth player in NFL history to reach that mark. In a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he scored a 98-yard touchdown reception, the longest of his career and the longest in Bills franchise history. For the 2010 season, he signed a one-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals and played in all but two games, catching 72 passes for 983 yards and 9 touchdowns. He missed the 2011 season due to a torn ligament, and in 2012, he played briefly with the Allen (Texas) Wranglers of the Indoor Football League and then with the Seattle Seahawks before being released a few weeks after signing.
Over his career, Owens caught 1,078 passes for 15,934 yards and scored 153 touchdowns. On October 4, 2018, he was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility. Owens boycotted the ceremony in protest of the delay in his induction, which is generally believed to be a reaction to his off-the-field issues. These included domestic and financial problems (tabloids alleged he went bankrupt despite earning $80 million throughout his career), a possible drug overdose or suicide attempt in 2006, and negative comments about fellow players. Owens married Rachel Snider in 2014, and they divorced the following year. He has four children from various relationships.
Off the field, Owens has made commercials and appeared on television shows The T.O. Show on VH1 and Dancing with the Stars, among others. He appeared as himself in the 1999 film Any Given Sunday.