JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If God needed a pitchman, the way a receiver needs a quarterback, then the maker of heaven and earth sure found a friend in Terrell Owens here this Super Bowl week.
Now, granted, Owens may not be everyone's primary read to handle the ball on all things spiritual, or holy, or faith, or maybe even football, but that's what the world got: A high-profile receiver with a bad foot and a healthy, supercharged ego, offering up God's name enough to fill a month of Super Bowl Sunday sermons.
Owens's mangled ankle? The Eagles' premier receiver said God has that covered like an Ace bandage.
Owens's proclivity to say and do the controversial? God's all over that, too.
For instance, Owens's national broadcast dalliance a few weeks ago with a Desperate Housewife, Nicollette Sheridan? Owens didn't specifically address that itsy-bitsy piece of made-for-TV skit, but he did say he talked with a pastor before he arrived here Sunday, and that the pastor told him that God's plan is that controversy shall follow him all the days of his life.
That's not an option, according to Owens. That's just, you know, part of the divine intervention governing his life. It's not the devil that makes him do the things he does. No way. Like the passes by which he makes his fame and earns his living, his notable life episodes, good and bad, fall from above. "I feel like I am a special individual," summed up Owens, who Tuesday declared that You Know Who had deemed him healed sufficiently in order to play in Super Bowl XXXIX Sunday against the Patriots. "And I think, you know, the things that I do on the field -- a lot of people criticize my character, and my antics, and a lot of people say I am controversial. And they may be right."
It was at that point, surrounded by some 200 print and broadcast journalists earlier this week during the Super Bowl's Media Day, that Owens might have detected a silent "Can you gimme an Amen?!?" offered up from the crusty, disheveled herd of reporters and photographers surrounding him. If he did, he didn't acknowledge it.
He just kept talking. Or was it channeling?
"The thing is," continued Owens, not on active football duty since Dec. 19, when he broke his right leg and tore ankle ligaments when he was hauled down from behind by Cowboys safety Roy Williams, "I am who I am and I'm not going to change. That's who I am. I think God laid this plan out and He has a plan for everybody. And, obviously, you know, it is His plan for me to be controversial and I accept that. Umm, obviously, I kind of noticed that in San Francisco and I thought it would change once I got to Philly, but nothing changed.
"That lets me know controversy is going to find me, whether it's good or bad, and I welcome that with open arms."
Creating an image
There is no publicly known, documented rap sheet on Terrell Owens, born Dec. 7, 1973, in Alexander City, Ala.
If Owens is to be considered a bad boy, the context is more that of Peck's Bad Boy, centered on a little bit of mischief, maybe a dash of naivete, ample pinches of cleverness, and a Freudian steamer trunk full of id, ego, and superego. Introspection? No need for Owens to worry about that when he knows all the world's eyes are on him. That is not to say that Owens, now in his ninth NFL season, can be characterized as a model citizen, minding his P's and Q's while making millions in his world of X's and O's. He's got that ego. He's got that mouth to do the talking for his runaway sense of self. Above all, he's got that game, which serves to set the stage for all of it, and then back it all up at the curtain call.
He is big and strong and fast and agile, and that package affords him the license to walk the walk, talk the talk, and to dismiss any perceived transgressions with a simple twist of faith -- the goods he got from God.
It's that walk-talk combination that has earned him much legal tender, with no known legal trouble. But, oh, how the wiggle and words have conspired to leave others to build his rap sheet of questionable taste, and displays of boundless ego. To wit:
His spoof with Sheridan, part of a "Monday Night Football" teaser for "Desperate Housewives," the hit series that offers America a refresher course in carnal knowledge and conniving temptresses.
His on-field copyright infringement of the patented Ray Lewis dance routine late this season, a public putdown of the Baltimore Ravens star. Adding to the diss was the fact Owens last spring was traded from San Francisco to Baltimore, but refused to report to the Ravens for a number of reasons, including the fact he was in the midst of engineering his trade to the Eagles -- an idea he and star Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb hatched while running around the Pro Bowl last February like a couple of conspiring, fun-loving school kids. It was during that stay in Hawaii, according to reports, that the mischievous stars shadowed Eagles coach Andy Reid around paradise, teasing him at every turn that they were a touchdown tandem in waiting for 2004.
Owens, to the Philadelphia Daily News a week after Lewis labeled him a "coward" for the two-step ripoff: "This is a guy, double-murder case, and he could have been in jail. It seems like the league embraces a guy like that, but I'm going out and scoring touchdowns and having fun and I'm the bad guy."
Owens repeatedly said this week: "I thank God for Donovan McNabb." Among the blessings there, he said, is the fact that the strong-armed McNabb can throw the deep ball, something Owens claims quarterback Jeff Garcia was incapable of delivering in San Francisco.
In 2002, in the midst of evolving as a star with the 49ers, he pulled a Sharpie out of his sock after scoring a touchdown, promptly signed the ball and bequeathed it on the spot to his financial adviser, who was seated just a few feet beyond the end zone.
The same year, immediately after scoring a touchdown against Green Bay, he borrowed pompoms from a 49ers cheerleader and gave it his Flashdance-like best. He later opined that he might be a cheerleader in his next life. Here on Tuesday, he reminded one and all that he once won a Michael Jackson dance contest as a kid in Alexander City, where he spent much of his youth alone and under the watchful eye of his grandmother, Alice Black, almost always forbidden to venture beyond her yard.
Owens now pays for his grandmother's long-term care in a health facility for those afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. She used to go to his games with Owens's mother, he said recently, adding that her dementia in recent years has been so severe that she knows nothing now of his career or success.
In 2000, he not once but twice bolted to the large, lone star at the center of Texas Stadium, hallowed home of the Cowboys, and desecrated it by performing a celebratory dance after scoring touchdowns. "Maybe it was excessive," Owens conceded to the Daily News recently. "It took a lot of guts to do that."
One is left to wonder what he might do Sunday if he plays. "Not sure, exactly," said Owens, "but I've already got a few things in mind." If the game were played in Foxborough, might he toss the ball like a rock through the window of the Lighthouse in the Forest?
There is more to the Eagles than Terrell Owens, although his command of the spotlight is so encompassing and engulfing that it took the questionable, if not outrageous, remarks of fellow wide receiver Freddie Mitchell last week to nudge the media momentarily away from all things T.O. Mitchell said he only knew the New England secondary by their numbers, other than Rodney Harrison (the not-so-anonymous No. 37), whom Mitchell then ticked off by saying he would have something waiting here for Harrison when they met up in the Super Bowl. It's now T-minus one day and counting, by the seconds, in the Eastern Harrison Time zone.
As Mitchell's words drifted into the distance this week -- in part because Reid had him all but run a deep fade on Media Day -- the acute focus centered on Owens. McNabb and the talented running back, Brian Westbrook, also got their brief flight in the hype machine, but no one drew and engaged the media horde like No. 81 in the green jersey. Owens, by the way, often refers to himself as "Eight-One." Such as: "Eight-One is going to be on the field and I will play." That's a rare double-digit reference to the third person, if you're keeping score in English 101.
If any of the All-Owens Revival Show rankles his teammates, the OEs (Other Eagles) aren't making it overly apparent. Perhaps they've simply grown accustomed to his being, like Reggie Jackson in his days with the Yankees, the straw that stirs the drink, although it should be noted that the Eagles made it here without Owens suiting up for a single playoff game thus far. It could also be that after three straight losses in the NFC Championship game, and the venomous brew that Eagles fans uncorked around those losses, that nothing Owens does or says registers with his teammates.
"He's a guy who demands a lot of attention," said second-year tight end L.J. Smith. "And he receives it. To see a guy come back so fast [from injury], when people weren't expecting it, you definitely have a smile on your face and root for him."
"We understand that everyone wants to talk about T.O.," added veteran defensive tackle Corey Simon, who then offered up a little love for McNabb. "That's fine. But, you know, somebody had to get him the ball."
It's sometimes easy to forget that McNabb, although he's never before played in the Super Bowl, certainly was Super Bowl material before Owens arrived. McNabb always had the ability to heave it long and far, but the Eagles didn't have enough speed, smarts, or arms to run those tosses down consistently.
Skills speak volumes
Not to be forgotten, either, is the fact that the powerful, 6-foot-3-inch Owens finished with 77 catches for 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. He led NFL wide receivers in average YAC (yards after catch) over the five seasons prior to signing his new deal (seven years, $42 million) in Philly. Once he hauls in a ball, he is one tough customer to wrestle to the ground. He runs with obvious anger, be it the kind that bubbles from within or nips at him from behind, if there is a difference.
Owens, not surprisingly, is well aware that some of his teammates in recent weeks may have grown tired of all the T.O. talk, especially in regard to the question no one will know the answer to until around game time Sunday: will he play? He says he will, without a doubt. His orthopedic surgeon wouldn't clear him. But no matter.
"I've got the best doctor anyone can have, and that's God," said Owens.
Reid went into the weekend as an uncommitted sideline observer.
"Obviously, there's a lot of hoopla surrounding me and my teammates," said Owens, falling into his familiar mantra. "You know, all the talk, will I play or not? But you know, I'm here, I'm going to play and that's it. I mean, I am who I am, regardless of any distractions they see, or they may think [exist]. I can't do anything about that. I can't change who I am. I am who I am. They can't dispute that and they just have to deal with it. And at the same time, I don't think it's been a distraction. If it is, then I'm sorry."
Owens's days with the 49ers -- who made him the 89th pick in the '96 draft -- also have come up here repeatedly during the week. He clearly didn't want to dwell on them.
"For whatever reason, they felt like I was the problem in San Francisco," he said. "And like I've said before, somebody's trash is always somebody's treasure. I'm here now, with the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl."
Owens turned to a reporter here earlier in the week, when questioned about his decision to play, and asked the man if he believed in God. When the man answered in the affirmative, Owens added, "All right, read John, Chapter 11 [The Death and Resurrection of Lazarus] -- that's all about believing."
But believing is only part of it for pitch man Eight-One. In a revelation that would make even the most proselytizing Bible Belter blush, Owens later said the timing of his injuries was all part of a plan far greater than anyone, especially any ordinary football fan, might expect.
"God is using me," said the 31-year-old Owens, "to put me on the platform to really show the world, and use me in some capacity to show how great He is. God has put me in the position and I am welcoming that challenge. I think the way my season started out, and just by the timing of me getting hurt, that obviously gave me a chance to sit down and just put in perspective my career, how things are unfolding . . . I dreamed of being in the Super Bowl, and right when I [have] that chance to achieve that goal, He had to sit me down to put me into perspective for it. And that's what He's done.
"He put me on the biggest stage of my life to show people how great He is."