CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Terrell Owens stood in a quiet, empty college gym on Friday afternoon, looking out at thousands of seats that may be filled for him on Saturday.
He was perched behind a lectern, on a stage where he will give his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, underneath the NCAA tournament banners earned by the Tennessee-Chattanooga basketball team he played for in the 1990s. Behind him as he speaks will be a row of cushioned chairs pulled from the basketball sideline. It’s appropriate, as when he played in this arena, he came off the bench.
Owens in his Mocs gear, running through parts of his speech. pic.twitter.com/XvIuTkk5YI
— Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) August 3, 2018
Here’s another look. This is where Terrell Owens played hoops for three seasons at UTC. The Mocs went to the NCAA tournament four times in the 1990s. Several of Owens’ basketball teammates were planning on being here. pic.twitter.com/ppnanLWDuG
— Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) August 3, 2018
The scene is so far from the mammoth stadiums where he earned this honor. There won’t be any TV cameras zooming in on him on Saturday. There won’t be any JumboTron overhead. Other than the DJ booth and the huge banner of him tossing popcorn into his helmet, it’ll feel like a college valedictory speech.
Owens, standing in Mocs gear, practiced some of his lines on Friday afternoon. He was antsy, shifting from side to side, tossing his cell phone from hand to hand, even sending out a tweet or two. He had a friend up on stage with him who was helping him rehearse. After several minutes it looked more like a therapy session than a dry run, as Owens spoke earnestly and his friend listened and nodded.
Saturday’s ceremony will be a moment unlike any other in the history of the NFL – a polarizing star departing from the Canton limelight to celebrate with friends and family. Former NFL coach Ray Sherman is scheduled to be a VIP, but so will Erik Gray, who was the Mocs’ mascot in the ‘90s. Will Owens use the occasion to focus on the man he has become? Or will he air grievances?
There was nothing flashy or flamboyant about Friday. Owens spoke to current UTC athletes in the morning, and promised a prime seating section would be set aside for them on Saturday. He went to a local Dick’s Sporting Goods and bought 35 local kids a shopping spree. Then he played some basketball, which a few old teammates still say is Owens’ true love.
At around 2 p.m., he and some friends arrived at the arena for a walk-through. Doors will open Saturday at 1 p.m. There will be free admission, though a UTC spokesman said he had “no clue” how many people will show up. There will be popcorn available (of course). There will be some introductory remarks beginning at 3:17 p.m. – to note his place as the 317th inductee into the Hall. Then there will be Owens.
He could be the loud, grinning, flashy star. Or he could be the country kid from Alabama. He could call some NFL people out, or he could dissolve into tears. We have seen all of the above, and part of the drama of this moment is that this is Owens’ chance to give an unfiltered, undistorted view of himself and his career. He clearly dislikes how he has been portrayed in the media. Here is a chance to set the record straight – if he so chooses.
One of the placards left out on the press table at the back of the gym is for Lizi Arbogast, the sports editor of the Alexander City (Ala.) Outlook. Owens’ hometown is a three-hour drive south, a community of 14,000 that has fought back from severe job loss over the past several years. Owens’ high school, Benjamin Russell, is named after the founder of the Russell Brands that once outfitted major pro sports teams. When Owens was living in “Alex City,” the company had 18,000 employees worldwide. But the company moved to Atlanta and some jobs moved to Mexico and Honduras. Now there are fewer than 500 employees in town. Even the high school football team that produced Owens will soon be wearing Adidas.
“Everybody at one point worked for Russell or had a family member who did,” Arbogast says. “When Russell left here, a lot of jobs were lost. People thought the town would dry up and become a ghost town. But people have come together.”
Owens has been back to Alexander City to raise money for not only his old school, but for the rival school as well. Arbogast isn’t sure how many from her town will drive up for the ceremony, but she says “it’s a really big deal.”
This is one of the benefits of giving this speech here, and not in Canton. It can be a homecoming, a return from NFL life of sorts.
But Owens still has strong feelings about that NFL life. How many of those feelings he will bring to the stage Saturday is unknown, perhaps even to him.
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