Nos. 37 and 39 for No. 81

Posted Dec 10, 2010

Terrell Owens

Anthony Shaw is the music insider that introduced Terrell Owens to Hollywood when he called over Snoop Dogg to say hello that night in the Lakers locker room before a celebrity basketball game. Chub Hicks is the kid Owens has known since he was nine and still lives within an hour of their boyhood neighborhood in Alexander City, Ala., where they called the rocky basketball court next to the driveway at Owens’ house he shared with his grandmother, “The Garden.”

“We named the courts up and down the street after NBA arenas,” Hicks says. “We ran track and field in and around the street.”

Both guys are still in Owens’ phone. Both texted him “Happy Birthday” early this past Tuesday when one of the most prolific wide receivers in history and one of the league’s most complicated personalities turned 37. Owens may be many things to many people, but to these guys he’s the same guy they met all those years ago. He knows where he’s been and where he’s going and he doesn’t leave behind anybody who has loyally been along for the ride.

“I’m a Niners fan and this is after he made the catch in the playoffs to beat the Packers,” says Shaw of Owens’ last-second snap-crackle-pop job from Steve Young at the goal line in January 1998. “I recognized him in the locker room at that celebrity game because he won 100 bucks for me with that catch. I said, ‘Hey buddy, who are you with?’ And he said, ‘I’m from Alabama. I just roll by myself.’ I said, ‘C’mon, you’re with us.’ ”

“He’s just like his grandmother,” says Hicks, who admits she scared him when those street lights flickered as the sun went down and she demanded the kids leave her yard and go home. “His grandmother told you the way she felt whether you liked it or not. He cuts no corners, tells you no lies, and he’s stayed the same as he got older.”

At 37, Owens lives in both worlds. Shaw, who once worked for Motown mogul Mike Bivins, predicts after Owens's playing days are over that he’ll be a modern-day Jim Brown and become a successful movie actor. The celebrity makes coaches uneasy in a blue-collar game. Hicks, who had to give up a junior college football scholarship when his mother got cancer and had to come home to work, remembers racing against Owens down the street like it was the Olympics. The child-like love of the game endears Owens to his teammates.

With 39 yards Sunday in Pittsburgh, Owens becomes the first receiver in NFL history to have a 1,000-yard season with four different teams. And Cincinnati just might be the most intriguing stop doing it.

There have been no Chernobyl-like meltdowns or Young and The Catchless dramas or any Grey’s Anatomy meets Dr. Phil incidents. Sure, he’s had a couple of juicy tweets, some controversy-coated barbs on his TV show, and he set the tongues wagging after last week’s loss when he openly wondered briefly about the coaching.

But who doesn’t do that nowadays? In a league of hangovers, video spying, and porn texting, that’s pretty tame stuff. It almost seems like the rest of the NFL has caught up to Owens and passed him while he tries to move up the all-time receiving list. This is Elvis watching The Beatles.

“He’s very coachable. I’m glad we got him, I’m glad we have him,” says offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. “He’s very respectful and asks good questions, and when you coach him to do something he tries to do it the right way. You can’t have as much success as he’s had and not approach your job in a professional way, which is what he does.”

Owens has been ripped a couple of times this season for what the analysts have said are plays he hasn’t exactly extended himself or his body. But Bratkowski stands by him publicly.

“Some of that is just being picky; people are looking for something,” Bratkowski said. “I think that’s what happens to a lot of receivers in some situations. It looks like maybe the ball’s there, but it’s really too high and the receiver can’t get to it. Or it’s too far inside and you can’t get to it. I think that’s just people looking for something.”

Owens has already tweeted a shot this week about Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s various physical ailments in not so gently reminding people that he played a Super Bowl with virtually a broken leg. But he still has some bullets left. His 141 yards receiving in last month’s game against the Steelers were the most against them since Marques Colston’s 169 yards in 2006 and the most by a Bengal against Pittsburgh since Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was the Bengals head coach and Chad Ochocinco had 152 in 2002.    

There has been Mount St. Helen’s in Denver, a Category Five Hurricane in Minnesota, and a 100-year flood in Washington. But here with T.O. and The Ocho and a nine-game losing streak with six by seven points or less?

On Sunday, Owens offered a summer squall with, “It’s not a lack of effort on anybody’s part. I don’t know if we’re getting outcoached, or what the deal is. At this point, I’m sitting here trying to fish for answers, but I don’t have any answers for you.”

Bratkowski wasn’t quite sure what he said. He heard that Owens said something because he’s frustrated, but “we all are. When it’s time to go into the room and listen and talk about what we’re doing and make corrections and do those type of things, he’s right on it,” Bratkowski said.

Both worlds got together earlier this week. Owens says he hasn’t been out very much during his three months in Cincinnati. Certainly not enough to have a favorite place. But in honor of his birthday and Christmas, Owens threw a celebrity bowling party at, of course, Star Lanes at Newport on the Levee across the bridge from Paul Brown Stadium that was more L.A. than Cincy. The money ($75 a pop) stayed home to help 81 families from proceeds distributed to local agencies.

“That’s Terrell; he likes to have a good time,” Shaw says. “But during the season I’ve never seen him touch alcohol or anything like that. I mean, he’s too concerned about taking care of his body. He loves to entertain. You go over to his house and there’s always the nice music, some pool, cards…”

Owens showed up at his event with his own ball and shoes and Reggie Kelly showed up with his wife. There were a lot of head-turners at the event, but for the football observers, Kelly’s presence may have been the most revealing. In the locker room, Kelly, the 12th-year tight end, is known as “The Reverend,” a passionate, selfless player who leads by soul. The man quarterback Carson Palmer has called “the best teammate I’ve ever had.”

As Kelly bowled with a group that included wide receivers Andre Caldwell and Quan Cosby and cornerback Morgan Trent, Kelly glanced at other players trickling in from various position groups and ages (Ochocinco, rookie defensive end Carlos Dunlap, practice squad linebacker James Ruffin) and wasn’t surprised.

“One of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Kelly said. “He’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever played with. Never takes a play off. Never takes a practice off. He leads by his work ethic, by helping out the young guys. I know I’m not the only guy that feels that way. My teammates think a lot of him and they’re going to show up and support him.”

In the locker room this week, Palmer pretty much said the same thing.

“Great competitor,” he said. “He always comes to play. Smart. Never takes a play off. Never takes a day off. And he’s tough.”

This is a two-way street, it seems. After Owens’ postgame presser at the podium last Sunday, he passed Palmer on the way to do his bit. Their eyes met and Owens pointed to his own body and ever so briefly asked him, “You all right?” and Palmer said, “Yeah, you all right?”

Complicated, right? Who exactly is this guy? The guy who finishes off Jordan Shipley’s 64-yard TD play with a devastating textbook 101 block? Or the guy that announcers wonder if he extended?

All of this doesn’t surprise Shaw, who lives and works in the middle of the image machine in Hollywood. After his run in the music industry, Shaw is now working for a firm representing athletes and entertainers, Bulls Eye Enterprises. He spent Owens’ last season in San Francisco as his assistant and came away with how much the losses hurt him.

“A lot of this stuff,” says Shaw of Owens's past media problems “is pretty simple. He says things people don’t like to hear. But the guy really cares about is winning and competing. When I text him after games this season, and it’s been a tough one, I’ll say something like, ‘Congratulations on your 50th catch,’ or if he passed one of those records. And he’ll text back, ‘Did you see the score? We lost.”

Remember, Owens has been playing so long that he broke in before cell phones in 1996, but Hicks figures that he and Owens have texted after 75 percent of his 217 NFL games.

“Probably within the hour. A lot of times it’s on the bus when they’re on the road,” Hicks says. “The losing has been tough on him this year. I’ll text him and say stuff like, ‘You passed this guy with that touchdown,’ and he doesn’t even know.”

Hicks and Owens hit it off even though he had about three years on T.O. once they started hanging around together. “We didn’t have our fathers. We had that and sports in common. My dad passed when I was two.” Hicks’ mom has beaten cancer twice, but he had to give up football and college to get his younger sister through high school. Now he’s working on the line at the Hyundai Motor Company in nearby Montgomery, Ala., keeping up with his friend and enjoying his occasional visits.

“We probably text two or three times a week,” Hicks says. “He always used to come by the Fourth of July and he’d get some fireworks and have a picnic for the kids. People from a couple of miles away complained about the noise and were giving him a hard time and a couple of years ago he just stopped. After all these years, they still don’t have a street named after him down here.”

Not too long ago Hicks was driving in the old neighborhood when this black Trailblazer truck in front of him kept putting on the brakes. He was starting to get mad as the truck made a right turn signal. When Hicks pulled up even to pass, there was Owens throwing a roll of bills in his window.

“I couldn’t catch him and throw it back because my ’88 Honda Accord wouldn’t have caught up to him,” Hicks says.

Shaw has an even better one than that. One day they were in a Waffle House on the coast sitting at the counter. Owens struck up a conversation with a man clearly down on his luck. When they got back to the car, Owens told him, “Hey Shaw, put this money in that guy’s pocket without him knowing it.”

Shaw walked back into the place with a stack of 20s that he figures had to add up to a couple thousand dollars.

“And leave it to him,” Shaw says, “he’d already been looking for the guy’s pockets to see where he could slip in the money.”

Shaw asked the waitress something so he could casually put his hand on the guy’s shoulder and do the deed.

“Talking about Trading Places,” Shaw says. “I thought I was in a movie.”

At 37, it shows no signs of heading to DVD.



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