On new team, Owens can't outrun his past

Talented, but troubled, receiver aware of his me-first reputation

July 11, 2004|By Bob Glauber | Bob Glauber,NEWSDAY

PHILADELPHIA - It is a few minutes after practice, and Terrell Owens is sitting on a black leather couch, telling a visitor why he thinks it's too late to change his image as one of the NFL's most controversial players.

Speaking barely above a whisper, he seems nothing like the trash-talker he was labeled during his days with the San Francisco 49ers. Now with the Philadelphia Eagles after rejecting an offseason trade to the Ravens, he leans back on the couch in an office at their training complex and shakes his head.

"No matter what I do, it's not going to change," the 30-year-old receiver said. "I've got a negative image with the public and people think, `This guy's a bad guy.' "

Great receiver. Bad guy. Owens cannot separate the two, even though he desperately wants to be known as the former, not the latter.

"That's what I'm stuck with," Owens said. "I'm a monster on the field, but people think I'm a monster off the field, too. I don't think people really know me until they're around me. When they hang out with me, they'll pull me aside and say: `I don't get it. I don't see why people say you're this way. You're a cool dude.' People expect something different."

Eagles receiver Todd Pinkston certainly expected something different. He expected to see a chronic complainer, a guy who bullies his teammates and snarls at his coaches.

"No, it's nothing like that," Pinkston said. "He had this reputation as an `I-want-the-ball' type of guy, but he hasn't been like that at all. If you see his work ethic, you'll know. It's not like the reputation he had in San Francisco."

Owens is a star receiver who makes terrific catches and scores highlight-reel touchdowns, but his flamboyant celebrations and sideline tantrums have given him a me-first reputation that he believes has unfairly tainted his legacy.

To Owens and those who know him best, he is a complex man whose combative behavior on game day belies a gentle and charitable personality off the field. They know he is a gifted athlete whose continual search for attention and admiration goes back to a time when he was ready to quit the sport as a teenager because he almost never got a chance to play on his high school team.

A new team, a new contract and a new outlook on his NFL future probably won't change things for Owens, who forced the trade that sent him from the 49ers to the Eagles in March. He understands that the first time he complains about not getting enough passes from quarterback Donovan McNabb, or the first time he disagrees publicly with coach Andy Reid, or the first time he follows up a touchdown with one of his attention-getting celebrations, he will re-ignite the criticism that has followed him since he blossomed into an All-Pro receiver in 2000.

"People are going to pry, and they're going to be looking for something," he said. "That's the way it is. I understand that. I don't like it, but I understand it. I just try to be honest with my opinions, but it always seems to come out wrong."

Trying to fit in

There already have been a few Owens moments in Philadelphia. Such as the time he complained about Reid's rule prohibiting players from wearing form-fitting sweat pants without shorts during practice. With the 49ers, Owens routinely worked out in sweats without shorts.

"My biggest adjustment isn't the new team or the plays, but wearing shorts over my tights," Owens said when he learned of Reid's rule. "What does that have to do with how I practice? I understand having structure, and I guess that is him making a statement. I don't have any problem with that, but it's a big adjustment."

Or how about the comments he made a few weeks ago during minicamp, when he suggested he needed to get more work during seven-on-seven drills? Owens-bashers took it as more public whining, but Owens insists there was a perfectly logical explanation for his remarks.

"I was just trying to get on the same page with Donovan," Owens said. "If people want to see the touchdowns that they're expecting from me, then that's what I'm working hard for in practice. That's where I was coming from. It was a positive thing for me, but it turned into a negative thing when it came out. Granted, I've got a fresh start here, but I've got to realize that people are going to pry. They're going to try to find something, and maybe I've been too trusting. I'm going to have to be careful in what I say."

He realizes this is the price for what has gone before.

It is what happens when you are suspended by your coach for igniting a fight with the Dallas Cowboys by dancing on the star at Texas Stadium - not once, but twice - after scoring touchdowns.

It's what happens when you incur the wrath of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue for scoring a touchdown in a nationally televised game, pulling a Sharpie out of your sock, autographing the ball and handing it to a business acquaintance in the stands.

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