Charean Williams goes back to Terrell Owen’s hometown, Alexander City, Alabama, and discovers that people there love the polite young man who grew up there.
Terrell Owens doesn’t get back home much anymore, but when he does, he’s still the same ol’ Terrell. The same Terrell who did odd jobs around his high school coach’s house to earn spending money. The same Terrell who won the Tallapoosa County spelling bee. The same Terrell who was a puny backup receiver at Benjamin Russell High School.
The T.O. that NFL fans know — a touchdown-scoring, celebration-inventing, controversy-making star who signed a three-year, $25 million contract with the Cowboys this off-season after talking his way out of Philadelphia — is not Alexander City’s Terrell. “He gets a lot of bad press now, and some of it rightfully so…but I don’t know anything negative about him,” said Steve Savarese, the former head football coach at Benjamin Russell High. “He was never ugly. He was never disrespectful. People who care about him, he cares about them. I never, ever had a problem with him. “He’s such a competitor. That’s his No. 1 asset, his competitive spirit, and he’s always had that. But the game he plays now is such a brutal game. He tries to have a little fun doing it, and I think it’s misconstrued sometimes.”
Owens never was a star at Benjamin Russell. In fact, he hardly was a starter.
It took an illness to Ricky Morgan for Owens to crack the starting lineup during his senior season. When Morgan was hospitalized with pneumonia, Owens started and scored a touchdown in front of a Tennessee-Chattanooga recruiter there watching fellow receiver and close friend Derek Hall.
Morgan ended his senior season in the secondary. Owens ended up following Hall to UTC after the Division I-AA school offered Owens a partial scholarship. (A Pell Grant covered the rest of his expenses.) “One thing led to another for him after that,” Morgan said. “It still amazes me to see him playing on Sunday. Nowadays, I have a hard time convincing people I started over him. I mean, I’m only 5-8, 180 pounds. I don’t have near the build that Terrell has.” Owens didn’t have his build — he’s now 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds — then either. He was only 6 foot, 175. “Skinny” is how he refers to his body back then. Basketball was his preferred sport.
In his 2004 autobiography, Catch This! Going Deep With the NFL’s Sharpest Weapon, Owens writes about a meeting with his mother, Marilyn Owens, and Savarese during his junior year that changed his life. It began his commitment to football and to weight training. “It was because of her support,” Savarese said of Owens’ mother. “If she wasn’t the strong person in his life, he very easily could have gone astray, because there was so much evil so very close to where he lived.”
Marilyn was only 17 when she had Terrell, the first of her four children. Terrell did not learn his father’s identity until he was 11 after he started showing interest in a girl across the street. A neighbor, L.C. Russell, told Terrell he couldn’t be interested in the girl, explaining that she was his half-sister. Owens said in his book that it took a while before he understood that Russell was his father.
Owens was reared by the heavy hand of his grandmother, Alice Black. Her small house on Emerson Street, no longer occupied by Owens’ family, now has fresh green paint and a new porch. But it has the same, old gravel driveway Terrell rode his bicycle up and down because his grandmother wouldn’t let him ride in the street. Miss Alice always had the doors and windows to the house closed, and the drapes drawn. Her rules prevented the children from watching television or using the telephone, and they were allowed to leave the house only for school and church. They earned a whipping for disobeying or talking back.
“Marilyn was a child having a child is what it was,” said Gayle Humphrey, a retired teacher who taught both Terrell and his mother in her history classes. “So Miss Alice took them and raised them, and she was strict. But that was the best thing. She just wanted them to turn out right.”
Terrell gets back to his roots only occasionally. He was on the sideline in December when Benjamin Russell lost to eventual state champion Homewood High 24-17 in the state semifinals. “Home is home,” Owens said at Valley Ranch last week. “It’s where I grew up. At this point, I’ve kind of moved on, but my mom still lives there, and it’s where we still call home.”
When he is back, Owens still likes to hang out with the boys at the old Graham place on the corner of Robinson and Booker, and they still play pickup basketball at the Alexander City Housing Authority Youth and Adult Services Center. “He’s still one of us,” said Fred Norris, the director of the recreation center. “He just blends in….To me, he’s the same kid he was growing up.”
Owens has contributed financially to the school district and to the Alexander City Housing Authority Youth and Adult Services Center. Norris would like to see Owens eventually sponsor the recreation facility that would be renamed after him. “That’s our goal,” said Norris, a diehard Cowboys fan who has an Owens-signed 49ers photo on his office wall below his Cowboys memorabilia. “I’ve been trying to communicate that with him. He’s still young, and when he settles down we’re hoping he’ll come down and do these things in the community. We would like him to come back and establish a business here, put his name on something.”
Owens is from my home state and was a senior at UTC during my year there as a professor, although I wasn’t aware of him at the time. Now, he’s with the Dallas Cowboys team that I’ve been following for nearly thirty years and we’re all aware of him.
It’s difficult to think of a man in his early 30s as “still young” but he’s got a good foundation thanks to Miss Alice. I’m hoping that, given yet another fresh start and a very generous contract, he’ll be more like that man everyone in Alexander City seems to like.
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