In the privacy of a Sheraton Birmingham suite on April 28, Terrell Owens told story after story about his years at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, speaking of the special place that the school held in his heart. And as he listened to Owens, Mark Wharton presumed to know the best way to honor the university's most famous alumnus.
Just eight months into his job as UTC's athletic director, Wharton had made the 150-mile trip to see Owens, a native of Alexander City, Ala., become a member of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. But there was a more prestigious accolade ahead for Owens, on Aug. 4 in Canton, Ohio, and he wanted the university to join the celebration. Wharton agreed, of course. Perhaps the university could host an event or two the weekend before. Call him naïve, but Wharton insisted: Not once did he consider that Owens would leverage his love for his alma mater into an opportunity to thumb his nose at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"At the time, nobody had ever not gone to Canton," Wharton said in a phone interview Tuesday. "So I was assuming – and everybody knows what assuming does."
When it comes to Owens, it either leaves you bitter and regretful or compels you to accommodate his whims, and for the power people at UTC, this was a pretty easy choice. As Wharton and other administrators talked logistics and details with Owens and his coterie of handlers, the true desire of a singularly self-absorbed athlete soon became clear. Owens was boycotting Canton and wanted a two-day commemoration in Chattanooga, something suitable for a wide receiver who, in his own mind, should never have had to wait two years for the Hall's voters to acknowledge his greatness.
He returns to UTC's campus for homecoming every fall, and during that conversation with Wharton in Birmingham, he went on and on about the positive effect and influence that his old college head coach, Buddy Green, had on him. So instead of basking in the residual adoration that his former Eagles teammate Brian Dawkins will receive at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, Owens will hustle through a busy itinerary that will show a sliver of him at his best and remind everyone that he is at his worst when he lets his ego and insecurities rule him.
He'll begin Friday night as the guest of honor at a private dinner with his family, his friends, and several university alumni and boosters. On Saturday morning, he will speak to UTC's varsity athletes at 9, then head to a local Best Buy to distribute gift cards to underprivileged children so they can shop for school supplies. At 1 p.m., the doors to UTC's McKenzie Arena (capacity 10,928) will open, and Wharton said that the university expects several thousand people will file in, free of charge, for Owens' personal induction ceremony.
As of Tuesday, Wharton didn't know who would introduce Owens, but he did know that Owens would deliver his remarks at precisely 3:17 p.m. If you're thinking that Matthew 3:17 would be an appropriate biblical verse for Owens to cite – And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased – forget it. He simply couldn't resist a subtle dig at Canton's gatekeepers. Terrell Owens will speak at 3:17 because he will be the 317th member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Then two more receptions will follow, with refreshments and bowling.
"T.O.'s got to make his own decision," Wharton said. "For me personally, you don't want to go somewhere that is somewhat adversarial. This is his comfort zone, and it's how he wants to celebrate it. All we want to be is a part of it and respect his decision and trust that he's going to represent our university in the best way.
"As you probably know, he doesn't surround himself with people who are going to try to talk him out of things."
He never has and never will. In Owens' world, you're either an obsequious ally or a mortal enemy, and no one lives between those poles. Donovan McNabb told him to shut up in a huddle once, and Owens retaliated by waging a vicious campaign that cut at McNabb's underbelly, labeling him a "company man" and, by implication, an Uncle Tom who always acquiesced to the Eagles front office. Drew Rosenhaus held an infamous and embarrassing news conference, repeating the phrase "Next question" as if he were a doll with a string in his back, but all that mattered – to Owens and Rosenhaus – was that Owens knew his agent would defend him, regardless of the damage to his pride and dignity.
During those conference calls throughout May with Owens and his inner circle, Wharton and other UTC officials asked if he was certain he wanted to snub the Hall of Fame. Always, Owens assured them he was. For all the loyalty and affection that Owens has for the university, those administrators knew him and his history, and deep down, they had to know this: Deny him this request, and we'll be dead to him forever.
So he will sign some memorabilia and record some promotional videos gratis – "He's been fantastic," Wharton said – and unlike those Hall voters who dared to show him such disrespect, the school that he loves and that loves him back will stay on his good side. This is Terrell Owens, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and a 44-year-old favorite son who never quite grew up, and for Mark Wharton and everyone else in Chattanooga, this was no choice at all.