Often characterized by critics as overly focused on self, Terrell Owens said today’s celebration of his reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame was “for you.”
You—all of the 1,000-plus fans gathered Saturday inside McKenzie Arena, where UTC hosted the celebration. You—the 100 UTC student-athletes in reserved seating on the arena floor. You—Owens’ former teammates on the 1995-1996 Mocs basketball team also given places of honor alongside family and friends seated on the arena floor.
And you—former UTC coaches Frankie DeBusk, Mack McCarthy and Buddy Green, who recalled Owens’ time as a Mocs wide receiver from 1992 to 1995. And, of course, you—former San Francisco 49ers receivers coach Larry Kirksey and former Dallas Cowboys receivers coach Ray Sherman, who talked of Owens’ work ethic, drive and passion.
Speaking for more than 25 minutes, Owens’ remarks were a series of expressions of gratitude for people who touched or enhanced his life, beginning with a tribute to his mother, who was front and center in the VIP audience seating.
“Your belief in me has never wavered. You told me you always knew I would be something special,” Owens said, his voice breaking. “Mama, you are the real hall of famer. Thank you for being the best mother you could be for me and for my sisters and brothers. I love you. And for that, this is for you.”
Moments earlier, Owens’ mother had joined him on stage to present him with the signature gold-colored sport coat given to Hall of Fame inductees. In a press conference following the celebration, Owens explained that extraordinary help from special friends had made it possible for the jacket to reach Chattanooga on Saturday.
Owens acknowledged his decision to celebrate his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Chattanooga, rather than in Canton, Ohio, where the traditional celebration happens tonight. Describing his unconventional choice as “the elephant in the room,” he cited his disagreement with the current process for selecting inductees. Then he resumed his focus on thanking those who have been part of major milestones in his life.
“I greatly appreciate those who support my decision,” he said, “and I’m glad to be here in Chattanooga, where it all started, and this is where I close this chapter.”
Owens also thanked those in the audience “who have traveled near and far,” calling out—and getting responses from—fans of each of the NFL teams on which he played: the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.
“Thanks for always having my back,” he said. “This is for you.”
Renee Davis isn’t just one of those fans,she’s a superfan. Davis, an IT specialist who lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made her first-ever trip to Chattanooga just to attend Owens’ celebration. When she heard about Owens’ selection for the Hall of Fame, Davis bought a ticket to the event in Canton; when she heard Owens’ celebration was going to be at UTC, she sold her ticket to Canton and made plans to be in Chattanooga.
“I’ve been a fan of him ever since he was drafted by the NFL. I just love watching him play,” Davis said Saturday, wearing a Mocs jersey with Owens’ UTC playing number, 80, on it. “There was no way I was not going to be here.”
Asked at the post-event press conference how soon or how often he might return to Chattanooga, Owens said a visit to UTC homecoming a few years ago began what’s become an annual tradition for him.
“I wasn’t the best in high school, and I wasn’t the best in college, but then I saw what I could be, and I got lost in trying to be the best I could be, and that was my whole focus,” he said.
“Then I came back here to homecoming, and I really felt the love. I’ve been back the last three years for homecoming, and every year, it feels like it did that first time again. I’ve told the staff, (Chancellor) Steve Angle, this place is like home away from home for me.
“The first time I was back, I realized the impact I’ve made. I feel welcome, and it’s special here.”
Earlier, he had closed his public remarks with a similar thought—to a thunderous standing ovation inside McKenzie Arena.
“And so, with my parting words, I say, Chattanooga, this is for you,” Owens said. “You have no idea of my appreciation for you and how it runs deep.”