Newark Star Ledger – Sep 28, 2006 – Steve Politi – Ongoing saga ends well … this time – We have all sipped from the tall glass of T.O. over the past few years, cheering him, cursing him, mocking him, criticizing him and, perhaps most of all, wishing he would go away.
It was mostly a harmless diversion, something to fill the 24-7 sports gabfest on television and radio. Sit-ups in the driveway? A press conference with Jesse Jackson? A saucy promo with Nicollette Sheridan? All of it was controversial at the time, but really, it was just nonsense.
But not this time. The Terrell Owens saga is no fun any more, not after the man who once said finding controversy was a God-given mission had finally stumbled into an incident that was too serious to dismiss as just T.O. being T.O.
No matter which version of this convoluted story you choose to believe today — the receiver or the initial police report, take your pick — it was hard not to watch this saga unfold yesterday and see the protagonist in a different light.
In those hours before Owens sat behind the microphone and tried to explain what really happened, before he refuted reports that pointed to a desperate suicide attempt with a nearly full bottle of painkillers, he seemed less like an attention-grabbing prima donna and more like a troubled individual.
“I’m not depressed by any means,” Owens finally said, and he is the only source we have on his mental health. But nobody has this much controversy in his life without having problems, nobody destroys so many relationships and invites so much chaos without something being wrong.
It has been too easy over the years to only look at his transgressions on the surface, to allow the nonsense to overshadow the darker side of his personality. Owens wrote a book last year, and most of the focus centered on his shots at Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid and the controversies that helped derail a four-time conference champion in Philadelphia.
Few talked about the early chapters, when he described his traumatic life — the father he never knew, the whippings from his grandmother, the persecution complex and insecurities that followed him into his life as a professional athlete.
His publicist, Kim Etheredge, quipped that Owens had “$25 million reasons he should be alive,” and that was perhaps the most ignorant comment in a day that had its share of doozies. As if money cures depression. As if a Pro Bowl receiver is immune to the problems a window washer might experience.
“For T.O. to try to commit suicide, that’s crazy,” said Jets running back Kevan Barlow, his former teammate in San Francisco, just one of the dozens of pundits and athletes lining up to declare Owens “not the suicide type.” No one ever wants to believe someone we know is capable of something so desperate. But no one really knows.
Two of his former teams, according to reports, had tried to get him to seek counseling due to his erratic behavior, but Owens dismissed the requests as an insult each time. But the concerns were always there. He has lived under intense scrutiny for most of his life. After all that’s happened, does the portrait of a troubled, insecure Owens not make some sense?
“We knew going in he has enormous psychological issues,” said John Murray, a Palm Beach, Fla.-based sports psychologist who has worked with several professional teams and athletes. “We knew this from difficulties with coaches and teammates and this is further evidence that he is in some kind of personal distress.”
The whole day unfolded in typical T.O. fashion, of course. There was the instant nonstop coverage on three ESPN networks, sometimes with each one delivering a different set of facts.
There was that personal publicist — how many athletes have one of those? — calling 911 when she found her client unresponsive and sitting near an empty bottle of pain pills.
The police report was clear. Then the police spokesman would not confirm it. Then Owens was seen leaving the hospital.
Then Bill Parcells was on TV, suffering through 10 of the worst minutes in his professional career. Somehow, he had no answers to the obvious questions but still held a press conference, the man who perfected the control freak coach showing how little control he had over the mess enveloping his team.
Then it was Owens himself. “The rumors of me taking 35 pills are absurd,” he said. “I don’t think I would be here if I took 35 pills.” And, to a perfect touch to the surreal day, his publicist ended the press conference with one of the few comments that made sense.
“If this had been somebody else,” Etheredge said, “this might not have happened.”
Of course not. Episodes like this only happen to Terrell Owens, who grabs attention like no athlete in history. But this one was different. This time, instead of cursing him or mocking him or wishing he’d go away, you wondered what might be bubbling under the surface.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.