Owens drawing a new image
Sunday, July 13, 2003
San Francisco Chronicle
Laura Gentile says everyone at the commercial shoot tried to make things as easy as possible for Terrell Owens. They told him that he wouldn't have to jump into the chilly water too often. They'd only need to go two or three times, five at the most.
"He didn't care. He must have jumped in at least 12 times," said Gentile, who managed the shoot for ESPN. "He was such a crackup. We just kept going."
Lesson No. 1 in Understanding Terrell Owens: Don't bother trying to make things easy for him. Moderation isn't part of his game.
The ESPN commercial starring Owens is running frequently now to promote this week's ESPY Awards. It opens with a typically mighty swing by Barry Bonds,
sending a ball toward what looks like McCovey Cove. The body of water on the screen is really an industrial marina in Long Beach, chosen because its murky green matched the color of the water around Pacific Bell Park.
Owens jumped in there on June 10, posing as one of the fans who race after Bonds' homers. He comes up with the ball as Jon Miller's familiar voice announces: "And a souvenir for Terrell Owens."
The theme of the ESPY ad campaign is "We're All Fans," and it doubles nicely as a slogan for Owens' offseason reinvention.
For the first time since he joined the 49ers in 1996, Owens has begun to present a side of himself that can connect with the average person. His eccentric intensity, often wasted on elaborate touchdown celebrations, has been put to good use. He has positioned himself to be a leader, a highly emotional NFL player who has something more to say than: "Look at me."
Recently, he began making public appearances and distributing school supplies for children's groups on behalf of Sharpie, makers of the marker he made famous/infamous with a very uncharitable maneuver last fall. In April, he testified at a Senate hearing on Alzheimer's disease, talking about the agony of watching his grandmother, Alice Black, decline from the illness. He has discussed the topic often and even broken into tears when mentioning her after a game.
It was heartbreaking, and typical of his wild mood swings. One second, he wanted to draw people in. The next, he wanted to push them away. He needed understanding. He wanted to be left alone.
Over time, Owens has revealed glimpses of an extraordinarily difficult childhood, spent largely in isolation and relieved almost exclusively by his grandmother's devotion. By his own admission, he didn't learn how to socialize properly with other people.
That may explain why he came to the 49ers as a shy young man who, when he got up the nerve to talk, always addressed people as "Sir" and "Ma'am." A few years later, his personality swung to the opposite extreme, becoming abrasively extroverted. He was begging for attention, yet still pushing people away.
Lesson No. 2: Never assume that you have a grip on this guy. As any cornerback can tell you: He switches direction like nobody else.
The Sharpie incident made the Owens psyche more elusive than ever. When he pulled a pen out of his sock after a touchdown in Seattle, signed the ball and gave it to his financial adviser in the stands, Owens started stepping away from a belligerent image. He started making himself, if not more likable, more accessible.
"A dishonor to everyone who ever played the game," Seattle coach Mike Holmgren called it, but he had an obvious bias.
For most people, it was a toss-up. The gesture was arrogant. It was confident. It was individualistic. It was part of fulfilling a promise to his team.
Most of all, though, it was funny, just too goofy to resemble any prior acts of bad sportsmanship. Enter the manufacturers of Sharpie, who wanted to capitalize on the Owens publicity but knew they had to spin his actions away from the Holmgren perspective.
At Christmas, they donated $25,000 to the Alzheimer's Association in his name. When they started the promotional tour, they attached it to good deeds and, like the ESPN commercial, put Owens in the position of a fan. In this case, he asks people for their autographs. There is a wall-size poster, and every time someone signs, Sharpie donates a dollar to the cause du jour. The tour began at a Boys & Girls Club in Atlanta. An October appearance is tentatively scheduled for somewhere in the Bay Area.
Owens' current incarnation looks suspiciously like a crafted image makeover,
engineered by an agent or public relations staff. But if Owens were that easy to manipulate, he would have been pouring on the charm for almost three years to compensate for posing on the midfield star in Dallas and other incendiary displays of emotion. He has been in no hurry to pacify anyone or cater to advertisers.
Lesson No. 3: You can try to package Owens, but you can't contain him.
For the Sharpie appearances, he makes a grand entrance in a silver Hummer. When he worked on the ESPN commercial, Owens endeared himself to the crew not by meekly following directions but by going over the top.
"We would have been happy if he'd just caught the ball and held it up," Gentile said. "But he was so into it, it was great. He'd grab it just like a fan and start screaming, 'I've got it. I got it.' It was like his celebrations on the (football field)."
She said the ball got soggy and started sinking toward the end of the shoot.
Owens never did.