In January of 2018, former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, upon arrival at Super Bowl festivities in Minnesota, told TMZ Sports that, should he be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he wouldn’t go in as a San Francisco 49er.
Besides the fact that, unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame, no team representation is apparent on Pro Football hall of Fame busts, it was a shot that 49ers fans took hard. As acrimonious as Owens’ departure was from the team in 2003, he was still one of the greatest receivers of all time, and he got his start in San Francisco.
“I know there’s been a lot of speculation about my relationship with the Niners,” Owens said in a conference call with local media on Wednesday. “Back then, I was in a different different mindset. That’s what prompted some of the things that I did. In my mind, I was validated in how I felt. In their mind, they were validated in how they felt. They say time heals all wounds, and time has gone by.”
On Wednesday, it was announced that Owens — a controversial figure during his NFL career, and now a Hall of Famer on his third try — would be enshrined in the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame this coming fall. As he reflected on what brought him back to the organization over the last year, Owens turned his thoughts toward one of the men who brought him there in the first place: Dwight Clark.
During the late Clark’s celebration of life in August, Owens was told that Clark, the vice president of football operations for the 49ers when Owens was coming out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, had pushed the team to pick Owens with the 89th selection in the 1996 NFL Draft. The former Clemson wide out who became Joe Montana’s favorite target saw something in the rangy receiver out of a small school, beyond just the measurables: He ran an unimpressive 4.65 40, did not participate in the bench press or Wonderlic and had a very-average (especially for an athlete who also played NCAA basketball and ran track) 33-inch vertical. He had never had a 1000-yard receiving season, peaking at 724 yards on 38 catches as a sophomore, his first year as a starer.
Eleven receivers were taken ahead of Owens, who wore the No. 80 in college to honor another small-college receiver who made it big: Jerry Rice. Rice, Owens said on Wednesday, always trained to be the greatest ever. Owens never thought he’d get to play football beyond college. He was just hoping for a shot. Clark gave him that shot.
“To hold a position like that, where you’re assessing so many talented receivers, just the number of people that year, as it related to me, he saw something in me where I could complement Jerry and J.J. and Nate Singleton,” Owens said. “I was really raw, green. I had no idea what I was going to do or what I was going to become.”
In a draft that included Mercury Hayes, Amani Toomer, Derrick Mayes, Keyshawn Johnson and Alex Van Dyke, Owens said, “You would have thought that these guys would have had more of a tremendous upside and been more successful than a kid that barely got recruited going into Chattanooga, coming out of Chattanooga. I only won 13 games in four years. That’s how bad our team was.”
Clark would counsel Owens during his complicated eight-year career in San Francisco, a time he looks back on fondly. Every game day, he would get his car washed before heading to Candlestick Park, where he would pull into the parking lot and seeing it full of players wearing Rice’s No. 80, and eventually his own No. 81.
So, as Owens sat under cloudy skies at the unveiling of Clark’s statue outside of Levi’s Stadium on Oct. 20, he looked up in reverence, dressed in a sweat suit covered by his gold Hall of Fame jacket, filming the proceedings with his cell phone, like any other onlooker.
His return to the organization was, at that point, already in the works.
Some months after his comments to TMZ Sports, after he spurned the Canton induction ceremony for his own August Hall of Fame induction ceremony at his alma mater, Owens had been approached by the 49ers organization about an induction into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. Hall of Fame. It was something to which Owens was more than receptive. He spoke with CEO Jed York shortly after Clark’s celebration of life.
Two weeks after the ceremony honoring Clark’s joint statue with Montana, Owens received his Hall of Fame Ring of Excellence in a ceremony at halftime of a Thursday-night game at Levi’s Stadium against the Oakland Raiders. Owens made a point of expressing his desire to receive the ring in the Bay Area, rather than in Dallas or Philadelphia.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Owens said, reflecting on his exit from the Bay. “But at the end of the day, this is a tremendous honor in itself, and a moment for me and the 49ers, and I’m very, very grateful for the time spent there in San Francisco. I had some great years there in the Bay Area.”
Not all wounds are healed, though. Owens still refuses to bury the hatchet with his former coach, Steve Mariucci. The relationship between the two fractured initially when Owens twice ran to the star in the middle of Texas Stadium to celebrate touchdown catches in 2000. Mariucci suspended him without pay. Owens later accused Mariucci of being disingenuous, and on Wednesday, accused him of having a double standard.
“I didn’t play politics,” Owens said. “He had his favorites.”
That deteriorating relationship set the state for Owens’ exit from San Francisco, one fraught with recriminations and hurt feelings. When Owens decided to leave the team after the 2003-04 season, the 49ers asserted that his previous agent, David Joseph, had missed the deadline to void the final years of his contract. The NLFPA and Owens disputed that assertion. On March 4, 2004, the 49ers, believing they still held Owens’ rights, tried to trade him to Baltimore for a second-round pick in the upcoming draft.
Owens, however, challenged San Francisco’s right to make the deal, having believed he would be a free agent on March 3. It took a ruling from the NFL to settle the dispute, which wound up seeing Owens sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he would play in a Super Bowl.
“Obviously there was some frustration in how things unfolded when I left there … Years later, I felt like I wanted to possibly end my career there at some point with the Niners. That didn’t happen,” Owens said. “At the end of the day, teams do what’s best for them. They made a business decision based on the mistake that me and my agent had made by not submitting that paperwork immediately after that season. Other than that, man, you live and you learn. I think now, I’m in a position where you look at those situations, and you try to move on from it and you grow from it.”
The way his tenure in San Francisco ended belied the love he had for and the love he engendered in the fan base during his time in the Bay, be it for his on-field antics — taking out a Sharpie to sign a ball after scoring a touchdown, shaking cheerleaders’ pom poms — or The Catch II against Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers in the 1998 Wildcard round, or his historic productivity. He currently ranks second in franchise history in receptions (592), receiving yards (8,572), receiving touchdowns (81), games with 100-or-more receiving yards (25) and 1,000-yard seasons (five), trailing only Rice in those categories.
When Owens returns next fall for his enshrinement ceremony, he’ll pass the dual statues of Montana and Clark in the entrance plaza, and unveil one of himself in a pose that’s still to be determined. When considering that, the usually-verbose Owens — who, over the course of his wide-ranging interview, gave his thoughts on the current team, the wide receivers in last weekend’s NFL Scouting Combine (he cited DK Metcalf as someone who reminded him of himself, but that “I wish I could’ve run a 4.3 coming out of college”), and his own speed (he claims to have clocked a 4.45 40-yard time last summer) — struggled for words.
“I don’t know how to articulate it,” he said. “I’ve always loved the 49ers.”