Terrell Owens is going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this summer, and he enters as one of its most polarizing figures. People either love him or loathe him. There is no in between.
And nobody understands that better than George Stewart, who coached Owens in San Francisco.
Now the assistant head coach and special teams coordinator with the L.A. Chargers, Stewart is such an outspoken advocate and supporter of Owens that the former wide receiver chose him as his presenter for his Hall-of-Fame induction in Canton in August.
“I am very excited about it,” Stewart said.
He should be. He and Owens are close, and this is the greatest achievement of Owens’ career.
But there are others — head coaches, assistants, teammates, you name it — who aren’t so close and aren’t afraid to admit it. So we couldn’t wait to ask Stewart how he reached Owens where others could … or would … not, and he was only too happy to oblige.
“The thing with Terrell that I did not have an issue with is he is kind of similar to how I was brought up, in a lot of respects,” Stewart said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast. “A young man from the South; a young man that was kind of raised by his grandmother. I was raised by a lot of people back in Arkansas. My mother did a great job with me as well.
“But there’s a lot of layers. And what I mean by layers is sometimes you can’t read a book by the cover. Sometimes you can’t peel back enough layers of that onion. With Terrell, you really have to go through the molten rock.
“And that was one thing, in terms of as a coach, I had to reach deep down inside to understand who he was as a person. And once I understood what he was as a person … who he was as a person … the navigation was easy. He is not a guy that will give trust early. You have to earn his trust. And I think our relationship was based on that from Day One. And it worked extremely well.”
That’s an understatement. In his last four years in San Francisco, Owens averaged 93 catches a year — including a career-high 100 in 2002 — and twice led the league in receiving TDs. In five of his eight seasons there, he had 1,097 or more yards receiving. And he caught a then-NFL record 20 passes in a 2000 defeat of Chicago on Jerry Rice Day.
He would go on to produce nine 1,000-yard seasons in his career, three times lead the league in yards receiving, five times be named All-Pro and get chosen to the 2000s’ all-decade team.
Yet he was often viewed as divisive, with two of his head coaches (Steve Mariucci and Andy Reid) suspending him and Reid refusing to let him return to the team; the Cowboys’ Bill Parcells refusing to attend a news conference introducing him in Dallas; and two Hall-of-Fame GMs, Bill Polian and Ron Wolf, as well as the man who drafted him, the 49ers’ former director of football operations, Dwight Clark, saying they would not back him for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There was friction with quarterbacks, too, with Owens claiming that former Dallas quarterback Tony Romo favored tight end Jason Witten and blaming former Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb for Owens’ exit from the Eagles, with T.O. calling the quarterback “two-faced.”
Some of that explains what happened after Owens left San Francisco, never staying in one spot longer than three years and going through five different clubs in seven. But this is a Hall of Famer who ranks second all-time in yards receiving, third in touchdown catches and eighth in receptions.
So the obvious question: Why did someone that accomplished go through so many teams … and in such a short period of time?
“With my situation,” answered Stewart, “I was with Terrell for eight years. Those teams that had him … the guys who worked with him three years, two years … not enough time. Like I say, you’ve got to understand him to know who he is. And that trust is earned with him.
“There are a lot of people I worked with that are very similar to Terrell … and maybe not as outspoken as Terrell … but the trust factor is real big with him.”
Stewart attributes much of Owens’ behavior to his background growing up, with Owens bullied by kids “who looked at him as being different,” and Owens responding with a determination to achieve success on the football field.
“That will to prove people that he belonged,” Stewart said, pausing, “I think anybody who’s been bullied, who’s been wronged as a child, you have those scars. And I think those scars stayed with him his whole life until he got to the National Football League.
“Once he had a chance to have some success, I think that brought on a different demeanor on Terrell Owens … in terms of ‘I showed you’ … ‘I wanted to prove I can do it.’ That’s the way I feel about Terrell in terms of he was a young man who was a little different growing up, and he had a platform to prove he was a much better football player than he was given credit for. “