One of them almost never spoke; the other almost never shut up. One of them celebrated touchdowns by handing the ball to the referee and preparing quietly for the next one. The other celebrated by borrowing cheerleader pompoms, by pimping on the Dallas star, by getting his popcorn, by autographing the touchdown ball and giving it to a fan, by doing a mime dance.
One of them played his entire career with one team and caught a record 114 touchdown passes from a single quarterback, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.
The other switched teams with regularity and caught touchdown passes from 13 different quarterbacks while feuding with a good number of them.
And, different as they were, the story of the modern receiver goes straight through both of them, Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens.
If you want to see just how much the game has changed, it’s instructive to simply look at the progression of the receptions record.
Until 1962, the record for most catches was held by the great Don Hutson, who more or less invented the receiver position as we have come to know it. Hutson had 488 catches in his career, which was a mind-blowing number when he retired in 1945. It was more than double that of any other receiver. That record seemed as unbreakable then as Babe Ruth’s career home run record.
The reception record was broken in 1963 by a guy you might never have heard of … Billy Howton. He played for the Packers before Lombardi got there, and he played from Tom Landry’s first Cowboys teams. He was blazing fast, a track star at Rice, and in 1956, he had a mind-blowing game against the Los Angeles Rams. He caught a 63-yard touchdown pass on a halfback option, a 53-yard pass thrown by Tobin Rote from his own end zone, a 36-yard touchdown pass from Rote, and so on — seven catches for 257 yards in all. It is, even after all these years, still the Packers’ record for most receiving yards in a game.
Over his career, Howton was the first receiver to get to 500 catches. Every now and again, you will hear a small push to get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but so far nothing has come of that.
Howton held the receptions record for less than a year, though. He was passed by a guy you certainly have heard of, Raymond Berry, who turned receiving into a science. Berry set the record in 1964, and still held it when he retired in 1967, with 631 receptions. By then, two versatile players — Lionel Taylor and Bobby Mitchell — had also passed Howton on the list. Along the way, Taylor had become the first receiver in pro football to catch 100 passes in a season when he did it for the AFL’s Denver Broncos in 1961.
Berry was passed on the career chart by Don Maynard in 1973. Maynard was passed by Charley Taylor in 1975, and Taylor’s record of 649 receptions lasted all the way until 1984, when he was passed by Charlie Joiner, who retired with exactly 750 receptions.
Joiner was passed by Steve Largent in 1987, and soon after that Largent became the first receiver to 800 receptions.
Largent was passed by Art Monk, who became the first to 900 receptions.
And then in 1995, Jerry Rice took the top spot, and he’s still there to this day with 1,549.
But here’s the point … Charlie Joiner is now tied for 40th all-time in receptions, and he is about to get passed by DeAndre Hopkins, who has played 100 fewer games than Joiner did in his long and productive career.
Charley Taylor is now 62nd on the all-time list. Raymond Berry is 68th, and he might get passed this year by Keenan Allen, Travis Kelce, DeSean Jackson, T.Y. Hilton and Danny Amendola.
Don Hutson, the standard, is now 173rd all-time in receptions, just one ahead of Odell Beckham Jr., who has had just two seasons in which he played 16 games.
In other words, you will not get very far in identifying wide receiver greatness by looking at the numbers. EVERYBODY puts up big receiver numbers now. Eight receivers caught 100 balls last season, 18 receivers went for 1,000 receiving yards, six of the top seven reception seasons have happened since 2015.
Yes, Marvin Harrison is fifth all-time in receptions, ninth all-time in receiving yards and fifth all-time in touchdown catches.
Yes, Terrell Owens is even better — third all-time in receiving yards and touchdown catches.
But we have to look deeper. Numbers alone — especially modern numbers — aren’t nearly enough to make a receiver an all-time great. There has to be more. There have to be footprints on the game.
At the start of Marvin Harrison’s Hall of Fame speech, he said something funny. “Before I begin,” he said, “I want to say one thing. I’ve broken a lot of records, I’ve held a lot of records, and records are made to be broken, but to the current Hall of Famers here to my left and my right, I want to tell you one thing: I’m not going to break the record for having the shortest speech in Hall of Fame history.”
The little joke was only funny because this was Marvin Harrison, the silent one, the taciturn one. He had spent his stunning career stubbornly staying out of the spotlight, avoiding reporters, sitting in the back corner of the meeting room, doggedly chasing the seemingly unachievable dual goal of scoring spectacular touchdowns in America’s most popular sport while also having nobody notice him.
“He’s like Batman,” his teammate Cato June told Sports Illustrated. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him sit down and eat a meal.”
Unless you were in Indianapolis — which, odds are, you were not — or you had him on your fantasy football team, you probably never thought about Harrison. He was the train that always ran on time. He made 115 catches in 1999. He caught 14 touchdown passes in 2000. He went for 1,524 receiving yards in 2001. He caught a then-record 143 passes in 2002. He went for 1,272 yards in 2002. He caught 15 touchdown passes in 2004 and led the league with 12 more touchdown catches in 2005.
Every year, same thing, Marvin Harrison, as predictable as dome weather, as comfortably formulaic as “Love it or List It” (they ALWAYS list it). “In nine years,” his quarterback, Peyton Manning, said in 2007, “the timing has always been exactly the same.” Harrison ran a 4.37 40-yard dash before the 1996 draft and years later, everyone around the Colts insisted, he was still running a 4.37 40-yard dash.
But, really, it was his quickness more than his speed that separated Harrison, both literally and figuratively. He was a player with a thousand moves, each subtly different from the other, and there simply was no defensive back who could stick with him through the route. “An artist,” his receiver’s coach Clyde Christensen would say.
Then you throw in the obvious receiver skills — great hands, insatiable hunger for the football, ability to tune out everything. The last of these came naturally to Harrison. His father died when Marvin was just 2, and he was raised by Linda, a single mother who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. She would say that he was always quiet, always determined, always focused on doing what he needed to do to succeed.
At Syracuse, he could have left for the NFL after his junior season, but the team had lost three games in a row and he didn’t want it to end like that. So he came back for his senior year, was named team captain, and carried his team to the Gator Bowl, where they destroyed Clemson 41-0, a game in which Harrison made seven catches for 173 yards and two long touchdown catches from Syracuse’s quarterback … a redshirt freshman named Donovan McNabb.
His name might come up again.
Marvin Harrison was the fourth receiver selected in that amazing and absurd wide receiver draft of 1996. In all, EIGHT receivers were selected that year who would end up in at least one Pro Bowl.
Keyshawn Johnson was the first overall pick. Then there were Terry Glenn and Eddie Kennison. With the 19th overall pick, Indianapolis took Marvin Harrison, followed by Eric Moulds, and then the Jets took Alex Van Dyke, which sort of broke the Pro Bowl flow. Amani Toomer went next, Bryan Still went to San Diego, Muhsin Muhammad was taken by the Panthers, Bobby Engram went to the Bears, Derrick Mayes went to the Packers …
And it wasn’t until late in the third round that San Francisco took a tall and versatile but virtually unknown receiver out of the University of Tennessee Chattanooga named Terrell Owens.
“The 49ers say Owens’ best football is ahead of him,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat wrote, which didn’t sound like a glowing endorsement. It wouldn’t have been the best sign for his NFL career if his best football had been played at Chattanooga, where the team won two games his senior year.
But it’s also true that Owens was something of a phenomenon at Chattanooga — he played quarterback, running back and wide receiver on the football team and he was the first sub off the bench for the basketball team. People were awed by him and how hard he worked. “His workout regimen,” Chattanooga sports information director Scott McKinney said, “would kill a common man.”
How hard did Owens work at Chattanooga? Well, according to one story, Chattanooga would have players run dozens of 40-yard sprints during two-a-day preseason football practices. Owens would not only run his own sprints, but when he saw teammates struggling, he would run with them while shouting, “Come on, you can do this, you can make it, let’s go!”
“He’s one of the nicest kids ever to walk this campus, football player or non-player,” McKinney said. “He’s almost too good to be true. He’s Ken Griffey Jr., Walter Payton and Forrest Gump all rolled into one.”
I love that quote so much. It gets at the heart of the complications of T.O. He grew up in Alexander City, Ala., a small town about an hour and a half Southeast of Birmingham. It was a difficult childhood; he did not meet his father until he was 11 years old, and that was, in Owens’ words, “under circumstances that were not ideal.”
“I had a crush on the girl who lived across the street,” Owens wrote in his book T.O. “When my father found out about it, he told me I shouldn’t think that way about that girl, and when I asked why not, he told me the girl was my half-sister, and that he was my father. That’s how I learned who my father was.”
He lived a sheltered life — his grandmother Alice ran the household, and she was traumatized by the mysterious loss of her own mother. As such, she was deeply overprotective and would not let Owens or his siblings out except to go to church or school. The shutters were drawn. “She kept the sunlight out,” Owens wrote in his book Catch This. “She didn’t want anyone coming in or leaving the house. … The only time you could relax was when she got depressed about her mother and started drinking — but if she drank too much, you might get another whipping.”
Growing up that way, as Owens himself said, made it difficult for him to relate and engage with other people. In college, he made up for this by going over the top, trying harder than anybody, being more supportive than anybody, caring more than anybody. Then, when he got to the NFL, he tried to continue on that path. He joined a 49ers team with Steve Young at quarterback and Jerry Rice at receiver, and he just wanted to soak in all of the knowledge he could from them. And the 49ers were impressed by how quickly he made some big plays and how humbly he made them.
Look at this paragraph that ran in the San Francisco Examiner in October of Owens’ rookie season.
“That’s what they brought me in for, to make plays,” Owens said, growing a bit uncomfortable talking about himself. “I’m beginning to sound repetitive,” he added. “They brought me here to make plays, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Yes, there really was a time when Terrell Owens was uncomfortable talking about himself.
In 2004, The Indianapolis Star did one of my favorite-ever polls. They asked readers to choose between two receivers: Marvin Harrison or an in-his-prime Jerry Rice. Isn’t this like having a poll of rebellion fighters to choose their favorite Jedi, Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader?
I’m sure you’re deeply surprised to find that 69 percent of Indianapolis Colts fans picked Marvin Harrison. Who would have guessed that hometown fans would pick their hometown player?
But the poll does show just how much Indianapolis loved Harrison — not only for his greatness as a receiver but also, I think, because he was something of an Indianapolis landmark, like the Indy 500. You know that feeling you have when you love a band that hasn’t hit it big yet? It’s a combination of love and a certain pride for knowing something others don’t. The rest of the county could not appreciate just how amazing Harrison was the way Colts fans did.
Owens never inspired feelings quite like that because he was, in the minds of so many, too big a personality, too bold, too controversial, too outspoken. That really began in 2000, his fifth season in the league but his first season without Young at quarterback and his last year with his childhood idol, Jerry Rice, as teammate. That year, Owens had his first All-Pro season — he caught 97 balls for 1,451 yards and 13 touchdowns despite playing only 14 games. He was, for the first time, the story.
But the birth of T.O., well, that can be traced to an exact date — Sept. 24, 1996. The Dallas star day.
Owens caught a touchdown pass with 2:49 left in the first half … and he promptly went to midfield of Texas Stadium and stood on the famed star while holding his arms up and looking up through the hole in the roof at the sky. Cowboys players and fans looked at this sacrilegious display in utter shock — it reminds me of the time that Bob Costas on his brilliant show “Later” asked Ozzy Osbourne if it was really true that he had once urinated on the Alamo.
“We all have a few skeletons in our closet, Bob,” Ozzy said.
Dallas’ Emmitt Smith was so outraged that after he scored a touchdown a minute later, he took off his helmet, ran out to the star, spiked the football in furious triumph and screamed at the 49ers players.
Owens was not about to let Smith have the last word. When he scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to give the 49ers an overwhelming 41-17 lead, he headed back out to the star for some more tormenting. But this time, Dallas’ George Teague chased after him and clocked Owens just after he spiked the ball. “I don’t regret it,” Teague would say after getting ejected and fined.
Then Owens got up and posed again on the star.
“I’d definitely do it again,” Owens said.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Jerry Rice said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’re getting ready to start a riot.’”
There was no riot but there were plenty of reverberations. Owens was harshly criticized by most people, including some of his own teammates, including Jerry Rice.
“Terrell, he’s a different guy,” Rice said. “He brings a lot of intensity, and he plays a lot on emotion. You don’t want to take that away from him. But there’s a certain way of handling things.”
Still, the fire had been lit. Owens simply couldn’t see what was so bad about what he had done. He was trying to fire up his teammates. He was trying to have some fun. That evening, he had dinner with Raiders receiver Andre Rison, and the two of them laughed and laughed at what Owens had done.
Then, the 49ers suspended him for a week, and the laughter stopped.
“I was simply trying to provide my team with a positive spark,” he said. “[This suspension] makes me feel like this was a classless act. Like President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, that was a classless act, and he didn’t even get impeached for it. This is not comparable.”
Actually, Clinton did get impeached, but this would be a theme that Owens would come back to again and again in his career — he could never understand why people called him a bad person. As he pointed out, he was never arrested, never jailed, never charged with a DUI or anything like that. He did silly touchdown celebrations like throwing a bucket of popcorn in his own face. He spoke his mind and, he’d concede, sometimes crossed lines. He wore a Dallas Cowboys throwback jersey after his Eagles lost to the Cowboys. He lobbied regularly for bigger contracts.
And, yes, he had his feuds … the most famous one being with Donovan McNabb (told you he’d come up again). That started with an ESPN interview where he was asked if the team would be undefeated if they had Brett Favre instead of McNabb at quarterback. “I would agree with that,” Owens said.
Again, he just didn’t see what was wrong with saying that — he was just being honest, Favre was a legend. But, understandably, McNabb took it personally (“It was definitely a slap in the face,” he said), and the Eagles suspended Owens and demanded he apologize to the team and to McNabb. Owens apologized in general but crossed out the McNabb part, which led to the Eagles suspending him for the rest of the season, which led to Owens and the union filing a grievance against the Eagles, a grievance Owens shockingly lost, and by then Owens did apologize to McNabb, but it was too late. The Eagles released him and he went, yes, to play for the Cowboys.
Such was the life of being T.O.
All along though, he was a marvel on the field. I have him one spot ahead of Harrison because he was even more of a nightmare matchup for defenses. He was too big to bump off course, too fast to stay with for long, and too powerful and elusive to tackle after he caught the ball. And he rarely got credit for how tough he was. In Super Bowl XXXIX, against the Patriots, he played on a fractured leg and a severely sprained ankle and caught nine passes for 122 yards.
“If Brett Favre [had done that] they would have called him a warrior,” Owens complained. “For me, they said I was selfish.”
Such, too, was the life of being T.O.
As mentioned, Marvin Harrison began his 2016 Hall of Fame speech with a little joke about his own reserve and appreciation of silence.
But the real silence that day was the absence of Terrell Owens. He too had been eligible for the Hall, but the voters chose Harrison … and left Owens waiting.
He waited for two years, and when he was elected in 2018, he refused to show up. “Whether it’s three years or 45 years,” he said, “you should get what you rightfully earned.” So, instead, he held his own celebration back at Chattanooga.
“A lot of people say that I may regret not being in Canton 10, 15, 20 years from now,” Owens said that day in Chattanooga. “But just like my choice to be here today, I choose not to regret.”
These days, Terrell Owens says he could still play in the NFL, even at age 47. He says he still has the speed, still has the moves, still has the stuff.
“I’m not washed up,” he insists.