Terrell Owens played in just one Super Bowl, but he did so quite unforgettably, essentially ignoring the limits of the human body to get there. After he suffered a fractured leg and torn ankle ligaments that destroyed his ability even to put weight on the ankle, his own surgeon said he shouldn’t play again that season; other doctors recommended immobilizing the injuries for months.
In short: Owens couldn’t play and might end his career attempting to do so. One doctor went so far as to say that T.O.’s Philadelphia Eagles had an “ethical obligation” to do all they could to keep him off the field. So naturally, seven weeks after the injury, Owens waltzed into Super Bowl XXXIX, caught nine passes for 122 yards and went on to play another six seasons. (The one blemish on his return? The Pats beat the Eagles, 24-21, as Tom Brady ruined another happy ending for non-Bostonians.)
As Super Bowl 51 approaches, we revisit our 2016 interview with the 2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame Finalist about that game, the most memorable celebrations of his 156 career touchdowns and his latest cause, Butterfinger’s Bolder Than Bold campaign. (In case you had any doubts, we bolded each time he used the word bold.)
“You don’t get to a Super Bowl every year. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. I decided if I was healthy enough, I was going to do it. I’m a bold personality: I had faith. I got back out there and I did it.”
Did you immediately realize how serious the injury was?
Not really. For me it was just a matter of rehabbing it in time. I took full advantage of the time I had leading up to the Super Bowl to prepare myself and rehab and get as close to 100 percent as I could. And I think one thing people need to do is go out on a limb and be bold and talk about their faith. That was first and foremost for me about my faith in God to get back on that field. Not just for myself personally, but in order to help my team try to win the Super Bowl.
When could you even start walking again?
Couple weeks after. It was an invasive type of surgery, so it’s not a good thing. [Two screws and a metal plate were inserted in the ankle.] The first couple of weeks it was excruciating just to have to put my leg up at night and then once I put my leg down, to have the blood rush down to the injured area… it was one of the most excruciating pains I’ve ever felt. Once I got through that, I started to get some treatment and went into an aggressive rehab program and got into the hyperbaric chamber and was taking a lot of legal supplements needed for the tissue that healed around the injury.
Were people around you saying, “Why are you taking this chance?”
Well, that just shows you the type of person that I am, for my teammates, first and foremost. I was brought to Philadelphia, which was a bold move by them considering everything that happened in San Francisco. [Owens had a famously difficult relationship with quarterback Jeff Garcia and implied he was gay; Garcia begged to differ.] You don’t get to a Super Bowl every year. It’s a once in a lifetime thing. I decided if I was healthy enough, I was going to do it. I’m a bold personality: I had faith. I got back out there and I did it.
Were your teammates shocked when you came back?
Some of them might have been, considering the extent of my injury. A couple weeks before we left to go to Jacksonville [for the Super Bowl], I was doing some training, rehabbing with the training staff. On one particular day, they were practicing inside at the indoor field, where I had started to run and really get comfortable after the injury. Some of the guys saw me running around and it kind of gave them life: “OK, he’s gonna be ready.”
What was most surprising about the Super Bowl?
It was hard to enjoy like I wanted to, since my focus was getting healthy. I can remember being on the field, just soaking in some of the atmosphere… It’s a once in a lifetime experience. What every player plays for, to get to the big game. It’s an opportunity to express yourself, to be bold. Speaking of bold, that’s why I partnered up with Butterfinger. It’s an opportunity for guys who looked up to me to go out there and express themselves and be bold.
“Chad Johnson reminds me of myself. We’re both handsome, we’re exciting. We embody what Butterfinger’s about: crispity, crunchety, peanut buttery.”
When during the game did you feel like, “I’m back”?
I was always ready. I was just waiting for an opportunity for my number to get called. Once I caught my first pass and ran upfield and got into action, I thought, “OK. I’m ready to go.”
What do you think of when you look back on that Super Bowl?
I probably think of my performance. Obviously we lost, I wanted us to win, but considering that there are a lot of critics, a lot of analysts out there that criticized me for attempting to play, I can only take from that game what I did in that game, because I think that really spoke volumes. For me, that was a bold statement, for me to come back it was a courageous effort on my behalf in a short amount of time.
You’ll always be known for touchdown celebrations. Which is your favorite?
I think a lot of people would say the Dallas Star thing. That’s probably the first thing. That and the Sharpie. A distant third would be the Ray Lewis thing. I think it’s very fitting and synonymous with the campaign I’m doing with Butterfinger. Butterfinger’s asking players to bring their best and bring some of their boldest dance moves.
Anybody else’s celebrations you like?
Chad [Johnson, formerly Ochocinco] would be one of those guys. He was somewhat of a bold character, a flamboyant character. Chad is one of those guys that reminds me of myself. Reminds me of this campaign: Bolder than Bold. We’re both handsome, we’re exciting. We embody what Butterfinger’s about: crispity, crunchety, peanut buttery. Outside of Chad, Antonio Brown is probably the closest that I can think of.
What quarterback did you most want to play with?
Drew Brees. Tom Brady. Drew Brees, if you watch his career, he’s been sliding up under the radar behind Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Those are two guys, Brees and Brady, I would have loved to have played with.
How do you feel about being a Hall of Fame Finalist?
It’s an honor. I never really envisioned playing beyond the collegiate level, so to have accomplished some of the things that I have, I think it’s an inspiration for a lot of kids out there. It’s definitely an honor to be spoken of in the same breath as a guy like Brett Favre. He comes from a small town like I did. [Owens grew up in Alexander City, Alabama, which has a population under 15,000.] When not even your own hometown thought you had the ability to reach the level where I’m at now, it’s remarkable. To a lot of athletes and kids out there that feel like they don’t have what it takes, I’m a testament that with hard work, dedication and desire, anything is possible.