Toward the end of his Pro Football Hall of Fame speech at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s McKenzie Arena, NFL superstar Terrell Owens said he was about to do something unconventional.
That’s not surprising because coming to Chattanooga—where he played football and basketball for the Mocs in the 1990s—to give his speech was unorthodox.
It’s not surprising because he told the crowd of about 3,000 fans that he’s always worked to stay true to himself and be his own man—despite backlash or misunderstanding from detractors and the media, criticism that may be why he was passed over for induction into the Hall of Fame the first two times he was eligible.
Owens played in the NFL for 15 seasons for San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas, Buffalo and Cincinnati.
In the last moments of his speech, the man who also joked about how much he loves himself asked anyone who has ever felt like an outcast or isolated or mischaracterized to stand.
He called for those who have been bullied or overlooked to rise from their seats. He told people from small towns with big dreams to get on their feet.
When he was finished, nearly the entire crowd stood.
Then he said, “This entire speech, you thought was about me, this was for you.”
That was the theme of Owens’ message. “This is for you.”
Although he spoke about himself, more than that he thanked everyone who helped get him to Saturday’s moment of glory, which he chose to have in Chattanooga, at the school he attended, instead of doing it in Canton, Ohio.
He thanked God. He acknowledged several coaches. He expressed gratitude for his mother. He spoke directly to his children.
“Listen to me; I don’t want you to feel any pressure to make me proud because I’m already proud of each of you,” he said. “Your dad hasn’t always been perfect but it’s a privilege and honor to be your dad. This is for you.”
He choked back emotion when he acknowledged his late grandmother, who helped raise him in rural Alabama.
“I feel her presence right now,” he told the crowd about his grandmother. “I love you. I miss you. Thank you for everything.”
Each time he thanked someone he said, “This is for you.”
He also explained to the crowd that his passion was often misunderstood as arrogance.
In a news conference after his speech, he said that he didn’t always understand politics or the need, as a professional athlete, to be politically correct. So when a reporter asked a question, he responded honestly, which often backfired and, he said, created a narrative that he was a difficult teammate.
But, those who spoke on his behalf Saturday described a humble, hardworking, kind, passionate person who wasn’t the character portrayed in the media.
And one of his longtime fans Elrades Wright, who drove from Atlanta for Saturday’s event, said he saw the person the star’s mentors described.
“I think he stayed true to himself,” Wright said. “He didn’t compromise who he was…On the field, he’s the hardest worker, the best player, the best athlete and he didn’t get in any trouble… [this event] is going to show he does have fans that truly love and support him.”
Also at the news conference, Owens said his drive was to avoid being mediocre, which resulted in him putting up some of the best-receiving stats in NFL history.
He described how he worked to achieve his goals by never missing a workout, taking care of his body. He described running all over Chattanooga, including down McCallie Avenue, in an effort to avoid being average.
His focus on success kept him away from Chattanooga for many years, he said.
“I got lost in trying to be the best I can be,” he said.
But a few years ago, he came back to UTC’s homecoming and he realized the impact he’d made here.
“I saw and I felt the love,” he said.
On Saturday, he gave some of that appreciation and passion back to the Scenic City.
“Chattanooga, these are my parting words—this is for you,” he said.
Updated at 1:58 a.m. Aug. 5 to correct a typographical error.