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Original Issue

Sympathy for the Showboat

Terrell Owens's heartbreaking youth helps explain his outlandish behavior as an adult

by Terrell Owens with Stephen Singular
Simon & Schuster, 270 pages, $23.00

No one knows what happened to Terrell Owens's great-grandmother. Maybe she was murdered, or maybe she just ran away. All Owens knows is that his grandmother Alice Black was only 12 when her mama disappeared. That loss "was the most important event in her life," he writes. In a sense it was the most important event of Owens's life too, because the suffering it brought down on his family reverberates to this day.

Here is a book that simultaneously lives up to one's worst expectations and exceeds one's highest hopes. Catch This! is shot through with the narcissism that fans have come to expect from the Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro. But it also describes--without a drop of self-pity--a childhood so horrendous that Owens's mere survival dwarfs anything he has accomplished in the NFL.

He was born in Alexander City, Ala., and didn't meet his father until he was 11. Terrell, his mother, brother and two sisters lived with Alice, who worked at the Russell Athletic mill until, Owens writes, she developed arthritis and "they let her go." He saw little of his mother, Marilyn Heard, who often worked double shifts at the same mill to make ends meet. Such conditions, though grim, were the least of TO's problems.

Grandma Alice was understandably traumatized by the disappearance of her mother and "deeply protective of her family," Owens writes. So fearful was she of losing a child or grandchild that she whipped them when they strayed. "The only time you could relax was when she got depressed thinking about her mother and started drinking," Owens writes, "but if she drank too much you might get another whipping." His brother, Victor, was so terrified that "he used to sit in a corner and not move or make a sound."

The house's windows were kept shut and the shades drawn. Terrell was only allowed to leave the yard to attend church or school. In the evenings he'd creep to a window and sob as he saw children playing in the street. He was eventually given a bicycle but not allowed to ride it past the end of the driveway. He doesn't remember hearing the words I love you from his mother "or anyone else," he writes. But not even that was the worst of it.

At age 11 Terrell developed a crush on a girl across the street and began sneaking over to flirt with her--until her father told him that he could not "be interested in her" because she was his half-sister. "It took me a while to understand that I was talking to my father," Owens writes. When he asked his mother why she'd never told him that his father lived across the street, she said that "it wasn't necessary to explain everything to me."

TO asks for no sympathy because nothing in his experience has given him reason to expect any. But he is entitled to it just the same, and his critics who read this book might want to lay off him for a while. It's not hard to understand why a man deprived of his father, deprived of his childhood, deprived of the words I love you, would develop a tendency to call attention to himself when he succeeds.

"My upbringing made for underdeveloped social skills," Owens writes. That's a breathtaking understatement, but in the hypermacho world of professional sports, it's also a heroic revelation. Not all readers of Catch This! will end up liking this gifted, wounded man, but no small number will end up rooting for him.






Incidents like the Sharpie episode make more sense in light of Owens's early deprivation.