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Terrell Owens holds a street sign that will bear his name on campus at UTC.
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Mark Wiedmer

Renee Davis wasn't hard hard to spot inside McKenzie Arena on Saturday afternoon. She was the black woman with the white hair proudly wearing a No. 80 navy University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football jersey in honor of Terrell Owens as she sat in Section 104.

"I bought it his rookie year," said the Philadelphia resident. "I think it cost me $200. I was going to wear it to Canton (Ohio) for his Hall of Fame induction, but then he decided to come here."

Altering her travel plans wasn't quite as easy as simply pointing her car south instead of west. Davis had paid more than $900 for a package that covered tickets to three days worth of events for the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction weekend.

"I had to sell it in order to come here," she said. "But I got here on Friday and got a room at the Chattanooga Choo Choo in one of the train cars. It means everything to be here. (Owens) is No. 1 on my list of athletes."

Nor did any small part of her wish Owens had gone to Canton like the other seven 2018 Hall of Fame inductees rather than boycotting Saturday night's festivities in favor of staging his own ceremony at 3:17 Saturday afternoon — denoting being the 317th person selected for the shrine.

"Are you kidding me?" she exclaimed. "They snubbed him. I'm glad he didn't go. Hopefully, this will change the way they vote on the Hall in the future."

Owens has been angry because he didn't reach the Hall on his first opportunity. In fact, he didn't get in until his third year of eligibility, which does seem ridiculous given that his 15,934 career receiving yards stand second in NFL history and his 153 receiving touchdowns rank third.

Because of this, he began talking to UTC athletic director Mark Wharton in March about other options. Wharton initially believed any celebration here would be in addition to Canton.

By May, it was apparent T.O. had other ideas.

"I wanted to take a stand," he said. "You should get what you rightfully earned."

Said Wharton of any positive impacts for UTC: "This isn't just about athletics. It's the whole university. This is national exposure. He was adamant that he wanted to do this here."

It's clear that much of Mocs Nation was adamantly in his corner. By the time Owens began speaking a little after 4 p.m., the crowd was at least 3,000, which makes an estimate of 3,317 — in recognition of his Hall of Fame number — seem perfect.

Yet it was the presence of so many of his teammates, especially those who played basketball with him, that made one wonder if Owens wasn't right to denounce the voting process that supposedly had sports writers keeping him out thanks to perceptions he was a bad teammate.

"He was a great teammate," said Johnny Taylor, the star of the Mocs' 1997 Sweet 16 team. "He was all about the team. And when I got to Orlando (in the NBA) and he was in San Francisco, he showed me the California lifestyle one night when we came to town to play Golden State. I don't think I got to bed until 4 a.m."

Recalled former UTC assistant coach Gerald White: "When Terrell joined the team after football ended, our weightlifting numbers went up, our intensity went up. His work ethic was off the charts."

Former Moc Maurio Hanson said he should get credit for T.O.'s football career because he encouraged him to play basketball "to help his footwork."

The winningest coach in UTC men's basketball history, Mack McCarthy, countered by joking, "If you'd just listened to me and quit football to play basketball, we wouldn't be here today."

Then there was former UTC wide receivers coach Frankie DeBusk. Occasionally forced to discipline T.O. for skipping a class or something, the coach would drink a cup of coffee and read USA Today while the player ran up and down McKenzie's steep stairs in the upper level.

Recalled DeBusk: "Afterward, Terrell would look me in the eye and say, 'Let's meet here again tomorrow morning. I need this. You can't break me.'"

Basketball teammate Chris Mims broke him one time. After a couple of weeks of Owens jawing that he'd whip Mims in a foot race, the two squared off. Mims won.

Said Mims: "Then I got to trash talk."

In between the TD grabs and all those receiving yards and the nine catches for 122 yards he corralled in the Super Bowl for Philadelphia while playing on a broken leg, Owens quite possibly led the NFL in trash talking. But there wasn't much of that Saturday. Instead, this T.O quote brought the day's loudest cheer: "I've become a man of courage, courageous enough to choose Chattanooga over Canton."

Not everyone will see it that way. However great the atmosphere in McKenzie, Owens almost certainly would have launched a more thoughtful debate concerning the Hall's selection process by railing against it in Canton rather than Chattanooga. He should also have mentioned former UTC coach Buddy Nix, who signed him out of Alexander City, Alabama, in 1992.

But there is also this: Some 40 minutes into the Canton ceremonies, Owens' former coach with the 49ers, Steve Mariucci, told the NFL Network, "I wish he was here to experience this excitement, honor and praise, which he won't get in Chattanooga."

Oh, he got it. Lots of it. And from a lot of people who care a lot more about him than most of those in Canton. Maybe he was right and maybe he was wrong, but this was vintage T.O. It might also be why UTC is renaming its Lancing Court "Terrell Owens Way," because no player in NFL history may have done it his way to greater success than Terrell Eldorado Owens.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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