My upbringing made for underdeveloped social skills.
- Terrell Owens
Terrell Owens is perhaps the worst, most egregious example of an athlete who, publicly at least, places himself above the game. Like all of us, though, there is more to the story. In Owen’s case, a new biography doesn’t provide an excuse for his loutish behavior, but when you get a whiff of what his childhood was like, it might just help to explain it. Underdeveloped social skills indeed….
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.
After getting this far in the book review, I found myself with a new-found understanding of how someone could grow up to be such an attention-seeker. The author of the review is right, though: it DOES get worse.
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.”
I suppose on one level we should all be thankful that the worst of Owen’s behavior has been limited to the football field. How many others who grew up in horrible circumstances now occupy prison cells around the country?
Perhaps those of us who who been so hypercritical of Owens might want to give him some space. No, I’m not saying that a horrible upbringing excuses the propensity for calling attention to himself whenever he succeeds. It DOES provide a bit of context, though, doesn’t it? It’s easy to understand how someone who grew up so starved for attention now does whatever he can to be noticed.