EXCLUSIVE: NFL Star Terrell Owens Hopes Fans Will Get to Know the Real 'T.O.': 'I'm Not Perfect by Any Means'
By Desiree Murphy
Getcha popcorn ready, because Terrell Owens is ready for America to get to know the man behind the helmet on this season of Dancing With the Stars.
"I think there are a lot of expectations based on my personality from football," Owens says in an exclusive interview with ET. "I think everybody's kinda waiting for me to hit the big screen again, so to speak."
The 43-year-old athlete, famously known as T.O., spent 15 seasons with the NFL, playing for five teams: The San Francisco 49ers (1996-2003), Philadelphia Eagles (2004-2005), Dallas Cowboys (2006-2008), Buffalo Bills (2009) and Cincinnati Bengals (2010). His 15,934 career receiving yards rank second in NFL history and his 153 receiving touchdowns rank third.
Despite the fact that he's one of the greatest wide receivers in league history, second only to Jerry Rice (who also competed on DWTS!) in career receiving yards, T.O. and his diehard fans believe that his tarnished image precedes his undeniable talent. Take, for instance, the fact that he's never been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (though he's been nominated again for the Class of 2018), something that doesn't sit well with the 6'3" football star. Or that for years he's been slammed by sports critics as "arrogant and cocky" for his antics on the field and his highly publicized locker room disruptions: "I literally haven't been able to get over that," he says.
But he hopes his time on the show will allow viewers to get the know the real T.O. -- not the person he's been made out to be.
"Over the years, a lot of people have [developed] a misconception of me. Their perception of me is really what the media has given them," Owens, whose first stab at reality TV was in 2009 with The T.O. Show, explains. "Honestly, my passion and my love and my competitiveness has been misconstrued to America. If you really delve into what I've done based on what other [players] have done … my passion, that's one thing about myself that's enabled me to really excel. It resembles [that of] other people that are obviously viewed in a different light."
"Because I was probably a little bit more vocal and outspoken than those people, the media portrayed me to be somewhat of a different person," he continues. "But even with all the critics, I've still always believed in myself. That's really it; just to believe in myself and understand that, throughout life, people are going to say good things and they're going to say bad things about you. As long as you know who you are and your character's intact, that's the only thing that matters."
Owens tells ET that while he plans to exude that same level of fearlessness in the ballroom, he wasn't always that confident, legendary football star that we know him as today. Back in the day, growing up in his small hometown of Alexander City, Alabama, he wasn't even allowed to play sports until a later age.
"My grandma was very strict with her upbringing," he says. "She felt like if we were out of sight, that was kind of time when kids would get into a lot of trouble. It wasn't really until my mom stepped in that I was able to play a little bit, little league baseball and basketball."
Owens eventually joined the Benjamin Russell High School football team. And when it came time for college, Owens played football and basketball for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, but never did he expect to take his career any further.
"To the surprise of a lot of people, I never thought I was going to play football beyond the collegiate level when I got a scholarship to play college football," he explains. "I just went to Chattanooga just as a means of education because we couldn't afford -- my mom, nobody could afford to pay my way through school."
"Once I realized that I had the same skill set to be able to play on the level of some of the guys around me that I saw initially were better than I was, that was an eye-opener for me," he adds. "It's all about believing in yourself and that desire to be something special. I didn't realize what I could become, and that's the same thing I'm going to apply to this dance thing. You never know what can happen."
Owens was raised by his mother, Marilyn Owens Heard, and grandmother, Alice Black, who died from Alzheimer's in January 2012. Though the two have re-patched their relationship in recent years, for the most part, Owens grew up without a father.
"My grandmother, she served – she was put in a position to be not only my grandmother, but my dad and my mom in a lot of ways," Owens, who now has four kids of his own, recalls. "I think me not having a dad in the household and understanding how it affected me has really made me a better dad and a better person. I'm definitely not going to put my kids in a situation where they say that their dad wasn't there for them."
"I really take pride in and really respect and have taken to heart what my grandmother did for me and really raising me to be the person that I am," he continues. "I'm not perfect by any means, but in terms of from a public standpoint, my persona, my character, is unblemished."
And now, just days away from his debut on Dancing With the Stars, Owens tells ET that he wishes his grandma could be around today to see him shine on the dance floor… and recreate some of his iconic Michael Jackson moves!
"This is definitely a show I wish she could have seen, and one I'm sure she would have loved to have watched," he says. "In our town, back in the '80s and '90s when Michael Jackson was at the height of his career, he was my childhood favorite artist. As a little kid, when breakdancing and pop-locking was in, those were some of the things I gravitated towards."
"In our small town of Alexander City, they had a Michael Jackson dance contest, and in a small town, everybody kinda knows everybody," he continues. "All the male cousins I had, we all entered into the contest and there were a couple of contests that were put on. We literally won first, second and third place, all three of us. So, that was kind of like my first experience really dancing in front of a big crowd... and the extent of my dancing."
He says that when it came to dancing, his grandmother was always his biggest fan.
"Everywhere that we went, my grandma, she liked to have fun," Owens explains. "There are times where we would go to her friends' houses and she would put me on the spot. She'd be like, 'My grandson can dance!' They would have the 33 and 45-vinyl records and she would tell them to put MJ's songs on."
T.O. confirms that in addition to some of his King of Pop-inspired moves, DWTS fans will, "at some point," get to see some type of recreation of his most historic end zone dances, like the infamous Sharpie moment, the Dallas Cowboys star celebration and the Ray Lewis mockery dance.
"My partner, Cheryl Burke, has been on the internet, Googling and looking at some of my football touchdown celebrations and highlights. She's somewhat trying to incorporate that into the choreography, so you may see a little bit of it," he shares. "I'm not sure to what extent, but you'll see some flashes of it I'm sure."
"I think a lot of people try to equate what I've done on the football field, as far as the celebrations of dancing… they feel like I should have somewhat of an easy transition [in the ballroom]," he adds. "This is the perfect platform for me."
When asked about how his footwork from football is translating to the dance floor, Owens was modest, telling ET he feels like "a fish out of water."
"I have so much respect for what you guys do as dancers," Owens marvels. "I think dancing is harder, probably, than playing football… because there's so many techniques and fundamentals and body language that you have to adhere to. I equate it to what Olympians do. They start at a really young age, like four or five. So, you just think about the years of experience, the countless number of hours put in on the dance floor. Just practicing, rehearsing."
"But now that I've started to rehearse and learn the basics of dancing, I find myself like I was in football," he continues. "I'm really rehearsing my steps in my mind throughout the course of the day. I'll go to the grocery store, I'm doing steps down the aisles, or I'm walking down the sidewalk and really trying to picture the routine."
And for sports fans, that determination comes as no surprise. T.O. is a competitor and entertainer through and through and he's "in it to win it" this season by applying the "Three D's" he swears by: Desire, Dedication and Discipline. Of course, he'll have big shoes to fill, those of NFL pro Rashad Jennings, who took home last season's mirrorball trophy with help from his pro partner, Emma Slater. The only other football players who have taken home the coveted prize are Emmitt Smith (season three), Hines Ward (season 12) and Donald Driver (season 14).
Based on what we know so far, we think he can give those athletes a run for their money and become the GOAT on the dance floor… and he believes it, too.
"I think I do have what it takes," he says. "No. 1, you gotta have a lot of confidence in yourself. Anybody that knows me, I don't lack that. My desire to win is there. When I speak to kids and I tell them how I got to my level of success, I equate it to my three D's and I'm going to apply the same thing to this whole process."
"Now I got four D's," he adds. "Dance, Desire, Dedication and Discipline."
And when the competition finally comes to an end, T.O. hopes fans will be able to determine for themselves, once and for all, "what kind of a person I am."
"The narrative out there is that I was a terrible teammate … but one or two people can't speak for the majority of a locker room, especially in terms of my character, but the media is powerful, I understand that," he explains. "I think America will realize that I'm not the person they think they have an idea of."
"It's unfortunate that people never really got a chance to know me," he adds. "So for me, being on this platform, they'll be able to see how authentic and genuine of a person that I really am."
Season 25 of Dancing With the Stars premieres Monday, Sept. 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC. Who are YOU excited to see on the ballroom this season? Will you be cheering on T.O.? Let me know on Twitter (@desireemurphy_) and be sure to stay tuned to ETonline.com all season long for all the latest DWTS coverage!