When T.O. looks in mirror, he sees Hemingway
“All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story-teller who would keep that from you.” ~Ernest Hemingway
For Whom the Bell Tolls?
Every time I hear bells tolling, I think of Ernest Hemingway. I think of church bells ringing, marriages and funerals. In this case, we are gathered here today to honor a beloved departed one.
Terrell Owens is a sad portrait of calamity, a tragic story about an athlete miscast as a prima donna but in actuality is an upright man — the ultimate Hemingway hero.
The breadth of his life story parallels the famous author, whose characters were almost always semi-autobiographical. Their demises, it should be said, are eerily similar.
One morning, Hemingway rose early, went downstairs, found his 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun, and placing it in his mouth, blew his head off. In Owens’ case, there have reportedly been two suicide attempts, both of them he denies, but metaphorically, if not literally, the much-maligned former NFL wide receiver committed career suicide a long time ago.
His stylish antics — the touchdown celebrations, the haughty, look-at-me attitude, the brutal, unfiltered honesty, the ill-timed ACL tear — have all conspired to keep Terrell Owens sidelined.
By football standards, he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, second to Jerry Rice in receiving yards. By standards of human decency, he is regarded as a leper. Despite his super-human physique, even at age 38, and all-pro productivity, no NFL team signed T.O. this year. He has since struck a deal with the Allen Wranglers of the Indoor Football League, showing the depths to which Owens has sunk.
The resounding media reaction has been told-you-so indifference — a player whose repeated commission of sins, and lack of contrition, created the hell he now occupies. And the flames in that hell only seem to be intensifying, if you read Nancy Hass’ GQ piece on Owens.
In fact, the receiver acknowledges his crumbling personal and professional life — marred by isolation, paranoia, financial ruin and a fleeting hope that things will get better, but ultimately an overwhelming feel that life, even one as decorated as T.O.’s, is senseless and about death.
Essentially, the death of Terrell Owens’ career presented in GQ is the nihilism that engulfs Hemingway’s novels.
TIME Magazine once wrote about Hemingway characters: “A Hemingway character does not make things happen; things happen to him.”
Nothing more accurate could be said about Terrell Owens.
For as much finger-pointing as Owens engages in, his finger has never been double-jointed, which is to say he is hard-pressed to bend the blame back toward himself.
This shines through no more than in the GQ piece. Hass dangles the blame bait repeatedly, and Owens follows through like only Owens would: by blaming the media, the fans, NFL executives, coaches, teammates, financial managers, agents. Nary a person escapes his wrath, except, of course, Mr. Owens.
When Hass asks him plainly if he regrets anything — anything at all — Owens’ stance tells you everything you ever needed to know about him: “To say I regret anything would be a slap in my grandmother’s face. Are there some things I might do differently now? Sure.”
To a man, this looks like unflinching hubris, a flat-out denial of humanity, because surely no man has gone through life without doing something wrong.
It’s why Owens finds himself friendless and unemployed, but it’s also noble on some level.
Terrell Owens is a classic Hemingway hero, displaying at least some of the traits that typify the author’s Hero Code. He has measured himself against life’s difficulties, and even he seems to realize his own mortality, but continues on despite the looming, almost definite possibility, that he will never play football again, that he will end up broke and browbeaten — a dignity, or indignity, depending on your perspective, that is required of those who fit the code.
Through it all — the mounting child-support payments, the abandonment by what once was his inner circle, the loss of a financial means and a provider of joy (football) — Owens hasn’t crumpled, maintaining his free will and individualism.
He is still as brash as ever, refusing now as he did then to apologize to former Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb for relaying in an interview after Philadelphia lost the Super Bowl that McNabb “got tired.”
“No. No. Listen,” Owens tells Hass. “I was in the locker room before the press conference, and my team captain, Jeremiah Trotter, read through the apology they wrote for me. He got to the bottom part, the part where it had the stuff about Donovan, and he did this …” Owens then gestured that Trotter ripped the bottom part off.
Owens’ hubris is his tragic flaw, that piece of humanity that made Hemingway heroes so easy to embrace. They are misfits, honorable in some manner but condemned to a dishonorable end.
How will Owens be remembered in the annals of history?
Owens the man always differed from T.O. the persona, but most journalists and the industry of journalism — what Philip L. Graham said is history’s first draft — never distinguished the two. They are inextricably bound.
So it will come as no surprise when T.O.’s career is cloaked in a negative connotation, for there is no getting away from the fact that he was a pariah, a cancerous locker room lackey who always put his agenda above the team’s priorities.
He is the great American villain, the one whose company is literally misery.
But to me, he’ll always be a hero, a tortured soul like Hemingway who could never detach himself from his sad, prearranged destiny.
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