The story, apocryphal though it may be, is told of Albert Einstein remaining silent until, as a 3-year-old, he was sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of soup.
"This soup is too hot," he screamed, pulling the spoon from his mouth.
"Why, Albert," said one of his parents, "this is amazing. You can speak. Why have you never spoken before?"
Replied Einstein, "Until now, everything was OK."
No one has ever confused Terrell Owens with Albert Einstein. Einstein didn't keep a pen in his sock.
But Sunday, Owens, the San Francisco 49ers' star receiver, also dramatically broke with his silent past. He has made plenty of loud, sometimes obnoxious statements on the field, but he had never before spoken up in a locker room situation.
It was halftime of the 49ers' wild-card playoff game against the New York Giants at 3Com Park. A season of promise for San Francisco was fading away. Winners of the NFC West, the 49ers seemed helpless to stop the wild-card Giants. New York was running through the 49er defense as if it were a scout team. San Francisco was trailing, 28-14, and it appeared as if it were going to only get worse.
Then, a voice spoke out, one another player described as "dripping with emotion." It was a voice of unity amid the dissension, a voice of encouragement amid the dejection.
It was the voice of Owens, the same Owens who once seemed concerned with only himself, who wanted the spotlight and demanded the ball.
That was the Owens who stomped on the Dallas Cowboys' star logo in the center of Texas Stadium, unconcerned with how it might inflame the Cowboys. That was the Owens who clashed with Coach Steve Mariucci over the receiver's role in the offense.
And now, he was speaking about team unity.
Imagine Dennis Rodman addressing beauticians on hair care.
Or Ryan Leaf speaking to college graduates about hard work and dedication.
Or Eric "Butterbean" Esch lecturing at a Weight Watchers meeting.
Owens has changed. It's not as if he is now shunning the spotlight. No one who saw his Sharpie act -- when he autographed a ball after catching it for a touchdown with a pen he had tucked in his sock -- or the way he grabbed a cheerleader's pompoms and celebrated after another catch or stood up on the bandstand and led the crowd in celebration after Sunday's game would ever accuse him of modesty.
But there's more of a playfulness about his look-at-me act now, more showmanship and less anger and arrogance.
"I don't believe Terrell wants to be recognized as a hostile player," team co-owner John York told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. "He wants to be seen as an entertainer."
And now, as a leader.
His halftime speech Sunday, followed by the second greatest comeback in NFL postseason history as the 49ers rallied from 24 points down in the third quarter to beat the Giants, is seen by his teammates as a big step toward maturity, as the most visible sign he has moved from thinking it's all about him to thinking it's about them as well.
"I could just feel the emotion he felt," said San Francisco linebacker Julian Peterson, a smile crossing his face as he recounted the moment after practice at the team's Santa Clara headquarters, where the 49ers are preparing to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a second-round playoff game Sunday.
"I knew he had it in him," receiver Tai Streets said.
Said defensive end Andre Carter: "Every individual matures differently. He came through for us Sunday and became a team leader."
Quarterback Jeff Garcia has been thrilled to have Owens as a target. Even though Owens sat out the final two regular-season games because of injury, he led the league in touchdown catches with 13 and had 100 catches, the most in his career, and 1,300 yards receiving. In Sunday's game, he caught nine passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns and also caught two passes for two-point conversions.
Now Garcia is also happy to see Owens making a connection with other teammates.
"It was very positive," Garcia said of the halftime speech, "but I'm not surprised to see it happen. T.O. was just showing his competitive spirit in a different way. He stepped up because he had things to say to the team.
"He has become more of a team player. He has opened himself up more to his teammates. He is more expressive now and I think it makes him feel better being a part of the team. I know, in the past, he questioned whether he even wanted to be a part of everything around here."
In training camp this year, Owens, in USA Today, referred to "two-faced" teammates.
Before a game three weeks ago against the Arizona Cardinals in Phoenix, columnist Skip Bayless wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, "Maybe the 49ers would benefit if Terrell Owens doesn't play today. Maybe team unity and chemistry would rise like the phoenix near Phoenix if T.O. rests his pulled groin and dislocated ego.... You start to wonder if creating playoff-team harmony is as important to him as promoting T.O."
So does Owens think he has changed all that much?
"I do whatever I have to do," he said, "whether it's speak up or make plays. Something had to be said. Something had to be done. I've wanted to say something in the past, but I felt it was the veteran guys who do that. But I felt I had to be the voice [Sunday]."
So now that he has become a vocal leader, will Owens try to match words Sunday with the trash-talk master, Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp?
"I'm not even going to try to compete with him," Owens said.
Good thing. Owens would lose that battle. It doesn't take an Einstein to figure that out.
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Through the Air
This season's game-by-game receiving statistics for 49er Terrell Owens:
*--* GAME OPP REC YDS AVG LONG TD Week 1 Win at N.Y. Giants 4 41 10.3 33 0 Week 2 Loss vs. Denver 5 38 7.6 9 1 Week 3 Win vs. Washington 2 33 16.5 17 0 Week 5 Win vs. St. Louis 7 89 12.7 23 0 Week 6 Win at Seattle 6 84 14.0 37 2 Week 7 Loss at New Orleans 4 61 15.3 31 1 Week 8 Win vs. Arizona 8 132 16.5 61 2 Week 9 Win at Oakland 12 191 15.9 41 0 Week 10 Win vs. Kansas City 7 51 7.3 17 0 Week 11 Loss at San Diego 7 171 24.4 76 2 Week 12 Loss at Philadelphia 13 166 12.8 32 2 Week 13 Win vs. Seattle 5 45 9.0 10 0 Week 14 Win at Dallas 12 123 10.3 23 2 Week 15 Loss at Green Bay 8 75 9.4 45 1
*--* WEEK OPP REC YDS AVG LONG TD WILD CARD Win vs. N.Y. Giants 9 177 19.7 76 2
Note: Week 4 was a bye; Owens did not play in final two games of regular season.