When, If Ever, is Abuse an Excuse?

Terrell Owens admits his grandmother beat him. However, he also gives her all of the credit for his success and, seemingly, none of the blame for his failures.
Publish date:
January 5, 2012
death, grandmothers, nfl, child abuse, 49ers, hitting, i don't have all of the answers, terrell owens

On Tuesday night, former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owenstweeted that his beloved grandmother, Alice Black, passed away from Alzheimer’s Disease.

I was immediately saddened by this news for several reasons. Terrell Owens is not in a great place. The star receiver, notorious for his antics and attitude both on and off of the field, is allegedly broke. He was not hired by any team in the NFL this year and therefore has no paycheck. He was even told by a judge yesterday, the day after his grandmother’s passing that “His NFL career seems to be over.”

In my opinion, the tragedy here isn’t that Alice Black passed away, though of course Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease for both the patients and their loved ones. The tragedy is that Terrell Owens credits his grandmother with all of his fame and success. What he’s never bothered to also credit her with is that fact that, at least in part, due to her abuse, his enormous talent -- he is perhaps the most physically gifted wide receiver of all time -- went more or less to waste.

When he was a member of the 49ers, it was pretty damn awesome to watch T.O. play. Yes, he was known for his touchdown antics (mimicking Atlanta’s Dirty Bird dance followed by a slashing of the throat gesture; celebrating on the Dallas Cowboys star -- twice; pulling a Sharpie out of his sock to sign a football; borrowing pompoms from cheerleaders), but when a guy like that is catching tons of TDs for your team...honestly? It's just funny.

But when it was clear that San Francisco’s subpar status wasn’t going to change, Owens begged to leave in a way that did not flatter that notoriously emotional player. His controversial behavior escalated as he moved to the Philadelphia Eagles and he was eventually suspended and then deactivated. It’s too much to get into here, but his antics continued as he moved to Dallas, though he did seem to mellow out a bit when he played for Buffalo in 2009 and Cincinnati in 2010. However, on December 21, 2010, Owens was placed on injured reserved. He hasn’t played since. Now that he's 38, many, if not most, think he won't ever play again.

Through it all, T.O. said things he shouldn’t. Blamed people he shouldn’t. Made excuses when he shouldn’t. He was childish, impulsive and petulant. But no matter what, he was always quick to praise his grandmother for everything he had in life.

His grandmother, who he calls “his inspiration and his rock.” His grandmother who (according to JockBio.com and other sources) was an abusive alcoholic who whipped him regularly, forbade him to see friends or leave the yard, and once got so drunk, she put her purse in the oven and burned all of her money. That’s who Terrell Owens played football for.

With a father who lived with another family across the street (T.O. only discovered the man was his father after the man told T.O. he could not “be interested” in his daughter because she was T.O.’s half-sister) and a mother who abandoned him, his abusive grandmother was all he had. So he clung to her and sang her praises. He excused the abuse. (Her own mother disappeared so she was "deeply protective of her family," he's said.)

Terrell Owens has some of the most amazing receiving records in the NFL. He’s the only player in NFL history to score a receiving TD against all 32 teams. He’s second all-time in receiving yards behind Jerry Rice. He’s had nine 1,000 yard seasons. There are countless others.

He’s also destroyed his reputation so that no NFL team wants him, overdosed on hydrocodone in what he first said was a suicide attempt (though he later denied that), and, despite all that he’s accomplished, has in some way let down everyone who ever rooted for him to succeed.

It's not all bad, of course. Terrell Owens has done a lot for Alzheimer’s awareness. His grandmother was diagnosed in 1996, so she never saw his rise to stardom. Of course, she also never saw him fall. But before every game, T.O. visualized the face of his grandmother to "take a moment to reflect and think about her." It’s amazing to me that a person who was treated what some might consider horribly by someone has the ability to put that aside and focus on the good. But, and I say this as someone who has not experienced anything close to that level of abuse, it’s also heartbreaking.

In some small ways I can relate to Terrell Owens’ childhood. My father left when I was a baby. My mother spanked me with a belt because “it hurt too much to use her hand.” I was grounded for months on end (many times deservedly; many times not).

I am not pretending T.O. and I have much else in common since I am well aware of the fact that a privileged white girl dare not compare herself to a black man who grew up poor in Alabama. But I guess the one thing I do understand is that no matter what my mother did to me, and believe me, I give her a lot of credit for raising me as well as she did despite some of the more difficult moments, I’ve spent almost my entire life seeking her approval.

Even when she kicked me out of the house when I was 16, I still hoped I’d get into a college that would make her proud. And today, despite the fact that I’ve done relatively well for myself, I feel like I’ve let her down by telling her I want to be a writer, but not publishing a New York Times best seller. Or any book, for that matter.

Again, I am not saying that my life is similar to Terrell Owens or that I was abused. In fact, I’m not even sure I should be saying Terrell Owens was abused. Who or what defines what abuse is? Does it differ for each of us? I don’t have the answers… All I know is that perhaps some people would define parts of my childhood as abuse, but I would never label my mother’s actions with that word.

Just like Terrell Owens doesn’t with his grandmother.

Terrell Owens credits his grandmother with his success. He could so easily also credit her with his failure.

I don’t know how Terrell Owens’ story will end. My fear is that it will end in tragedy. I hope I’m wrong. But no matter what happens, I do hope that we can all stop for a moment to reflect on what happens when a child with so much talent and potential is raised in a broken home where violence and alcohol are prevalent. I hope we can at least start a conversation about a topic that is difficult for most of us and, at least for me, incredibly hard to define.

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