The debate was intense inside the conference room at a Minneapolis hotel on Feb. 3, 2018. Emotions ran high on both sides of the argument, and Terrell Owens’ Hall of Fame candidacy hung in the balance in his third year of eligibility.
The wide receiver’s statistical qualifications were irrefutable and should have made him a slam dunk for first-ballot enshrinement in pro football’s hallowed halls of Canton, Ohio. But his 15,934 receiving yards (second only to Jerry Rice) and 156 touchdowns (third among receivers behind Rice and Randy Moss) were overshadowed by a polarizing personality that had derailed his selection the previous two years.
Voices were raised. Angry words were exchanged. It looked as if the wait for Owens would continue.
And then Terez Paylor took the microphone.
A soft-spoken young African-American reporter from Kansas City, Paylor spoke for several minutes about what it was like for him and his friends growing up and watching Owens.
Paylor — who died last week at age 37 — spoke to a room of mostly older white voters how Owens was viewed through the prism of a younger generation of football, and how he and they felt while watching the All-Pro wide receiver dominate the NFL like few before him.
By the time Paylor had finished, the room was silent.
You could feel the change.
You could sense the momentum shift.
"To hear a young Black man talk about what drew him to the sport that he loved and what made an impression on him as a young man growing up was a perspective that I had personally never considered when it comes to that [Hall of Fame meeting] room," said NBC Sports Bay Area reporter Matt Maiocco, who had presented Owens’ candidacy to the 48-member selection committee in 2017 and 2018.
"There’s the old saying that you know what a Hall of Famer is when you see him. Terez basically said that, growing up, that’s what a Hall of Famer in his community, among his friends and the people who shared the same experiences, looked like. Boom, that right there, that’s a Hall of Famer. I think that opened people’s eyes to a new perspective and a way of defining what a Hall of Famer is."
By the time the votes were tallied later in the afternoon, Owens had made it to the Hall of Fame.
Terez Paylor made that happen with his passionate, from-the-heart speech that changed enough voters’ minds to give Owens his well-deserved place in Canton.
The former Kansas City Star reporter, who went on to become a national NFL writer for Yahoo Sports, had moved enough voters to look at Owens more as a transformative player than a divisive locker-room presence whose flare-ups with teammates and coaches made him such a lightning rod of controversy.
That story came to mind this past week when word came about Paylor’s shocking death on Tuesday. A gifted writer with a deeply felt passion for telling the story of pro football, for getting readers to know the game and to know the coaches and players, Paylor was a unique voice who added such depth and breadth of knowledge.
What he said on that afternoon nearly three years ago to convince a room filled with skeptics was just one of the many examples of his unique ability to uplift those around him by offering a different way of seeing things.
I don’t know how much longer the wait for Owens might have lasted, but I do know that Paylor was the one to change the dynamic enough to put him in Canton.
Owens himself didn’t know about that story until this past week, and he was moved to tears as he learned of Paylor’s words.
"I get glassy-eyed just thinking about it," Owens told Newsday after he reached out to discuss Paylor’s speech. "My condolences to his family. It’s so sad. I didn’t hear anything about Terez and his perspective and how they were deliberating on me. It’s so unfortunate that I’m learning of this after this man’s passing. Honestly, I wish I could have spoken to him to say thank you for what he did.
"What he did is what I did," Owens said. "You’re being courageous. You’re standing up, sometimes against giants. For him to be that young in a room of elders and people that have been on that committee for some time, that speaks volumes."
Owens declined to attend the enshrinement ceremonies that year, upset that he wasn’t recognized earlier on the merits of his 15-year career. He believes he was unfairly punished for the controversies that surrounded him, all the while admitting he wasn’t blameless.
"Nobody’s perfect," he said. "If you want to cast judgment on an individual based on a few things that you hear from coaches, I can’t stop that. What great player hasn’t gotten into an argument with their coaches or another teammate? I’m no different than anybody else. I haven’t done anything more drastic than anyone else."
Owens frequently criticized quarterbacks he felt didn’t play up to his standards, including Donovan McNabb of the Eagles and Jeff Garcia of the 49ers. He ran afoul of the Eagles in 2005, the year after they went to the Super Bowl, and was suspended by coach Andy Reid for conduct detrimental to the team. The next year, he signed with the Cowboys.
As part of his Hall of Fame presentation, Maiocco reached out to several players, including Garcia, who vouched for Owens.
"Yes, there were teammates that didn’t like him," Maiocco said, "but it wasn’t universal. There were a lot of guys who thought he was a great teammate. I compiled a bunch of [supportive] quotes from former teammates to give another perspective."
"At one point, I became the villain," said Owens, 47. "When I saw that other guys were doing similar things and looked at in a different light, I knew it was obvious as to what was going on. We talk about systemic racism, I was a part of it. I felt it. Talk to my [receivers] coaches — George Stewart, Larry Kirksey, David Culley, Ray Sherman. They said, ‘If you were doing something wrong, we would tell you.’ I thank those coaches. They know I’m indebted to them."
Owens says he has no plans to visit the Hall of Fame and continues to believe the voting system remains flawed.
"This past weekend was a further indication of why I wouldn’t go," he said. "No disrespect to anybody that got in, but I just don’t understand the process. Calvin Johnson got in [on the first ballot]. This has nothing to do with Calvin himself. The guy was a beast. But there’s no justification when you have [receivers Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne on this year’s ballot] that have done equal or greater things."
While he remains bitter about the voting process, Owens does take comfort from what he learned about Paylor’s role in his induction. For that, he’ll remain forever grateful.
"For [Paylor] to have the courage to stand on the table . . . he didn’t know me personally, but I think him being a Black man and being a young guy and understanding where this generation is now, using our voice, is meaningful," Owens said. "I just wish I could have thanked him."