Imagine your own watershed moments – the decisions, instances and happenings in your life that defined your past and shaped your future. We all have them. They’d be the chapters in your biography if not the name of the book itself.
Terrell Owens knows that his, at least from a football standpoint, came on Jan. 3, 1999 in the San Francisco 49ers Wild Card victory against the Green Bay Packers. Owens’ game-winning 25-yard touchdown catch in the game’s final seconds, better known as “The Catch II,” propelled his rise to an eventual NFL Hall of Famer.
“I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for that play to be honest,” Owens reflected. “If you take that one catch, that one touchdown away from me, I don’t know where I would be. It was a play that really catapulted my career.”
Owens caught 592 passes for 8,572 yards and 81 touchdowns in his eight seasons in San Francisco. He accumulated 153 touchdowns over his 15-year career, good for third-most in NFL history. His flair for the dramatics, outspoken nature and Broadway-like showmanship made “T.O.” must-watch television on a weekly basis. Now the franchise’s third-round pick in 1996 is set to become the 28th inductee into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame during the 2019 regular season.
But for all of Owens’ pom-pom shaking and big-play breaking, his game-winner against Green Bay stands out chief among the receiver’s vast highlight reel. And here’s the thing: The play itself is remarkable – Owens caught the pass in traffic and absorbed two big hits at the goal line – but it’s the events leading up to the touchdown that make the moment so profound. It was the perfect storm of timing, luck, stage and stakes.
San Francisco welcomed the Packers to 3Com Park (eventually renamed to Candlestick Park) after posting a 12-4 record during the 1998 regular season. Owens had come onto the scene as a budding star in what was his third NFL campaign. He caught 67 passes for 1,097 yards and 14 touchdowns – all career highs at that juncture. The yardage was just 60 yards shy of Jerry Rice’s total that year, and Owens scored five more touchdowns.
“At this point I realized the 49ers saw something in me, and I didn’t want to be a disappointment,” Owens said of his 1998 season.
But Owens got off to a dreadful start in the Wild Card Round against Green Bay. He lost a fumble and dropped a sure touchdown after losing the ball in the sun in the first half alone. Owens recalled that a local paper used to name a “Goat of the Week” after each loss (and not in the Jerry Rice, “Greatest of All Time” sort of way).
He stood on the sideline and mentally braced himself to be given the literary dunce cap.
“That did not sit well with me,” Owens said. “I looked around the stands and understood that I was going to cause a lot of heartache, not just for my teammates but also for the fans. Those were the things that were going through my head.”
After trailing 17-10 at halftime, the 49ers scored 10 unanswered points to take a three-point lead into the fourth quarter. The two teams traded field goals before Brett Favre fired a 15-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman to give the Packers a 27-23 lead with 1:56 to play. There were three ties and six lead changes throughout the seesawing nail-biter.
Steve Young and the offense took over at their own 24-yard line with 1:47 remaining and all three timeouts. San Francisco took the field without Owens. Rice and J.J. Stokes were deployed as the only receivers.
San Francisco called timeout after a short three-yard pass to fullback Marc Edwards crossed midfield and reached Green Bay’s 47-yard line. With the offense huddled together on the sideline, wide receivers coach Larry Kirksey suggested to head coach Steve Mariucci that he put Owens back into the game. Kirksey figured having three receivers on the field might open things up in the Packers secondary with just :54 on the clock.
“Owens was standing next to me as we were driving down the field,” Kirksey said. “I said, ‘Mooch, let’s put Terrell back in the ball game.’”
It’s imperative to note that Kirksey was always Owens’ most ardent champion. He spent four years grooming Owens into one of the most imposing receivers in NFL history.
“Coach Kirksey constantly stayed on me,” Owens said. “We’d have individual meetings and get in extra work after practice. He knew that I had the potential. He could see that there was something about me. These were things I continually tried to work on.”
Owens entered the league with ideal size (6-foot-3, 213 pounds) but little polish. He was a two-sport athlete, playing basketball at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and never gave professional football much thought until his junior year. His route tree was limited upon his arrival in the NFL, and he struggled mightily against press man-to-man coverage.
Kirksey shifted Owens’ thought process back to basketball. If he could take a defender off the dribble and get to the rim in hoops, why couldn’t he do the same on a football field? Treating his routes like a game of 1-on-1 offered Owens an immediate remedy.
“When he told me that,” Owens said, simultaneously snapping his fingers, “the light bulb came on. And when it did, it made perfect sense. It took the guesswork out of it.”
Back to the Wild Card Round, Owens returned to the field with just two catches for 48 yards up to that point. Here’s where luck factored into the equation. Two plays later, Rice caught a 6-yard crossing route – his only catch of the game – and lost the football as his knee touched the ground. The referee immediately ruled Rice down while the Packers defense clamored for a fumble. Just three snaps after that, the penultimate play of the game, Young nearly threw an interception looking for Stokes towards the right sideline.
Packers corner Craig Newsome secured the football with his left arm but the tip of the football appeared to hit the ground in the process. The referee, once again, ruled the bang-bang play in the 49ers favor and called it an incomplete pass. Mind you, challenges weren’t a thing at this point. The rulings on the field stood regardless of their accuracy. In fact, the NFL instituted a replay system in 1999 due in large part to these two borderline calls.
San Francisco had one last shot at the end zone from 25 yards out with :08 remaining and no timeouts. Owens recalled being open on the near interception, but Young never saw him in the middle of the field. He told his quarterback in the huddle that he was going to run his route the exact same way.
Lined up slot right, Owens ran up the seam and shaved his route towards the middle in front of safety Darren Sharper. Young threaded a pass between three defenders to Owens, who held on despite pin balling off of two defenders for the game-winning touchdown.
The play ended San Francisco’s five-game losing streak against Green Bay and simultaneously secured Owens’ place in 49ers franchise history.
“He redeemed himself on that one particular play,” Kirksey said. “That’s one of the plays that went down in history – him making that catch to win the game. … I can’t tell you where he would stack, but I know he’s one of the greatest of all time.”
At that point San Francisco knew it had found Rice’s heir apparent. Owens would go on to post nine 1,000-yard seasons and eight seasons with double-digit touchdowns, but it’s “The Catch II” that remains synonymous with his tenure with the 49ers.
Now 21 years later, on Sept. 22, 2019 at halftime of the team’s home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Owens will be welcomed into the franchise’s Hall of Fame.
“I am so humbled to be mentioned with the likes of Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice and many others that have represented the San Francisco 49ers organization,” said Owens. “The Bay Area is where I began my career, and I will forever be indebted to the 49ers. I am honored to be inducted into the 49ers Hall of Fame as this is a special moment with a special group of individuals.”
That afternoon at Levi’s® Stadium will punctuate another – but likely not the last – chapter worth celebrating in Owens’ life. Because that’s the thing about watershed moments, there’s always room for one more.