Drafted by the 49ers in the third round of the 1996 NFL draft, Owens was thrilled to join his hero, Jerry Rice. During his college career at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, he had worn Rice’s number (80). Early in the 1997 season, when Rice tore his ACL, Owens stepped up and became a star performer for the 49ers, grabbing 60 receptions for 936 yards and eight touchdowns over the season. After 16 straight winning seasons, the 49ers faltered in 1999 and stumbled to a 4-12 record. At the end of the season, the star quarterback Steve Young retired.
The 2000 season was also a losing season for San Francisco, though there were several saving graces. Rice continued to impress in what would be his final season with the 49ers, and was given a number of standing ovations during the 49ers’ shut-out of the Bears in San Francisco on December 17, Rice’s last appearance in his home stadium. On the field, however, Owens stole the show from his mentor, catching 20 passes for 283 yards and a touchdown and breaking Tom Fears’ record of 18, set with the Los Angeles Rams in December 1950 against the Green Bay Packers. Owens also broke Rice’s franchise record of 16 receptions in a single game, set against the Rams in 1994.
The volatile Owens had a difficult relationship with the 49ers organization, including Young’s successor as quarterback, Jeff Garcia, and head coach Steve Mariucci. He and the team parted ways after the 2003 season and Owens headed to the Philadelphia Eagles (not without a struggle involving a missed deadline for his free agent paperwork and the 49ers subsequent attempt to trade him to the Baltimore Ravens). Conflict and controversy continued to swirl around Owens in Philadelphia, and he was released from his contract in 2006. Signed by the Dallas Cowboys, he remains one of the NFL’s most talented–and controversial–stars.