George Teague and his wife were having dinner at a Dallas-area seafood restaurant earlier this week when a stranger came over and interrupted their meal.
“You’re the guy who hit Terrell Owens!” the man told Teague, as if the retired Dallas Cowboys safety needed a reminder.
On September 24, 2000, Teague sprinted halfway across the field to waylay Owens as the San Francisco 49ers receiver was about to celebrate a touchdown catch by posing on the Cowboys’ star logo in the middle of Texas Stadium. Twenty-three years later, Teague is still better known for delivering that hit than for anything else he has accomplished.
Passengers on airplanes stare at him like they recognize him and then pull up the video clip to confirm they have the right guy. The same thing happens at the gas station or the grocery store checkout line. Teague doesn’t even get a respite at the suburban Dallas high school where he now works even though none of his students were born in 2000.
“Their parents tell them, ‘Google your athletic director,’ ” Teague told Yahoo Sports. “That’s the first thing that comes up.”
Teague has been bombarded by clips of Owens’ star celebration more frequently in recent years as the long-dormant 49ers-Cowboys rivalry has roared back to life. San Francisco ousted Dallas from the NFC playoffs in 2021 and 2022 and will host the Cowboys this Sunday night in one of the marquee matchups of the 2023 NFL regular season.
Over the course of four seasons at Alabama and nearly a decade in the NFL, Teague produced a few iconic moments. His touchdown-saving strip of Miami’s Lamar Thomas in the 1993 Sugar Bowl helped Alabama lay claim to its 12th national title. His playoff-record 101-yard interception return a year later propelled the Green Bay Packers’ to their second playoff victory since Vince Lombardi.
Asked how he feels that he is so often identified solely for his hit on Owens, Teague sounds genuine when he says, “It doesn’t bother me at all” but also when he admits that the incident still stirs up complex emotions for him.
Pride that he’s as indelible a part of one of the NFL’s fiercest rivalries as ‘The Catch’ or ‘How Bout Them Cowboys?’ Disbelief that people are still talking about his attempt to defend Dallas’ iconic star logo. And sadness that despite his multiple attempts to make peace, he and Owens still haven’t spoken in 23 years.
‘I was ready for a fight’
The peak of the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry actually arrived just over five years before Teague took offense with Owens’ star celebration.
In January 1995, the 49ers and Cowboys met in a third straight NFC title game. Play-by-play legend Pat Summerall needed just 18 words during Fox’s pregame intro montage to capture the gravity of the moment.
“In two weeks the Super Bowl will be played. After that the Pro Bowl. Today, we’ll play both.”
That’s how big 49ers-Cowboys felt during the era of Steve, Jerry and Ricky and Troy, Michael and Emmitt. The road to the Super Bowl went through Candlestick Park or Texas Stadium. The rest of the league essentially played for a bronze medal.
In the latter half of the 1990s, other contenders caught up with and overtook the 49ers and Cowboys. By the time the longtime rivals met in Week 4 of the 2000 regular season, the Super Bowl implications were minimal yet bitter feelings lingered on both sides.
“It was made known that, hey, we don’t get along with these guys,” Teague recalled. “You should expect for this to be a little more intense than the usual non-divisional football game.”
Proof arrived late in the second quarter after Owens caught a 3-yard pass in the right front corner of the end zone to extend the 49ers’ lead to 16-3. Before the nearest referee had even given the touchdown signal, Owens had already reversed course and begun his sprint to the huge blue star painted at midfield.
Owens has insisted many times that the purpose of his celebration wasn’t to glorify himself or to taunt the Cowboys. The impetus, he claims, was a conversation the previous day about the gaping hole in the roof at Texas Stadium and the old joke that it was there so God could watch his favorite team play.
In 2016, Owens told the Dallas Morning News that 49ers receivers coach George Stewart told him, “T, they say this is God’s country so you’ve got to come to the star tomorrow.” Owens said he lifted his arms and looked skyward to “give thanks to God for the opportunity and for him blessing me on that day.”
Outraged Cowboys players didn’t see the gesture the same way. When Emmitt Smith scored a touchdown on Dallas’ ensuing drive, he too ran to midfield, planted the ball in the middle of the star and glared in the direction of the 49ers sideline. The message, Smith explained years later, was “I’m not going to allow you to disrespect us in that way.”
The star logo was also meaningful to Teague even though he wasn’t a franchise cornerstone like Smith. The Cowboys twice gave Teague opportunities to revitalize his career after other teams prematurely gave up on him and cut him loose.
Teague and Owens spent much of the second half jawing at one-another. Then that escalated into a fourth-quarter scuffle with the 49ers already up by 17. Teague took offense with the way Owens blocked him on a 1st-and-goal run up the middle. Owens almost piledrove Teague through the back of the end zone even though the play came nowhere near them.
A pancake block, Owens has called it. A needless cheap shot, Teague counters.
Owens still had Teague’s attention on 3rd-and-goal even though they lined up on opposite sides of the formation. Teague was certain the 49ers were going to target Owens, certain Owens was going to beat the rookie corner matched up against him and certain Owens was going to make a spectacle of himself celebrating at the star again.
Sure enough, Owens caught a fade in the back right corner of the end zone, then turned around and ran toward midfield.
“As soon as he started to take off, I didn’t even hesitate,” Teague said. “I took off. I just knew I had to disrupt what was about to happen.”
For a moment, Teague forgot about the 80,000 people in the stands.
“I was ready,” he says, “for a fight.”
‘I would do it again’
Six years after he blindsided Owens and knocked him off the star, Teague decided to try to make peace. He reached out to representatives of Owens soon after the receiver signed a three-year contract with the Cowboys in March 2006.
“That didn’t work out,” Teague said. “I couldn’t get a call back or an opportunity to talk to him.”
Undaunted, Teague tried again on a day when he had a field pass to a subsequent Cowboys home game. Teague approached Owens well before kickoff and extended his arm to shake hands and wish him good luck.
“I got nothing from him at all,” Teague said. “Wouldn’t shake my hand, didn’t want any part of it.”
Teague’s last attempt came amid reports that Owens was enduring some mental health issues late in his NFL career. He reached out once more to say that he too had dealt with depression after being traded or cut and he was happy to listen if Owens wanted to talk.
“Again, no response,” Teague said. “Now we only talk to each other through the media.”
Owens did not return a message from Yahoo Sports seeking comment, but he previously has made his stance on his star celebration clear. He doesn’t regret how he conducted himself. He doesn’t feel he deserved the one-game suspension that he received. And he doesn’t seem to have any interest in reconciling with Teague.
When Owens appeared on a 2019 episode of Kevin Hart’s interview show “Cold as Balls,” the comedian asked about Teague’s reaction to the star celebration. Chest-deep in a tub of ice water, Owens scoffed that Teague “grazed” him and said that it was “probably the biggest hit he had the whole game.”
Egged on by Hart, Owens then looked into the camera and addressed Teague directly.
“George, it didn’t hurt,” he began. “It was real weak. Just like your game – it was real weak.”
Those comments help explain why Teague has now accepted that he and Owens may always have bad blood. They seem to view the incident too differently to sit down together and discuss it cordially, let alone do some joint autograph signings or go into business together the way Teague once hoped.
In lieu of that, Teague has found another way to extract something positive from his clash with Owens. The John Paul II High School athletic director brings up the story when teaching students about the importance of assessing the consequences of choices before deciding what path to take.
Referees sent Teague to the locker room for the game’s final four-plus minutes after he knocked Owens from the star. The NFL also fined him $24,999. Those were acceptable consequences to Teague under the circumstances, he tells his students.
“Would I go out there again today and hit Terrell Owens? Would that be worth it for me? Yes, I would do it again because of the principle,” Teague said. “I would do it again because I think it was the right thing to do.”
Christine Lake is a sports fanatic who lives and breathes athletics. With an extensive background in sports journalism, he covers everything from major league championships to grassroots sports events. When she’s not on the field or at the stadium, you’ll find Christine coaching youth sports teams.