JACKSONVILLE, Fla. Terrell Owens strolled onto the field, claiming a podium near the 25-yard line. It would have been more appropriate to put him right in the middle of the field.
T.O. was clearly in his comfort zone Tuesday at the Super Bowl's media extravaganza the center of attention, the star of the show, the guy making all the news.
And say this about the Philadelphia Eagles' All-Pro receiver: He didn't leave anyone in suspense. Less than a minute after the tape recorders and cameras began rolling, Owens made his pronouncement.
''I will play on Sunday,'' he said, relishing the moment as he gazed out at some 100 members of the media hanging on his every word.
Then, transforming the podium into a pulpit, Owens put on an hourlong performance that was part Ali, part Reverend Ike and pure T.O.
''If you believe in miracles,'' he said, ''just wait until Sunday.''
Adorned with diamonds in each ear and a matching bracelet, Owens let the conversation flow in all sorts of directions. At times, he sounded downright humble while crediting a strong religious faith for hastening the recovery of his right knee and ankle.
''God brought me here for a reason,'' he said.
But those were only momentary interludes. For the most part, Owens was at his bombastic best, saying he has no intention of being a decoy and embracing the controversy that seems to follow him around like a cornerback in a man-to-man defense. From Sharpies in the socks to towel-clad actresses in the locker room, it's all good in T.O.'s world.
''I can't change who I am,'' he said. ''I am who I am.''
The New England Patriots, with victories in two of the last three Super Bowls and on the cusp of becoming a full-fledged dynasty, had to settle for a supporting role on this day.
Owens was the star.
''It shows what kind of guy he is,'' said Troy Brown, the Patriots' receiver and nickel back. ''He came to Philly because he wanted to play in this game. To see him out there running around, well, I've got to take my hat off to the guy.''
Owens was in the midst of his most satisfying season when he was dragged down from behind in a Dec. 19 game against Dallas, his leg twisting grotesquely in the wrong direction.
The grim diagnosis: a severely sprained ankle, two torn ligaments, a fractured fibula. During surgery, two screws and a metal plate were needed to put it all back together. Owens' hopes of playing in the Super Bowl the very reason he signed with Philadelphia after eight years in San Francisco appeared to have been snatched away.
Now, just over six weeks later, Owens claims that his ankle feels like nothing more than a normal sprain, the kind that players deal with every week in such a brutal sport.
''Obviously, it's a good story for the Super Bowl: Will he play or won't he?'' Owens said. ''Well, I'm here, I going to play and that's it.''
Later Tuesday, he took part in his second straight practice, spending much of the time running in place. He got on the field for six of the Eagles' 20 offensive plays, catching one of the two passes that were thrown his way.
Both Owens and the Eagles' trainer, Rick Burkholder, pooh-poohed the risk of doing career-threatening damage by coming back too soon even though the doctor who performed the surgery refused to give his blessing for Owens to play in the Super Bowl.
''I'm not really concerned about the medical risks,'' the receiver said. ''Even if I go out and re-injure myself, it can be fixed.''
Owens said he won't even wear a brace. Just a light tape job should be enough to hold the ankle together.
''There are risks every day,'' he said. ''It was a risk coming over here today on the bus. It was a risk flying to Jacksonville for this game.''
Burkholder plans to use about a half-hour of Wednesday's practice to work with Owens on stability and balance, followed by a short run. It's a delicate balancing act working the player hard enough to determine if he can play, but not hard enough to hinder a recovery process that still has a few precious days to run.
''He's like Smarty Jones,'' Burkholder said. ''I'm riding him through the week, and we're going to get him to the gate on Sunday and hopefully turn him loose. But you have to ride him right. You can't run him into the ground Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, because he won't be worth anything Sunday.''
If Owens does play, look for New England to measure his fitness at every opportunity.
''Oh, I would test him,'' said Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who is part of Fox's pregame show. ''I would get in his face. I would jam him. I would double up, go over the top, make him work hard.''
While no one can dispute Owens' courage and passion, it would be foolhardy for him to play if he's not healthy. He certainly wouldn't be doing his team any good if he trotted on the field with just one healthy leg.
''Come on, he's got a plate in his leg and screws in his ankle,'' Bradshaw said. ''I just want to believe that he's not going to hurt his football team, because they've done pretty well without him.''
With Owens, the Eagles won 13 of their first 14 regular-season games. Without Owens, they beat Minnesota and Atlanta in the playoffs, finally reaching the Super Bowl after three straight losses in the NFC championship game.
Nonetheless, Owens' teammates were happy to hear that he plans to play Sunday.
''He did make some big plays for us,'' quarterback Donovan McNabb said. ''He did an excellent job of coming in and presenting a different type of feel for our passing attack.''
Added linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, ''If T.O. says he's going to play, he's going to play. T.O. is going to be just fine. I think T.O. is going to come out and surprise a lot of people.''
About the only complaint Owens had was the weather cloudy, breezy and temperatures in the 50s. Showing up for media day wearing a short-sleeve jersey, he sat shivering in his chair while goosebumps popped up on his massive biceps.
''Man, it's cold here in Jacksonville,'' he grumbled.
But the ankle feels just fine.
''I'm 81 percent healthy,'' he said, a nod to his uniform number. ''On Sunday, I'll be 100 percent.''
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