Grantland logo

Beware the heartbreakers

We’ve seen stories like the Terry Glenn saga before — and they always end the same way.

Midway through the ’80s camp classic “St. Elmo’s Fire,” there’s a scene where Billy Hixx and his friend Jules are returning from a wild party, both blitzed, both drifting along in their post-college lives, both hesitant to call it a night.

GlennAfter some flirting on the drive, Billy (the failed sax player, played by Rob Lowe) starts hitting on Jules (the aspiring coke bimbo, played by Demi Moore) and, for once, she turns somebody down. She needs a friend. She needs someone who will listen to her.

But Billy won’t take no for an answer. He tries to smooch Jules, finally grabbing her car keys, shoving them down his pants and telling her, “Come and get ’em.”

An enraged Jules pushes him out of the jeep, punching his shoulders until he finally coughs up her keys. Oblivious, a giggling Billy continues to flirt … but Jules isn’t laughing. She’s crying.

“You break my heart,” Jules tells him. “Then again, you break everyone’s heart.”

Sound familiar? The sports world is littered with Billy Hixxes, those troubled stars who blow into our respective cities and invariably break our hearts. You train yourself to look the other way. You rationalize their actions. You give them second chances. And third chances. And fourth chances. And even though warning signs have been flashing since Day One, you keep allowing your guard to slip and they keep letting you down.

I was remembering Billy Hixx this week for two reasons:

1. “St. Elmo’s Fire” airs on cable at least 16 times per night; for whatever reason, it occasionally pulls me in for a repeat viewing (like last week). Why? I wish I could explain it. Maybe it’s the fascination of watching Judd Nelson back when he still had his mojo … or trying to decide whether I was ever attracted to Ally Sheedy … or wondering why it was OK to stalk people back in the ’80s … or classic exchanges like …

“What the hell is the three-year chairman of the Georgetown Young Democrats doing working for a Republican?”

bill simmons“Moving up, Kirbo.”

…or the inherent comedy of Lowe playing the sax, wearing a bandanna and screaming, “Let’s rock!” … or a puffy Moore playing the captain of the 1985 Go-Team … or Andrew McCarthy bugging his eyes and saying, “I love her, man” … or the chill-inducing score that brings back memories of CBS and the ’87 NBA Finals … or Nelson belting out lines like “No Springsteen is leaving this house!”

(Hey, it’s probably the watershed cheesy ’80s movie for me. I’m not ashamed to admit it. As McCarthy would say, “I love her, man.”)

2. The Patriots placed their version of Billy Hixx — star receiver Terry Glenn — on their reserve list last week, abruptly ending his five-year association with the team for at least one season. The move made him impossible to trade or even waive outright until next March. It offered them little cap relief. And yet the Patriots were so anxious to remove The Distraction That had Become Terry Glenn from this season that they didn’t care.

Rarely does your favorite team jettison a star player and you find yourself saying, “Good riddance,” but those two words represented everyone’s attitude toward Glenn in New England. We were tired of hoping. We were tired of worrying. We were tired of being let down. We wanted a fresh start with someone else.

We wanted him to grab his sax, board his bus and go away.

***** ***** *****

Real life doesn’t unfold quite the way it unfolds in most movies. Sometimes there isn’t a happy ending. Sometimes things don’t happen for a reason. Sometimes things just ends — abruptly, unhappily — and you deal with it.

Terry Glenn learned that lesson the hard way as a teenager, when both of his parents had passed away before he even started high school. Few of us can
comprehend that level of loss — how it feels to survive your formative years without unconditional love — and maybe that’s what tempered the anger of
Patriots fans toward Glenn over the years. It’s tough to rip someone when they’ve already had their heart ripped out.

But we worried about him. And when the signs kept popping up like skeletons in the “Poltergeist” pool, well … we should have known something was wrong.

In case you’re not familiar with those signs, here’s how the Billy Hixx Routine usually plays out in sports (with the aid of some Billy-related quotes from the movie):

Act I
— “Grandpa, grandpa! Billy’s on the roof!”

Patriots fans worried about Glenn from the moment Bill Parcells stormed out of New England’s war room during the ’96 Draft. Here’s what happened: The Tuna pushed for defensive help in the first round, but Pats owner Bob Kraft sided with the scouting department and tabbed Glenn with the seventh overall pick. Since this dispute paved the way for the future Hall of Famer’s eventual exit from New England, we always wondered what scared Parcells about Glenn. After all, at that point in the draft, Glenn was the highest-rated player on everyone’s board. Why the red flag?

So we kept our guard up. And when Parcells started tweaking Glenn during the ’96 preseason for nagging little injuries — even referring to the rookie as “she” more than once — we seemingly had another potential Irving Fryar on our hands.

Act II
— “You’re very talented, Billy.”
Smarting from the Tuna’s criticism, Glenn quieted everyone with an All-Pro season, helping the Patriots reach their second Super Bowl in franchise history. There was a wonderful moment during the stretch run when Parcells and Glenn hugged each other on the sidelines in New York — after an improbable comeback victory to clinch the AFC East — and it seemed as if neither man wanted to let go. After that game, Parcells admitted to reporters that he had been wrong about Terry Glenn. The kid was a winner.

Suddenly, Team Kraft was a genius, Parcells was eating crow and nobody could imagine life without Glenn, the missing piece, the next Jerry Rice, the deep threat who would join forces with Drew Bledsoe and torture NFL defenses for the next decade.

Nobody could have imagined it then, but the Glenn Era had already peaked.

— “All this time I was afraid you would find out that I wasn’t fabulous.”
— “That’s cool. All this time I was afraid you would find out that I was irresponsible.”

As a rookie, Glenn caught 90 passes, hauled in six touchdowns and played all 16 regular-season games … and yet over the next four seasons, he caught 225 passes, hauled in just 15 touchdowns and missed 17 of 64 games. In a league where top receivers mature in their second or third seasons and peak by Year Five, Glenn’s career “progress” seemed curious, to say the least.

So what happened?

In a nutshell, he lost his coach. Still bitter about the events of the ’96 Draft, Parcells departed for the Jets in the spring of ’97, with Pete “Fredo” Carroll taking his place in New England. Carroll’s hiring, coupled with the rise of player personnel director Bobby Grier, marked a deadly chapter in Glenn’s career. Grier babied Glenn and continually made excuses for him; Carroll couldn’t figure Glenn out.

Without the Tuna pushing his buttons, Glenn slowly drifted into a self-made cocoon during Carroll’s laughable, “Good practice, guys! Who wants some ice
cream?” tenure. It was the classic case of the “Player’s Coach” following the “Discipliniarian Coach” and slowly losing control of his team, compounded by the fact that Glenn regarded Parcells as a father figure.

Slowly, the path of Glenn’s career changed. Nagging “uh-oh” incidents kept happening with him: a missed practice, an altercation at a nightclub, a failed drug test, skipped mini-camps, an incident where he allegedly urinated on a limousine, a week during the summer where nobody could find him, a “Nobody understands me” feature in the newspaper, a mysterious suspension …

Glenn’s resume for the Billy Hixx All-Stars went on and on.

And on. And on.

Act IV
— “You ever feel like you’re not accomplishing anything at all?”
–“I think I’m in touch with that emotion.”

Patriots fans were familiar with the Hixx routine; we remembered the warning signs from our experiences with the “talented and troubled” Irving Fryar (who had his name legally changed to “The Talented and Troubled Irving Fryar” back in 1988). But at least the Fryar Era was perversely entertaining. Patriots fans rattled off Fryar stories the same way we rattle off war stories from college.

Remember the time Fryar got into a car accident during a game? Remember the time Fryar’s wife allegedly stabbed him with a kitchen knife? Remember the time Fryar and Hart Lee Dykes lost the fight at the nightclub?

Of course, Fryar eventually found God, fled New England and matured into a Pro Bowl receiver in Miami. And that was probably our biggest fear with
Glenn, that he would finally figure things out and start catching 90 balls a season, only for another team. When you’re afraid to lose a potential
superstar just as much as you’re afraid to keep him … well, then what happens? You can’t win either way.

Act V
— “The man, the myth, the legend … the one and only Billy the Kid!”
So we were stuck with him. And that’s the most frustrating thing about these Billy Hixx guys: You never know.

What happens when these athletes reach the proverbial fork in the road? What pushes them? What chain of events bring them to the road less traveled, the one that makes all the difference? Why does someone like Roy Tarpley self-destruct, when someone like Bernard King can turn his life around? How can head cases like Michael Irvin or Dennis Rodman sustain productive careers with copious amounts of baggage? How can talented players like Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman drift into relative obscurity by their late-twenties?

  Of the elite receivers who consistently outperformed him — namely, Isaac Bruce, Eric Moulds, Marvin Harrison and Jimmy Smith — Glenn possessed just
as many gifts as any of them. And yet he couldn’t consistently affect games and rally his team like those other players. He might have been a
game-breaker, but he wasn’t a back-breaker. There’s a difference.

You don’t know. You never know.

With Glenn, maybe fate played a bigger factor than anything. Every time he seemed to be making The Leap, something held him back. The loss of Parcells. An untimely leg injury in ’97. A deteriorating offensive line that couldn’t protect Bledsoe. Constant double-teaming from opponents. Off-field distractions. There was always an excuse.

Like every other Billy Hixx wannabe, Glenn would occasionally provide glimpses of his considerable gifts, just enough to keep you pining for more. You would forget about him for two quarters and suddenly there he was, standing wide-open 20 yards down the field, effortlessly hauling in a Bledsoe pass. Just as suddenly, he would disappear for the remainder of the drive.

Of the elite receivers who consistently outperformed him — namely, Isaac Bruce, Eric Moulds, Marvin Harrison and Jimmy Smith — Glenn possessed just
as many gifts as any of them. And yet he couldn’t consistently affect games and rally his team like those other players. He might have been a
game-breaker, but he wasn’t a back-breaker. There’s a difference.

Act VI
–“I don’t love Howie. I love Billy.”

–“Billy from the roof?”

Those aforementioned red flags failed to deter Kraft, who rewarded Glenn with a $50 million contract extension to Glenn before the ’00 season. Patriots fans blanched at the news until reading details of the deal — Krafty Bob had loaded the contract with off-field “conduct” clauses that protected the Patriots in case Glenn self-destructed.

Convincing Glenn and his agent to sign the incentive-laden deal — a whopping roll of the dice, given Glenn’s track record — was Kraft’s shrewdest move since he purchased the Patriots in 1994. The onus was clearly on Glenn, not the team. Once the deal was signed, Kraft promised that Glenn would now remain a “Patriot for life.” He neglected to add the comma, the “if” and the “…”

— “Don’t you give up on me … I’m gonna change.”

So there he was. With four years under his belt and the security of a whopping contract, Glenn should have responded with a watershed season, something out of the 100-catch, 1,300-yard, 10-touchdown variety. But something was missing all season. He played in all 16 games, catching 79 passes for just 963 yards and six touchdowns, rarely changing the course of a given game, if ever.

According to those who covered the team, the unmarried Glenn stayed to himself more than ever, keeping few friends among his teammates and spending the majority of his time holed up by himself in his Walpole mansion. Nobody believed that he was a bad person; he was chronically, hopelessly unhappy, that’s all. Glenn even admitted as much, telling reporters that he only felt true happiness when he spent time with his 6-year-old daughter.

When it all fell apart for Glenn this summer — allegations of domestic abuse, a potential court trial, a child custody trial, an endless dance between the team and Glenn’s overmatched agent (Jim Gould) about Glenn returning his signing bonus, a missed drug test, a suspension by the league, a disappearance from training camp, a threat of suspension, and finally, last week, the Patriots shelving Glenn for the season — there was a disarming lack of panic and dissent from Pats fans.

Quite simply, we were ready to move on. We lost for the past two seasons with Terry Glenn … surely we could keep losing without him.

— “Billy, I don’t think we should see each other anymore. There’s your rent money.”

And so we washed our hands of Terry Glenn. Strangely enough, teammate Lawyer Milloy summed the situation up better than anybody:

“I came in with Terry,” Milloy told the Boston Globe. “I have the utmost respect for him as an athlete and a teammate, and I consider him a friend. But
there was one negative spot out there that was kind of deterring the team. There’s a sense of relief on my part … with the right mindset he’s second
to none and that’s comparing him with anyone in the league. But right now, that situation is just a cancer. With the direction the team is going, that
situation needed to die as soon as possible.”

And it did.

***** ***** *****

As for the ninth and final act of the Billy Hixx Routine …

You probably remember one of the final scenes in “St. Elmo’s Fire,” when Jules suffers a quasi-nervous breakdown, locks herself inside her apartment in the dead of winter, opens every window and attempts to freeze herself to death (don’t ask). Somehow Billy saves the day, busting through her front door, shutting the windows just in time and talking Jules back from the brink with the following monologue:

“Honey … this isn’t real. You know what it is? It’s St. Elmo’s Fire. Electric flashes of light that appear in dark skies out of nowhere. Sailors would guide entire journies by it, but the joke was on them — there was no fire. There wasn’t even a St. Elmo. They made it up.

“They made it up because they thought they needed it to keep them going when times got tough, just like you’re making up all of this. We’re all going
through this. It’s our time on the edge.”

That’s heavy stuff. And somehow the entire incident changes Billy’s life. He comes to grips with his love for Wendy The Virgin, sleeps with her and
eventually voyages to New York City to give his music one last chance. Of course, his friends accompany him to the bus stop so he can spout some final pearls of wisdom — “Don’t go changing just to please me” and “Don’t let her go” were my two favorite nuggets — before hopping on his bus and kicking off his brand-new, undoubtedly successful life.

The end.

Real life works a little differently. Sometimes you don’t learn from your mistakes — you’re haunted by them. Sometimes you live your entire life without finding any answers. Sometimes you carry around an invisible suitcase full of regret, and it follows you everywhere, a constant shadow, a constant burden, and the weight grows more enormous by the day. Sometimes you endure so much tragedy that you simply lose hope, and you drift through the rest of your life, and you squander every chance you ever had.

It’s funny … you never see movies finish with lines like “You break my heart … then again, you break everyone’s heart.” Those lines always arrive by the middle of a movie, giving the character in question enough time to experience his grand epiphany and turn his life around. And yet that quote could define more than a few people’s lives, the one moment that stands out most, the one line that makes sense of everything.

You break my heart … then again, you break everyone’s heart.

It certainly describes Terry Glenn right now. And barring divine intervention or a miracle of clarity, it probably always will.

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.