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Cal Sport Media/AP Images Terrell Owens

Terrell Owens’s Darkest Days

Broke, blackballed, and out of work, T.O. looks for another chance

Since signing with the Allen Wranglers, Terrell Owens hasn’t exactly been excited to talk to reporters. Back in his Philadelphia days, in the prime of his career, he used to hold press conferences all the time, sometimes in his own driveway. He couldn’t wait to be on camera. He would tell reporters what questions to ask. He never shied away from a microphone: not in a locker room, not in a studio, and certainly not on his own reality show.

But now that he’s been relegated to the lowest rung of professional football, with no team in the NFL even interested in watching him work out, Owens hasn’t been so loquacious. He made an appearance on Dr. Phil with three of the four mothers of his kids to explain why he hasn’t been paying child support (he’s broke), and why he hasn’t even seen some of his children (it’s complicated). And he’s done a few brief radio interviews. But he hasn’t wanted to talk much about playing in the Indoor Football League. He hasn’t wanted to talk about his financial troubles, or his personal life, or what it’s like to fall so far so fast. He’s pushed back interviews. He’s skipped press conferences. He’s missed scheduled appearances.

But now, on an indoor soccer field in the suburbs of Dallas, on a Thursday afternoon after practice, he’s unloading. At first, he’s positive. He says he really isn’t the same person he was a few years ago.

“This has definitely been a humbling situation for me,” he says. “For a lot of reasons, personally and professional. I’m just taking everything in stride.”

Of course, this is before the Wranglers waived him. Before he threatened to sue. Before he fired his agent. This is before it all ended like we knew it would. Because how could a T.O. story end any other way? There can be no redemption, no change in this narrative. It’s gone on too long. We know it too well.

Still, he’s trying. He says he’s grateful to Wranglers owner Jon Frankel and general manager Drew Pearson for the chance to prove he’s still able to play.

“People ask if I’m embarrassed,” he says. “I’m not embarrassed by it. This is all part of God’s plan. He’s broken me down and put me in a situation that has enabled me to better myself. I think I’m a better route runner because of some of the things I’ve done playing in a confined space. It’s made me work harder. I’ve met new friends, new coaches. You never know what the path is. For me, it’s how do I get through this? How do I rebound? How do I bounce back?”

The way he sees it, he doesn’t want much. “I’m not asking to be rich,” he says. “I’m just trying to be financially stable. I just want to be stable. That’s any average American that’s working hard for their money. I’m trying to get myself back to a situation where I don’t have to be stressed out at night, worrying what my mom is thinking or my kids.”

He knows that sports talk bloviators are waiting for him to fail. He’s working hard not to give them the validation. He knows he can still help a team. He’s seen Randy Moss get another chance after a year away. That’s all he wants. But it feels like so much is out of his control. People associate him with the worst characters in sports, with cheaters and killers and wife beaters.

“People forget that I’m a human being, just because I play a sport that everybody loves,” he says. “We’re human. We’re not invincible. We share the same feelings and emotions that people on the outside feel. I don’t think people really understand that.”

Then, unprovoked, he brings up the suicide of Junior Seau.

“You think about some of the things that Junior Seau was going through,” he says. “You never know what a person is going through, regardless of how much money they make or however great a life you think they’re living. You just really never know.”

There are already incidents with pills and hospitals in his past. He knows people worry about him going out the same way. He knows others root for it.

“Everything that I’ve gone through since the end of 2010, from me finding out about my financial adviser stealing, mismanaging my money — that affected everything, from child support, mortgages, to me having to sell my properties, me being in and out of court trying to modify my child support. It’s just everything. It’s a lot to deal with at one time. My grandmother passing. Going through a relationship with my ex-girlfriend, Kari. All those things. I swear, I felt like I was just standing there and I had a firing squad going at me.”

He’s tense. As he speaks, he’s looking at the synthetic green turf of the soccer field. He’s not the only person to contemplate suicide, he says. “Again, if I’m saying what a lot of people have thought or think, why am I wrong for saying it? When I say, who hasn’t probably thought of that? Am I wrong for saying somebody has thought about, Is it worth living? Just because I’m a figure and I say sometimes what people are thinking, that’s not wrong. I’m not less of a person or a mental case because I say that.”

This has felt like the longest year of his life. From the outside, it looks like the most consistent heel in modern sports is finally meeting his fate. But to the man, it feels like the Fates are testing everything he knows about life. He says he’s been struggling lately.

“A lot of emotional stress that people go through, some people figure out a way to handle it,” he says. “They have a strong enough support system to keep going and keep moving forward. And some people, they feel like they don’t have that outlet. Some people are too prideful to go out and reach out to people to help them in that situation because it’s just such a dark time.”

As he steps onto the field, the crowd erupts. Scores of children with hot dog breath scream their lungs out and clap as he trots across the soft, bunched turf, his earrings sparkling in the lights. He looks the same as he always has: the same hulking shoulders, the same narrow hips, the same “81” stretched across his jersey. Prepubescent boys put their hands to their mouths to call out his name. But the sound of 3,000 or so people who chose to spend a Saturday evening at the Allen Event Center can’t compare to the roar of a packed NFL stadium at the moment one man leaps over another and snatches a football out of the air. That’s a sound that echoes in your ears for a long time.

It’s late March and the Allen Wranglers are taking on the Nebraska Danger in a battle for control of the Intense Conference of the IFL. Tonight is his second home game of the season. Most people are here out of sheer curiosity, or they are fathers who wanted a chance to show their sons one of the greatest wide receivers to ever play the game.

He’s only 45 miles from the plush confines of Cowboys Stadium, with that gigantic screen, but tonight it feels like a world away. This arena is in a shopping plaza — in a town locals call “a suburb of a suburb” — between an In-N-Out Burger and a furniture store. There is no JumboTron here. There are ads for a casino in Lake Charles and a local burrito place and a roofing company. Before the game, the announcer thanks Jesus Christ for dying on the cross — to great applause. The fans are inches away from the players, and some — mostly young boys — call to him. It’s constant. Sometimes it’s encouragement. Mostly it’s not.

A few times he gets a running start before the ball is snapped — that’s allowed here. On a running play to his side, he blocks admirably. On the fifth play of the game he’s wide open in the back of the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown. In seconds, the Wranglers have a 7-0 lead. This is what people used to love about Terrell Owens. Only one man in NFL history has caught more touchdowns. Owens is the only player to catch a touchdown against all 32 teams in the league — and he’s actually scored on each team twice. If he was on your team (or your fantasy team), it didn’t matter how he celebrated. You were just glad he scored.

He flips the ball to the referee and jogs back to the bench and — there it is, right there. He doesn’t slap the hands of his passing teammates. Most of the other players do, but he doesn’t. The most observant in the crowd point it out to others. See that? Earlier, as cute little kids cried out for his autograph, he stretched his hamstrings and groin unfazed, his noise-canceling headphones secured tightly to both ears. Same old T.O.

He spends large portions of the game looking bored on the sideline. He’s on the field for most offensive plays, but the passing game struggles. The Nebraska players are extra rough with him, a little slow to get off him in a pile. Both teams score regularly, though, which drags the game out. It’s already 45-34 at halftime. As the night stretches on, he looks miserable. The Wranglers eventually win, 86-57. Owens has three catches for 58 yards and two of the team’s 12 touchdowns.

After the game, fans are invited onto the field to meet the players. They’re told to wait next to a table if they’d like an autograph from the most famous player to ever attempt indoor football. Eventually, after more than 100 people have lined up, he arrives. He’s freshly showered, in jeans, a tie, and sunglasses, even though he’s indoors and it’s nearing midnight. He sits down and the line works its way past him. Fans are told that he’ll only sign one item per person. And no, he won’t pose for photos. (Plenty still try, and he begrudgingly obliges, though he sneers at the men in yellow shirts working security.) Signature after signature, he looks sullen. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere else in the world.

His new teammates, however, are smiling and laughing. Each player happily poses with anyone who asks. “Oh, that one’s blurry,” they say. “Let’s do another.” Most of these men are just glad they’re still playing football, even if it’s for the Allen Wranglers. They make $225 a game. A lot of them work day jobs in security or on construction crews. They know this may be their last chance to put on shoulder pads and sign autographs.

It was an idea Jon Frankel, one of the team owners, had been toying with for months. What better way to get the Wranglers brand out in the community? The team had only moved to Texas in 2011. The year before, the franchise had been called the Arkansas Diamonds. The year before that it was the Arkansas Twisters.

They came to an agreement in January. Owens would play every home game, and maybe the away games (he said he’d play if the other team would pay him — and some would eventually agree). He’d also become part owner of the team — an arrangement that included a cut of ticket sales and concessions for the games in which he appeared. If every game sold out, he could make a couple hundred grand for the season.

From the beginning, Owens was clear: He was doing this as a springboard back into the NFL. He knows, even at his age (he’s 38), he’s better than plenty of guys in the league right now. The last time he played, for the Bengals in 2010, he had 72 catches for 983 yards and nine touchdowns in 14 games (he was in the AFC’s top 10 in all three categories). Then he tore his ACL that offseason. Despite his legendary ability to heal his legs, not one scout came to his public workout last October. He had hope that someone might pick him up late in the season, if for no other reason than to add some depth and experience to a receiving corps — but no. Then came the public bankruptcy. And the child support issues. And one foreclosed property after another.

The Wranglers promised him a place to live and a car to drive. It was a chance, and nobody else was calling. So he came here, back to the scene of so much controversy: from the time he celebrated on the star at the center of the old Texas Stadium, to the days when Ed Werder filed daily dispatches on “the mood of the locker room,” to the sobbing press conference. He wanted to prove he’s still healthy, still viable, ready to write a new — more positive — chapter.

The announcement that he was joining the Wranglers came in January, via a 22-second video he posted to Twitter. “It’s official, it just went down — I’m headed back to Dallas,” he said with a grin. “Allen, Texas, here I come.” Then he added, as if simultaneously promising and warning: “I’m going to be me.”

If this were a movie — and he’s thought about trying to turn this into a movie — it would be a feel-good comedy. The despised, egotistical heel character would be forced by personal and financial turmoil to play a season in the extremely unglamorous minor leagues. Initially, there would be hilarious awkwardness, with the jokes coming mostly at his expense. His life would be turned upside down and he’d hate it. Eventually he’d be humbled in some big way, he’d make peace with his fate, he’d change his ways, and he’d become a great teammate, a good father. There might be a love interest to reward him for finally becoming a decent human being. The team would win the big game, and in the end it wouldn’t matter if he got back to the heights of professional sports, because he would have gained something more valuable than fame or money.

In his debut in February, against the Wichita Wild, the reported attendance was over 5,000. He didn’t have a single reception in the first quarter. People expecting to see video game-style domination were introduced to the frustrating, crowded feeling of indoor football. The Wranglers completed just six passes the entire game — three to the newest star, for 53 yards and three touchdowns — but won 50-30. He skipped the next game, a win on the road. But for a reported $10,000, first-class airfare, and a hotel room, he traveled to New Mexico to play the Stars. In front of an estimated 6,000 people, he led the Wranglers with five catches and a touchdown, and the team won 45-28. Video of a New Mexico player knocking him over the wall made its way onto several blogs, to the smarmy delight of anonymous commenters.

Two weeks after the Nebraska game, the Wranglers hosted the Sioux Falls Storm. They took an early 21-3 lead, but one minute after halftime it was a four-point game again. Casey Printers, the Wranglers quarterback, was hurt and out of the lineup, and the team didn’t look good. The offense was stalled. Fans noticed that no. 81 looked like a bored child enduring a long, uncomfortable car ride.

Of course, Owens is hardly the only player on the Wranglers who’s had a disappointing career turn. “All of these guys were stars in high school and college,” says general manager Drew Pearson — the same Drew Pearson in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, known from his days on those great 1970s teams with Roger Staubach. “Every one of these guys still has hopes and dreams and aspirations to play in the NFL.”

When he was barely 20 years old, Ramonce Taylor scored 15 touchdowns for the 2005 national champion Texas Longhorns. The next spring he was arrested after deputies found five pounds of weed in his car. (Taylor actually called the cops that night to report a broken window and gave police permission to search his car.) Amid legal and academic problems, he was dismissed from the team. He planned to transfer, but it didn’t work out. He spent 60 days in jail. Then he was hoping he’d get picked in the 2007 draft, but that didn’t happen either. He played a season with the Rio Grande Valley Dorados, a now-defunct arena league farm team. He spent two years in the Canadian Football League. Then he played a season with the Rio Grande Valley Magic (the team that replaced the Dorados), before joining the Wranglers this year. With Owens on the team, Taylor spends most of the games on the bench, though he still returns kicks. Texas fans who remember him from 2005 ask to pose for photos with him after games.

Casey Printers has a similar story. He was a standout quarterback at TCU from 1999 to 2000, when he had the services of one LaDainian Tomlinson. When he wasn’t drafted in 2002, Printers played for the BC Lions in Canada. In 2004, he was the league’s Most Outstanding Player, the Canadian equivalent to the NFL’s MVP. He spent a year with the Kansas City Chiefs but never played. The most memorable moment of his NFL career came when he was released, and the conversation was featured on an episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks. Now he’s trying to stay healthy enough to keep his starting job on the Wranglers. At the moment, he’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt, sitting in what would be considered pretty good seats for the minor league hockey games played here.

Owens drops a third-down pass thrown at his feet by the backup quarterback. A few fans boo. His first year on the Cowboys, when a reporter asked about the jeers he got upon his return to Philadelphia, he replied, “There’s a lot of love in those boos.”

If the crowd is rough, the opposing players are rougher. At every opportunity, he’s knocked into the padded walls, checked extra hard near the line of scrimmage, blocked to the ground even on the backside of a play. The other players taunt him, too, mocking his notorious celebrations after touchdowns and some especially hard hits. (The T.O. over-the-head arm gesture is popular, as is his run-to-the-center-of-the-field-and-pose move.)

After one of his own touchdowns, Owens asks for a cheerleader’s pom-poms and does a quick version of one of his old San Francisco celebrations. It’s like he’s a touring classic rock band that feels obligated to play all the old hits. A few minutes later, one of the Sioux Falls players knocks him over the wall right in front of the Wranglers bench. A few defensive linemen catch him by the thighs and hoist him back over, onto his feet. Ramonce Taylor and Drew Pearson, who’s standing on the sideline in a Wranglers golf shirt, both yell a string of expletives at the Sioux Falls guys. It’s loud enough for the players on the field to hear, but not loud enough to make it to the kids in the fifth row.

Pearson knows what it’s like to have to deal with life after the heights of football. He played in three Super Bowls. His last-minute catch from the ’75 playoffs still gets replayed on countdowns of all-time great plays. But one morning he was in a car crash and his career was over. His brother died in the same accident. Eventually, Pearson rebuilt himself as a businessman, broadcaster, and public speaker. He wrote a book, Hail Mary: The Drew Pearson Story. And he became a general manager, first in the short-lived XFL, and now for the Wranglers.

He comes from the Tom Landry, military-style era of football, when many players made more in summer basketball leagues than they did playing for the Cowboys. But Pearson says he feels a connection to Owens, a kinship. “There’s a fraternity there,” he says. “Anyone who has created some longevity in the NFL, there’s a brotherhood. We know what it takes to stay in the game. There’s a respect that the rest of the world doesn’t understand because they haven’t done it.”

Pearson lobbied Owens to join the Wranglers. He figured it would bring attention to the franchise and the league, and possibly help Owens back into the NFL. He points out that Owens is hardly the first NFL player to have financial troubles or child-support issues. “Say what you want about the guy,” Pearson says. “But he’s got tremendous heart. That’s undeniable.”

Owens finishes with five catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns, but the Wranglers lose 52-45. After the game, there is another table and another line full of people wanting autographs. Again he comes out in sunglasses; this time he’s wearing a green sweater. And again he looks generally unpleasant.

He does take the time to carefully craft each signature, though, with a large “T” and “O” next to a smaller “#81.” People ask him to sign everything from game tickets to T-shirts to popcorn containers. One man asks for an autograph on his biceps, explaining that he’s going directly to a tattoo shop to make it permanent. From behind his shades, Owens manages to smile a few times. Once for a Boy Scout who wanted his Terrell Owens trading card signed. Once for a kid on crutches. Once for an adorable little girl in a tiny Wranglers “81” jersey. Two guys in baseball caps ask if he plans on going out to some Dallas bars tonight.

“You never know,” he says with a familiar half-smirk.

Britney Wynn, an intern, has been handling media relations for the Wranglers since January. When she was studying public relations at Texas A&M not long ago, she never expected she’d be responsible for a case like this. She says that after he’s done signing autographs, he’ll be available for a press conference. Reporters want to know what he’s doing with his time in Dallas. (If Twitter is to be trusted, it looks like a lot of bowling and flirting with attractive women.)

There are only five or six people in the media room. Some are journalism students from a local community college. Some write for a local football website. As they wait, they discuss professional wrestling’s greatest bad guys. Andre the Giant comes up. And Bam Bam Bigelow. “Was the Ultimate Warrior ever bad?” “Hulk Hogan was bad then good then bad then good, right?” “Then he became a reality star.” The conversation lasts a while. Eventually, Britney enters the room.

“It seems there’s been a miscommunication,” she says. “Terrell is — ” She looks for the right words. She settles on: “Terrell left.”

Nobody feels sorry for him, but it’s easy to understand how Owens got so messed up. He was raised mostly by his alcoholic grandmother, a strict, religious woman who forbade any form of fun. He was nearly a teenager by the time someone finally told him his father had been living with another family in a house across the street — and even then it was only after he’d taken an interest in a girl he didn’t know was his half-sister. He was scrawny and unpopular in school. He’d later say he was never told the words “I love you” as a child. He picked up football in high school and was good enough to get a scholarship to a school most people have never heard of. That’s when he started lifting weights and taking over football games. But he still wasn’t somebody the average sports fan knew of when he was drafted in the third round. And he brought all these issues with him as he developed into an incredible star.

Worst of all, perhaps: The more theatrical he got — the more he acted like the biggest heel in sports — the more attention he drew. Even when he became a parody of himself, nobody would look away. We couldn’t. We bonded over our mutual disdain, but we didn’t change the channel. And no matter what he did or said, his talent — his work ethic, his physical prowess, his ability to help a team on the field — always guaranteed him a job. Until it didn’t.

Part of the Allen Wranglers experiment included healing that horrible reputation — as if such a thing were possible. A few weeks after the Sioux Falls game, Britney is excited about a community-building event. The team will be visiting a local children’s hospital. The event is scheduled to start at 1:30 on May 3. First, players will meet children and their families in an open outpatient area, then they’ll visit kids in private rooms. She’s hoping the press might even be there early.

Most of the players are at the hospital on time. The man people were most curious about is conspicuously absent. At 1:45, Britney checks the clock on her phone. “He may be running late,” she says. Nobody wants to say what everyone is thinking.

By 2:00, there’s still no sign of him. The other players are with children, posing for photos. “He’ll be here when they visit the private rooms,” Britney says. There’s hope and dread in her voice.

We already know how this goes. Like it was pre-written.

This isn’t what Britney signed up for. When Owens joined the Wranglers, he stressed that he wanted to do things like this. Nobody knows where he is.

“Honestly, we’re a little worried about him,” she says.

The kids aren’t upset. There are arts and crafts for the players and children to share. To a 6-year-old, especially a sick one, any pro athlete seems like an oversize comic-book hero. They’re astounded, elated. They don’t want their new friends to leave.

Britney isn’t happy, though. “T.O. will reschedule,” she says. “He’ll definitely come back and do a private thing.”

During practice, most of the cars in the parking lot are older models, beaten up. They have missing paint and broken windows. Many of the players live in the same nearby apartment complex and they carpool. Inside the Blue Sky Sports Center, part of a chain of indoor soccer fields, arcade games are flashing and nacho cheese is warming. The Wranglers practice here twice a week, during the day, when the children usually occupying this field are still at school.

Three weeks have passed since the afternoon at the hospital, and things seem to be smoothed over. Head coach Quinn Cairo is praising his famous receiver. Seeing the way he prepares, seeing the way he practices and gets into shape, “it’s a great lesson for the other players,” he says. “He has a passion for winning,” he adds. And after a particularly difficult loss, he was the only one to send the coach a text the next morning. “He just wanted to see how I was doing,” Cairo says.

The team has been on a losing streak of late, and now they’re in jeopardy of missing the IFL playoffs. The upcoming games will be especially important. After an hour or so of practice, the team breaks into offense-versus-defense drills. Owens is going hard, cutting tight enough to trip up the man covering him. On one play, he runs a deeper route and the pass flies over his head, into the soccer goal.

Adapting to the indoor game has been harder than expected. He’s played the same game for two decades. There’s room to get separation from defenders, space to turn in midair. This game is different. It favors smaller players with quick footwork and the ability to slip through tight spaces.

But then there are flashes of the Terrell Owens everyone remembers. The offense switches formations and he runs an out route to the quarterback’s left. When the ball comes out, it looks like a sure interception — one that would get returned for a touchdown in a game. But suddenly, those giant hands and beastly arms come in and rip the ball from the air. It looks just like all those highlights over the years.

After practice, some of the players check out the snack bar. He’s the last one on the field. As he’s walking off, he’s asked about this year — the public financial problems, the Dr. Phil episode, his time in the IFL — what has this year been like for him?

That’s when he starts talking.

“A lot of people are expecting me to have a breakdown, but you know, I don’t look at it that way,” he says. “Instead of me having a breakdown, I’m focusing on me having a breakthrough.”

He stops for a moment to admire his clever phrasing, then continues.

“If I get back on the field, I think a lot of people’ll realize I’ve changed in a lot of ways,” he says. “It just doesn’t go by me saying it or you hearing it through a recorder or somebody reading it, you know, once it’s published or what have you. I think they’ll see.”

At this point, he says, he knows most people have made up their minds about him. He knows no matter what he does, to a lot people he’ll always be that T.O. He knows it’s not fair. He’s not complaining. It comes with the territory. But still. It’s like in a recent radio interview — they kept asking him about Tony Romo. That’s in the past, he said. But they persisted. He feels the same way he did a few years ago, but he doesn’t want to stir anything up, he said. But they continued. Finally he told them something to the effect of “That’s a guy I shed tears for. Ultimately, I’m not in Dallas anymore, and I know he had a hand in that. It’s one of those things that you kind of just have to bite your tongue and keep moving on.” But the next day, the headlines read: “Terrell Owens Unleashes on Tony Romo.”

It’s the same way with fans. He wants to prepare like he’s playing in the NFL, with total concentration. “It’s so different here,” he explains. “You got fans right above my head, wanting me to sign things, sign balls, you know, T-shirts, giving autographs in the course of a game. But you know, during a regular NFL game I wouldn’t do that. So I think sometimes they get a little irritated that I don’t respond, because I’m into the game.”

He says he was given the wrong time for the children’s hospital. He points out that even with his financial struggles, he participates in a lot of charity events.

Soon, the conversation turns dark. He’s talking about suicide — in general, but also with a hint of something personal. He’s explaining that he isn’t crazy.

“It’s life,” he says. “It is what it is. It’s inevitable. Just like death. Life and death. At some point we’re gonna leave this world. Do I know when? Absolutely not. It’s not nothing to make a headline about, but I’m sure somebody may read this and — again, instead of all the good stuff we talked about — they may read this and this will be the topic of conversation. This will be the headline. I don’t want that to be the headline. Everybody deals with things. A lot of people have to deal with the feeling that their worlds are caving in.”

These days, sleeping is difficult. As soon as there’s quiet, his thoughts race: all that he’s done, what he could have done differently, what he can do now to get back to the top. Some nights, it takes him hours to fall asleep.

His only moments of peace come on the football field. When he’s joking with teammates. When the ball is in the air, heading his way, and the world slows down and everything bad goes away. Really, that’s how it’s always been.

“Once you get in the moment, once you get between those lines,” he says, “everything goes out the window.”

By now, children have arrived for their afternoon soccer practice. As they pass, nobody seems to recognize him. Near the door he catches up with coach Cairo and asks if he needs help carrying the bags full of balls and cones.

Three days later, after a loss to the Wichita Wild, the team announces it’s waiving Terrell Owens. He finishes his Allen Wranglers career with 35 catches for 420 yards and 10 touchdowns in eight games. During his stretch, the team went 6-5, including the games he missed. After releasing him, the Wranglers win the next two games. With Owens gone, Ramonce Taylor gets more playing time and wins IFL Player of the Week twice in a row.

Looking back, Drew Pearson says the release was ultimately in the best interest of the team. “It was a great marketing idea to bring in a top NFL athlete,” he says. “We knew it was going to bring a lot of attention to the Allen Wranglers and the IFL. I’m sorry for the way it turned out. I really wish it would have had a better ending.”

A psychology student would probably call it “narcissism” — the thing that makes Terrell Owens what he is. In a relationship, you might call it “baggage.” Columnists call it “selfish.” Coaches call it “dangerous.” Kids playing in the street, though, would just say he’s being an asshole. He’s like the bully you knew in school, the one you see one day working some god-awful job somewhere. When you tell people you saw him, do you laugh? If you do, what does that make you? At least he has a job, right? At least he’s trying.

This asshole really may not deserve another chance. He may not be worth all the headlines. But it’s worth mentioning: There are worse things than being an asshole. He didn’t kill anyone — and there are players in the league who have. There are players who’ve beaten their wives and girlfriends, who’ve raped, who’ve robbed. You can’t even name all the players who’ve spent time behind bars. There are players who intentionally target the heads of recently concussed opponents — even knowing the crippling long-term effects of their hits. Owens has never been accused of anything like that.

When they cut him, the Wranglers announced it was because he wasn’t going to play in the upcoming road games. They told people he missed an event at a children’s hospital. It didn’t matter that when he signed, he was told he didn’t have to travel to away games. It didn’t matter that he said he was given the wrong time for the event at the hospital, or that he was cut a month after it happened. People heard someone say T.O. was being difficult again. That’s all they needed. It made sense. Frankel told reporters that his star player “could no longer be tolerated by the Wrangler organization.”

The team announced that Owens was no longer part-owner. They took his car. They took his house. And they gave him $50 as severance (the league standard).

Of course he said he would sue. And he fired his longtime agent, Drew Rosenhaus, and then hired a new agent in Dallas. Because what’s he supposed to do? This is how the man earns money. He’s good on camera, but executives aren’t exactly begging him to endorse their products. He’s got a few ideas for businesses, but banks aren’t lining up to invest in him. The man wants to play football.

So he keeps himself in shape and waits for a phone call. He waits to see if anyone out there wants to throw him the ball. He waits for a chance. This is what hell is like for one of the greatest receivers to play the game — waiting alone for something that may never come.

Michael J. Mooney is a staff writer at D Magazine in Dallas. He also writes for GQ and Outside.