It was just two months ago that Terrell Owens was cut by the Allen Wranglers of the Indoor Football League, forfeiting his ownership share in the team, and offering only a meek statement in return. "I appreciate the opportunity that Mr. Frankel gave me and wish the Allen Wranglers all the best moving forward," he said through a publicist.
He was given $50 severance. He threatened to sue. Everyone laughed. It was rock bottom.
During the past year or so -- ever since his reputation and a torn ACL cost him a spot in the NFL -- T.O. has been less like an ex-football player than one of those sad, former celebrities that make you want to avert your eyes. Like the Charlie Sheen of football, maybe. He was crazy until people wouldn't tolerate crazy anymore, then he was just lonely, paranoid, and willing to talk to whoever would listen.
Now he's back. On Monday, he signed a one-year deal for $1 million with the Seahawks.
Back in February there was an extensive profile of T.O. at his lowest from GQ and Nancy Haas. In a sitdown with the man himself, we heard all about the terrible investments that peppered his past, family members who'd betrayed him, his checkered history with the media, and the loneliness of life after football, among other gut-wrenching reality checks.
There was also this, a six sentence summary of a nightmare:
Even in the NFL, where tales of brutal childhoods and absent fathers are as common as concussions, Terrell Owens's story stands out. Raised mostly by his joyless Baptist grandmother, who kept the kids inside her tiny, dark home virtually every moment they weren't in school and sometimes drank so much she passed out, he discovered the hard way at age 11 who his father was: after he developed a crush on the girl across the street. Only then was he told that she was his half-sister, that his father, married with four kids, had been living closer than a field's length away all those years. In his 2004 autobiography, Catch This!: Going Deep with the NFL's Sharpest Weapon, Owens wrote that growing up he never heard the words "I love you," not even from his grandmother, whose photo he carried on the road with him for most of the years he played. In an episode of The T.O. Show, he went back to his hometown of Alexander City, Alabama, for what was supposed to be a confrontation with his father about all the missed years, but instead it wound up a sad and awkward reminder of a life of unrequited longing. "I had two jobs, I was busy," was all his dad could muster.
"At some point, you have to grow up, man up," Owens qualified to GQ in February. "My childhood, it wasn't the Huxtables. So what?"
That's definitely true, but as the rest of us judge Owens from afar -- because that's just what we do -- that backstory reminds us there's more than meets the eye. This isn't Charlie Sheen, the kid who grew up rich and got famous as a teenager.
Terrell Owens grew up unpopular in school and underloved at home, and if his persona encompasses everything everyone loathes about athletes in 2012, it's worth mentioning that his success story is everything everyone wants to believe sports can do for young, hopeless athletes. T.O. could give a very similar speech to the Curtis Martin speech everyone loved at the Hall of Fame this past weekend; the only difference is Owens hasn't ever gotten out of his own way.
I once compared Allen Iverson to Tupac, because both were revolutionary and impossibly polarizing and became icons to an entire generation. T.O. arrived at the tail end of that wave, and if he seemed like a washed up celebrity at his bottom, at his peak, his schtick always felt something like Kanye West to me. Someone who would entertain everyone without ever endearing himself to anyone. A captivating horse's ass, maybe, with a knack for honesty at all the worst times.
"I am not a tactful person," Owens told GQ.
So think of it like this: If Kanye stopped being the best rapper in the world, can you imagine how quickly we'd all turn on him? This already sort happened in 2009, after he'd released a strange (but awesome, in hindsight) album and stormed the VMAs and did the whole Taylor Swift thing. No less than Barack Obama called him a jackass. Later on, Kanye looked back on the dark period and said, "Everything was taken from me. I lost the tour, lost my clothing line, left America altogether."
That's how Terrell Owens' life has seemed the past 18 months.
Oh, for crying out loud, I don't have to take this T.O. in Seattle thing seriously, right?— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) August 7, 2012
Who knows how the comeback will go. But for those dismissing it: We've only seen a handful of players in history that can match Owens' athleticism, so if there's anyone who can transcend aging for a little while, it's T.O. Nobody works harder and smarter than Terrell Owens.
Even in 2010 with a mediocre Bengals offense, T.O. put together 72 catches, 9 touchdowns, and 972 yards. Monday, he ran a sub-4.5 40, according to reports. If Tarvaris Jackson (edit: or Matt Flynn!) can get him the ball, the experiment in Seattle might turn out better than we think. Or, he could get cut in two weeks, and we'll be back to where we were a few months ago.
If comebacks from guys like Allen Iverson or Randy Moss are any indication, we probably won't see him come out and dominate like it's 2004 or put together an instant classic like Kanye.
But even if the success comes in smaller doses and just lets him reclaim a little dignity, here's to hoping he can make it work. Especially since most of the NFL world is rolling their eyes today like this is all some VH1 episode. "I'm human," T.O. said back in February. "I'm just like a guy who could be in your family and have some difficult things happen to him."
He's created a lot of those "difficult things" for himself, yeah, but playing scorekeeper at this point is a waste of time. Owens knows he screwed up. The writing's on the wall and he's not blind. And for the first time in his career, one of the greatest we've receivers ever seen is more endearing than entertaining. No, none of it means T.O. will be a crazy success story in Seattle. But God it'd be fun if it happened that way.