Terrell Owens doesn't want to bowl alone.
On a weekday night just before Thanksgiving, he's seated at a banquet-sized dining table in his three-bedroom Los Angeles condo, Real Wives of Whatever blaring on the flat-screen in the living room a few feet away. He looks at his phone, hoping for a text from the pals he's been trying to hook up with for weeks. He wants to meet at the lanes nearby for a few frames and some laughs, but it's looking bad again tonight. "People get busy, you know," he says. His lean legs twitch; the famously cut six-foot-three frame, still impossibly taut at almost 38, bends slightly back in the chair like a loaded catapult. He's wearing a hoodie and basketball shorts, and his earlobes glisten with the dime-sized diamond discs he's worn for years.
Bowling is his escape, one he wishes had been there for him on those sweaty teenage nights in the Alabama town where he grew up, skinny and unpopular, so dark-skinned that the other black kids razzed him nonstop, and later, to take the edge off marathon weight-lifting sessions at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He learned to bowl for a charity event early in his stint with the 49ers, and he hit the lanes whenever he could during the fifteen seasons he spent in the NFL, racking up stats that make him one of the greatest wide receivers in league history—second only to Jerry Rice in career receiving yards—and a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer. Bowling is chill, especially for a guy like him who never did like the clubs, never drank much or bothered with drugs. And a massive chill is what Owens—idle, adrift, desperate for cash, fending off rumors about his mental health—needs right now. Bad.
Since last spring, when the Cincinnati Bengals declined to renew his one-year, $2 million contract, Owens has been a man without a team, making him arguably football's most talented unemployed player. Plenty of teams could use a receiver of Owens's caliber, there's no question about that, but no one has made even a lowball offer. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, has tried to drum up interest by hinting that some unnamed club is sniffing around, but nothing has materialized.
Which leaves T.O. a caged cat for the first time in his career, pacing the 1,800-square-foot apartment he paid $499,000 for in October 2010, circling the maroon and silver velvet chairs that a decorator helped him choose, stepping past the pile of dirty laundry in the long hall, picking at a pan of brown rice on the stove. He plays pickup basketball when he can—the game was his first love—and softball in a rec league run by Jamie Foxx, but that's not enough to keep his mind off things. Praying helps; he's taken to attending a local Presbyterian church, a world away from his Southern Baptist roots. "It's preppy. At the part where we say 'Amen,' they say 'Indeed.' "
Still, the season ticks by—Sunday, Monday, Sunday, Monday—every week a blur, all the way through December and into the playoffs, and the disbelief mounts.
They know they need me. Why don't they pick up the phone?
You could argue that he's old. You could argue that it's the knee. He tore his ACL after he was released by the Bengals and kept the injury a secret until he had surgery in June. But he's not buying it. He suspects, no, he knows that's not what is making owners and coaches wary. After all, his history as a miracle healer—that's "good" T.O., the bionic superstar who broke his leg yet started in Super Bowl XXXIX for Philadelphia less than two months later—is legend. He's been rehabbing like a mother, as he always does, three hours a day, starting at 6 a.m. And didn't he and Rosenhaus stage a workout weeks ago on the Calabasas High School field that was televised on ESPN, to prove to the world he was 100 percent? That not a single team scout came to check him out seemed to suggest that it isn't his knee, or at least not just that. Hell, if there were any doubts about his health, why wouldn't they invite him in on a Tuesday for a private workout, like they do with other free agents, just to keep their options open as injuries pile up?
It's his mouth, that unhinged gusher of an orifice with its gleaming slice of teeth. Or at least memories of the chemistry-killing vitriol that spewed from that mouth during his time with San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas. And how he punctuated the raw stream of consciousness with a magic bag of clever if ultimately self-destructive antics once the play ended: the spike on the "sacred" Dallas star logo in 2000, the Sharpie pulled from his sock to sign a ball after a 2002 touchdown against the Seahawks, the 2006 Thanksgiving Day TD after which he blithely deposited the ball into a huge Salvation Army kettle. "In terms of what I said, well, my grandma brought me up to be honest," he says, fidgeting with a set of Buckyballs, those tiny stubborn magnets that won't let go. "And in terms of what I did, well, I will tell you this, and you will never be able to convince me otherwise, if another player who had performed as well as I have on the field had done those same things, they would shake their little heads and say, 'You gotta admire his enthusiasm,' or, 'Just look at how much he loves the game!' He'd be a hero."
Owens may have had a mediocre 2009–2010, his one year with Buffalo, but you can't say he didn't bring it last season in Cincinnati: seventy-two catches and nine TDs for nearly a thousand yards (easily besting his pal, ten-year Bengals vet Chad Ochocinco). And in both cities, he achieved something more: a modicum of restraint. There was nary an end-zone shimmy or a tactless remark (at least about his current teammates or coaches) to reporters. But it turns out to be hard to live down the reputation as team poison, to convince owners that he's not a hand grenade without a pin, a petulant attention grabber with unresolved childhood trauma, a man in serious need of mood stabilizers.
"It's not his knee that's the problem; it's his attitude," says an executive at one of the better teams, who didn't want to be named. The ratio that once made it worth it for owners to sign him—two parts genius to two parts trouble—has shifted now that he is not quite as fast, his body not as reliable. "He may have been less openly divisive with the Bengals," the exec continues, "but you can't live down the destruction of all those years. With T.O., no matter how brilliant he can be on the field, the dark side is always lurking. You don't know which T.O. you're going to get, and no one is comfortable risking that."
To Owens, this reputation as human nitroglycerin is a matter of perception—a perception twisted by reporters. He has written a pair of autobiographies, and his most recent attempt to show the public who he really is was his reality program, The T.O. Show, which ran on VH1 from July 2009 until this past November. A "follow" show that aimed to track his movements during three off-seasons, it was packaged for the network by Monique Jackson and Kita Williams, two sassy women who for years had been his closest female friends and appeared on the show as his "publicists and business partners." He cooperated, he says, "to expose a new audience, a more female audience, to me as a human being beyond the macho sports personality." The show was, of course, massaged to make the messy narrative of his life more cogent, but co-producer Jesse Ignjatovic, a reality-show veteran, said he had never worked with a celebrity so willing to let down his guard. "I can't imagine another NFL player who would let us film while he told his mother, who relied on him, that he was going broke, someone who wouldn't hold back tears while he stood there in her kitchen."
But the media roundly scoffed at the idea of a "new" T.O., and Owens responded as he always has: defensively. "They, you, need a bad guy," he fumes, refilling his tall glass of springwater as the hostility in the room grows thick. Around each wrist are two-inch-wide rubber bracelets embossed with words in black and white: LOVE ME HATE ME. "I think people change, but the media, they never allowed me to change. They never allowed me to be a better person."