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He sits by himself in a corner of the deserted Redskins locker room while his teammates -- men he barely knows -- are off at lunch. He's parked at a borrowed desk, methodically going through a two-foot stack of autograph requests. He rips open the envelopes with his left hand, signs the cards or pictures with his right hand, drops them into another envelope, licks it, seals it, stacks it and starts all over again.

After four Super Bowls, 15 seasons and 941 catches in Buffalo, this is what the once-magical hands of Andre Reed have been reduced to. And each time a picture of Reed in a Bills uniform slides into his hand, it seems to make him a little sad.

"Nobody knows I'm here," Reed, 36, tells me quietly as he waves me over for a chat. I don't have the heart to ask: does he mean here, today, at this desk? Or is he referring to the NFL?

"Ya know, if I had a chance to do it all over again, I'd say no way, I'd change professions," Reed says. "I know that this is a business, we all do, but I guess you never realize what a cutthroat business it can be. There's no loyalty. None."

We love disposable things. We eat Pop Tarts for breakfast, we devour pop music and pop culture. We worship men who play children's games for a living. We worship them. We make them millionaires. We make them our role models.

Then we discard them.

And they land in a new city, with a different uniform, bitter and dejected, a shell of the player they once were. Well, there's bitter and then there's Andre Reed, who some might say is getting a bit of karmic payback in D.C.

"Bruce [Smith], Thurman [Thomas] and I were the backbone of that organization for a long, long time and they just wiped us out," he says. "In a couple of years it won't make a difference, but if I was eligible to be inducted [into the Hall of Fame] next year and I got in, it would be hard for me to go in as a Bill. I just have too much bitterness about the way they treated me the last couple of years."

Around this time every season, a handful of football players -- guys like Troy Aikman, Jerry Rice and Reed -- must decide whether to hang 'em up or gimp through another 16 games. I always root for them to walk away gracefully -- and stay retired. But it rarely happens. So we are annually subjected to the ugliest, saddest sight in sports: a one-time gilded warrior hanging around, cashing checks, running for the sidelines.

As Reed finishes up the autograph requests, we talk football for a bit. The Super Bowls. The losses. He daydreams occasionally that one day, as an old man, he'll walk to his mailbox and inside will be a Super Bowl ring.

"When I hang up my cleats I hope I hang 'em up with a ring on my finger," he says. "That's all I'm missing."

Reed also recalls getting hit so hard while going over the middle during a Monday night game in Cleveland that he went "Cukoo for Cocoa Puffs." I remember the game -- and the hit. Players gathered around Reed in a circle while he was out cold on the turf, staring down at him like they were at a wake. Somehow he shook off the hit, came back and caught a TD pass later in the game.

How I wish that was the way I'll remember Andre Reed.

David Fleming, a senior writer for The Magazine, shares his off-center perspective each Tuesday. E-mail

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