I believe Terrell Owens. No matter how noisy this all gets. No matter how loud the voices of publicists and agents and friends and coaches and psychiatric experts and police officers rise in unison into a tower of babble. No matter how many people come to this conversation with their own baggage and their own version of the truth, which isn't the truth at all. And no matter how contradictory and complicated even the voice of T.O. can be much of the time. I believe Terrell Owens.
I've seen too many things a lot less complicated than this get confused and clouded and misdiagnosed when it comes to the very famous Terrell Owens and the spinning swirl that perpetually surrounds him. So on the subject of whether he really tried to kill himself -- Owens adamantly denies it -- I'm siding with the only guy who was inside his head at the time, and I'm doing so even if that head was clouded at the time by too much pain medication.
Maybe that makes me very naive. Or maybe it makes me fair. Maybe it makes me a stupid player apologist. Or maybe it makes me nonjudgmental about the way I cover sports. Either way, we're all a little clouded when it comes to T.O. and his behavior, so I guess it just took too many pills to make him more like the rest of us.
My first reaction to news of a suicide attempt? I didn't believe it. I'm not talking about disbelief or shock. I literally didn't believe it. I believed it was the pills talking. I believe there was some sort of adverse reaction to the medication that made Owens loopy. I've seen people very close to me become something else, something unrecognizable, when chemically altered by the wrong medicine. Owens is many things -- complicated, defiant, stubborn, moody -- but he is not a liar. If he tried to kill himself, I believe he'd tell you. He doesn't do spin control. Doesn't even know how, I believe. He'd avoid an awful lot of his messes if he did.
For all his muscled and psychological armor, he is oddly open about his shortcomings and scars. He admits to being sensitive and wanting to be liked. He admits he has so much trouble showing affection that he just recently got comfortable with telling his mother he loves her. And he cries when talking about his grandmother, whom he appreciates even though he was shackled to his front yard as a child and only escaped when she passed out from the drinking.
He doesn't much care how things look, or dressing up and camouflaging his weaknesses. It isn't right that Steve Mariucci once flew to Atlanta to talk to him and extended a hand as an olive branch, and Owens merely stared at that hand as if it were covered in leprosy. But Owens tells that story, not proudly, about how stubborn and proud he can be even though he knows those who don't like him will take it as affirmation that he is a one-dimensional stick-figure cartoon character, and that the one-dimensional stick-figure cartoon character is a complete and total jerk and nothing else.
You saw how convoluted and messy and loud things got when it was just his hamstring. So now we're going to try to climb inside his brain, an organ that's vastly more difficult to understand? We've seen in a very public way how alcohol can alter Mel Gibson, so it is possible that Owens had no idea where he was or what he was saying when he allegedly told a paramedic he was trying to harm himself. But everything that has happened after that is just more proof of how polarizing he can be, of how he makes us take sides. You can believe him and leave it at that. Or you can call him a liar because that reaffirms your belief of who you already think him to be.
We do this all the time in sports. We grab the stuff that supports our likes and dislikes. If you like Brett Favre and think him a living legend, you ignore his selfishness and his former painkiller addiction and his refusal to tutor Aaron Rodgers and his lack of support for holdout Javon Walker. If you dislike Randy Moss, you hold up his crass mock mooning of the Green Bay crowd as an indictment of everything he is even though it offers no more a complete picture of Moss than another little thing he does in the end zone, when he gives a touchdown football to a kid in a wheelchair.
Facts? There are very few of those. So we'll waddle into the unknown and pick and choose whatever supports our own baggage. It was a sports figure who taught us how two groups of people could see the same set of facts differently. His name was O.J. Simpson.
Like him or hate him, Owens has always given you his truth. It may be a narcissistic, one-sided, persecuted version of the truth, but it is honestly the way he sees things, like it or not. One of his biggest public relations problems is that he is relentlessly honest and sometimes seems completely unfamiliar with the concept of tact. Graceful on the field, clumsy off it. In this case, it sounds like T.O.'s version of the truth was clouded by a mixture of medications. But who in the world is more qualified to tell you whether he was thinking about killing himself than him?
T.O. and I are in our second year doing a weekly radio show together, but I'm not going to pretend to know him. You can't put someone's life together even with the entire scrapbook in your hands, so I'm not going to try when armed with just a couple of snapshots. I'm not an authority on the guy. I don't know him socially. But I will tell you this: The past two weeks, he sounded happier than I've ever heard him.
Last year, I felt like I was interviewing him by prying a crowbar into the side of his mouth. He was clearly unhappy in a way that was overt in Philadelphia, and he didn't hide it, and that made our interviews like head-butting sometimes. He laughed very infrequently. An example: After his first touchdown catch following an offseason of turmoil, I told him I was very disappointed that he didn't give us one of his patented celebrations. I was joking, being sarcastic. His response was defensive, persecuted -- as it often is. He thought I really was disappointed in him and went off on one of his rants -- not entirely unjustified -- about how the media sees only the bad in everything he does.
On Friday, though, he couldn't have been more affable. Playing. Joking. Making fun of himself. Talking for a full five minutes about how he is looking forward to buying a terribly unmasculine 4-pound dog because he doesn't have much use for the more aggressive pets (a pit bull and a mastiff) of Steelers linebacker Joey Porter that recently killed a miniature horse. He was funny, light, free. This is only a snapshot, a grain of sand at the beach, but he certainly didn't sound much like someone thinking of killing himself.
You are welcome to either snapshot.
The one of him laughing on the radio.
Or the one of him being rushed to the hospital.
But neither one of them really tells you who he is.
Dan Le Batard is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.