NOT LONG AFTER the New England Patriots released Antonio Brown, the All-Pro receiver walked into the office of his South Florida home. He had invited his dad, Eddie, over to his house that fall day, and usually those invitations mean there is something serious to discuss.
The room is Brown's sanctuary. It overlooks the pool and has multiple televisions and a computer. But all that was background noise on that fall day.
Eddie says that Brown seemed to be realizing the truth about his precarious situation -- that he had created enough wreckage around him to ruin an ideal situation in Foxborough and that he was in danger of never playing again in the NFL as sexual misconduct allegations and other legal woes piled up around him.
His sudden unemployment devastated Brown. He had loved everything about New England: the culture, the professionalism, the chance to impact Tom Brady's final Super Bowl campaigns.
Eddie is used to Antonio reacting to tribulations with bullheadedness and a steadfast refusal to change -- the son inherited his stubbornness from his father, after all.
But this time, Brown seemed eager to regain what he had lost. He sat down with his father and delivered these words: Maybe I need to change what I'm doing. Brown informed his dad that he was undergoing therapy, which a source has confirmed to ESPN. Neither Eddie nor the source could confirm what kind of therapy, the frequency of his treatment or much else -- but Brown himself referenced his therapist on Twitter in October.
"He understands something may be going on, and he's going to see about it," Eddie, a former Arena Football League star, told ESPN in the first of a series of interviews, this one in October. "If there is or isn't, he'll find out. But he's not sitting around doing nothing. ... That come-to-Jesus moment came home."
There's a complex duality to Antonio Brown, as the world has come to see in the past two years in a relentless string of headlines. Teammates and family members say he can be compassionate, kind, understanding and beloved in a locker room. But he's also seen as erratic, paranoid and prone to mood swings, which this fall was manifested in real time on social media: in one day, a tirade declaring ''f--- the NFL'' before sharing that he was "determined to return"; a few weeks later, a reference to Patriots owner Robert Kraft's ongoing court case and then a public apology to Kraft and the organization.
But his social media presence is only a small aspect of the troubles he has brought on himself. Brown, 31, faces allegations of sexual assault and rape from his former personal trainer Britney Taylor, whose civil lawsuit sparked the NFL investigation that is currently his biggest hurdle to clear before he can return.
Now his family and friends say he's working on himself, but it's hard to tell whether Brown is making real, concerted changes to turn his life around. Therapy or not, Brown has continued to pile up tweets that don't help his case for employment. However, he did work out for the New Orleans Saints on Friday morning, a source told ESPN's Adam Schefter. In his rare public comments, all on social media, Brown has bounced from being apologetic to antagonistic, sometimes in the same day.
How did the best receiver of the past decade end up out of football, in danger of forfeiting $40 million in guaranteed money and perhaps having tainted his legacy forever? Talks with more than 20 people -- including Brown's family, coaches, friends, teammates and former associates -- tell the story of how Brown got here, what might have sparked the spiral and where he goes next. Repeated efforts to reach Brown through his agent and family members were unsuccessful.
The general consensus? That Antonio Brown's future in the NFL has never been less clear.
BROWN GREW UP in Miami Gardens, Florida, and later spent time in Liberty City, a notoriously crime-ridden section of Miami. His upbringing was difficult. Eddie was off playing football when his kids were young, and Brown's conflicts with his stepdad, Larry Moss, were frequent. Brown and his brothers, Desmond and Eddie, would often try to intervene in arguments between their mom, Adrianne Moss, and Larry -- arguments Larry attributes to trying to parent Antonio.
Desmond says the confrontations created incredible stress in the household. But he recalls fondly some of the quiet moments when that stress pushed the boys closer together.
They'd go into their bedroom, decorated with posters of Deion Sanders and Emmitt Smith, crawl into their twin beds and talk about everything. Desmond, two years younger, would ask his big brother about girls and sports and school, and Antonio was quick to advise.
When they shut their eyes, Desmond knew he probably would wake up with Antonio sleeping in his bed, side by side, toes to head.
"What happened, bro?" Desmond would ask on those mornings.
"I saw ghosts," Antonio commonly replied.
"He had bad dreams pretty often," Desmond says now. "It's like he sensed stuff."
By high school, his little brother's bed wasn't always enough to feel safe. Brown left the home multiple times during his high school years, which Desmond attributes to his feeling slighted by his stepfather and mother. He temporarily lived with an uncle, and he bounced around between the homes of various friends from the football team late in his Miami Norland High School career.
"On the field, he was awesome," his high school coach Nigel Dunn says. "You didn't have to worry about him missing anything, always around football, just a hardworking kid."
But once he left the practice field, it was rarely that simple -- he had "almost like a double personality," as Dunn describes it.
"My biggest thing was the fear [for] him outside of football," Dunn says. "When he was not on the field, he could go either way. ... Off the field, he could be a distraction."
Larry Moss, Brown's stepfather, says Brown started staying out late and sneaking off with cars around the age of 14, with a "no respect" attitude that contributed to his leaving the Miami Gardens home. As Larry remembers it, he and Brown's mother even lived in separate homes at times because of friction between him and Brown.
By his senior year, Brown's grades had slipped "tremendously," Dunn says, and that, combined with the fact that he was only 5-foot-10, kept schools away. "Being that size, even though he had great film, no one wanted to take a chance."
But Brown kept pushing -- past a one-year experiment at a preparatory school, a failed chance to play for Florida International due to what a coach called an on-campus incident, and all the way to Central Michigan, where he became an NFL prospect after arriving his freshman year as a walk-on. With nothing guaranteed, in a place far from home, Brown was in full survival mode early in his career, which his former coaches say is exactly what Brown responds to best.
"I'd gotten a fairly clear idea that he had a one-way bus ticket and about three weeks to earn a scholarship or he was going to be s--- out of luck," says Mark Elder, Brown's punt return coach at CMU. "This was, 'Hey, I've got to get a scholarship or I'm going to be back on the streets in Miami.'"
Brown wowed from the beginning, taking a hitch 80 yards or running post-practice sprints in the snow. Teammates once asked head coach Butch Jones if he had seen Brown's apartment, where he had duct-taped a makeshift speed ladder on his stairs for before-bed footwork sessions.
But there was another side to Brown's intensity. Defensive line coach Paul Volero recalls Brown tearing up CMU assistant Zach Azzanni's office one day but doesn't remember exactly what set Brown off. "[He had] issues with emotions -- high one day and very low the other," says Volero, who recruited Brown. "A day where he had no confidence, didn't feel good about himself, to other days where he was as happy-go-lucky as anyone could be.
"We had to recognize who that was coming through that door that morning and deal with him accordingly."
Volero was born and raised in Miami and spent a decade coaching there. He says that background was crucial in dealing with Brown, who saw the Miami connection "from a point of endearment and respect," someone who understands the struggle of low-income teens from South Florida. Volero sent late-night texts, made impromptu visits to the apartment -- whatever it took to make sure Brown felt loved and appreciated.
"Give him structure, he'll do great," Volero says. "But if he feels confronted, he'll react. ... He hasn't mastered that part of his life."
MIKE TOMLIN AND the Pittsburgh Steelers took a flier on the speedy CMU prospect in the sixth round of the 2010 draft, and Brown entered the league with the same edge he had as the scrappy walk-on trying to impress Central Michigan coaches. He was hell-bent on being better than all 22 receivers taken ahead of him, even choosing No. 84 for a specific reason. "Eight times four is 32," he said in an interview with NFL Network in 2015. "Thirty-two teams looked past me, even the Steelers. So every time I go out there, it's a little added motivation."
In his first three years in the league, as Brown broke out as a rising NFL superstar, the Steelers slowly but surely learned how to deal with the mercurial talent. As a rookie, he missed game time for being late to practices. Eventually, though, Tomlin made concessions. The Steelers coach knew the best way -- perhaps the only way -- to handle Brown, and it was straight from Volero's playbook: limit confrontations, get him to the field, let him be dominant.
In 2013, Brown's fourth year in the league, he recorded his first 100-catch season with 110. He would go on to become the first NFL receiver with at least 100 receptions in six straight years. During that time, most of the team's leaders could accept that the rules got bent for Brown, largely because of their relationships with the wide receiver. "AB is a brother to me," says center Maurkice Pouncey, one of a half-dozen former teammates to express such sentiments.
But eventually, his off-field antics started to wear thin. His constant tardiness kept the Steelers waiting in team meetings or on the tarmac on the way to road games. According to two former teammates, Tomlin eventually went so far as to address the special rules for Brown during a team meeting, saying the Steelers would tolerate his behavior because of how hard he worked. If or when the production stopped, Tomlin said, they'd rethink the star treatment.
Even with the relaxed barricades around him, Brown often welcomed conflict, which many teammates noticed in his love-hate relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. If Brown had a problem, he wouldn't hold back in voicing his frustration, including once when Roethlisberger tried to enforce his no-music policy in the locker room. "F--- you, cracker," Brown responded, according to one Steeler. The two usually hashed things out, but Brown's in-your-face, confrontational style became exhausting to some players who just wanted to come to work without issue.
"With him, it's either hot or cold," says Josh Harris, a former Steelers teammate and friend of Brown's. "If he's in a good mood, he's in a great one, having a good time. Then you'll see him another day, you'll see his face and you don't really want to say a lot because you know something has happened."
For most of Brown's career, teammates and friends knew that at any point he could "flip a switch," says one ex-teammate -- in fact, some close to Brown believe that's what made him the player that he is.
"If he wasn't as crazy and sporadic as he really is, I'm not sure he'd be the same player," says one source. "That kind of made him who he was, wanting to prove everybody wrong. That brought the best and worst out of him."
But many point specifically to his massive contract extension in February 2017 -- four years, $68 million -- as a turning point. That's when, some friends and ex-teammates say, the superstar behavior became more frequent, the distractions unavoidable, the ability to hold time commitments more flimsy.
"All that fame and money can go to your head, I guess," says Desmond, who now has minimal contact with the brother who once helped pay for his tuition at the University of Pittsburgh and bought him his first Jeep Wrangler. "I don't know."
Others point to a perceived power struggle that led to the breakup of the Killer B's (Brown, Big Ben and Le'Veon Bell). One team source believes Brown's decision to skip multiple workdays during the final week of the 2018 season was to facilitate a trade or because he was genuinely unhappy with Tomlin prioritizing the quarterback above the game's best receiver. It didn't help that JuJu Smith-Schuster won team MVP -- an award voted on by players during the last week of the season -- over Brown.
"[Tomlin] cares enough about the guy to not want to see him fall down the slippery slope," says one source familiar with the Tomlin-Brown dynamic. "Sometimes he didn't know where the hell he was. But they had a lot of good years together."
Many ex-teammates haven't spoken to Brown in a while, and they are left to process the barrage of bizarre tweets and puzzling headlines from recent months.
Steelers cornerback Joe Haden knows Brown well after spending seven seasons covering him as a Cleveland Brown and two as a teammate in Pittsburgh. The two shared a corner of the Steelers' locker room, so Haden speaks with authority when he calls Brown a "good dude" who's "just a little different." (Asked how he's different, Haden responds, "I don't want to go there.")
"I just hope he's all right, man. Because this is a lot going on at one time," Haden says. "I know one thing -- he loves football and he loves to perform and play.
"I hope he can ... get his stuff together. Because I just worry about him sometimes."
BY THE END of 2018, Brown's issues in Pittsburgh had moved off the field. His refusal to pay for services had become legendary, with whispers of mounting bills with car dealerships, contractors, lawn services and more. Some of those stories share a similar theme: Brown entices prospective members of Team AB with big promises but grows hesitant to pay for weeks or months of work, while sometimes expecting contractors to cover their own travel.
As one source who knows him well says, Brown "thinks he is a business mogul" -- but really just expects everyone to serve him, with or without a paycheck. Another source estimates that Brown has employed at least 10 photographers, four chefs and 20 personal trainers over the years.
And by 2019, those whispers began to be reflected in court filings. Between multiple lawsuits and other miscellaneous bills he had to resolve -- such as with school district taxes and Bank of America -- the recent tally of what he could owe reached nearly $130,000.
"He thinks he's owed everything and he owes nothing," says Pittsburgh-based attorney Jack Goodrich, who is representing an orthopedic doctor and a personal assistant in lawsuits against Brown over unpaid money.
Robert Leo, Brown's personal assistant for years, charged more than $16,000 on a personal credit card to cover flights, airport parking and food for Brown, his suit states. Brown did pay Leo's work wages on time. Dr. Victor Prisk performed orthopedic work for Brown, but when he asked for payments, Goodrich says, Brown offered to buy him medical equipment or help him open a gym instead.
"He seems to have a pattern that he lures you in, he's friendly with people -- 'I'll be your buddy; hey, I'm AB, come with me and you'll be part of us,'" Goodrich says. "But when it's time to pay, he's got the gator arms."
Nicholas "Chef Niko" Hasapoglou spent nearly every day with Brown for a year between 2015 and 2016. As a personal assistant and chef, Hasapoglou got his apartment furnished by Brown and said he was paid a "fair" wage before being fired over a disagreement.
But Hasapoglou always sensed a paranoia that consumed Brown. "AB had a lot of people around him, and they all wanted something from him," he says. "AB was always aware of that. He was wary of a lot of the relationships around him."
By the time Brown left Pittsburgh in a March trade with the Oakland Raiders, his legal troubles had ballooned past financial disputes. Along with the additional sexual misconduct allegations and legal proceedings that Sports Illustrated documented this summer, background checks and police filings tracked by ESPN show a litany of other issues. Shameika Brailsford, who has a child with Brown, claimed in a 2017 civil suit that Brown cut child support payments and evicted her from a Pennsylvania property Brown owned. (Brown also went through the courts for child custody mediation with Chelsie Kyriss, the mother of three of his children, in 2016.)
Filings also show 20 trips to Brown's house by Northern (Pennsylvania) Regional Police between 2014 and '18. Several incidents were minor in nature, such as fire alarms going off, but others involved a series of random events, such as Brown trying to locate two of his cars. Brown also alleged theft of $50,000, jewelry, passports and a handgun by a former associate. There was a forgery case on a Bank of America account owned by Brown, and a contractor called police in an attempt to retrieve payment for installing Brown's pool fence.
Brown's father, like Hasapoglou, says he believes mounting pressures off the field have inundated his son.
"If everybody is coming at you with so many directions, requiring so much of you, there comes a point where you can't take a deep breath and you lash out," Eddie says. "You're overwhelmed and don't know how to respond. We've been talking about that since he's been home.
"It really hit a head with the situation in Pittsburgh. ... It all became overwhelming. Instead of reaching out for counseling or understanding of how to deal with it, he decided to handle [it] himself, and it didn't come out the right way."
Ryan Clark and Tim Hasselbeck discuss the behavior of Antonio Brown and if he'll ever play in the NFL again.
WITH DEBTS AND legal issues piling up, Brown's three-year, $54 million deal with the Raiders ($30 million of it guaranteed) could have eased at least the financial hole in which he found himself. But when Brown signed that deal in March, some Steelers privately debated how long Brown would last without the generous concessions Tomlin made for the receiver.
The consensus was that Brown wouldn't make it to Week 1 -- and that turned out to be right.
There were problems almost from the very beginning. Brown opened training camp on the non-football injury list after freezing his feet in a cryotherapy machine, failed to show up because he wasn't allowed to wear his Schutt Air Advantage helmet and had an open confrontation with GM Mike Mayock on the practice field.
By early September, after another round of controversies, Brown demanded his release as the team voided his guaranteed money for conduct detrimental to the team.
All this less than five months after he'd purchased a $3.2 million home in Alamo, California, outside Oakland, and had his items shipped cross-country.
"It's like he laid down roots for a situation he sabotaged," a source with knowledge of the situation says.
The very same day of his release, Brown agreed to sign with the Patriots and was on "cloud 50" to be headed to Foxborough, Eddie recalls. Brown brimmed with excitement any time he discussed the future there.
Three days later, Taylor filed the lawsuit alleging Brown had raped her and exposed himself to her. A week after that, a second woman came forward with misconduct allegations. The Patriots kept him on the roster in the days after the accusations. A few league executives believe the Patriots were simply waiting for the NFL to decide his status after the investigation.
But after SI published Brown's interrogative group text to the second accuser -- a thread in which he shared a photo of her kids and asked friends to "look into" her -- the Patriots cut bait. Team owner Robert Kraft is believed to be the one who made the call, according to a report from NBCSN Boston.
"I certainly don't want to speak for the team, but he wasn't released [from New England] because of his interaction with the team on a day-to-day basis," says Brown's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, who called Brown a "model citizen" in the New England locker room. When asked about Brown's erratic behavior in recent months, Brown's agent pointed straight to a civil case that he calls "incredibly stressful" for his client.
"For the overwhelming majority of his career, Antonio was a successful member of the Steelers organization and the NFL family," Rosenhaus says. "This year there were some external things that went on in his life that contributed to great pressure and stress. That certainly had an impact with his NFL career."
Brown couldn't discuss the case with the Raiders because of an ongoing civil suit, Rosenhaus says. But in fact, he came close to avoiding all the public scrutiny: Attorneys for Brown and Taylor spent much of the summer negotiating a settlement. ESPN's Jeff Darlington reported that the amount was $2 million, and it almost happened. "It was at the 1-yard line," a source says.
But Brown wouldn't sign off on the deal.
WHEN ASKED AT the NFL fall meetings in mid-October for an update on the Brown investigation, commissioner Roger Goodell stated the obvious.
"There's a lot of material to go through," Goodell said.
Now the NFL is sifting through details of the relationship between Brown and Taylor. There's history there -- almost a decade's worth, since the two met at a Central Michigan Bible study -- and the NFL is attempting to wade through it in a lengthy investigation that included an hourslong interview with Taylor in September and one with Brown in November.
Taylor, who is suing Brown in Broward County (Florida) for sexual assault, says he exposed himself to her and raped her at his South Florida home. Brown's countersuit claims Taylor has embarked on a "vicious campaign of deceit and lies." In that response, Brown claims his sexual relationship with Taylor was always consensual and that Brown is unable to discuss key details of the case with the NFL because of a confidentiality agreement.
Now Brown is playing the waiting game -- and his patience is waning, frequently and publicly: verbal spats with players, threatening reporters, throwing shade at Kraft (two days after posting pictures of Brady and Bill Belichick, which might signal who Brown thought responsible for his release) and apologizing later. Twice he's said he'd never play in the NFL again, only to backtrack hours or days later.
Another social media storm in mid-December accused the NFL of holding players "out against there [sic] will, no criminal charges pending nothing." His comments posited that there was a racial component to the NFL's actions and questioned the NFL Players Association's involvement in his case.
Whatever truths, falsities or accusations lie within Brown's comments, his frustrations come through loud and clear: The NFL has full control over the timeline. One source said Brown felt the league slow-played the investigation by waiting nearly two months to schedule his interview. But a separate source says the NFL prefers to conduct thorough probes before talking to the player, and Brown had to submit paperwork and evidence pertaining to the case, which took time.
At least three teams have expressed legitimate interest in Brown once there's clarity regarding the investigation, Rosenhaus says. But since the NFL can place him on the commissioner's exempt list the moment he signs somewhere, prospective teams are waiting this out just like he is.
Meanwhile, Brown has spent his lost season working on his own life. In November, Eddie described Brown's routine: He takes his kids to school in the morning, returns home for a bit, then hits the Police Athletic League fields to train with Glenn Holt, a former NFL receiver and assistant coach at nearby St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Training is his refuge, many close to him like to say. The grass, the stretching, the routes on air -- all of it is a convenient escape. New hobbies are useless. Football is it, so much so that Brown has attended many PAL games on Saturdays to glad-hand and support the local youth players.
"He's starting to put some things together, see it from a different perspective that I think is very positive," Eddie says. "All he wants is another chance to write his story and play the game he loves."
But that perspective could also be preparing him for a life without football earlier than anyone expected. There are few signs that the NFL's investigation will be wrapping up quickly, and a suspension that lasts well into 2020 seems very possible. And that's not even accounting for the half-dozen legal consequences from the ongoing suits by Taylor and others.
By then, Brown will be a 32-year-old receiver with 12 months on the bench. Less than 10 months after he became the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL, some around the league believe Brown might not play an NFL down again.
ESPN reporter Tom VanHaaren contributed to this story.