If veteran free agent wide receiver Terrell Owens seems desperate, it's because he is. Is being desperate bad? No. I know because I've been there.
In 2006, after spending the entire 2005 season out of football, I was frustrated and sitting at home in San Diego without a job. I decided to be proactive and show up to the San Diego Chargers facilities unannounced to ask for a job. I knew the chance of getting past security to talk to a decision-maker was slim. I walked into the lobby early in the morning and asked to speak with coach Marty Schottenheimer. The front office manager, Georgette Rogers, said, "Coach hasn't arrived yet. Do you have an appointment?" I thought my shot at joining the team was over at that point, but as I was walking out, Schottenheimer was walking in. Perfect! Sweaty palms and all, I introduced myself and asked for a job. He told me that he would follow up with general manager A.J. Smith and the scouting department. A couple weeks later, I signed with the Chargers.
Aging athletes like Owens have such a small window where they can make an impact. Sitting at home and seeing older players on the field gives Owens hope. Every game that goes by is a painful reminder that the end is near. A year out of the game and you begin to realize that younger, cheaper players are drowning your chances of finding a roster spot.
During the regular season, free agents like Owens are anxiously watching every transaction and every game hoping that a suspension, injury or under-performing player will pop up and increase their chances of strapping it up again. As a free agent, you are pestering your agent everyday, believing he could do more for your career. But the reality is there are no super agents that can get you on a team. As a player, all you can rely on is the promise that you're on a team's "short list." Being on that list gives you a thin chance of getting a call from a team in need. And once a desperate free agent gets the call, it immediately motivates him to work harder and realize that the next opportunity is just around the corner.
On the professional level, the longer you play the harder it is to detach yourself from the realities associated with the game. The addiction to the adrenaline, status, income, camaraderie, benefits and perceived security keeps you wanting more. But once you're struggling to keep a job, it's easy to feel like you have nothing. Players in the locker room quickly disassociate with you. Your NFL money quickly turns into "regular" money. You can't get a normal job because you need flexibility in your schedule in case a team calls interested in your services.
Some notable injuries in the secondary this season -- Darrelle Revis, Brent Grimes and Troy Polamalu, to name a few -- have veteran free agent defensive back and special teams extraordinaire Dante Wesley hoping that opportunity knocks one more time. Wesley, who played nine years in the league and appeared in two Super Bowls, has been working out four hours a day since the 2010 season. Once a week, he simulates game tempo and shadows about 40-50 reps between special teams and defensive plays. Wesley told me, "Teams with new head coaches like the Miami Dolphins and Joe Philbin could use veteran leadership in the secondary. I know I can still play at a high level. I'm still running a 4.4 40-yard dash."
It takes incredible faith and discipline to put the remainder of your life on hold to force open the inevitable closing door. The drive that gave Owens and Wesley a long career is what makes them believe an NFL team will call with a roster spot. Until that door completely closes, they will continue to have hope.