In 2006’s Rocky Balboa, the iconic boxer—depicted by a then-60-year-old Sylvester Stallone—tells his confidante Paulie that he’s decided to step back in the ring. “There’s still some stuff in the basement,” Rocky says, pointing to his chest. He has nothing left to prove to the world except that he still has something to offer.
Terrell Owens, the 44-year-old wide receiver who’s set to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next month, thinks he has some stuff in the basement too. To prove it, he’s entered a ten-day negotiating window with the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Eskimos.
Owens is an all-time great. He’s second among players in NFL history for career receiving yards, and he had five first-team All-Pro seasons with the 49ers, Eagles, and—for three strong seasons—Cowboys. He bounced around the league more than a player with his talent tends to, along the way earning a reputation as an emotional, self-centered guy. He coined the phrase “I love me some me” and, when he was still with the Cowboys in 2008, once tearfully defended Tony Romo against criticism.
In 2009, while playing for the Buffalo Bills, Owens became the oldest player to record a touchdown over 75 yards. But then, two years later, he tore his ACL. His NFL career effectively ended at that point, but Owens’s emotional investment in football wasn’t done. The receiver, who earned tens of millions of dollars during his NFL career, chose to keep playing: in 2011, he signed a contract for a mere six-figures and returned to North Texas, where he played for the Allen Wranglers of the Indoor Football League, appearing in eight games during the 2012 season. (He was eventually released by the team after failing to appear at a local children’s hospital with other members of the team; the Wranglers owner claimed that, despite posting ten touchdowns in eight games, fans felt Owens displayed a “lack of effort both on and off the field.”) He spent three weeks with the Seattle Seahawks in advance of the 2012 season, but was cut before training camp. He was 38 at the time.
In the six years since, Owens has made noise from time to time about wanting to play again. He told Sports Illustrated in 2015 that he often trains with current NFL stars during the off-season. Last year, he captained Team Owens (against fellow former NFL star Michael Vick’s Team Vick) in the inaugural game of the American Flag Football League. And now, after being snubbed by the Hall of Fame’s voters in his first two years of eligibility, he announced that he’s skipping his own induction.
Critics of Owens, who remain convinced he is a diva, see this as a reaction to the snubbing: USA Today’s The Big Lead sports blog declared that “Terrell Owens got his feelings hurt because he didn’t get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as quickly as he wanted, and has decided he won’t attend the ceremony intended to induct him, in order to show everybody just how upset they have made him.” But it’s possible that Owens’s reluctance to celebrate his induction to Canton stems from the fact that he’s clearly not ready to see his career relegated to history.
And that’s where his newly-hired agent comes in. According to The Athletic, agent Jason Staroszik—who specializes in CFL deals—helped Owens get on the Edmonton Eskimos’ ten-day negotiation list, and Owens officially started the clock on that last weekend. CFL rules would allow the Eskimos, whose roster is fairly stacked at receiver, to retain Owens’s rights for the next 365 days even if he declines a league-minimum offer. But in that scenario (which his agent tells ESPN he expects will come to pass), he’d be free to sign with any team in the league come next July.
Of course, that’ll require a professional football team—even one in Canada, which Staroszik says is Owens’s second choice behind the NFL—to want a 45-year-old wide receiver.
He’s still fast, for sure. In a video posted on Instagram last month, he ran the 40-yard-dash in under 4.45 seconds—twice—and looks to be in football shape. If he did return to professional football, he’d be unique among comeback players.
Former Cowboys great Deion Sanders retired in 2000 at age 33, then spent the next four years out of the league before returning, wearing number 37 to represent his age, with the Baltimore Ravens. Sanders played well as a nickelback for the team in two seasons, before returning once more to retirement. Longhorns legend Ricky Williams also returned to the NFL after retiring—but when he retired in 2004, following a suspension for a failed marijuana test, he was only 27. Williams returned to the league the following year, then bounced between the Miami Dolphins and the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. He finally retired for good at 34 after playing well in his final season for the Baltimore Ravens as a change-of-pace back; when he walked away from the game, he left a contract offer from the team on the table. Perhaps the closest analogy to Owens would be former journeyman quarterback Steve DeBerg, who retired in 1993 at the age of 39 before returning, in 1998, to serve as a backup for the Atlanta Falcons.
But playing quarterback at age 44—while rare—is a whole different animal than playing receiver. Quarterbacks who enjoy quality protection during their careers can take few high-impact hits, and rules about tackling quarterbacks make them less likely to suffer the sort of collisions that receivers, who play a much faster game, take on a weekly basis. There are a handful of quarterbacks who played even at Owens’s age—Warren Moon endured to suit up for the 2000 Kansas City Chiefs, and Vinny Testaverde played from 1987 to 2007—but the oldest receiver to ever play the game was Jerry Rice (the player who holds most of the records that Owens couldn’t quite break in his career), and he played his last downs at age 42. (Kickers, who take even fewer hits, can last forever—and Hall of Famer George Blanda, who started his NFL career as a quarterback in 1949 and played seven seasons with the Houston Oilers in the sixties, ended his career at age 48 after making the switch to kicker for the final decade of his career.) And crucially, journeyman players like DeBerg and Testaverde had reputations as locker room assets, unselfish players who help mentor younger teammates as they develop. Owens, to put it mildly, has a different reputation.
All of which indicates that, despite his obviously excellent conditioning, the odds of Owens succeeding in the NFL—or even in the CFL—are probably stacked against him. Receivers rarely get a chance to show what they can do on the other side of thirty, let alone forty. Receivers with Owens’s reputation for being a me-first player often find themselves fading out of the league early. The fact that Owens was still receiving NFL contract offers in 2012 was surprising—the idea that he might get one in 2018, 2019, or beyond seems almost impossible to imagine. It would be fun, of course—in the same way that it’s fun to watch Rocky go toe-to-toe with the much younger Mason “The Line” Dixon in Rocky Balboa. But no matter how badly Owens clearly wants to show that he’s still got some stuff in the basement, football doesn’t just require that you be good enough to play. It requires that someone want to sign you to their team, and NFL teams stopped being interested in doing that with Terrell Owens a decade ago.