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So this is what carefree looks like: a flawless blue morning in late March, one in an endless string of perfect Boca Raton days. Palm trees shade the tanned retirees in this gated community outside David Terrell's townhouse, and the air is filled with the kind of bright-sky, doors-open optimism reserved for soon-to-be NFL first-rounders. A black 4.6 HSE Range Rover with three TVs, a satellite tracker, a DVD player and a 10-CD changer is parked in the driveway. On order: a stealth-black Mercedes CL600, a house for Mom and a maid -- all the trappings of a very sweet life.
Yet the normally easygoing Terrell is anything but relaxed. D-Day -- April 21 -- is only weeks away, and his agent, Eugene Parker, doesn't have good news. Michigan's star wideout has been falling through the NFL draft's top 10 like a jet with dead engines. Not long ago, he was projected to be the second pick, right behind Michael Vick. But X-rays revealing a hairline fracture in his right foot led to unfounded rumors that Terrell needed surgery, even though he had played through the injury since August. His March 16 workout in Ann Arbor only worsened the slide because he ran just one 40, on a track instead of the grass scouts prefer.
So now his head droops, his ear pressed to a Nokia cellie, as Parker tells him the Browns are backing off with the third pick. "I'm arrogant because I didn't run twice?" Terrell asks Parker in disbelief. "I told them I'm only running once if I run well the first time, and my coaches timed me at 4.29. How do they get 4.43 off that? ... I ain't no Michael Westbrook. I'll run again if they want me to ... What about Arizona?"
Terrell is used to doubters. He is fond of saying, "I have never been handed anything -- ever." He is not, however, accustomed to waiting idly at home, unable to silence the haters by dusting some fool cornerback for a TD. He is not used to having his thoughts assaulted by naysayers, a random maybe I'm not that good after all ambushing him as he forks over pocket cash for new Pumas.
And he's definitely not used to being called arrogant. He drops "shucks" way more than he drops passes. His guiding philosophy is "Don't trip, just do your thang." He once flagged a limo in Manhattan and told the driver he was Puffy. He's a campus favorite in Ann Arbor. "I defy anyone to spend time with him and not like him," says Mike Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press.
The constant barrage wears on Terrell. "It's hectic," he says. "Rams? Browns? They don't want me? They do want me? Am I top five? Am I even top 20? You start playing games in your mind." But he tries to hold onto what he knows: 67 catches, 1,130 yards, 14 TDs last season. "I will show them," he vows. "I'm going to be this draft's Randy Moss."
The obligations that come with his impending Mosshood -- tax shelters, life insurance, charitable foundations -- don't help clear his mind. Not with every money-hungry Stan with a plan coming at him. "From no problems to one million problems," Terrell says. Thank heaven for Cris Carter's FAST Program, which is why Terrell left Ann Arbor for Boca in January. Rigorous workouts are great for relieving stress, and Carter's punishing two-a-days-including four-second bursts at 20 mph on a treadmill elevated more than 40° -- are nearly vomit-inducing. "David likes the work," says Bill Welle, GM of FAST, who is training 28 other draft-bound ballers this year, not to mention Carter and Moss. "He's stronger than Moss is. But David's got a lot of speed development ahead of him. He'll get a lot faster. David's our best athlete this year."
Funny, isn't it, that Terrell had to come to Boca, land of the old folks, to learn how to run fast. But, says David, "I'm a low-profile guy. Real low." His townhouse has the bachelor-ready flat-screen TVs, but the rest of the decor doesn't quite fit. Paintings of ancient Rome in gold-gilded frames? Lamps made from faux Japanese vases? And what about the drab cherrywood furniture, including a working merry-go-round coffee table, complete with carved horses on poles? There's no arguing, it's quality furniture. Sensible, long-term ... and kind of incongruous. It doesn't say 22-year-old draft pick quite like his sleek Mercedes or his Rocawear leather jacket.
"That's me," Terrell says with a grin. "Long-term." This AARP lifestyle is comforting because it's quiet and unobtrusive, a welcome break from the in-your-face adults who watched over him in the projects of Richmond, Va. His mother, Barbara, has never tolerated any nonsense. His coach at Huguenot High enjoys being compared to Bobby Knight. ("Texas schools have corporal punishment?" quips Terrell. "Richmond has Coach [Richard] McFee.") And his uncle, Bruce Terrell, may live in Chicago, but he rang up $1,500 phone bills and countless frequent-flyer miles to keep his nephew in line. "David's used to dictatorships," says Bruce, 38. "Barbara knocked the blank out of him if he wasn't doing the right thing. Timeouts don't work in the projects."
Now, Terrell is trying to find his way without the heavy hand of authority. "This is a frustrating time for him, but we need to let him fly on his own," says Bruce. And yet ... it was Bruce who set aside the cherrywood furniture for David's approval at a going-out-of-business sale. And yet ... it was Bruce who dropped the hammer on agents Lon Babby and Jim Tanner in March when David grew disenchanted with them. And yet ... it was Bruce who called Parker, now David's guide through the draft drill. See, David needs all the support he can get; he's still trying on this sensible adult stuff.
To remember what it feels like to be young, he drives to South Beach. Intrigued by a Noreaga lyric, he seeks out Wet Willies, a frozen-drink bar near the water. The Thursday night vibe is touristy -- a week late for the spring break mobs, but plenty busy. Perched on an outdoor balcony, safely removed from sidewalk traffic, he seems overwhelmed. The lit storefronts, roving mariachi bands and fur-covered motorcycles spin his head around.
"I haven't been out in so long," David sighs, slurping a strawberry margarita. "My life is so boring right now." Yes, Miami is a blink away. But Terrell moved here to work. The stars he's been associating with since he arrived -- Carter, Paul Warfield, Deion Sanders -- are mentors, not playmates. The closest he comes to mixing it up with friends? Drew Henson, Larry Foote, Santana Moss and LaVar Arrington rattling his two-way. So he looks forward to being up in NYC for the draft.
In the meantime, David is more homebody than hellraiser. He hangs back uncomfortably against the railing. His publicist tells some revelers at a nearby table that David's headed for the NFL. A spring break straggler chats him up, probably so she can tell everyone at school she met someone almost famous. David smiles and charms for 10 minutes, fingering his pager the entire time. When she walks away, he silently sifts through a litany of scouts' complaints. "Don't say you know me after a couple questions," he says, oblivious to the noise below. He snaps the pager open and shut. Soon, he's back on his Nokia, reaching out to Eugene, to Santana, to Bruce. "Arrogant? That's not me. Ask anyone who knows me."
If the GMs, scouts and draftniks really wanted to know who David Terrell is, they'd find their answers in Richmond. Here, people know he's not some punk. Here, Terrell is happy and calm. With his workouts on hold, he seeks refuge at home.
"Some guys won't go back to the 'hood," he says. "I'm not afraid. I know these people." As he drives up to the houses of the Jackson Ward projects, he yells "Brick City!" and sings a lyric recorded by Chrymiez, a rap group made up of childhood friends. "Richmond is so real, so real, so realll," he warbles tunelessly. "So real" is mountains of cement and circles of boulders that pass for landscaping, basketball nets that are milk crates nailed to trees, the scraggly ballfield on Coutts Street where he used to spend whole days -- and where he saw a woman shot dead by her boyfriend, who then swallowed the gun himself.
"I got tested here," he says, showing scars on his arms and a divot on his head from where a kid tried to brain him with a rock. Three years away have changed him. In Ann Arbor, David met women with career plans. "There were a couple girls I was serious about," he says. "The kind I could see marrying. Just wasn't ready." Michigan also taught him bad judgments can be made anywhere. Terrell asked teammate James Whitley to help him check on an ex-girlfriend who phoned crying that her current boo was raising hell. "I never expected in a million years that James would bring a gun," says Terrell. Whitley was busted and pleaded guilty to one count of carrying a concealed weapon. Terrell wasn't, but he's much more wary now.
Still, Ann Arbor was mostly chill. "I didn't have to listen to rap all the time," he explains. "The madness was gone. I listen to a lot more R&B, some Jill Scott, Kenny G, even Dave Matthews now." No wonder old Brick City neighbors look at him like he's a blessed stranger. Fellas on the corner point and holler "Ha-hey!" at him. Teenage girls who just learned his name wave at the photographer in tow and squash themselves into the camera frame, pushing David into the background. Wherever he goes -- Terry's soul food joint, Harvey's Progressive Barbershop -- people ask him: "Which team?" He smiles, shrugs and jokes about something else. He's happy to be here, where people knew him before he was one of Mel Kiper Jr.'s wild cards, but he doesn't like being on display. "The neighborhood's the same, but everybody looks different," he says uneasily. He pauses, trying to explain. He can't. "They're just ... different."
Michigan may have changed him, but it didn't give him the words to articulate the uncomfortable distance between himself and the world he used to inhabit. His days are no longer calibrated on a life-or-death scale. Fact is, he doesn't have much in common with the Jackson Ward crew anymore. There's a cold, hard guilt in leaving behind the people who never left and never will. Terrell toys with the idea of skipping New York on draft day and hosting a party up in the old 'hood. An outdoor alcohol-free joint, with 10 grills, pickup games and a projection screen blaring ESPN's draft coverage.
Then again, what if someone starts trouble? He hates that he even has to think about this. Terrell knows his rich-guy worries stir up little sympathy.
But David doesn't want sympathy. He wants the Phat Farm pantsuit on the rack. He wants the salesgirl's name. And -- he's been mulling over this one since the draft nonsense started -- he wants a tattoo for his left forearm: "That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger." Ask him 10 times if this draft dance is exhausting, expect 10 different answers. It's not up to me. Yeah, it's stressful. No, this ain't nothing.
But it ain't nothing. And that tattoo is his way of acknowledging that. It's tough to leave the college cocoon and dive into the swirl of adulthood. He'll have to relocate yet again once April 21 reveals his fate. He'll have 11 hours of coursework to complete between NFL seasons. He'll have to learn to negotiate friendships across state lines and income levels. And with any luck, he won't need a smack upside the head to remind him of what Mom and Uncle Bruce taught him.
For now, he's still young and resilient. In the days before the draft, Kiper has him climbing from seventh (Seattle) to third (Cleveland). Buying new clothes at the mall is more fun than packing a suitcase. And smaller, impulsive decisions break up all that serious stuff: Does this shirt match? Car wash today? Kings of Comedy for the drive home? Not everything has to be so damn monumental. Hell, he's still trying to figure out his dishwasher.
"Life is tough," he says. "People doubt. But I have been waiting too long for football. It's going to get better. And I'm only going up."
Anne Marie Cruz is a senior reporter for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. This article appears in the April 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.