Through Terrell Owens' participation in, and subsequent dust-up with, the Indoor Football League, one fact was lost along the way: Owens was not the IFL's leading receiver through the 2012 season; actually, he wasn't even close. The man who paced the IFL in every meaningful receiving category, Jasonus Tillery of the Wyoming Cavalry, has a story as interesting as anything Owens has ever managed ... or imagined.
Born in Virginia, Tillery wasn't really "raised," per se -- he told me that his mother struggled with a crack addiction, and his father was never around. Tillery got into trouble through his high school and college years, somehow managed to get a psychology degree after attending four different universities, and veered into a sharp decline after college that had him serving a 28-month prison sentence soon after he tried out for the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins.
Tillery has found a measure of redemption with the IFL, and that's why he's a bit peeved with Owens, who saw the "lesser league" as nothing but an embarrassing stepping stone.
"Actually, he's my favorite receiver, but I was kind of mad about some of that," Tillery recently told Yahoo! Sports. "[Refusing to attend the charity function] at the hospital with the little kids -- that made me mad a little bit. As far as not wanting to go on the road -- that didn't bother me as much, because it wasn't part of his contract. He had played several home games, and if he travels on the road with them, they're supposed to pay him. The only thing that bothered me was that he didn't show up at the hospital."
Based on his own analysis, and the takes of others in the league, it was pretty clear that Owens wasn't all in. "You could tell that he was just going through the motions," Tillery said. "He was only in it for the money, which I didn't like. I play football because I love playing football. The money is cool, but if you're not going to put your all into what you do, don't even do it."
Of course, Tillery brings a different level of appreciation to playing football at any level -- after serving 28 months in a Maryland prison for credit card fraud, Tillery was released in 2009 and found a way back into football through Cavalry head coach Dan Maciejczak.
"Jasonus kind of tracked me down and said he wanted to come out here and play," Maciejczak told the Wyoming Tribune in 2010. "He's a real quiet guy that kind of keeps to himself, and I think he does that because it helps him stay out of trouble."
Two years later, Tillery is quite a bit more open about what happened. "My charges -- actually, I was sentenced for five years, down to three -- for credit card fraud," he told me. "I had a gun and some drugs, but they dismissed those charges because I pled guilty to the other charges. There was this girl I was dating in Baltimore, and she was pregnant, and at the time, I thought the baby was mine. I didn't want to be a deadbeat dad, so I took her charges on the credit cards. She had always gone to stores with those credit cards and I would go with her -- I was just really stupid. She got caught, and I took the charges, and that's what I ended up pleading guilty to.
"I was angry when I went to prison, but at the same time, I was doing stuff that I wasn't supposed to do. If I didn't get caught when I did, there's no telling -- I could be dead, or in jail for something else for even longer. I definitely appreciate my freedom more, and I learned a lot when I was locked up."
He had never talked to an adult figure of much substance or influence before, and Tillery found a new perspective in that unexpected place. "It changed me a lot -- I was headed nowhere fast," Tillery said of his prison experience. "I never had any role models; my mom had been on drugs since I was five or six years old, and I didn't have a dad [around]. So, anytime I did something, if I thought it was right even though I knew it was wrong, I would go with it.
"I never really cared about God before, but I had an agent named Thomas Hunter. He was a Christian, and very conservative. He had two kids, but they were both daughters, and he always wanted a son. He was always telling me that I should get right with God. And it's kind of sad -- a lot of people go to jail and then they find religion, but it helped me a lot. That's when I started reading and understanding. I would pray all the time. I asked God to change me, and to lead me where he wanted me to go. I was tired of doing what I wanted to do, because what I wanted to do ... I was always getting it wrong. I just prayed for direction. I also talked to older guys; guys who had been locked up 25 or 30 years, and they taught me a lot about life."
That downturn and ultimate redemption interrupted a somewhat promising football career, but Tillery was on the fringe after struggling to stay at any one school for too long. He was kicked out of high school for fighting, which killed most of his big-school interests, and he then bounced through four different schools -- Virginia Union, Catawba College, Liberty University ("That was Jerry Falwell's college -- I definitely couldn't make it there," he said with a laugh), and finally, Kean University, a D-III school in New Jersey. By the time he got to the NFL, things were a bit scattered.
"I had tried out for the Chiefs," Tillery recalled. "It was Herm Edwards' first year with them, and they brought me up for a private workout. I did good, and they brought me back for minicamp. I didn't get a lot of reps, but they wanted to send me to Canada and called the B.C. Lions and Hamilton (Ontario) Tiger-Cats. That's about when I started getting in trouble. I didn't have anywhere to stay, and no family, so I was just out doing stupid things I shouldn't have been doing. I went to the Dolphins after minicamp with the Chiefs, and that didn't work out to well. My first contract was in 2005 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and I never even made it up to Canada."
All these years later, is there any recurring interest from any higher leagues? "The Miami Dolphins called me and scheduled a workout last Wednesday, but then, I got a call back -- they found out that Chad Ochocinco was released by the Patriots and they wanted to pursue him instead. So, that was cancelled."
Beyond the NFL? CFL possibilities are still out there, and if those aren't forthcoming, Tillery is more interested in the IFL than the Arena League. "I mean, I could go and play Arena 1, but I don't like it anymore -- I like the old Arena football. The level of competition in Arena ball is too easy, and I think it's tougher in the IFL now. It's more of an outdoor-type league; you have the two safeties, a lot of zone coverage, and we run the ball more. I just want to get back outside -- I like playing there."
When asked what he would bring to an NFL team at this point, Tillery found it easy to give a scouting report. "I'm not that tall, but I'm a long strider and I can cover a lot of ground. I catch everything! Not a great route-runner, but I'm a good route-runner and I'm very athletic. I can run after the catch, I'm hard to bring down, and I'm not afraid to go over the middle. I can still run a 4.4, and I still have a 42-inch vertical. I'm a hard worker, I don't drink or do drugs, and you don't have to worry about any of the off-field stuff. I'm a hard worker, and I just want to show what I can do."
But if pro football at the highest level isn't in Tillery's future, he definitely sees the promise in helping kids who didn't get the help he missed when he was young. In addition to his current job at an urgent care clinic doing urine tests, Tillery has a burgeoning practice as a personal trainer, and he's found ways to weave that into a desire to give back.
"A lot of kids don't have any role models -- no father figures," he said. "If they had just somebody in their lives that just showed them that they cared, maybe they'll care more. If I could change one person's life, maybe that person would change somebody else's life, and it becomes a cycle. I go to schools in Wyoming now, and I talk to a lot of kids. I do personal training here, too, so some of the kids are in that. I tell my story, and some of the kids at the rec center I'm at get it. Some don't. I see what's going on with them ... anything I can do to help. That's what I'm doing so far, but I want to do more."
And with all the talk about life after football, and how difficult an adjustment it can be for players at the top, Tillery has found a path to the rest of his life through the dreams that were ultimately denied. More than most, he knows how quickly those dreams can go away.
"That's the thing ... a lot of guys don't realize that the athletic ability doesn't last forever. That's why education is important, and that's why I like putting money away for what they call 'a rainy day,' because you never know when they might happen."