By the time Patriots coach Bill Parcells had made the fifth wisecrack of his post-game press conference and before team owner Bob Kraft had bear-hugged his ninth passerby, rookie wide receiver Terry Glenn had already disappeared into the cold, black New England night. Just minutes after the Patriots had clinched a playoff berth with a 34-10 win over the hapless Jets, Glenn was walking out of the locker room, up a flight of stairs and through a side door of Foxboro Stadium, striding purposefully toward his car.
It's not that Glenn, the seventh pick in the 1996 draft, didn't have reason to stick around and celebrate. His seven catches gave him 74 this season, a record for rookie receivers. More important, the win moved New England, which had started with two losses, to 10-4 and into first place in the AFC East; with one more victory the Pats will host a playoff game for only the second time in franchise history.
It's just that life has taught the 22-year-old Glenn to be wary of success and just about everything else. Glenn was 13 when his mother, Denetta, was beaten to death in Columbus, Ohio. He did not know his father and so was left to bounce between aunts for nearly two years before a friend's family took him in. A late academic qualifier, he had to walk on at Ohio State, where he used his 4.29 speed and his huge hands to snatch up most of the Buckeyes' receiving records and a six-year, $12 million contract from New England. "[My mother's death] made me stronger than most people my age, but it made me different, too," says Glenn. "I know I can never be totally happy. In the back of my mind I keep waiting for something bad to happen. Every time something good has happened, something bad has happened."
A case in point: Shortly after reporting to New England, Glenn pulled his hamstring, missing most of training camp and the first week of the season. A frustrated Parcells, still stinging from the decision by Kraft and director of player personnel Bobby Grier to choose Glenn rather than a defensive player in the first round—a move that helps explain why the coach remains unsigned for 1997—used the injury as a way to question Glenn's manhood, referring to him as "she." "I've had some tough times this year, just like everybody else on this team," says Glenn. "But it's those tough times that are holding us together right now. We're young, but we've proven we'll fight to the end."
Young and talented, the Patriots definitely are. A Super Bowl contender? Not this year. Just five of New England's regulars are older than 27, and only four have started more than one game in the postseason. Against teams with winning records, the Patriots are just 3-3, including a 34-8 whitewashing by the Broncos in Week 12. "This is a team that if it doesn't play well, it can't beat anybody," said Parcells last Friday. "Three weeks ago we got knocked out in the first round [by Denver]. I've only had a few teams in my entire coaching career when I knew it would take a real good team to beat us, and we're not at that stage yet."
In fact, this is a squad that looks as if it was built from the same blueprint responsible for the AFC's 12-year Super Bowl losing streak. The Pats certainly have a high-flyin' offense with Glenn; Drew Bledsoe, 24, the youngest quarterback ever to throw for 14,000 yards; and running back Curtis Martin, 23, who, after carrying 21 times for 94 yards and a touchdown, became only the 15th player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. But they can't control the clock, and their defense ranks No. 23 in the league—two huge strikes against them in the playoffs. A third strike may have come early in the second half on Sunday, when 235-pound fullback Sam Gash, who leads the way for Martin, left the game with a severely sprained left knee that may keep him out of action for the rest of the year. Without Gash's power, the Patriots could not run against the Jets' 24th-ranked D.
Though Parcells did a slow burn as his offense struggled, the Pats were never in trouble. A 38-yard interception return for a TD by cornerback Ty Law with 2:24 to play in the third quarter made the score 27-10 and ultimately sparked the locker-room celebration that went on for nearly an hour after the game.
But Glenn decided to skip that revelry, perhaps afraid of jinxing both his and the team's finest hour in '96.