By Alex Tresniowski
Updated January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

PRACTICE IS OVER, THE SUPER Bowl is just days away, and the New England Patriots’ Terry Glenn is sitting in the living room of his Walpole, Mass., home, musing on where fate has brought him. “This little thing right here,” he says, tossing a ball in the air and catching it in his big, mitt-like hands. “This is my life right now. When I was growing up, the Super Bowl was everything.”

Should he be nervous? Maybe so. After all, Glenn is only 22, less than a year out of Ohio State University—the same rookie receiver who only two weeks into training camp last summer committed the unpardonable sin of pulling a hamstring, leading his impatient coach to later refer to him as “she.” But Glenn didn’t rattle then—he went on to catch 90 passes in his first season, a National Football League rookie record—and he isn’t rattled now. “Having a bad childhood made me strong,” says Glenn, still tossing that football. “It made me mentally tough.”

Growing up poor in Columbus, Ohio, Glenn, his younger half sister Dorothy and their mother, Donetta, survived on welfare (Glenn never met his father, who took off). “We had nothing,” says Glenn. “Nothing at all. There were times when we didn’t have electricity or gas.”

Then things got worse. When Glenn was only 13, Donetta was beaten to death by a man named Kenneth Adams, who left her body in an abandoned building. “He liked her, and she didn’t like him,” Glenn says. “I guess that’s why he did it.” (Adams is in prison serving 13 to 40 years.) Briefly, Glenn considered suicide. “At first, I didn’t want to go on,” he recalls. “I didn’t care about anything. But I had a little sister who was also affected. Who was going to take care of her?”

Dorothy eventually went to live with her natural father in Akron; Glenn was shuttled between relatives until, at age 15, he was taken in by Charles and Mary Henley, parents of a friend in Columbus. One of Glenn’s cousins would die of a gunshot, and other relatives would become victims of the streets; but with the support of the Henleys, appointed his legal guardians, Glenn found his calling. “Football saved my life,” he says. “I could be dead today. But instead of being on the street, I had football.”

Glenn starred at Brookhaven High School, then joined Ohio State as a walk-on. In his junior year he caught 64 passes and was awarded the Fred Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s best college receiver. Explosively quick at 5’11” and 185 lbs., he was drafted in the first round by the Patriots in 1996 and became a vital part of their offense. “He’s a game breaker,” Pats quarterback Drew Bledsoe told the Associated Press. “Without him, I don’t think we’d be where we are.”

Off the field, Glenn is learning another new role—as a parent. Last May, Glenn’s girlfriend, who works for a credit card company in Columbus (he declined to name her), gave birth to Terry Jr. “I’m going to enjoy this,” says Glenn. “I will cherish him having a father around.” For now, his new family visits him regularly in his three-bedroom home, not far from the Patriots’ Foxboro Stadium.

And yet something is missing. Surrounded by evidence of his success—his black Mercedes, a big-screen TV, video games galore—Glenn can’t help thinking about his mother. “None of this stuff means anything without her,” he says. “I would love for her to be here, to be proud of me.” Still very close to his sister, now 15 and a high school sophomore in Akron, Glenn remains deeply bitter toward the father who left him. “He’d better not ever call me,” he says. “Or even look at me. If he was around, this would never have happened.”

If Glenn is still haunted by the past, it is not obvious while he is on the job. There, he’s confident, unflappable, ready to do whatever it takes to win. Assigned the task of buying the team doughnuts before weekly Saturday meetings during the regular season, Glenn kept bringing them even into the play-offs. In fact, he plans to buy 10 dozen boxes before the team’s pre-Super Bowl meeting in New Orleans. One of the NFL’s premiere pass catchers picking up pastries? Why not? “I’ll get the doughnuts,” he says, laughing. “We’ve been winning when I get them.” Proving Glenn knows how to give as well as receive.