Antonio Logan-El has never needed football, but football has always needed him. That is what he has always told himself, even after being chained to some of the worst of labels: The traitor who double-crossed Maryland. The kid who engineered one of the most bizarre commitment ceremonies of all time. One of the biggest recruiting busts in Penn State history.

He arrived an hour early at Rosedale Community Center on a Sunday earlier this spring, parked his green Chevy Tahoe and sauntered his 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame onto the field in Northeast. He wrapped flags around his hips and put on pink gloves. His family and friends set up lawn chairs on the sideline. They weren’t watching him play in the NFL like they always thought they would, but at least he was playing football on a Sunday, in the DC ELY Flag Football League. At least, for the first time since he was a teenager, Logan-El was happy playing football.

The scouts have moved on, and so have the recruiting analysts who in 2006 graded Logan-El — then a 6-foot-6, 320-pound offensive lineman at Forestville High — one of the country’s top players. The critics have long stopped caring, too, fading into the ether along with Logan-El’s once promising career.

If they were to judge him today, they might still marvel at the 26-year-old’s size and strength. And they might wonder what could have been had Logan-El opened up about his sexuality at the peak of his career because now he is at peace running around the field as an openly gay player.

“I’ve come to the place where I accept who I am. I accept the position that I am in,” Logan-El said. “And my teammates respect me. They love me just as if I was anybody else.”

Antonio Logan-El gives flowers to his mother, Nicole Logan-El, at a family cookout on Sunday, May 11. Once a heralded national recruit, Logan-El has found comfort working with at-risk youth and playing flag football in the District. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The teenagers who come through the Serenity House in Northeast don’t know about their mentor’s past. They are juveniles who are easing their way back into society after committing crimes — and they lean on Logan-El, a direct case manager who has doubled as a father figure from 3 p.m. to midnight every weekday for the past two years. He’s paid to talk to the kids about making choices, knowing they will never judge him for the one he made Jan. 24, 2006.

Signing day spectacle

Logan-El arrived at the ESPN Zone in Baltimore that day ready to announce his college decision a full week before National Signing Day, flanked by his mother, Nicole, and grandfather, George, the two people who raised him in Forestville. He had committed to Maryland following a dominant summer camp performance his sophomore season at Forestville, tickled by the fact his hometown school was the first to offer him a scholarship.

But he wasn’t Maryland’s best kept secret for long. Logan-El soon had more than 40 major schools drooling over his size and reputed athleticism, including Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Penn State, which joined Maryland on his short list. Logan-El loved every minute of the chase. He was “intoxicated” by it, Charles Harley, his coach at Forestville, said. Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson chaperoned his visit to Norman, and his mom cooked a homemade meal for Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, who posed for a picture with Logan-El in his living room shortly after.

He had collected hats on all of his visits, and he carried them in a bag as he entered the ESPN Zone. An ESPN camera was there. Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen was recruiting in Pennsylvania that night, but his wife, Gloria, was present along with a throng of Maryland supporters. The pomp and circumstance of the ceremony was expected, but there was also a distinct expectation among outsiders that Logan-El would stay true to his early commitment and sign with the Terps.

A recruit donning the hat of his school choice is now the standard routine at most signing day announcements, but in 2006, Logan-El’s plan was a spectacle.

Shortly after the ceremony began, Logan-El started pulling hats out of the bag. He said a few polite words about each and then tossed them aside one by one. The tension rose when he pulled out a Maryland hat, but he soon tossed it aside, too. A few moments later, he pulled out the photograph with Paterno and announced his decision to sign with the Nittany Lions.

Chaos ensued. Logan-El was showered with boos, with one Maryland fan screaming: “Traitor!”

Antonio Logan-El, pictured during his senior season at Forestville High, originally committed to Maryland, before signing with Penn State at a now-infamous ceremony in Baltimore. He never played a down for the Nittany Lions. (Joel Richardson/The Washington Post)

Logan-El’s family and friends countered with loud cheers. Gloria Friedgen immediately exited the restaurant, and soon Penn State assistants who were waiting across the street entered the building to greet their newest commit. Logan-El’s mother remembers ESPN Zone staff members trying to round up livid Maryland fans and force their exit.

“It was real tense,” she said. “They were trying to get the Maryland people out of there.”

The ceremony would have consequences all around. Friedgen and his staff lost seven of the state’s top players to Penn State that year, with Logan-El perhaps the biggest one to get away. Harley said the episode forced him to reevaluate how he viewed the recruiting process. And for Logan-El, it was the beginning of the end of his promising football career.

“I was always honest with the kid. He was never really totally honest with us,” Friedgen said. “People have a right to choose where they want to go to school. I’m with that. But why stay with us for three years and then try to embarrass us when we never did anything negative to that kid or his family? I just didn’t understand that.”

In the hours after the event, Logan-El remained at the ESPN Zone to shake hands and conduct interviews, but he couldn’t fully comprehend the perception of the event until it was over. In the days after, he was roasted in the media, and he placed calls to the three schools he dropped to offer his gratitude for their time.

“To me, it was a great idea. To me it was something fun, fresh, a little exciting, different,” Logan-El said of the ceremony. “That was the way I saw it, that’s the way it was meant to come across, that’s the way it was supposed to be. And for me that’s the way it was.”

An internal struggle

Logan-El had known he was gay since his first year at Forestville, and confusion stirred inside him as he got ready for school every morning. “‘Am I attracted to men?” he would ask himself, and the only way he knew how to answer was to bury himself in the weight room and become the alpha male in a sport full of them.

“No one wants to not be accepted. Even the most rebellious people in the world don’t want to be rejected or not accepted,” Logan-El said. “And the thought of losing friends, having people judge you, having people look at you weird and things of that nature, is a tough thing for anybody, not just a gay person.”

The rigors of major college football leveled Logan-El when he arrived on Penn State’s campus in the summer of 2006. It wasn’t just the crucible of live practices. The 6 a.m. workouts, afternoon film sessions and mandatory team dinners slowly eroded Logan-El’s will to play the game.

Logan-El now admits he struggled with the intense conditioning program. He was the heir to Levi Brown at left tackle, but even as a redshirt he failed to perform up to standards as a highly touted recruit.

That year, Logan-El had just met his biological father, who was involved in a car accident in the District the next spring and hospitalized. Logan-El’s grandfather was also at George Washington Hospital suffering from a long list of health problems. He returned home right before spring practice.

“Knowing that I had to go back, hundreds of miles away from people that I love that I wish and wanted to be there with every second and moment, and I couldn’t,” Logan-El said. “That put a big toll on me.”

Back in State College, rumors were swirling about his standing with the program — and the suspense surrounding the school’s top recruit grew when Paterno spoke about the issue at a news conference that March.

“He’s got to make up his mind whether he really wants to play football,” Paterno said at the time.

The comment demoralized Logan-El. He informed Paterno it wasn’t just the conditioning he was struggling with. It was also his personal life that was pulling him away from the game.

He was gone by April, moving back home to play at Towson, where he became the “highest profile transfer to ever attend the school,” according to his team bio. He started at left tackle in 2007, but the disappointment from Penn State lingered. He left the team the following summer. His college football career was over.

“He never really loved football. He liked it. It was fun. He probably had his most fun at Forestville,” Harley said. “It became a business, and he wasn’t ready for the business side of it.”

Logan-El stayed at Towson to pursue a criminal justice degree and to stay close to a group of friends who were helping him inch closer to coming out. He set up a time to tell his family in 2010, but unlike the first major announcement of his life, this one had no twist. His mother called it “hard and stressful for me in the beginning,” but she also watched Logan-El become happier than he had ever been. People still stopped him around campus and asked about the ESPN Zone fiasco, but Logan-El no longer cared.

“Not too many guys are going to come up and start a fight with a 6-6, 300-pound offensive lineman,” he said. “The whole fear that I had of losing friends and losing family members and things like that was completely wrong. I’ve gained more friends since then. . . . If I could go back, I would’ve done it a long time ago.”

Moving on

Logan-El took a Sunday off from flag football to celebrate Mother’s Day at a backyard barbecue in District Heights. He caught up with cousins, played spades with kids and ran errands for his mother. There wasn’t one word uttered about football.

After an old friend, Jermaine Alexander, persuaded him to join the D.C. Jets in 2012, Logan-El realized he needed football more than he thought. The ultra-competitive games are eight-on-eight, with three offensive linemen. At 26 and in the best shape of his life, it’s the closest he’s going to get to a locker room again. Logan-El wanted to prove to himself that he could have teammates again.

“There’s no pressure for him out there with us. . . . We’re out there to have fun. This is not a job,” Alexander said. “He can be himself with us.”

Logan-El’s hand speed and footwork while protecting quarterbacks were among his greatest gifts, but guarding his secret on high school and college fields became his best skill as a football player. Sometimes he ruminates about coming out earlier, possibly even announcing it at the ESPN Zone that January night. He wonders whether it would’ve made him a better player — because now there is no pressure, on the field or in his personal life.

“I’m not a bust in life,” Logan-El said. “I’m still living my life, a prosperous life, a healthy life. And I’m going on with my life.”