Nine days beforehis ballyhooed debut last Saturday at Buffalo Bills training camp, TerrellOwens had a flashier premiere. Owens was at SkyBar at the Mondrian Hotel inWest Hollywood on July 16, celebrating the launch of The T.O. Show, the latestreality series to hit the small screen. Owens and his abs made quite anentrance, posing for pictures in front of a large backdrop for the show beforeheading to SkyBar's open-air pavilion, which offers shimmering views of LosAngeles.
In cased youmissed it, the show, which airs on VH1, features several relentless reality TVelements: a celebrity seeking answers to life's mysteries, a little skin and aJacuzzi. (There's always a Jacuzzi.) Add some thin plotlines, and, boom, youhave a series. It's a hybrid of sorts, The Bachelor meets Entourage, thoughOwens's entourage includes a couple of chatty publicists and a bodyguard whobreaks wind in a Bentley. "I heard a few things about it, but I missed thefirst one," Bills receiver Josh Reed said. "I have it DVR'd at home, soas soon as I get back, I'm going to check it out." (No rush, Josh, there'llbe other episodes.)
On Saturday the TVstar was in his football uniform, catching passes and sprinting downfield infront of 5,000 fans, many of them sporting number 81 jerseys, which wereselling for 80 bucks a pop in the Bills' merchandise store. The team hasn't hadthis kind of buzz in more than a decade. "You have to realize that part ofhim is hyped up, but there's a real guy who I think is a giver," said JohnGuy, Buffalo's vice president of pro personnel. "He gives us something tobelieve in. He's given us a weapon, and he's given us a mental edge. Not onlydo the players think it, the coaches think it, and the fans think it. That'simportant."
The fans arrivedby the busload on Saturday, gawking at his football tights, shrieking at hiscatches and furiously shaking boxes of TO's Honey Nut Toasted Oats. Between theBills' two practice sessions Owens wandered over to the stands and signedautographs for nearly half an hour. Fifty yards away coach Dick Jauron washolding his opening press conference, his voice barely audible over the fans'shouts for T.O. "I don't know how it can be bad," Jauron said of theattention Owens has brought. "It's not a new thing. It wasn'tunexpected.... As long as he performs, we'll be all right."
There are someperformances that Jauron could do without, like the one he witnessed on Sunday,when Owens suggested that commissioner Roger Goodell should "go sit in jailfor 23 months" before passing judgment on Michael Vick. Of course,controversial behavior has always been a staple of the Owens oeuvre: theSharpie in his sock for a touchdown celebration, making eyes with NicolletteSheridan in a Monday Night Football promo, the impromptu calisthenics sessionsin his driveway for the cameras. But those make for the best reality TVmoments, so Jauron had better get used to them.
What no one wantsto see a repeat of, though, is the scene in the first episode of The T.O. Showin which Owens is cut loose by the Cowboys, his third high-profile footballdivorce in five years. Just as he did in San Francisco and Philadelphia, hebutted heads with the team's star quarterback. Living in the spotlight hasn'tbeen T.O.'s problem. Sharing it has.
But when Owensarrived in Buffalo, he found himself in a new situation. At 35 he is both theoldest player and the biggest name on the training camp roster. He's theundisputed leader and star of the show.
"That wholeDallas deal blindsided him," Guy says. "It hurt him. I felt like thiswould be a good place to heal, and he did too. We don't have a team that'sloaded with stars. I told him, 'You know, you have to take these guys wherethey want to go. They'll follow you, you just have to take them.' I think theywill. I think he relishes that."
His newquarterback is Trent Edwards, a third-year player whose Q rating outsidewestern New York is minuscule. He's an intellectual Stanford alum who seemsgenuinely happy to have Owens—who caught 69 passes for 1,052 yards lastyear—around. "He does bring a lot of the attention, a lot of the media, andit's exciting," Edwards says. "It raises the level of play all around.You see him working his butt off, and it leads to other guys on the teamwanting to play just as hard."
With the Billscoming off a 7--9 season, and having signed Owens to just a one-year deal, thepotential rewards outweigh the risk of a locker room meltdown. Tactically,Owens adds a game-breaker to an already potent offense, and he has so farembraced his big fish, small pond existence. "You know, sometimes I have topinch myself," he says. "I realize that I've had a following everywherethat I've been. I expected nothing different here. I know that the Buffalo fansare very, very [fanatical]." And Bills Nation has embraced him back. Thewestern New York store chain Tops Friendly Markets just released its T.O.cereal in its 76 stores, an honor bestowed in the past upon Jim Kelly (KellyKrunch) and Doug Flutie (Flutie Flakes).
Like The T.O.Show, TO's Honey Nut Toasted Oats could use some work. But no one in Buffaloseems to mind. "I don't eat that [stuff]," longtime Bills fan J.D.Bozman said of the cereal. "But it'll sell."
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New fan fave Owens has embraced his BIG FISH, SMALLPOND existence.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW