Nine days before his ballyhooed debut last Saturday at Buffalo Bills training camp, Terrell Owens had a flashier premiere. Owens was at SkyBar at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood on July 16, celebrating the launch of The T.O. Show, the latest reality series to hit the small screen. Owens and his abs made quite an entrance, posing for pictures in front of a large backdrop for the show before heading to SkyBar's open-air pavilion, which offers shimmering views of Los Angeles.
In cased you missed it, the show, which airs on VH1, features several relentless reality TV elements: a celebrity seeking answers to life's mysteries, a little skin and a Jacuzzi. (There's always a Jacuzzi.) Add some thin plotlines, and, boom, you have a series. It's a hybrid of sorts, The Bachelor meets Entourage, though Owens's entourage includes a couple of chatty publicists and a bodyguard who breaks wind in a Bentley. "I heard a few things about it, but I missed the first one," Bills receiver Josh Reed said. "I have it DVR'd at home, so as soon as I get back, I'm going to check it out." (No rush, Josh, there'll be other episodes.)
On Saturday the TV star was in his football uniform, catching passes and sprinting downfield in front of 5,000 fans, many of them sporting number 81 jerseys, which were selling for 80 bucks a pop in the Bills' merchandise store. The team hasn't had this kind of buzz in more than a decade. "You have to realize that part of him is hyped up, but there's a real guy who I think is a giver," said John Guy, Buffalo's vice president of pro personnel. "He gives us something to believe in. He's given us a weapon, and he's given us a mental edge. Not only do the players think it, the coaches think it, and the fans think it. That's important."
The fans arrived by the busload on Saturday, gawking at his football tights, shrieking at his catches and furiously shaking boxes of TO's Honey Nut Toasted Oats. Between the Bills' two practice sessions Owens wandered over to the stands and signed autographs for nearly half an hour. Fifty yards away coach Dick Jauron was holding 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 the attention Owens has brought. "It's not a new thing. It wasn't unexpected.... As long as he performs, we'll be all right."
There are some performances that Jauron could do without, like the one he witnessed on Sunday, when Owens suggested that commissioner Roger Goodell should "go sit in jail for 23 months" before passing judgment on Michael Vick. Of course, controversial behavior has always been a staple of the Owens oeuvre: the Sharpie in his sock for a touchdown celebration, making eyes with Nicollette Sheridan in a Monday Night Football promo, the impromptu calisthenics sessions in his driveway for the cameras. But those make for the best reality TV moments, so Jauron had better get used to them.
What no one wants to see a repeat of, though, is the scene in the first episode of The T.O. Show in which Owens is cut loose by the Cowboys, his third high-profile football divorce in five years. Just as he did in San Francisco and Philadelphia, he butted heads with the team's star quarterback. Living in the spotlight hasn't been T.O.'s problem. Sharing it has.
But when Owens arrived in Buffalo, he found himself in a new situation. At 35 he is both the oldest player and the biggest name on the training camp roster. He's the undisputed leader and star of the show.
"That whole Dallas deal blindsided him," Guy says. "It hurt him. I felt like this would be a good place to heal, and he did too. We don't have a team that's loaded with stars. I told him, 'You know, you have to take these guys where they want to go. They'll follow you, you just have to take them.' I think they will. I think he relishes that."
His new quarterback is Trent Edwards, a third-year player whose Q rating outside western New York is minuscule. He's an intellectual Stanford alum who seems genuinely happy to have Owens—who caught 69 passes for 1,052 yards last year—around. "He does bring a lot of the attention, a lot of the media, and it'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 team wanting to play just as hard."
With the Bills coming off a 7--9 season, and having signed Owens to just a one-year deal, the potential rewards outweigh the risk of a locker room meltdown. Tactically, Owens adds a game-breaker to an already potent offense, and he has so far embraced his big fish, small pond existence. "You know, sometimes I have to pinch myself," he says. "I realize that I've had a following everywhere that I've been. I expected nothing different here. I know that the Buffalo fans are very, very [fanatical]." And Bills Nation has embraced him back. The western 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 (Kelly Krunch) and Doug Flutie (Flutie Flakes).