PITTSFORD, N.Y. - Coach Dick Jauron was in the midst of discussing the electric quality Terrell Owens’ presence brings to the Buffalo Bills when, as if on cue, a roar of cheers and shrieks erupted from the other side of the field.
The cause of the commotion was Owens, of course. To the delight of the hundreds of fans who had waited after practice, the star receiver elected to hold an impromptu autograph session that lasted nearly 25 minutes and thoroughly drowned out anything his coach had to say about the Bills opening training camp Saturday morning.
Not that it mattered to Jauron, who’s quickly grown accustomed to being upstaged by Owens after spending most of his vacation this past month fielding questions about T.O.
“It adds a lot of excitement,” Jauron said. “I don’t know how (the attention) can be bad.”
It wasn’t at all bad on this muggy day in suburban Rochester for the Bills and their fans, who got a firsthand taste of T.O.-mania. More than 5,000 fans combined to attend the team’s two practice sessions, and a majority of them were clearly there to see Owens make his public practice debut in a Bills uniform since signing with the team in March, days after being released by Dallas.
It proved to be a circus-type atmosphere. There were fans who had ’T.O.’ painted on their chests in Bills colors. Others brought their popcorn and spilled it on to the field. Many brought boxes of the limited edition ’T.O’s’ breakfast cereal that’s available in local grocery stores. And there was certainly a large amount of No. 81 jerseys that dotted the stands.
“I’m used to it,” Owens said with a shrug. “Everywhere that I’ve been, it’s always been that type of reception.”
“I know that the Buffalo fans are very very fanatical,” Owens said. “So, coming out here, I expected nothing less.”
Owens got the royal treatment, the type reserved for the likes of past stars, such as Jim Kelly, whenever he makes his annual visit to camp. And it was a raucous reception from a football-mad fan base that has grown discouraged by a team that has gone nine straight seasons without a playoff berth — the longest drought in franchise history.
Fans began chanting “T.O.! T.O.!” the second Owens was spotted emerging from the locker room to take the field five minutes before the start of practice. They cheered Owens every time he made a catch — and even the time he didn’t after bobbling a ball out of bounds. And the loudest applause came when quarterback Trent Edwards hit Owens for what would’ve been a 60-yard touchdown pass in the middle of the afternoon session.
Owens returned the love by flashing an occasional smile as well as peace signs toward the stands. And he couldn’t stop laughing when one fan, 32-year-old Steven Lasek, held up a box of ’T.O’s’ and began yelling, “This cereal is delicious.”
“Yeah,” Owens said afterward with a smile. “He’s part of my P.R. team.”
If that’s the case, he had plenty of publicists working for him.
Wearing an Owens’ jersey, Zachary Kiristis, 15, arrived at camp more than an hour before the first practice to make sure he had a place to stand as close to the Bills’ locker room entrance as possible.
“I’m just dying to see this guy,” Kiristis said. “This guy could be a game-changer, and we really need someone like that to turn this team around because we’re terrible.”
“I think we need a personality on this team,” he said. “We need someone to bring cameras to Buffalo, and he’s going to do it. I don’t care if there’s drama. That’s cool.”
Owens’ arrival has already benefited the Bills, who’s season-ticket sales are already over 50,000. Now it’s a question of whether he can help spark what’s been a sputtering offense.
Receiver Lee Evans is confident Owens will deliver.
“With him coming here, we see what we can do offensively and I think there’s great optimism,” Evans said. “We feel like now we have a real shot — we have the potential and the talent — to be able to make the playoffs.”
The Bills certainly have the fans on their side for now.
Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud shook his head in amazement at the reception Owens received before noting: “I hope they’re as enthusiastic when the season starts.”
Time — and T.O. — will tell.
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