Commentary

Buffalo will embrace diva if he wins

Bills fans greet controversial Owens signing with appreciation, apprehension

Updated: March 14, 2009, 3:22 AM ET
By Tim Graham | ESPN.com

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The importance of sports is immediately obvious upon swinging open the door to Mayor Byron Brown's city hall offices.

A framed Buffalo Sabres jersey hangs with the same prominence as the mayoral portraits of Grover Cleveland and Jimmy Griffin. The cabinet next to Brown's conference table is stuffed with memorabilia: A Buffalo Bills helmet signed by Andre Reed, basketballs autographed by Bob McAdoo and Earl Monroe, a Buffalo Braves logo personalized by Dolph Schayes, Randy Smith and Ernie DiGregorio.

Brown's passion for sports reflects his constituency, but he's probably more optimistic than the average fan. You don't get elected mayor of such an economically downtrodden city without an indefatigable can-do confidence. Even so, the Bills left the mayor slack-jawed when they landed Terrell Owens.

"When I heard the Bills signed him, I was absolutely shocked," Brown said. "I didn't think the Bills would go down that path."

The Bills' decision sounded preposterous to everyone in western New York. Their teams, synonymous with sporting futility with four straight Super Bowl losses and two unsuccessful trips to the Stanley Cup finals, simply didn't pursue established stars.

[+] EnlargeByron Brown
AP Photo/David DupreyByron Brown, Buffalo's mayor, said he was shocked by the Bills' signing of Terrell Owens but promises a T.O. day and more if the Bills win a title.

The Bills and Sabres draft their talent and frequently watch it leave through free agency. Sometimes they'll acquire a stud via trade, but the list of future Hall of Famers who've actually chosen to play in Buffalo is remarkably short. That Owens would visit the Bills and sign a contract without meeting with another team is, in itself, wonderfully absurd to local sports fans.

But Owens isn't some ordinary super-duperstar. He's T.O., the diva who "Loves me some me," who screeches at his quarterbacks and offensive coordinators when they don't deliver the ball as often as he would like, who publicly will ridicule a teammate, who stages touchdown celebrations that make Andrew Lloyd Webber look like a small-timer.

How will T.O.'s act play in Buffalo, a lunch-bucket town with grease under its fingernails, frayed laces on its work boots and a six pack waiting on the top shelf of the fridge? Flamboyancy doesn't fly here. But winning does.

After three straight seasons of 7-9 and no playoffs since 1999, Bills fans are willing to take the risk and are thrilled Bills owner Ralph Wilson and his front office would take a chance. To be sure, there's apprehension. But the move has generated buzz that hasn't been generated around these parts for years. Buffalo feels like a city that's eager to put the T.O. in tolerance.

"As mayor, if Terrell Owens gets us to the playoffs, I will proclaim a day in his honor," Brown said with a laugh. "I will make it Terrell Owens Day in the City of Buffalo. And that's just for starters. Let's not even start talking about the ticker-tape parade."

Worth the risk

The pulse of the Bills fan can be located at the Big Tree Inn, a corner bar within shouting distance of Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. The road that passes outside the Big Tree's front door was renamed Jim Kelly Boulevard. Owens almost certainly will walk into the Big Tree at some point over the next couple of months. All the Bills do. They stop by after the games and mingle with the fans over a plate of chicken wings or a couple of beers.

[+] EnlargeBig Tree Inn
Tim Graham for ESPN.comOutside the Big Tree Inn, near Ralph Wilson Stadium, NFL icons are revered. Here are wood carvings of ESPN's Chris Berman (left) and former Bills great Jim Kelly.

On those nights, the place is packed. But on Wednesday night, a more manageable crowd lingered at the bar. Dennis Orlow, a 43-year-old accountant, was trying to relieve the stress of tax season. Between shots of chilled Sambuca, Orlow explained the beauty of the Owens deal was that it was a one-year contract.

"Owens is going to be on his best behavior," Orlow said. "I do not think we're going to see any problems from him. It's a one-year deal, and this will not be his last contract. He knows he has to put his best foot forward and make himself more marketable.

"If he keeps his mouth shut and toes the line, it will be great for the Bills. We need one more piece on the offensive line, and even an average quarterback like we got can win when he has time and some stud receivers to throw to."

Dan Sullivan stopped by the Big Tree to kill some time between work and his 10-year-old daughter's school play. Sullivan is a die-hard fan. The 47-year-old sales manager from Hamburg, N.Y., knew he'd found the right woman when he asked Lisa, then his girlfriend, if she wanted to leave at halftime of a 1993 Bills playoff game. The Houston Oilers were blowing out the Bills 28-3.

"She looked at me and said, 'It's a long offseason,'" Sullivan said. "That's how I knew I had to marry her. She was a gamer."

The Bills rallied in the second half to defeat the Oilers 41-38 in overtime of what is reverentially referred to around Buffalo as "The Comeback Game."

The rest of the country thinks we're knuckleheads because we signed him 48 hours after he got cut. But you know who doesn't think it's funny? The Jets and the Patriots. They're not laughing.

-- Bills fan Dan Sullivan

Sullivan recited his wife's words from that epic afternoon when he talked about the Owens signing. "It always can be a long offseason around here," Sullivan said, "but if the Bills are relevant in March, then I'm glad.

"The rest of the country thinks we're knuckleheads because we signed him 48 hours after he got cut. But you know who doesn't think it's funny? The Jets and the Patriots. They're not laughing."

Owens optimism was the prevailing sentiment at the Big Tree, but a tone of uneasiness was detectable.

"Buffalo doesn't put up with B.S.," Orlow said. "We're known as The City of Good Neighbors. We aren't going to put up with no bad neighbors."

'Never been anything like this'

In attempting to put the Owens' acquisition in perspective, Thurman Thomas tried to come up with similar big-ticket examples from the club's past.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Owens
James P. McCoy/Buffalo NewsTerrell Owens in Bills colors is a welcome sight for many local fans.

The Hall of Fame running back said it was bigger than Drew Bledsoe, who received a hero's welcome before he threw a pass for the Bills. The team staged a rally at Ralph Wilson Stadium the day Bledsoe arrived.

Thomas estimated Owens joining the Bills is on the same level as when Jim Kelly came from the USFL. But the Bills drafted Kelly; he had little choice. Thomas then went back to the Bryce Paup signing, back to the Cornelius Bennett trade and then way back to O.J. Simpson to try and quantify Owens' significance.

"There's never been anything like this," Thomas finally decided. "Little kids are excited. They're on sports radio right now talking about 'Would you want your kids to have Terrell Owens jerseys?' Every kid I talk to wants a T.O. No. 81 jersey.

"That's a good sign for the Bills. You can pull a lot of fans back on the bandwagon for the next couple of years. I think it'll be that important. The younger people are saying, 'We have a team now.'"

Thomas noted, however, Owens needs "to leave his luggage behind him."

"I know the Buffalo Bills fans very well," Thomas said. "They're all very happy right now, but if it gets out of hand with T.O. and you hear rumors that maybe Lee Evans and Terrell Owens don't like each other, then the fans will voice their opinion about getting him out of here."

The Bills have been a hush-hush team for the last nine years. This is going to be great for the organization.

-- Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, a former Bills star, on Terrell Owens' arrival

Thomas recently caused a stir when he fielded questions at a local fundraiser. He told the gathering, "The team I can't stomach the most when I watch them is probably the Buffalo Bills. I'm serious. They stink." Thomas quickly retracted the comments, saying he got caught up in the moment of what was more of a comedy act.

Owens is a serious move. The Bills should be fun to watch again, something they haven't been since Thomas was toting the ball during their Super Bowl years.

"These players have to realize they're getting a guy that's going to make the Hall of Fame," Thomas said. "He's going to demand a lot from himself and the coaches and the other players.

"The Bills have been a hush-hush team for the last nine years. This is going to be great for the organization."

The Bills made some eyes open'

NFL.com Video

Hear from Terrell Owens on why he left America's Team for North America's Team.

Thomas, who made enough money while gaining the most yards in Bills history, could live contentedly wherever he wishes. But he still resides in the area. He has a home in nearby Elma, N.Y., and remains active in the community.

He knows Buffalo is not for everybody, which is why he hopes Owens finds comfort here.

"You have to be from some type of cold-weather atmosphere to play up here," Thomas said. "It is just different. You have to have a different mentality. Buffalo might not be the best place for everybody.

"But I think it'll go absolutely fine. The Bills haven't had that type of player around here in a very, very long time. Myself and Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett, we went to a different beat, but we handled ourselves."

A wanted man

Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin is biased when it comes to opinions about Owens. They're good friends and check in with each other regularly. Irvin insisted, contrary to popular belief, that Owens has embraced the idea of playing for the Bills and that this was not a marriage of desperation.

"You can get a sense of a person's excitement or lack thereof in making a move," Irvin said from his Dallas-area home. "When I talked to him the other day and I asked why he picked Buffalo, he said 'They wanted me here, and I want to be here.'

It suits him [to play in a smaller market] so he can have some peace and quiet without the big city.

-- Hall of Fame WR Michael Irvin on his friend Terrell Owens

"The important thing was the first thing he said: 'They wanted me here.' He's a phenomenal man. He's a good dude. But he needs to feel wanted. He said, 'They wanted me here,' and he'll give them all he has because he feels wanted so bad."

How often has a superstar player reached the open market and been met with public denouncements from so many teams?

Irvin predicted Owens will reward the Bills for taking a chance on him when few -- maybe zero -- other clubs would.

"Trent Edwards sent that text [to Bills chief operating officer Russ Brandon to inquire], 'What about T.O.?' I guarantee T.O. will know about that, and it will mean a great deal to him," Irvin said. "That means 'My quarterback wanted me here. The Buffalo Bills wanted me here.'

"They'll get a monster of a player. I'll guarantee you that. Just throw the ball to him."

There's a belief Owens will get bored in Buffalo. He has played for the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. Those are three of the top six markets in the U.S. Buffalo ranks somewhere around 50th.

Irvin dismissed the idea Owens would act bigger than his surroundings. Irvin even went so far as to suggest Owens will thrive in a smaller setting.

"His sanctuary is the football field," Irvin said. "You'll see more of an extroverted person on the football field. But in reality he can be an introvert. He's quiet and stays at home. When T.O. was in Dallas, whenever I would call him, he always was at home, watching TV.

"It suits him [to play in a smaller market] so he can have some peace and quiet without the big city."

'Can't make us any worse'

Molly Pace isn't so sure the Owens move will make a difference in the Bills' final record.

Molly Pace
Tim Graham for ESPN.comFreight broker Molly Pace, right, wonders if Owens can improve the Bills' fortunes. "He can't make us any worse," she said.

The 30-year-old freight broker from Hamburg, N.Y., isn't particularly fond of Owens as a character, but she's more cynical about the team's recent history than about its new player.

"Buffalo fans are very vicious," said Pace, sipping a Tanqueray cocktail known as The Molly at JP Fitzgerald's restaurant. "The true fans still believe, but the bandwagoners will turn on him.

"But he can't make us any worse. We've had a bad offense for the last seven, eight, nine years. He won't be the reason we're not winning because we didn't without him."

Like most Bills fans, Pace is thankful for the one-year contract. Brevity lessens the risk of Owens nuking the locker room, and it likely will motivate him to play for his next deal.

"It'll be a success because he's got something to prove," Pace said. "He might not like Buffalo, but he likes being an NFL player. He doesn't have to prove anything to Buffalo, but he has to prove it to 32 teams."

About a minute after Pace uttered those words, the man who released Owens appeared on one of the bar's many flat-screen TVs.

"Thank you, Jerry Jones!" hollered the bouncer stationed at the front door.

Relating to T.O.

Rob Ray has been busting his knuckles for years. He became known as one of the most prolific NHL fighters, setting the record for the most penalty minutes with one team by brawling for the Sabres.

Now Ray is in the construction business. He renovates old homes, doing much of the labor himself, and turns them into rental properties. He also works as an analyst for Sabres telecasts and remains heavily involved in the community. Ray not only knows Buffalo sports fans, but he's also one of them. Ray attends several Bills games each season, and he can understand why the area is going bonkers over Owens.

"Everything you hear about him, he's a hard-working guy," Ray said Thursday night in HSBC Arena, where the Sabres were about to play the Florida Panthers. "Off the field, he's a leader when it comes to working out and training and preparation.

[+] EnlargeRob Ray
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesFormer Sabres star and current Buffalo resident Rob Ray marvels at the impact Terrell Owens' signing has had on the town.

"Here, it's a blue-collar, hard-working town. That's what people do here. They work. They can relate to him because he's a worker, and they love that he has superstar status and is willing to give Buffalo a shot when many others wouldn't."

Ray is fully aware of Buffalo's reputation as a last-resort destination. He often would find himself defending the area when opposing players would ask him why on earth he would choose to make it his permanent home.

"It still comes down to not enough people want to come here and give it a chance," said Ray, who spent 14 seasons with the Sabres and retired in 2004.

Owens' willingness to join the Bills is such a gigantic development in western New York that it has been leading off newscasts. The region has been reeling from the February fatal crash of a Continental Express plane into a Clarence Center home as the aircraft approached the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. If nothing else, big sports news provides some diversion.

Because of Owens, the Bills, who haven't played a game in almost three months and won't play another until summer, have eclipsed the Sabres when it comes to capturing the fans' attention.

Ray was flabbergasted that Thursday night's game barely was registering a blip on the local scene. The Sabres are in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, and the Panthers are one of the teams they can catch.

"It's all T.O. Everything is T.O., all day, every day because the fans are just in love with the whole idea of him coming," Ray said.

Ray proudly displays enough scar tissue on his face that you might guess hockey was his profession if you didn't know who he was. Still, he doesn't take offense that Owens is overshadowing the NHL in a town that worships its Sabres. The Bills' big splash has been that substantial.

"Too many times you see the fan with his head hanging because, one way or another, the team's not good," Ray said. "Too many times -- Bills and Sabres -- you go into a season and know you're not going to win.

"From right now until whenever the season starts, they got hope. That's all they ask for. Give them the opportunity to hope."

Get your jersey ready

It didn't take long for Dave Silver to learn the Bills had hired Owens.

Silver is part-owner of Dave & Adam's Card World, a modest memorabilia shop in the Town of Tonawanda, N.Y., that blossomed into one of the nation's largest wholesale trading-card distributors behind Wal-Mart and Target.

The ink on Owens' contract might not have been dry before Silver started fielding calls.

"The phone was ringing off the hook with people asking when we would have T.O. jerseys for sale," Silver said. "I got text messages from 12 different people in a five-minute span, asking me, 'Is this true? Are we getting T.O.?'"

Silver doesn't expect Owens cards to be snatched up immediately. He said Owens' most popular rookie card is his 1996 Upper Deck SP Authentic, which books at around $25, but he said "the real local buzz will be when he appears on a card in a Bills uniform for the first time."

Silver expects jersey sales to be brisk, comparing the fervor to what the New York Jets experienced with Brett Favre last August. Production was idled until manufacturers knew for sure what number Owens would wear.

On Thursday night, we learned second-year receiver James Hardy would surrender No. 81 so Owens could keep the only digits he has worn in the NFL.

"We haven't had a real superstar who has gotten people this interested," Silver said. "Trent Edwards jerseys have been gaining in popularity, but nothing like this. What really helps jersey sales is winning. If T.O. comes in and helps the Bills make the playoffs, it'll be sliced bread all over again."

Words of wisdom

Marcellus Wiley has seen the difference between the Petri dish that was Texas Stadium and the bucolic environs of western New York. Wiley, an ESPN analyst and former defensive end, got his start with the Bills and played a season for the Cowboys. Wiley offered some strong words of warning for Owens.

"You better get it between your ears," Wiley said, "that this is now home and respect those who live there, or it's going to be tough on you."

Wiley is a fan of the Bills' bold decision to take a chance on Owens and envisions an adoring relationship between the charismatic receiver and the locals.

"I'm actually thinking that the Buffalo fans -- without any incidents with the law, without any incidents in the locker room -- they want that gregarious enthusiasm," Wiley said. "They want that playmaker. They want that T.O. celebration. I don't think they want to tone that down as long as it comes with production."

Owens will face an adjustment period. As Thomas and Ray mentioned, some players simply can't handle being in a smaller market.

Former Bills running back Willis McGahee drew the ire of Buffalo fans when he ripped the metro area for not offering much in the way of diversions.

"Coming from Miami, I was used to partying, going out, just having something to do every night," McGahee said. "Restaurants, whatever. Going to Buffalo, it was like hitting a brick wall. Like, 'Damn!' Can't go out, can't do nothing. There's an Applebee's, a TGI Friday's, and they just got a Dave & Buster's. They got that, and I'm like, 'What the?' And, you know, the women ..."

Wiley speculated Owens might be ready for the change of scenery.

"You're going to be at the local Applebee's, and they're going to see you," Wiley said. "There's nowhere to hide. There's no VIP rooms, none of that.

"It's going to be good for T.O. Talking about his personality and some of the things that come with Terrell Owens, I think that Buffalo forces you to lower your rpm's. It forces you to play at a different speed off the field and socially.

"It's a town where there's not much to do, but there's huge fandemonium out there. The spirits of those people are very affected by what goes on in that stadium."

AFC East blogger Tim Graham covers the NFL for ESPN.com.