Terrell Owens' one season with the Buffalo Bills provided another bizarre chapter in a career full of them.
When the Pro Football Hall of Fame's selection committee meets Saturday to vote on its latest class of inductees, the 13 memorable seasons that Owens spent with the San Francisco 49ers (1996-2003), Philadelphia Eagles (2004-05) and Dallas Cowboys (2006-08) will almost certainly decide whether he dons a gold jacket in Canton, Ohio, this summer in his first year of eligibility.
Yet Owens' first 24 hours in Buffalo -- from his arrival at the airport in the late-night hours of May 17, 2009, to his various public appearances the next day -- are remembered as some of the city's strangest sports moments of the past decade.
Owens signed a one-year, $6.5 million deal on March 8, 2009, to play in one of the league's smallest markets -- although he did not make his formal arrival in Buffalo until the start of organized team activities that May.
As part of the filming for the first season of his VH1 reality show, "The T.O. Show," cameras were ready to follow Owens as he landed at the airport. But as his flight was delayed and local television crews broadcast live from the airport's lobby, excitement grew. A crowd that swelled to more than 100 cheered and held signs as Owens descended an escalator toward the baggage claim.
With all the fervor that would greet an arriving head of state, fans flocked around the 35-year-old wide receiver who had worn out his welcome in Dallas and whose NFL career was in decline.
"I was hoping to meet T.O. and make a good impression, mainly get some attention from him so he would look my way, get a little signature," a shirtless teenage boy told a local television news reporter.
"[I wanted to] meet the No. 1 receiver," the boy's friend added. Asked what he liked about Owens so much, the boy responded, "The attention that he brings."
The attention was more than just manufactured hype from VH1 or the zeal of a few younger, die-hard fans. Even the "Jills," the Bills' cheerleaders who at the time appeared on the field during home games, posed in the lobby and held a sign reading, "Welcome to Buffalo, T.O."
The passion of the mob of fans at the airport, some wearing the jersey of a player who had yet to play a snap for his new team, was just the beginning of Owens' hero-like reception from the city. The next day, after catching a 40-yard touchdown from quarterback Trent Edwards in a padless practice, Owens donned a suit and tie and joined Buffalo's mayor, Byron Brown, on the majestic steps of an art gallery.
With a local marching band lined up behind him to form a backdrop fit for a political rally, Brown took the microphone from VH1's president and, after handing Owens a Buffalo-themed gift bag, reached down and pulled out a box containing a ceremonial key to the city.
"This is the most special and unique key to the city, ever," Brown said. "Because this city has a special revocation clause. And there are two performance clauses in it: The first is, T.O. has to score 10 touchdowns. The second is, our favorite football team in the city of Buffalo has got to go to the playoffs."
At least Brown was wise to incentivize the deal, requiring a trip to the postseason for a team whose playoff drought at the time stretched for nine years and has now extended to 16 seasons. But here was the city's highest elected official handing over "control" of the city to a football player who was being paid $6.5 million to play in a town where he had yet to accomplish anything.
One reporter in the crowd asked Owens why he deserved the honor.
"I don't know why I'm deserving," he said. "But I can honestly say that me being here, my dedication, I'll show you why I'm deserving. But I truly understand there have been a lot of people before me that are probably more deserving than I am. Why they didn't get the key, I don't know that, that's not for me to answer."
Before Owens could finish his response, a man in the crowd shouted over him, "We're glad to have you and thank you!"
When Owens later said he was in the process of looking for a place to live, another man shouted, "I got a room!"
Owens' monarch-like tour of the city did not stop there. That evening, one local television station hosted Owens as a guest sportscaster, having him sit at the anchor's desk during a live newscast and read highlights of his own practice off a teleprompter.
The buzz that Owens generated for the Bills and his reality show did not translate to success on the field. While he led Buffalo with 55 catches and 829 receiving yards in 2009, Owens posted one of the worst statistical seasons of his storied career. He scored five touchdowns -- half of what Brown required for his key to the city to function -- and the Bills did not make the playoffs. In fact, they fired coach Dick Jauron after nine games and finished the season 6-10, their worst finish since 2005.
At best, Owens' first 24 hours in Buffalo can be remembered almost seven years later as emblematic of Bills fans' dedication and the region's hospitality.
But at worst, the episode was an embarrassing moment in the city's sports history when starstruck fans, deprived of a winning team for most of the decade, offered a hero's welcome to a well-paid celebrity and his marketing machine.