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T.O. kicks off Food Bank drive Buffalo Bills receiver launches his first charitable effort here as he recalls his mother working two shifts a day to support her family

Terrell Owens reached back to his modest rural Alabama roots Tuesday as he kicked off a major fundraising campaign for the Food Bank of Western New York.

When he spoke about why he got involved, there was none of the swagger from the celebrity-superstar familiarly known as "T.O.," no quips to "Getchya popcorn ready."

Instead, the native of Alexander City, Ala., recalled how his mother worked double shifts each day at a textile maker to support the family.

"Growing up in Alabama, I wasn't part of the poorest of the poor. But I knew what it took, watching my mom be the sole provider for the family. It was a no-brainer to do this," Owens said inside the Food Bank warehouse on Holt Street.

The "81tackleshunger.com" initiative is the first charitable effort in Buffalo by Owens, who also is involved with his Catch A Dream Foundation.

It will include television, radio and print ads starring the Buffalo Bills player throughout September. The theme of the campaign, "We need 81 from everyone," plays off Owens' jersey number and asks individuals to donate 81 cents and businesses $81 to assist the Food Bank.

"I'm pleased and proud to be here with the Food Bank," he said.

The campaign is timed to coincide with Hunger Action Month in September, a national fundraiser led by the charitable organization Feeding America, and replaces the Buffalo Bills' in-stadium fan food drive for the 2009-10 season.

SKM Group, a Buffalo marketing group, is co-sponsoring the campaign with Tops Markets.

SKM came up with the idea for the campaign, created the artwork for it and secured Owens as spokesman.

"If we all do a little, we can achieve a lot," said Sue Kerrigan-Meany, SKM president.

She valued her company's donated work at $150,000 and also gave an unspecified amount of cash contributions from her business to the Food Bank. As part of its sponsorship, Tops donated $5,000 to the Food Bank.

In addition, Tops, Owens and PLB Sports donated 50 cases of T.O. Low Fat Honey Nut Toasted Oats cereal to the Food Bank. PLB, a product development food brokerage based in Pittsburgh, is the business that offered Flutie Flakes 11 years ago.

Owens also presented an $8,100 donation to the Food Bank from Bills owner Ralph Wilson and his wife, Mary.

Public donations can be made online at www.81tackleshunger.com; in person at any Tops in Erie, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Niagara counties; or by mail by using a form available at the campaign Web site.

Individuals donating to the campaign can win an autographed Terrell Owens jersey. Businesses will be eligible for tickets to a Buffalo Bills home game, as well as merchandise autographed by Owens.

Additional private funding was donated to the Food Bank to support the campaign, organizers said.

Marylou Borowiak, Food Bank president and chief executive officer, said the goal of the campaign is to raise funds and public awareness about the organization. The Food Bank distributes more than 1 million pounds of food a month to more than 96,000 people through about 400 member agencies in the region.

e-mail: hdavis@buffnews.com

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