The Houston Texans play their first game this fall, but players such as Avion Black and cheerleaders have been perfecting their moves for months.Photograph by Jerry Gallegos
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
Houston, we have a football team. Again.
The scene was vaguely familiar: rowdies with painted faces; fans decked out in Battle Red, Deep Steel Blue, and Liberty White jerseys; a long line of supporters-some with portable radios plugged into their ears-eager to have temporary tattoos of a bull glued to their faces; a palpable buzz of excitement in the air; and outbursts of cheers and chants, egged on by a bull mascot named Toro and a bevy of cheerleaders waving pom-poms.
“Hous-ton Tex-ans! Hous-ton Tex-ans!”
Never mind that the crowd was cheering a team that’s never played a single down, or that opening kickoff was some six months away. Pro football was back in Houston, and that was reason enough for several thousand fans to show up at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, alongside players past and present, a squadron of front office personnel, and an infantry of media types, including a full ESPN crew providing live coverage.
The event was the first and last official Houston Texans Expansion Draft, a process that would ultimately determine the nucleus of players for the newest franchise in the National Football League. The actual gridiron at Reliant Stadium was miles away in south Houston, and the only hard hits were on the NFL highlight films showing on the big screens. Even the first player drafted, offensive tackle Tony Boselli of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was a foregone conclusion. But no one was complaining. After going almost six years without a home team to root for, in a city where football is practically a birthright, Houston fans were warming up for their brand-new team, the Houston Texans.
Tackled for a Loss
In 1997, Bud Adams, the only owner the Houston Oilers ever had, finally gave up negotiating with Harris County to build a stadium to replace the Astrodome and moved the franchise to Nashville. It was not a happy parting. The general sentiment voiced around Houston to Adams was, “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out of town.’ Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Washington Redskins and one of the few people on Earth entitled to wear three Super Bowl rings, couldn’t believe what had happened. “Six years ago, I’m driving through downtown Houston and I look in my rearview mirror at the skyline and think, ‘There’s something wrong with this picture. This is the fourth largest city in the United States, in a state where football is king, and there isn’t a football team?’ How can you not have a premium franchise NFL team in this city?”
Fans J.C. and Juan Chapa were wondering the same thing. The brothers were heartbroken when their team left town. “I haven’t been able to watch football in a while,” said J.C. Chapa before the expansion draft began. But the brothers apparently had gotten over the hurt, because they showed up duded out with war paint on their faces, wearing football helmets with bull horns coming out of the sides and matching jerseys-one with the number 32, representing the H-town franchise as the 32nd team in the NFL and the other with ’02, the year the Texans joined the league.
The Big Comeback
The Reliant Stadium promises to live up to its state-of-the-art reputation.
Photograph by Jerry Gallegos
The Chapas’s game gear is part of the Sunday extravaganza that will be playing at Reliant Stadium this fall. They’re season ticket holders in the end zone seating section known as the Bull Pen, where the really crazy fans are being directed to whoop it up in the tradition of Cleveland’s Dawg Pound. “The Texans are already doing more for the fans,” says J.C. Chapa. “With the Oilers, it was just show up on game day. Houston always had first-class fans. Now it’s got a first-class team. McNair is first-class, the whole organization is first-class.”
McNair is Bob McNair, the billionaire whose deep pockets, determination, and will not only brought professional football back to Houston but also elevated the standard of how the game is played and watched. As majority owner, McNair beat out Los Angeles-the preferred choice of the league’s owners for an expansion team-by raising the $700 million admission fee the NFL was charging the new club and helping lead a public/private financing voter initiative in Harris County to build the state-of-the-art Reliant Stadium.
McNair didn’t stop there. He hired top-shelf personnel, starting with the aforementioned Chancy Casserly as executive vice president and general manager. McNair then added Dom Capers, the head coach who had led the expansion Carolina Panthers to the National Football Conference championship game in their second year, and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who also knows a few things about starting from scratch as the first head coach of the new Cleveland Browns. All of a sudden, Houston sounds like one of those premiere franchises Casserly was talking about.
It’s about time. Pro football came to Houston with the Oilers, a charter member of the American Football League, in 1960. The Oilers won the upstart league’s championship the first two years, beating the San Diego Chargers both times, largely on the passing and kicking of Houston’s first home-team hero, George Blanda. But a third title eluded them after the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970.
While that doesn’t detract from the glorious feats of crowd favorites such as Blanda, Charlie (the Human Bowling Ball) Tolar, Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, Kenny (The Snake) Stabler, Dan Pastorini, and Earl Campbell, or colorful coaches such as Bum Phillips, Jerry Glanville, and Jack Pardee, it speaks volumes in explaining why few tears were shed when the Oilers left town.
Out of the Spotlight
While the Dallas Cowboys won Super Bowls. the Oilers were lucky to advance out of their division in the playoffs. Dallas was America’s Team. Oilers Coach Bum Phillips, still a folk hero in Houston, allowed that Houston was Texas’s team. After losing an AFC championship game to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Phillips apologized for the defeat, noting that while the Oilers had gotten their foot in the door, they’d kick it down the next season and go to the Super Bowl. It was a promise Phillips couldn’t keep.
Extreme-gear fans such as these expansion draft attendees will whoop it up in the stadium’s Bull Pen. Photograph by Jerry Gallegos
Where the Oilers played also figured into their second-class status. Throughout the team’s history, each and every home venue was a borrowed one, from the Jeppesen Stadium on the campus of the University of Houston to Rice University stadium to the Astrodome, which was built for Major League Baseball’s Astros.
That’s the clearest difference between the old Houston Oilers and the new Houston Texans. When the Texans tee it up this August, it will mark the first time a Houston pro football team has played in a facility designed specifically for its needs. The 69,500-seat Reliant Stadium has already established a new standard for spectator sports facilities, just like the Astrodome did back in 1965, when it was touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
The The Ninth Wonder?
The tricked-out Reliant is the first NFL stadium with both a retractable roof (the translucent fabric covers a frame that can open or close in about 10 minutes) and real grass, returning the field of play in Houston to a natural state for the first time in nearly four decades. (AstroTurf was invented just in time to replace real grass inside the ‘Dome when its 4,500-plus skylights, which let in the sun, were painted over to pacify baseball players who complained they were losing track of fly balls.) To appease longtime fans still stewing over the removal of the Astrodome’s old exploding scoreboard in 1988, Reliant Stadium has two giant scoreboards, jammed with more information than a website and enough pyrotechnics to light up half the state.
In the tradition of the luxury suite, a staple of every pro stadium, Reliant’s high-dollar seats will be closer to the field than those managed by every other NFL team. Meanwhile, Texans players have been spreading the word about the four training fields across the street from the stadium, including one all-weather, covered field. Once football season ends, Reliant will be transformed into a whole other kind of arena as the new home of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the biggest rodeo in the world.
The stadium’s reputation is spreading like wildfire. The NFL has committed to staging the biggest game of all, the Super Bowl, at Reliant in 2004. And the powerhouse Big 12 college athletic conferencewhich includes the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylorwill hold its 2002 championship football game there in early December.
But those events aren’t anticipated nearly as eagerly as the upcoming season, when the Texans meet the Cowboys, who rarely played the Oilers, on opening day of the regular season and later host AFC South Conference division foes the Tennessee Titans (formerly known as the Houston Oilers). Those games, fans hope, are where the difference between old Houston football and new Houston football will be most evident, especially on the scoreboard at the end of the game. But regardless of the outcome, one thing’s for sure: Houston, we have a football team. Finally.