What It Was Was Football
A sport embedded in my Texas-rooted DNA is a source of joy, heartbreak, and community
Sports are embedded in my DNA by my grandparents, parents, and place of birth. Growing up in Texas, football was my obvious game of choice, but any dreams and aspirations I had of being a star athlete quickly met the twin realities of poor coordination and tortoise-like agility.
Given that we didn’t have many kids in our neighborhood — who would want to play with a clumsy turtle, anyway? — I threw a football at trees while playing imaginary games in front of nonexistent fans. Other than sandlot games with friends from another neighborhood, any attempt at playing in an organized setting was nothing short of a disaster.
Still, I loved the game and read about football all the time, collecting books and manuals and learning about as many trivial aspects as I could. It was something I shared with my grandmother, who jotted notes about games and players on scraps of paper that she never threw away. (Earlier in life, she also was rumored to illegally bet on Saturday’s games before Sunday church.)
From the late 1940s through the mid 1960s, my dad’s family took numerous trips to see games at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, 120 miles west of Longview. I still have most of the programs, and a prized possession is from the 1927 Rose Bowl that my grandfather attended. (Note: Stanford and Alabama tied 7-7 in a game — dubbed the "the football championship of America" — that broke all attendance records at the time.)
Somewhere, in my parents stuff, is the 45 of Andy Griffith’s “What it Was Was Football,” which remains a classic almost 70 years after he performed the monologue on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”
After I was born, in 1965, my parents and grandparents mostly contented themselves with watching football on TV. The Dallas Cowboys were rapidly becoming America’s team; it was easier then to cover up the hijinks Peter Gent later chronicled in North Dallas Forty (still a great read). Given that we lived near Houston, I rooted mostly for the hometown Oilers, even though they didn’t give us anything to cheer for at the time.
Say what you will about the sport’s negatives. The health risks. How we seem more obsessed with games than learning. How precious resources go into high school Jumbotrons and outlandish contracts for college head coaches. In those respects, and probably some others, football is the ultimate example of money talking.
At its best, football — more than any other sport — builds a sense of community at all levels: high school, college, and pro. It’s one reason fans in Houston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Oakland, San Diego, and St. Louis felt so betrayed when their teams left town. And it’s why, as much as I still enjoy watching and analyzing the game, I find it tough to root for a single team.
Heartburn and heartbreak
Absolute truth: Heartburn and heartbreak have helped fans of Houston teams keep Rolaids and Tums in business for generations. If a Houston squad was finally good enough to find a way to blow it in spectacular fashion, they were guaranteed to do so.
Despite being the fourth largest city in the U.S., Houston is a town of many communities. If New York’s five boroughs are the equivalent of 1,000 small towns, Houston has almost as many pockets, thanks to a lack of zoning that commingles homes and businesses on every street corner.
This, in part, is what helps Houston keep its contrarian, frontier-like sense of individuality, but the community historically has been to spread out and too divided in its loyalties to truly get behind a team. Combine that with some historically bad decisions by owners in all the major pro sports — the Oilers’ Bud Adams was the worst, although various Astros owners were close behind — and you could not help but feel like the bastard stepchild of the other major markets.
In all sports, Houston’s college and pro teams during my childhood were terrible. The Oilers became the first organization to suffer back-to-back 1-13 seasons, losing 31 of 34 games at one point from 1972 to 1974. Fans wore paper bags on their heads when the team played on Monday Night Football.
For a brief shining period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, the Oilers, Astros, and the NBA’s Houston Rockets seemed to get their respective acts together, only to fall agonizingly, frustratingly short in big games. The Rockets lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Celtics not once, but twice in the 1980s. (They won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 when Michael Jordan, ironically, was trying to play baseball.)
The Astros, which opened the Astrodome just a few months after I was born, were lousy for more than a decade before finally breaking through in 1980. Six outs from advancing to the World Series, with Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan pitching, they lost to Phillies in what is considered one of the greatest series in baseball history. The next year, they lost to the Dodgers in the playoffs. In 1986, they lost a Game 6, 16-inning thriller to the Mets with Cy Young winner Mike Scott waiting to take the mound the next day. The Phillies, Dodgers and Mets all went on to win the World Series.
From 1977 to 1980, the “Luv Ya Blue” Oilers were arguably the second-best team in the NFL, but they were in the same division as the Pittsburgh Steelers, which won four Super Bowls during the decade and beat Houston in consecutive years to get there. For a time, the only thing the Cowboys and Oilers had in common was their mutual hatred for the Steelers, and that same dislike permeates my feelings about Pittsburgh to this day. (Logic and fandom are rarely in sync.)
Bum Phillips, the beloved and wonderfully dry Oilers coach, was quoted as saying: "When I die, I want y'all to put a P.S. on my tombstone: He'd have lived a lot longer if he hadn't had to play the Steelers six times in two years."
In 1981, Adams fired Bum Phillips and proceeded to go on a decade-long rebuild. Then, four years after the worst collapse in NFL playoff history, a 35-3 lead that became a 41-38 loss to the Buffalo Bills in 1993, Adams abandoned the town all together for Nashville. The divorce was seemingly inevitable, but the pain was real.
By this point, I had moved to North Carolina and married Jill, who — thankfully — is as much a sports fan as I am. She made me pay attention to college basketball, while I gradually brought her into the football fold.
Now, every weekend during football season, you can find us watching or listening to games. Jill is interested in the competitiveness and the drama; a blowout has no appeal to her. I enjoy the strategy and the execution of plays and schemes.
We follow a couple of teams, specifically Indianapolis and our hometown the Washington Whatever They Ares, but it’s tough to build a rooting interest in the nation’s capital squad that shoots itself in the foot with the same fervor that the Oilers once did. (No political references there, I swear.)
I decided long ago not to get invested deeply or emotionally again in a team, but to appreciate the sport for what it brings to me. I enjoy football for many of the same reasons I like bands and theater. The knowledge that a collective of people are working toward a common goal. The realization that heartbreak and heartburn are closer to victory and catharsis than you may think. The feeling of community. That’s all I need.
Thanks for reading Our Reality Show! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.