- While some players dug out of storm-damaged homes, others visited with Houston residents displaced by the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey
HOUSTON — Texans coach Bill O’Brien looked across the vast expanse of the NRG Center—a convention space across the street from team headquarters—and marveled silently at the scene. Fifty-five of his players spent part of their night off at the improvised hurricane shelter, which by Thursday had swelled to a population of 1,900 of Houston’s neediest residents, many of them left homeless by unprecedented flooding in the city.
“Our guys are just unbelievable,” O’Brien said. “We have some incredible men here.”
Players navigated through stacks and piles of precious belongings that had been wrapped in trash bags during those frantic moments when rescuers arrived at the door in rising water. The team visited with families who had lost everything, or close to it. Some of the evacuees remained asleep when players and staff arrived, while others flocked to them, collecting autographs on donated white t-shirts. The evacuees’ basic needs had been met, organizers said——the shelter, one of many spread across the greater Houston area, is being managed and operated by Baker Ripley, a Houston non-profit—and now they needed a hug and a smile.
It was a moment of pride for O’Brien, who enters his fourth season as coach in Houston under a cloud of uncertainty. The team is tasked with preparation for a home season opener against the Jaguars next Sunday while numerous players and staff members recover from a storm that has taken the lives of dozens of area residents and caused untold billions of dollars in property damage.
“There are things bigger than football right now,” O’Brien said. “At the same time, 31 other teams won’t have a lot of sympathy for us. I think it’s important for us to do what we can this weekend, and then once Monday rolls around we’re focused on Jacksonville, and then when we have time off, to continue to help the city.”
The team, the NFL and the city have not yet determined if the opener, slated for noon on Sept. 10 at NRG Stadium, will go on as scheduled.
“Wherever they tell us to play the game, we’ll play the game,” O’Brien said. “But if we had a vote, which we don’t, I would say that we want to play the game here because I think it will mean a lot to this city. Maybe that can give people just three hours of forgetting about all this, having to rebuild their lives.”
It was O’Brien who delivered the welcome news to his team on Wednesday that their Thursday preseason game—moved from Houston to Dallas due to Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the region—was canceled. Cleared to make their way home, the team rode a caravan of buses back to Houston and began the process of putting the pieces back together.
Team employees endured relatively minor hardships compared to their neighbors—the death toll from the weekend storm neared 40 by Thursday evening, with additional loss of life expected to be discovered as flood waters recede from affected regions and officials take full account of the devastation in Houston proper and beyond.
In Houston’s Bellaire neighborhood, linebacker Brian Peters returned to a rented home that had taken on about three feet of water when a nearby bayou overflowed, destroying electrical outlets and appliances and brand-new furniture while the team was playing a preseason game last weekend in New Orleans. His landlord tried to mitigate the damage by placing couches and tables on cinderblocks, but the water rose beyond expectations. On Thursday afternoon four teammates came over to Peters’ home to move waterlogged furniture onto a trash heap in the front yard mirroring that of hundreds of his neighbors.
“This isn’t a story,” Peters said of his situation as he packed up electronics in his rot-smelling home. “There were 100,000 other people way more affected than me.”
Peters’ teammates had spent their days in Dallas in constant communication with loved ones back in Houston as the storm made landfall last week. Water swelled on city streets and flooded homes, leaving spouses and children of Texans employees stranded. When the team returned, players went to work, with defensive end J.J. Watt’s fundraising efforts eclipsing $13 million and dozens of Texans visiting evacuees on a night they would have been playing a fourth and final preseason game.
Undrafted free agent cornerback Bryce Jones made a bee-line to the back wall of the space filled with FEMA-stamped cots to a mother managing two rowdy toddlers she described as “Bad and Badder.” Marsetta Davis was at home with her children on Wednesday on the south side of the city when part of her roof caved in, filling the home with the stench of mold. They evacuated to the shelter that day.
“We left immediately because I didn’t want them breathing any of that in,” said Davis, a medical administrative assistant. “I hope we’re not here long. My babies aren’t going to school. They aren’t learning anything.”
Jones, 23, tossed a mini football with Davis’s children as they bounced on cots. “I love little kids, and fortunately I didn’t have to deal with anything like this growing up in Ohio,” Jones said. “To be that young, they don’t really understand what’s happening, but it felt right being able to play catch with them, laugh, joke and talk to their mom. It’s hard on the parents, and it touched me to be back there.
“It shows me how blessed I am to be where I am and to be able to come out here and see the joy that we as a team brought them. It’s unmatched. It’s a blessing.”
Said Davis: “It was a real good feeling, honestly it was.”
The team signed Jones, out of Akron, in May after his tryout at the Texans’ rookie minicamp. The fourth preseason game, traditionally a showcase for fringe talent fighting for a spot on the final roster, would have been Jones’s last and best chance to make an impression on the coaching staff.
“There are guys here who probably won’t make the team,” O’Brien said, surveying the group that visited the shelter, “but they’re here, sharing their time with these people and putting smiles on their faces.”
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