In another Houston, in another century, Chris Lockridge was the
Oiler Freak. He wore Oilers tattoos on both biceps. He
transformed a room in his house into a shrine to Earl Campbell,
Bum Phillips and Luv Ya Blue. Why, he even named his son,
Derrick, after the Oilers' logo, a sturdy old well that never ran
dry--until 1997, when owner Bud Adams moved the team to Tennessee.
For five years the Lockridges have waited for Sept. 8, the day
the NFL returns to Houston, the day their Texans open against the
Great Satan up I-45. "When I was born, my mama told me, 'You hate
the Cowboys,'" says Lockridge, 36, his two fresh Texans tatts
blazing on his arms. "And I've hated 'em all my life."
Meet the Texan Freak, a newly rampant species in Houston, where
an expansion team is turning more heads than the Women of Enron.
Already the Texans have sold 59,000 season tickets to their $417
million Xanadu, Reliant Stadium, 11,000 more than the Oilers did
at their peak. The Texans' logo, a bull's head that looks like a
Picasso painting of the Lone Star State, stares proudly from
T-shirts, caps and shop windows. On Aug. 2 a crowd of more than
27,000 came to Robertson Stadium at the University of Houston to
watch a scrimmage against Dallas.
Energy tycoon Bob McNair paid $700 million for the Texans, and
for that kind of money you get to pick your inaugural foe. McNair
didn't mull the choice for long. "We don't want to be America's
Team, we want to be Texas's team," he says of the showdown
"We've got to win that game to set the tone for our season," says
Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, whose team has had back-to-back
"It's gonna be the state championship game," says Texans rookie
quarterback David Carr, the No. 1 pick in the draft out of Fresno
State, who unnerved his coaches by jumping into a fight that got
Houston center Steve McKinney ejected from the Cowboys'
Uh, Steve, how do you get tossed from a preseason scrimmage?
"He was playing dirty, and something had to be done," McKinney
says, claiming Dallas defensive tackle John Nix had jabbed a hand
into his face mask. (Is it any surprise McKinney grew up in
Houston hating the Cowboys?) At a joint practice earlier that
day, the teams traded verbal jabs after Dallas rookie safety Roy
Williams popped Texans wide receiver Sherrod Gideon in a
noncontact drill. "You don't put your head down in a noncontact
drill, try to run somebody over and expect not to get hit,"
Williams says, venom in his voice. For its part Houston says the
Cowboys had no business opening the scrimmage with a safety
Though the rivalry is off to a rousing start, sustaining it won't
be easy. McNair and Dallas owner Jerry Jones had hoped their
teams would meet at least once a year during the regular
season--after realignment the Cowboys remain in the NFC East,
while the Texans join Adams's Titans in the AFC South--but the NFL
rejected a scheme to stage annual games between regional,
nonconference rivals such as the Eagles and Steelers, Raiders and
49ers and Giants and Jets. (The suits argued that several teams,
like the Seahawks, have no geographic partners, and that the best
rivalries--Chiefs-Raiders, anyone?--are sometimes built more on
familiarity than proximity.) It's a shame: After Sept. 8 the
Cowboys won't face the Texans until 2006, and they won't square
off in Houston until 2010.
Then again, the teams hope to schedule a standing preseason
meeting for a Texas-sized trophy called the Governor's Cup. (Look
for them to meet soon in Mexico City, where the Vaqueros and
Petroleros drew more than 112,000 fans for a 1994 exhibition
game, the NFL's largest crowd ever.) "This is Texas," says
Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen, a Texas A&M alum, "so you always
want to compete for bragging rights." The Rumble in Reliant has
already ignited a flare-up of intrastate smack talk between fans.
"Dallas blows," says Jeremy Radcliffe, a 28-year-old partner in
an investment firm and a Texans season-ticket holder. "You want
to know what Dallas is? Dallas is big hair, leased BMWs and
"Houston?" says Chad Jones, 26, a software salesman and Cowboys
diehard. "All Houston's good for is traffic, humidity and a ship
channel that catches on fire. How loyal can the fans be when they
already ran one team out of town?"
In Houston these days billboards ask, whose side are you on? It's
a worthwhile question, considering the city's notorious legion of
Cowboys loyalists. Good lord, the founder and president of the
worldwide Dallas Cowboys Fan Club is a lifelong Houstonian, Bill
(Cowboy) Lamza, who for years has happily tormented the locals on
sports talk radio. "You can cut the jealousy with a knife in this
town," says Lamza, 59. "Is it really a rivalry when you spank
your four-year-old boy? I'm listed in the phone book, and I
already get hundreds of calls a year from strangers whenever the
Cowboys lose. If the Texans beat them, I'll have to go into the
Earlier this month the Houston Chronicle, in the al-Jazeera role,
published Lamza's "Five Reasons You Should Keep Rooting for the
Dallas Cowboys Instead of the Texans." Reason No. 4: Texas
Stadium has a hole in the roof so God can watch his favorite team
play. Reliant Stadium has a retractable roof just in case the
Texans are so bad they don't want God to see them.
In fact the Texans are already trying to lower their fans'
expectations. General manager Charley Casserly guarantees that
the team will not make the playoffs this season. Through free
agency and the expansion draft, Houston picked up accomplished
veterans at cornerback (Aaron Glenn) and linebacker (Jamie
Sharper and Kailee Wong). Yet starting offensive tackles Tony
Boselli and Ryan Young may miss the first quarter of the season
while recovering from shoulder and groin surgeries, respectively.
And for all his potential the 6'3", 230-pound Carr--who, by the
way, grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., as a devout Cowboys fan and
wears number 8 in honor of Dallas great Troy Aikman--is only a
rookie. "Peyton Manning led the league in interceptions as a
rookie, so we'll have to live through that," Casserly says.
"We've got good experience on defense and speed at receiver, but
we have no depth. The offensive line was good on paper, but
that's not the line on the field."
The team's initial struggles won't lessen Houston's love affair
with McNair, the genial billionaire who outbid favored Los
Angeles for an expansion team. Since then, McNair's marketing
department has waged a savvy campaign to woo fans. Whereas the
Astrodome banned tailgating for nearly all of the Oilers' tenure,
the Texans encourage the practice, sending season-ticket holders
a quarterly called the Tailgate Times. What's more, McNair has
bankrolled the finest facilities in the NFL. In a clear nod to
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Reliant's amenities include a
10,000-square-foot weight room, an indoor pool, North America's
largest indoor field and a 60-yard-long locker room with shoe
dryers for each player.
Longtime Houston football watchers, however, offer a note of
caution about the city's enthusiasm for McNair and his new team.
"Bob's had the longest honeymoon since Jackie Gleason," says
Chronicle writer John McClain, who began covering the Oilers in
1977. "The first day of training camp I counted 28 media members,
which is more than I ever saw in the Oilers' heyday. People are
fired up now, but we're a front-running city. If they don't show
improvement, it's going to be like what happened to the Oilers."
The Cowboys, meanwhile, just want to be relevant again
nationally. For the first time since 1990 Dallas will not appear
on Monday Night Football this season. Although the Cowboys don't
disclose season-ticket sales, a recent team brochure revealed
that sideline and lower-level seats, unavailable in years past,
"have found their way back into our 2002 season-ticket
inventory." As the Cowboys have found their way into mediocrity,
it's no mystery why Jones has embraced the Texans' rivalry or why
Dallas agreed to let HBO's Hard Knocks cameras invade its
training camp in San Antonio. (Priceless moment: Judy Trammell,
the choreographer for the Cowboys' cheerleaders, telling one
veteran, "You have gained weight in your face.")
While the Cowboys have built their ad campaign around 33-year-old
Emmitt Smith's quest to break Walter Payton's NFL career rushing
record of 16,726 yards--Smith needs only 540 more to do
it--questions linger at quarterback, where second-year starter
Quincy Carter is dueling Chad Hutchinson, a 25-year-old rookie
from Stanford who pitched for four years in the St. Louis
Cardinals' organization. "We need to see this year that we have a
long-term quarterback," says Jones, amping up the pressure on
Carter, who responded last Friday by completing 10 of 13 passes
in a half of work during a 20-6 win over the Raiders.
The Cowboys' malaise notwithstanding, Texas Stadium has a 96-game
sellout streak, and the Texans have a long way to go to capture
the hearts and minds of the state's football electorate. Take San
Antonio, which has steadfastly remained Cowboys Country despite
being 80 miles closer to Houston than to Dallas. (Moving their
training camp there from Wichita Fallas, Texas, hasn't hurt the
Cowboys' support.) On the opening day of camp, 12,173 Cowboys
supporters turned the Alamodome into a noise tunnel. "I've been
watching the Cowboys for 30 years," says Joe Garcia, a
36-year-old San Antonio grocery manager who was wearing a Roger
Staubach jersey last week. "Dallas is established already, but
you never know. Winning brings a lot of fans."
Even if Cowboys-Texans fails to mature into Cowboys-Redskins--or
for that matter Texans-Titans, whose highly anticipated meetings
take place on Nov. 10 in Nashville and on Dec. 29 at Reliant, the
season finale--nobody denies that Sept. 8 will be a historic day
in Houston. "You know, we could lose every other game this
season," says Lockridge. "But if we just beat Dallas, I'll be the
happiest man on the face of the earth."
Speaking of festive occasions, Lockridge and his wife, Annette,
already have the names picked out should they ever have another
baby. If it's a boy, he'll be David--as in Carr. And if it's a
season-ticket holder. "You want to know what Dallas is? Dallas
is big hair, leased BMWs and credit-card millionaires."
Houston's good for is traffic, humidity and a ship channel that
catches on fire. How loyal can the fans be when they already ran
one team out of town?"