Photo: Michael Ciaglo, Staff
For a few thrilling minutes, Houston Texans fans at NRG Stadium got what they were hoping for – a drive deep into enemy territory ending with a touchdown pass from the heralded rookie quarterback to the team’s star wide receiver. For a few fleeting hours, they were able to cheer, boo, curse and argue, just like any Sunday afternoon in football season.
Of course, this contest against the Jacksonville Jaguars was not just any game. This particular inaugural day of a new NFL season was never so much about the final score – a good thing considering how easily the Jaguars prevailed – as about the return of something normal. The Texans lost but Houston won.
“It’s like waking up from the disaster that happened to us, just for a little while,” said Jim Tactay, who spent days rescuing people in north Houston after Hurricane Harvey dumped record rainfall on southeast Texas. “It’s a reminder that we have another life to live.”
In that life, the seasonal cycle of professional sports now places football in the spotlight. The Texans have another quarterback controversy brewing, more offensive woes to ponder and high expectations to fulfill. Mulling all of that in the wake of a 29-7 loss seems like a useful distraction from the alternate reality of mops and mud and mildew.
Not that there weren’t plenty of reminders of the other life, the one that descended from the heavens two weeks ago and has absorbed us ever since. “Houston Strong” was seen on thousands of T-shirts and signs around the stadium. There was a special pregame ceremony honoring first responders, some of whom gave their lives to help others. There was a special halftime song.
That Texans fans did not get to see a Hollywood script come to fruition, with an inspiring performance from the home team, was less important than they got to see something that did not remind them of soaked furniture and lost cars. Even at NRG Center, which still hosts almost 2,000 storm victims in a makeshift shelter in the shadow of the stadium, the game was welcome entertainment.
“I live for it. … Football makes me happy,” said Clinton Cage, one of a small group at a big-screen viewing party that included raffles and lots of giveaway bead necklaces and Texans souvenir cups.
Cage, 56, is living at the shelter because of trouble with his roof. He doesn’t know when it will get fixed. Yet he remains upbeat, no matter how dismal the first game results. It’s just one game. Just one day.
“You can’t think about this loss because this loss is going to be behind you,” said Cage, a blue necklace draped on his red shirt. “You have to live for the future.”
‘A good relief’
Such was the prevailing sentiment from the early hours of a clear Sunday morning that was far cooler than normal. Thousands of tailgaters were eager to usher in a day that had to be better than so many that preceded it.
“It’s our first day just to, like, take a break from it,” said Justin Hoffman, who along with his brother Jonathan had helped clean out their sister’s home in Kingwood, the master-planned community where they all had grown up. “It’s a good relief.”
Their task of rebuilding is far from done. Same for so many others in Kingwood and in neighborhoods in every direction. No one is certain how many homes were damaged or ruined, how many vehicles lost, how long recovery will take. But for the Hoffman brothers, Sunday was a day of rest and fun.
“Tomorrow, it’s back to work,” Jonathan Hoffman said.
Some of the tailgaters had arrived at 6 a.m. to get their spot, setting up speakers for music, TVs to watch the game, grills to make lunch. Beer flowed. There were smiles, laughter. A sense of camaraderie prevailed. All was just as usual, at least on the surface.
“We’ve always been here,” said 39-year-old Deyna Carabajal, referring to a passion for tailgating at Texans games since the team arrived in Houston. “Harvey’s not going to put us down.”
Flags hung from the seven tents arranged by Carabajal’s group, called La Familia.
“It’s a nice distraction from everything,” said Natali Rives, 28, enjoying the festivities alongside Carabajal. “You have to kind of get out of your own mind a little bit.”
Rives knew whereof she spoke. The Alvin resident had to leave her home with her 4-year-old daughter before the flooding began. They stayed with her mother in Pasadena, volunteering and donating as they could. She wanted to show her daughter one thing above all: Even in tragedy, people can still be positive.
And so it was at the tailgates. The togetherness that led people to put themselves in danger to help strangers was just as evident on an expanse of asphalt outside of a football stadium. Here no one talked of blue and red America, both of which are represented on the team jerseys.
One burly fan in a Whitney Mercilus jersey even offered temporary kinship to the Jaguars and their fans, with Hurricane Irma bearing down on their homes.
“I can’t trash-talk the Jags this time,” he said. “We’re hurricane brothers.”
‘We’re here together’
Not far away another tailgate group had printed dozens of “hoUSton” shirts to sell, with proceeds going to J.J. Watt’s fundraising drive. The organizers had debated whether to come at all, wondering whether it was right to be drinking and having fun while so many others still suffered. They knew many lives had been changed almost overnight.
In the end they realized some good could come from it.
“You still want to give your support,” said Raquel Ochoa, 41, one of the organizers. “We’re just diehard Texans.”
The tailgate population dwindled as game time arrived. Spirits were high. Three women walked together toward NRG Stadium. They wore white V-necks bearing the logo, written in sparkling letters, that had been stamped across the city since Harvey struck: HOUSTON STRONG.
The three friends wanted to get the sense of devastation out of their heads. Even if reminders of Harvey still were everywhere – in conversations, across banners, on shirts – the game offered a chance to think about something else, talk about something else. Even as the talk grew angrier with each Jaguars score, the topic at least was football, not FEMA.
One of the trio of women in custom-made shirts, 42-year-old Debra Reyna, had damage to her car. Friend Alison McGallion, 40, was living in a flood-damaged home.
“It’s going to be very emotionally charged today,” Reyna said. “The city’s been through a lot.”
McGallion teared up. The storm had been a lot to handle, she said. Her Oak Forest home had 8 inches of water, and she has yet to rip out her floors. But it was just another task to face, one that could be put off a little longer.
For now, McGallion wanted normalcy. She’d put on Texans earrings. She’d donned her white shorts and special shirt. She wasn’t going to ruin it by wiping her tears.
As the game began, some of those without tickets remained in the parking lot to watch on TV with their friends. Kelesha James sipped a beer and reflected on the turn of events in her life and in the lives of countless thousands of others.
James, 38, had been on vacation in Mexico the week before Harvey hit and didn’t think much about it. It didn’t seem like it would amount to much – just a little tropical depression. When it did, then grew bigger yet, she believed her home in west Houston would be fine.
Then Harvey arrived and water began to rise. James had evacuated ahead of time. Neighbors who stayed later had to be rescued. She managed to save some electronics and some clothes. Everything else is a loss.
Since then she’s been staying in a friend’s extra room and trying to adjust.
For a few hours Sunday, she didn’t have to think about it. A friend invited her to join a tailgate group. The Texans were supposed to provide the perfect ending with an inspiring triumph. But the NFL is unpredictable. Maybe it had been too much to ask with the distraction of the storm. Players are people, too.
And in fact Watt had already done the Texans proud, even if he didn’t get to the Jaguars’ quarterback Sunday afternoon. He started a small relief effort with a goal of $200,000. Today’s total tops $30 million.
Even on a day when the team fumbled the Hollywood ending, that number looms high over the scoreboard. A happy distraction is a good thing, no doubt. Having a home to go to is another story entirely.
Sarah Norman watched the Texans from a wheelchair at the NRG shelter. She loves the team and loves watching the games.
The 68-year-old Norman, for the moment, is homeless. She had to leave her apartment in Houston well before the storm, planning to string together stays with family and friends while looking for a place to live. That task now looked more daunting. Her old life is gone and the future uncertain. She has no idea where she will end up.
“I need to find somewhere to live,” Norman said.
On Sunday, for a little while, that didn’t matter quite as much. She got to see the game in the company of new friends she has made at the shelter. It was fun.
“We’re here together – that’s the only way to get by,” she said. “We’ll get through it.”