Deep in the heart of Texas, and pretty much everywhere else in the state, the Dallas Cowboys are kings and the Houston Texans are little more than an afterthought outside the city in which they play. Never mind that the Texans are 2-0 and the Cowboys are 0-2 heading into today's match-up in Houston.
This nine-year-old expansion team cannot compete with the popularity the Cowboys have gained in an illustrious, 50-year history filled with larger-than-life figures who helped root the franchise deep in Texas history. The Cowboys' shadow is so long, in fact, that the franchise often is referred to as "America's Team". Bob McNair, the Texans' owner, understands that and knows the best way to change things is by winning, something Houston rarely did during its first few seasons.
"We think it's an opportunity here in Texas to have a great rivalry that creates a lot of interest for football, and the NFL," McNair said. "Frankly, the more we beat the Cowboys, the more interest there will be. We have to prove ourselves. The quicker we do that, the more fun everybody in Houston is going to have." Houston had no NFL team at all for six seasons, after the Oilers left to become the Tennessee Titans in 1997, leaving no other option than to pull for the Cowboys for fans wanting to be loyal to their state.
And the Texans might not even rank second to the Cowboys, in Texas football fealty, because the college football Texas Longhorns have a fanatical following. Houston is also still competing with the team that left the city 13 years ago. Bum Phillips, who coached the Oilers during their "Luv Ya Blue" heyday in the late 1970s, believes Houston's success this season could finally win over fans who soured on the NFL when the owner Bud Adams moved the Oilers to Tennessee.
"The Oilers and the city tied together so great during a long period of time that when they left a lot of people just really lost interest in football," Phillips said. "It took a while, it took what the Texans are doing now, which is winning, to get them back excited and back to football again." It was Phillips who, at the height of the Oilers' success, famously said of the Cowboys: "They may be America's Team but we're Texas's team." He still believes it.
"They are the state's team," he said of the Texans. "As far as I'm concerned they have always been the state's team. The thing I thought that made the Oilers the state's team is the effort they put out Ö that's what inspired Houston to get behind them and the Texans are doing that right now. They are laying it all on the line every game." Raheel Ramzanali grew up in Houston and hosts a local radio show. He said he has never seen Texans fans more excited.
"The Houston Texans always have the little-brother syndrome because they are the newer team," he said. "There's not many Texans fans outside of Houston. It's a Dallas state where everybody roots for the Cowboys. No matter what they do, big brother's going to get more attention Ö they're proud of the Texans, but yet they always feel like they're disrespected no matter what happens." In some cases, the reach of the Cowboys might be a product of geography, with the cities closer to Dallas latching on to the team in their vicinity. However, some of the most ardent supporters of the Cowboys live in the Rio Grande Valley, which is much closer to Houston.
Richard Raymond, a lawmaker from Laredo, in the south of the state, believes his region's love for the Cowboys can be traced to Tom Landry, who coached the team from its 1960 inception through the 1988 season and won two Super Bowls. "I think it's safe to say that the Cowboys will have more folks cheering for them in Laredo than the Texans will," Raymond said. "Tom Landry, who was their first coach, is from down in the valley, from Mission. So I guess historically there's always been a strong connection to the Dallas Cowboys in part because of that."
The Cowboys' reach extends nearly across the enormous state; the club has team shops from El Paso in the west to Amarillo in the north and even in the Houston suburb of Katy, in the east. The Texans have a store only in their home stadium. And while many Cowboys games are broadcast nationally, Texans games are not always shown throughout Texas. Some believe it will take the Texans winning a Super Bowl to win over people in the state. Others suggest it will never change.
Phillips, the folksy former coach, gave a guarantee. "Let me tell you one thing, just keep going the way they're going and they will overtake them real quickly." Phillips, 87, finds himself in a quandary this week. Does he root for Dallas, where his son, Wade, is the coach and grandson Wes is an assistant? Or does he go with his beloved Houston? "Obviously I've got a family connection with the Cowboys, but I've got an even longer family connection with Houston no matter who it is, whether it's the Oilers or the Texans," he said. "So I'm kind of torn between two things. In fact, I'm so torn I'm not even going to go to the game."
He will remain on his ranch in Goliad, where he retired. "I'll watch it, but I don't want the wrong people to see me crying or laughing," he said, only half-joking. "You win both ways. Either your favourite city wins or your favourite son wins." If only it were that easy for the rest of Texas.
* Associated Press