I grew up in Houston, Texas, a fact I neither brag about nor hold my head in shame about (well, usually; but the less said about Ted Cruz’s re-election the better.) It is what it was and I have not lived there for quite some time.
My family lived not far from the Astrodome, then the home to the Astros as well as Houston’s then-NFL team, the Oilers. During most of that portion of my youth during which I began to develop an observational knowledge of sports the Oilers were, well, there’s really no way around this: They were bad. Horrid, even.
I would on occasion hear of how the team had been quite good not long before I was born, a championship team during the early days of the American Football League when it played in an old high school stadium near the campus of the University of Houston. But the Oilers of the early 1970s, the eighth wonder of the world (as the Astrodome was once known) and all, now are most remembered for a fan infamously flipping off a camera during a game during Monday night football and rendering the notoriously verbose Howard Cosell momentarily speechless.
That fan’s sentiment was shared by much of Houston. Once, at a school carnival, I won a 5-by-7 inch glossy photo of the Oilers’ quarterback. My father made me tear it up. Literally.
The Astros of the 1970s weren’t much better than the Oilers, but for some reason the baseball team, certain notoriously bad trades aside, didn’t attract quite as much local animosity as the football team did.
The first baseball game I attended was the Astros’ 1974 home opener, on a Friday night against the Dodgers. I had to look the game up to remember that the Astros’ starter was Claude Osteen (no relation to Joel as far as I know), but I‘ve always remembered that the Dodgers started Al Downing. Why? It was his first start since serving up home run number 715 to Hank Aaron earlier in the week.
We saw a handful of games that year, the last being Aaron’s final appearance in Houston as an Atlanta Brave. The sellout crowd (a true rarity for the Astros of that era) gave him a standing ovation when he came to the plate. My father even joined in, one of the few times I can recall him having anything good to say about anyone who wasn’t white.
And yet my most indelible Astrodome memory is of football – and of the year that the Oilers returned to prominence. After a decade out of the playoffs, a trade for the first draft pick brought in Earl Campbell, the prior year’s Heisman Trophy winner. That did not solve all problems for the Oilers. They still did not make it to the Super Bowl – then, or ever. (When it finally happened, it was three years after leaving the city and even abandoning the name “Oilers.” To me, that doesn’t count, but I digress.)
Merely because of that draft choice, however, the team did make it back onto the Monday Night Football schedule. In prime time late in the year, the Oilers hosted the Miami Dolphins – several years removed from the perfect 17-0 season but still a contender. The Oilers went 1-13 the year the Dolphins were undefeated and, despite Campbell’s presence, were still viewed as pretenders.
A promotional gimmick to at least aid in erasing that perception was the handing out of blue-and-white pompoms to all of those who attended that Monday night game. Not long before game time, with the Oilers’ memorable (yet equally annoying) fight song blaring, all 50,000 or so people in attendance began waving those pompoms. Between more fighter-jet flyovers and bad marching-band renditions of “Sweet Caroline” than I can count, I’ve long since become jaded to sporting-event spectacles, but the sight of all of those pompoms then left me awestruck. It also left me wondering, “What the hell is going to happen if we lose?”
But we didn’t.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Oilers ahead by five and trying to run out the clock, Campbell ran 81 yards for a touchdown to seal the deal.
The next day, some kids at school said they’d seen me on TV. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. It would be a few years before I managed to acquire a VCR, so I couldn’t go back and look – at least for quite a while. Just prior to the YouTube era, some enterprising video pirate began selling bootleg copies of network broadcasts of old NFL broadcasts on eBay. The pirate’s copy of the Houston-Miami game was several generations old even before he burned it onto a DVD. Most every crowd shot is just a conglomeration of blurs; I know exactly where I was sitting and I still can’t discern if I was ever actually onscreen or not. I’ll give the guys who said they saw me the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe sports isn’t your thing now – and maybe it never was. But what many people still refer to as “The Earl Campbell Game” is a happy memory for me.
It is a memory of a time when the era still fondly referred to by many (even many who have long-since abandoned Texas) as “Luv Ya Blue” was just beginning.
A memory of a time when the man now known for being the viciously transphobic lieutenant governor of Texas (re-elected this month right along with Ted Cruz) was known only for being a genuinely likeable sports anchor at Houston’s CBS affiliate.
A memory of a time when the world was young – or at least seemed so.
A memory of 40 years ago.
A memory of Nov. 20, 1978.
We all know what happened a week later.
For some of us, that was our first lesson in gay politics and history. For some it still may serve as such, either in Sean Penn’s “Milk” or from the documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” which opens with a clip of Sen. Dianne Feinstein announcing the assassinations at San Francisco City Hall.
For many of us whose adolescence came and went long prior to the internet and DVDs, that first lesson came in gay politics and history came in as close to real time as one could expect: via a special report that immediately preceded the Monday Night Football game for that week — a 49ers home game, which went on almost as if nothing else had happened that day.
On Nov. 27, the Pittsburgh Steelers won.
Everybody else lost.