A Texas Howdy

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March 4, 2002
A Texas Howdy

by Bob Hulsey

Now that I’ve graduated to having my own column, I suppose a more formal introduction is a good way to start. In future columns, I’ll focus on the Texans and what I find noteworthy in their successes and failures as an NFL franchise. The city of Houston has seen more than their share of athletic failures and disappointments. Here’s hoping the Houston Texans will mean to Houston what the Dallas Cowboys mean to Dallas — minus the parole officers and the rather insufferable bandwagoners.

But enough about that.

Every story must have a beginning and my football saga begins in Rice Stadium, still a venerable grande dame of a field, located just a hail mary away from Houston’s Medical Center. The Oilers used to play there when I was young and Bud Adams decided the great outdoors was better than playing on Astroturf. In truth, the rent at Rice was cheaper than the Astrodome.

I got to sit in the end zone seats with other youths, including my sister and brothers, while we watched the Oilers play in the old American Football League. My parents had 40-yard-line seats in the upper deck. Dad knew Bud and bought season tickets to show his support.
You really don’t see entire families at NFL games today. I’m sure PSLs and $50 tickets sort of preclude that but it’s a shame. Children are everywhere at baseball games, even when it’s past their bedtimes. I don’t see kids at pro football games, unless they are the 250-lb types with painted faces.

I remember sunny afternoons watching the Oilers face Joe Namath and the Jets, Jim Nance and the Patriots or Jack Kemp and the Bills. I was there when they beat the Denver Broncos, not surrendering a single first down the entire game.

Rice Stadium reeked with the simultaneous smell of cigar smoke and popcorn. A trip to the concession stand was as exciting as a punt return when you are ten years old. We were never told to save room for dinner. We ate as well as two dollars could take us. Another highlight was stomping on cups and containers as we were leaving the stadium. Somehow, there’s probably an OSHA regulation against that now.

The Oilers of 1967 were an exciting club. The defense was terrific and provided about half the points. The offense was terrible but had one solid weapon in RB Hoyle Granger. They came from nowhere to win the Eastern Division title.

Before the season ended, we were invited to Autograph Day at the old practice facility on Fannin. Somewhere in the catacombs of family belongings may still exist the spiral notebook with the autographs of George Blanda, Don Trull, Sid Blanks, Garland Boyette, W.K. Hicks, George Webster, Bobby Maples and Ernie Ladd among others What you couldn’t help but notice up close was how big these guys were. At my age, even 5’6" Charlie Tolar seemed huge, particularly in pads. You know, today’s players still look huge too.

We moved to Denver not long afterwards which explains why I know so much about the Oilers and Broncos. Our family of seven had season tickets in Denver too which I usually gave away to friends once the Broncos fell to last place and the weather turned cold. It was the peak of my popularity.

Mile High Stadium had a different feel than Rice Stadium. Not better or worse, just different. The upper deck could shake violently and it made me feel a little less secure the day I found out it was built over an old landfill. My friends spent as much time eyeing the Bronco cheerleaders from afar as they did watching the game. I watched some outstanding players like Floyd Little, Bill Thompson, Marlin Briscoe and Rich "Tombstone" Jackson. I was there for the longest punt in pro football history – 98 yards by Steve O’Neill of the Jets in 1969.

One of the best things was going to Paul Bunyon’s to eat after the game. The restaurant was decorated like an old hunting lodge with wood floors and stuffed animal heads along the walls. It was dark and the floor was littered in peanut shells but the food was good and the peanuts were all-you-can-eat. Today, the place would be closed down, either by the peanut allergists or the professional victims that think the proprietor should pay if you happen to dump hot coffee in your lap. Falling on your butt from slipping on peanut shells was entertainment back then, not an invitation to a lawsuit.

But enough about that.

I decided I wanted to be a play-by-play announcer. I spent thousands of hours "calling" football, baseball and basketball games, with the television sound turned down or play-acting in the back yard, hoping to be the next Curt Gowdy or Gene Elston. In high school, I got my first big interview – that of Gordie Howe and other members of the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association. It made the back page of the "Eagle Eye".

I attended the University of Houston and, through their campus radio station, found myself interviewing players like Calvin Murphy, Mike Newlin, Otis Birdsong, Franco Harris, J.R. Richard and Joaquin Andujar.
One night I had a press pass to see the Astros play the Montreal Expos. I declined to go because I had just been to the Dome a few nights before and had plenty of tape in the can. I missed Larry Dierker’s no-hitter. So I got a pass to go to the game the following night. Afterwards, I found Dierker in the Houston clubhouse. Sticking my microphone in his face, I asked about the no-hitter.

"Look, that’s all anyone has asked me about for the past 24 hours," he pleaded. "I was on all the local sportscasts. I was on Good Morning America and the Today Show. Could we possibly talk about something else."

"Okay," I said, displaying the brashness of my youth. "Let’s talk about your hitting…"

"I first started thinking about a no-hitter in the fifth inning," deadpanned Larry.

I transfered to the University of Texas which had much better facilities, better educators and a lack of anything to interview that wasn’t wearing orange.

I had several on-campus encounters with the great Earl Campbell. Those stories about how fast Earl ran and how long it took him to get back to the huddle – they’re all true. I found myself walking behind him a few times on the way to class and you never saw an able-bodied man walk so slow in your life. Even pausing in between steps, I couldn’t slow down enough to walk behind him for long. I sold Skoal to Earl and his brother Tim while I worked at the nearby 7-11 store. Tim prefered Copenhagen.

But enough about that.

I took a radio job near Houston after graduation and got to watch the Astros up close during the 1979 season when they had their first real pennant race. Andujar was always a fun subject because he was as unpredictable off the field as he was on it. Jose Cruz was not. That thick Puerto Rican accent made Jose hard to understand and probably explains why the baseball media never gave him the recognition he deserved. Taped interviews were practically unintelligible.

Alan Ashby was probably the nicest interview. Intelligent, sincere, humorous and never dodged a question. Denny Walling gave an interview only after I acknowledged he was not Alan Ashby.

"Everybody mistakes me for him," Denny explained.

Future arrangements led to interviews with folks like Bob Watson, Jim Wynn, Art Howe, Arthur Ashe, Guy Lewis and Olympic diver Greg Louganis. Once I also met NFL referee Red Cashion. I asked him to give me his signature "first dowwwwn" call.

"I can’t do that with less than 70,000 people watching me," said Red in a subdued way.

I once played cards with Oiler fullback Tim Wilson. I once saw J.R. Richard honk and wave at me as we were driving away from the Astrodome.

Unless you get to the top, sportswriting and sports broadcasting aren’t well-paying jobs. You look for all the fringe benefits and free meals you can get. It can be fun while you’re young but it’s not the sort of thing to recommend for anyone who wants a regular life.

It’s been a long time since I rubbed shoulders with any famous athletes. I don’t miss it that much. I can’t say I was star-struck. You find out these guys are just like you are – only bigger, faster, wealthier and women seem to like them more. They still put their jocks on one strap at a time. All except Andujar.

But enough about that.

Bob Hulsey has a Bachelor of Journalism degree, briefly worked in radio, and now labors for a major telecommunications company. HoustonProFootball.com also showcases his previous work, Pro Log: From George To George, a look back at Houston’s storied football past. He is still searching for a "regular life."

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