December 14, 2004
The Five People You Meet
by Keith Weiland
This is the article about a man named Keith, and it begins at the end. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending, but all endings are just beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.
The last Sunday of Keith’s life was spent, like most of the others this time of year, at Reliant Park, home to a football stadium amidst a great gray ocean of parking lots. The park had the usual attractions: overpriced concessions, roller coaster football seasons, and a freak show for an offense against a cover 2.
At the time of Keith’s death, the Texans were riding out the final seconds of their honeymoon campaign, the inaugural three seasons the team enjoyed in the National Football League. At every game, Keith would look around the park, checking out each aspect of the team he could see to share what he could with his gentle readers.
With three hours left on earth, Keith watched as the Texans received the opening kickoff against the Colts. Listening to the radio broadcast of the game, he heard that the Texans had inactivated wide receiver Derick Armstrong, the man with the best hands on the team, in favor of tight end Matt Murphy.
Curious, he thought, and risky, but it is a gameplan that could reap dividends against such a skilled opponent.
Two hours and fifty-six minutes left. David Carr, the Texans quarterback attempting his first pass of the game, stares down his receiver as he rolls right and is picked off. The Colts offense, the best the league has seen in some time, quickly takes advantage of the field position and scores.
Two hours and forty-five minutes left. Texans guard Zach Wiegert is flagged for a foul start. Though Keith doesn’t know it at the time, the Texans would eventually be penalized five times in that first half for foul starts… in the comfort of their own stadium, no less.
Two hours and forty-four minutes left. Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney spins inside of left tackle Seth Wand, reaching Carr just as he completes his five-step drop. Though Keith doesn’t know it at the time, Freeney would abuse Wand all game long, logging three sacks for his efforts.
Nice, um, snowballs
Keith tries to distract himself from what he sees on the field, and his eyes snag on a blur of red, trimmed in faux fur. He makes a mental note to add an image of that to his next article in hopes of misleading readers to believe that if they kept reading, they may find more saucy pictures.
Two hours and thirty-four minutes remaining. Colts running back Edgerrin James pushes forward into the soft middle of the Texans defense. Safety Jason Simmons, playing in just his first game since suffering a concussion, dives at James head-on and pokes the football free from James.
The Texans’ DaShon Polk recovers, but the officials rule that the Colts take it back from Polk in the pile. On the game’s next play, the Colts score their second touchdown to increase their lead, 14-0.
One hour and fifty-three minutes to go. Rookie Dunta Robinson blitzes from the nickel corner and sacks Peyton Manning’s blindside. Robinson punches the ball free and teammate Jamie Sharper picks it up. The referees rule it was an incomplete pass, and the Texans challenge that ruling. The referee agreed that the ball was fumbled, but an inadvertent whistle had blown the ball dead once it hit the ground.
Fifty-seven minutes left to live. Carr hands off to Davis. He makes a single cut through the backside of the line blocking, and Wiegert makes a second crucial block of safety Mike Doss to spring Davis for a score. The Texans have closed the gap on the Colts to 17-14.
Eighteen minutes left. Carr is sacked on a third down play by a Colts lineman. Head coach Dom Capers doesn’t elect to go for it on fourth down from midfield with less than six minutes in the game.
"It’s getting old," Gary Walker, the onetime Oiler turner Texan, would say to the Houston Chronicle after the game. "I don’t understand why. The things we do to beat ourselves, it’s frustrating. It’s time for a change."
Walker’s teammate, Jamie Sharper, would also add, “Somebody has to show us the way. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but who’s going to direct us there? We need somebody to direct us to wins instead of close games."
Two minutes. Mike Vanderjagt kicks field goal, and the Colts go up by nine points over the Texans. The stands empty.
Sixty seconds. Freeney spins in front of Wand, then simply pushes him backward into Carr for a sack. Time ticks away on the Texans’ chances to win the game.
Now Keith just looked tired. He had seen poor football at the park before. Many times.
Here are the sounds of Keith’s last minutes at Reliant Park. Fans booing. Children crying. Toilets flushing. Thousands of feet stomping for the exit ramps. And this.
The distant thump of a team’s single and once-proud heartbeat.
Keith’s head was pounding. Although the park had been relatively free of the burden of heavy expectations, he knew the horror stories of the business. Once, in Cleveland, a head coach lost his job just two years into the franchise history of a modern expansion team. Another time, here in his home of Houston, the owner of the then-Houston Oilers moved his team away after many years of disappointment, and… well, that was the worst.
In those final moments, Keith seemed to relive the whole history of the new Texans franchise: Bob McNair is awarded the league’s 32nd franchise, construction of Reliant stadium begins, the expansion and college drafts are held, the Texans win over the Cowboys, the Dolphins, and the Jags. They suffer losses, too. Oh, the losses. Too many of them to count.
All in the name of progress, he thought, until the progress stopped.
A stunning impact. A blinding flash of light.
And then, nothing.
The expansion honeymoon was dead.
When Keith awoke, the first thing he felt was weightlessness. All of his pain, hate, and anxieties were gone. He recognized his surroundings. Keith was inside the Astrodome, but it wasn’t the same deteriorating Dome as he last remembered it. This Dome was cleaner, less dingy. Keith ran and ran all over the Dome, leaping over seats and running onto the artificial turf.
With his newfound energy, Keith kept running. That is, until he ran into a big man in wearing a big, blue suit.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the man in the blue suit said.
Keith recognized the man. It was Oilers owner Bud Adams. He tried to speak – yell, really, the man had taken away his favorite boyhood team for chrissakes – but he couldn’t. If this was what life after death was going to be, Keith thought, then talk about your foul starts.
“Your voice will come back soon,” Bud said. “I know you have questions. Yes, this is heaven. My heaven. Including myself, you’re going to meet five people to help you explain what you didn’t know when the honeymoon ended.”
The man in blue led Keith through the many levels of the Astrodome. Keith wondered why he was there.
“The human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect,” Bud said. “Without me, there would be no Houston Oilers. Without me, there would be no Houston Texans.”
Keith tried to speak, but could only make out the words, “Texans, Super Bowl?”
Bud stuck out his lower lip. “I cannot answer that.”
When Keith next opened his eyes, he found himself standing in a pile of manure. The smell was abominable. At least still feeling fresh, if not smelling it, Keith leapt from the manure and nearly landed on another man.
The man, like Bud, was portly, but with a genuine demeanor, a shovel, and a big ass cowboy hat. Keith also recognized him. It was onetime Oilers coach Bum Phillips.
“You don’t got you a shovel?” Bum asked.
Keith shook his head. Bum handed him the one in his hand and chortled.
“Hard work and good times go together,” he said, “but the hard work comes first.”
Keith took the shovel from Bum and began to scoop up the manure. Bum welcomed him to his ranch.
“I never got to kick that sonofabitch door in,” Bum told him, “but I learned that when you lose something, you gain something else."
Keith stopped shoveling to look at Bum. He wanted to tell him how sorry everyone felt that Bud sacked him.
“I’ve been a Saint,” Bum said, pointing to his acreage, “but this is my heaven.”
“But the Texans,” Keith said, “do they ever kick the door in for a Super Bowl?”
“Sorry, pardner, but I can’t answer that.”
When Keith next opened his eyes, he saw his legs were buried in snow. Off in the distance was a beacon. Keith ran towards the light, finding an EyeMasters at its source. From a glass window, Keith peered inside to finds hundreds of referees, all being fitted for spectacles and contact lenses.
Keith heard two feet approaching from the side. He turned and saw Mike Renfro, a former Oilers receiver.
“Mike,” Keith said, his voice now fully recovered, “that game! The ’79 AFC Championship. You were in bounds!”
Mike smiled. “Yes, I know. I always knew. But I have long since let it go.”
Keith’s face went red. “I was furious! The league even instigated instant replay because of you.”
“I keep them here to protect them,” Mike said, nodding to the officials inside EyeMasters. “We’re not born with anger. It is a poison. The harms we do to ourselves…" Mike sighed. "And to think I got traded to the Cowboys four years later.”
“But the Texans… did they ever win a Super Bowl?”
Mike shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I cannot answer that.”
The cold vanished, replaced by a humid Florida sun. Keith found himself seated on a bleacher next to a school’s football field. The team’s coach, a slender man of about five feet and nine inches walked towards him.
“Don’t you recognize me?” the man asked. “I won’t give in until you figure it out.”
Keith studied the man’s face. “Ernest Givins. E.G., you were one tough receiver. Man, I loved to watch you play.”
E.G. smiled. “Man, I loved to play. Let’s go throw it around.”
E.G. tossed Keith a football, and the two ran onto the school’s field. Keith threw the football long and high several times, and E.G. slid underneath each one, never letting the ball touch the ground.
After watching E.G, do an electric slide, Keith ran downfield to give him a high-five.
“Man, I loved to play,” E.G. said, “but careers end. Remember this though: My love for the game endures. Never forget the power of love.”
Keith remembered the Texans and wondered again if they won a Super Bowl.
“I’m sorry,” E.G. said, “I can’t answer that one.”
Keith knew his journey was almost to an end. When he opened his eyes next, he found himself standing on a baseball diamond, at home plate. A man emerged from the dugout wearing a Red Sox cap.
“Hiya, Keith. Don’t you recognize me?”
Keith saw the face of someone he knew he had seen far too often, but he couldn’t remember his name.
“Come on,” the man said, “I’m Ben Affleck. The movie star! You know, Gigli, Jersey Girl…?”
“Never saw ‘em.”
“Look, I’m a famous person, but more importantly, at least for this article, I’m also a big time Red Sox fan. I have just one teensy bit of wisdom to impart to you.”
"Just one?" Keith asked. "Why am I not surprised?”
“Very funny, wiseguy. Now, like Houston pro football fans such as yourself, we Red Sox fans suffered for years – generations, really – without a World Series victory. Self-aggrandizing and conceited as we are, Boston fans just needed to be patient for the big payoff. It was worth the wait.”
“Assuming one can live that long," Keith said. "So do the Texans ever win the Super Bowl?”
Ben flashed his bleached teeth and grabbed Keith by the hand. The two of them flew through the sky until they landed back at Reliant Park. Everyone Keith knew was there waiting for him.
“The honeymoon has died,” Ben said. “You just need to keep telling these folks to stay patient.”
Please check your local listings to find out when Keith Weiland will shadow Mitch Albom at your local Barnes & Noble bookseller to sign copies of this article.
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