Center of Attention

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March 9, 2000
Center of Attention by Ric Sweeney

"I want you to know that I’m proud to be a Texan, but I’m even more proud to be a Houstonian" — Bob McNair, March 9, 2000

Imagine staring down a sea of notepads, microphones and cameras; a tangled mass of arms; a cacophony of voices and shouts… and maybe then you’ll have an idea of where Bob McNair stood Thursday morning. Think the eye of the storm, or better yet, looking down the barrel of a loaded shotgun. From the minute he entered the NFL 2002 groundbreaking tent, he was the center of the media’s attention, a place he doesn’t seem all that comfortable occupying. 

It must have then come as a relief to McNair when the vortex that was the media finally relented — retracting notepads and microphones, turning off their camera lights and beta decks and saving their inquiries and ruminations for another day — content that they had drained from Houston’s biggest star enough sound bites and quotes to fill their latest editions. But one lone voice had more to say. That voice belonged to me…

It’s hard to quantify the happenings of Thursday’s groundbreaking properly. Pat and I went into the ceremony expecting many things, but none included (and rightfully so) the events that actually did unfold. You see, expectations don’t come that grand, even those of the wild variety.

To say our new NFL franchise has its priorities straight is akin to proclaiming the ocean wet. Not only have they mastered the art of throwing a hoot-and-hollerin’ shindig, but they’ve taken great pains to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes. Ask a member of the Houston media, any member (and I did), and you’ll hear them sing the same chorus: McNair and company understand, and more importantly, value the importance of public relations. They extend hands as a means to embrace, not shove away. And if you’re fortunate enough to catch one of them in conversation, you are the one and only person in their orbit — they listen, they engage — they bring you to their level. I know this because I experienced it firsthand on Thursday.

As media guys who have been doing this for years, for a living, swarmed the gathered dignitaries like it was another walk in the park, I found myself overwhelmed. Who was I to ask questions of Houston football’s movers and shakers? Was I crazy, expecting them to take time from their most important business day, to chat with some scrub reporter with a so-so shave job and a matted head of hair courtesy of a hat I had chucked at the last minute? As it turns out, no, I wasn’t crazy at all. Because this is an organization that recognizes no classes. I found this out right away when, early in the morning, I approached Executive Vice President Steve Patterson. 

Patterson helped lay the foundation for Houston’s first, and only, two championships while a Rocket executive, then helped do it all again with the Aeros. He’s a guy you’d put in the H category for "huge" as far as I’m concerned. And I’m about to ask him for an interview. Yeah, right. But he was more than happy to oblige. I asked him for a sound bite and he gave me four. And I was the one who ended the interview, not him. He was ready to answer as many questions as I could think to throw at him. He never checked his watch or plotted his escape.

When I handed him my business card, he read it rather than hastily shoving it into the nether reaches of a pocket that he’ll never again investigate. He even took time to point out that our interview was taking place on what will eventually be the stadium’s 30-yard line. How cool is that?

You would have thought I was Edward R. Murrow the way Patterson treated me. Nervous, fumbling, I managed to squeeze out a question, asking Patterson to relate the type of owner McNair was and will continue to be.

"I’ve been blessed to be able to work with the man for the last two and half years. It’s been very exciting. He hires good people, let’s them do their job; gives you the kind of financial backing that you need to get it done, and without him, we wouldn’t be standing here today."

With my confidence swelling, I moved on to Paul Tagliabue, only the commissioner of the NFL. No biggie. He was alone, not busy, and so I (reluctantly, and nervously) moved in. Are you familiar with the swallowing mechanism that seems to go into overdrive whenever you’re nervous? When words are clipped because the sudden urge to engulf salvia down the back of your throat becomes so overwhelming that you practically choke? Yeah, that happened twice on my first question to Paul. Did I mention he’s the commissioner of the NFL?

Somehow, he deciphered my clipped inquiry, something about McNair’s efforts to bring the NFL back to Houston, and offered, "Bob McNair was not just tireless but very, very comprehensive in the way he approached things. He was always responsive to questions that owners had or that our committees had. And he was always extremely positive about what Houston could do, the interest in the fans, and I think that was the difference in achieving what he achieved."

Not too shabby. I had interviewed both Steve Patterson and Paul Tagliabue and they could not have been more gracious.

But despite having racked up both bigwigs, this wasn’t getting any easier. That’s because Mr. McNair was still on my list, and he was going to drain the remaining life from my body, I could feel it — knees knocking, stomach churning… I was going to try and interview Bob McNair — was I nuts?

I joined in the media feeding frenzy around him, but merely stuck my tape recorder in his face. I wanted to ask him about his use of the term Texan in his address — whether it had any hidden significance. But KHOU’s Matt Musil was busy drilling the owner, so I bided my time and deferred to the more experienced of the throng. I followed the group, including Mr. McNair, outside and watched as more groundbreaking took place in the Dome parking lot. On my way back in, I realized that I was walking side by side with the owner — just the two of us. The circus was busy watching the mayor, and what not, clink their shovels on the Astrodome parking lot and I WAS WALKING IN WITH BOB MCNAIR!

"Say something, say something!!" my brave conscience pleaded. "Shut up," I responded, "Mind your own business!"

"Mr. McNa — (swallow mechanism) Nair… my nam — (again). My name is Ric Sweeney (good thing I didn’t stumble on that name, eh?) and I write for Houst….com (I was now talking beneath my breath)."

Hand extended, eyes locked in, "Ric, it’s good to meet you."

"Thank you, sir."

Not bad. Not good, but not bad. He promised to give me an interview, and what more could I ask? Upon his return back inside the tent, the media again converged. And I again took my place, arm outstretched, tape recorder rolling  — but this time, it was different. Where I had been timid and shy before, I was now confident and robust. By shaking my hand and making eye contact with me, Mr. McNair had brought me, if only for a brief moment, into his world. I had made a connection with him. I no longer felt self-conscious or inferior — he made me feel at ease and comfortable.

Questions continued to hurl with lightening rapidity, when suddenly, there were no more questions to ask. Thank yous were issued, as the journalists began to move on, then it came out:

"Mr. McNair! Any significance in the "Proud to be a Texan" comment?"

Everything stopped. The hoard, which had been moving on, returned. The notepads and microphones that had been put away shot back at McNair. The camera lights flashed back on and glared. And the untangled mass of arms re-tangled. The media returned to record his answer en masse, but he was giving it to me. And as far as I was concerned, it was only me.

"Well, I think yes, there’s significance to it — I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of fans have indicated support for that name — there’s a lot of people who are proud to be a Texan. It is one of my favorite names but we haven’t selected a name, but it is a name that I think is very fitting."  

Somehow, on what was obviously their special day, Bob McNair and his people had made me feel like the center of attention. I was made to feel an integral part of the new NFL franchise — a piece that was just as important to their foundation as the shovel that helped break the ground. 

Can 2002 get here any faster?!

Ric Sweeney officially swore to never cheer for the Oilers again a record 8 times in his career as a fan. Bud Adams finally called his bluff in 1996. And Ric hasn’t cheered a day since. Bob McNair Bob McNair Home

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