Football-crazy Houston to pause come Sunday
Published: Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 12:03 a.m.
HOUSTON - Did Commissioner Paul Tagliabue of the National Football League really say that? This week? In Houston? "There are better things to do than playing football"?
Well, yes. He said it at NASA's Johnson Space Center, where he interrupted pre-Super Bowl XXXVIII frenzy to call the American and Russian astronauts orbiting Earth in the space station and plug mathematics and science education.
It might have been heresy in a football-crazed town that is playing host to its first Super Bowl in 30 years, but it had a serious purpose.
The game on Sunday between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers - a giant coming-out party for a new and improved Houston and probably the biggest one-day sports event in the world, with a television audience said to approach a billion viewers - happens to fall on the first anniversary of the Feb. 1, 2003, breakup of the space shuttle Columbia. That happened 200,000 feet over Texas, killing all seven astronauts.
The game date was picked years in advance, just like the NFL already knows, for example, that the next four Super Bowls will be played in Jacksonville, Fla., Detroit, Miami and Arizona on Feb. 6, 5, 4 and 3, respectively.
The juxtaposition has scarcely muted the revelry of 130,000 hard-partying fans and celebrities who are flocking into the Bayou City, where the Oilers are a sainted memory and championship dreams now cling to the 2-seasons-old Houston Texans. But the contrast adds a somber note to the festivities, which will feature commemorations, including pregame tributes to the Columbia by Aerosmith and Josh Groban, the singer. An Aerosmith video will depict band members flying into space and landing at the game, the bassist, Tom Hamilton, said.
"We're totally into the whole magic of space travel," Hamilton said. "These people really risked their lives on the cutting edge of exploration, and we're going to honor it with our music."
Families of the lost members, including Evelyn Husband, wife of the commander, Col. Rick D. Husband of the Air Force, have been invited to attend as special guests, along with the crew of the next shuttle and other astronauts past and present.
"Rick very much would have wanted our lives to move on," said Husband, who has just published "High Calling," about the career and strong Christian faith of the Texas Tech classmate whom she married 22 years ago. Her own strong faith convinced her that the timing of the anniversary was no accident, she said, adding, "I don't think there are any coincidences."
As for the game, "I could take it or leave it," she said, but decided to go as a special treat for her daughter, Laura, 13, and son, Matthew, 8, who have had a hard year.
Alan L. Bean, the pilot of the second lunar landing, in 1969, and the fourth man to walk on the Moon, said he was going to the Super Bowl, too. There is no danger that the Columbia would be forgotten, Bean said, and the space program had to move on. "There is a cult of trying to be too safe and too humble," he said.
For an employees' tribute, the space center has scheduled a moment of silence on Friday, at 8:16 a.m. central time, the moment the shuttle was to have touched down at Cape Canaveral. Instead, with a wing perforated by a chunk of insulating foam at takeoff, the craft disintegrated as it entered the atmosphere on its 16-day mission. The accident was the worst calamity for the NASA space program since the Challenger exploded after takeoff in 1986, also killing all seven crew members.
Eastern Texas communities, including Hemphill, Lufkin and Nacogdoches, where pieces of the Columbia were recovered last year, have scheduled remembrances on Sunday. In Washington, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, introduced legislation to authorize $5 million for three permanent memorials, under the National Park Service, in those towns.
The formal commemoration will be on Monday, with the dedication of a Columbia monument at Arlington National Cemetery, where the Challenger crew is also memorialized.
"I don't think the commemorations will get lost, but I also believe Houston is looking forward to the future," said Mayor Bill White, who took office this month. "It tends to be our bias, putting tragedies behind us - and one of our strengths."
So Houston, a metropolis of 4 million spread over an area larger than Los Angeles, which often seems trying to prove itself worthy to skeptical or derisive critics, is partying and showcasing virtues. There are 3,500 hotel rooms built during the past four years, a new light rail line, strings of refurbished emerald parks, hip new downtown bars and, for frost-bitten Northerners, January days when the thermometer hits 75. From Thursday to Sunday, when 72,000 fans will head for Reliant Stadium, 16 blocks downtown will be closed to traffic, creating performance spaces for no fewer than 38 bands.
"We're taking the opportunity to show what Houston is all about," Jordy Tollett, president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.
Dignitaries? Executive Assistant Chief Dennis Storemski of the police declined even to estimate a number. Storemski told a news briefing last week that no more than 10,000 tickets were available for the public.
"All of the other tickets are spoken for," he said, "either corporate sponsors, dignitaries, governors, congressmen."
For all the signs of success, Houston seems particularly proud of its renewed standing as a football town, which had been jeopardized when the Oilers owner, Bud Adams, moved the team to Tennessee in 1997 to become the Titans. That hurt because the Oilers counterbalanced rival Dallas' long-fearsome Cowboys, and the Oilers had won the first two American Football League championships, in 1960 and 1961.
Salvation arrived two years later, when Robert C. McNair, a utilities entrepreneur, bid $700 million to win a new football franchise for the city. The founding is celebrated in a show at the Museum of Fine Arts.
"We always knew that religion was important in Texas, really big," the writer Mickey Hershkowitz said in an essay for the book of the show, "because people kept comparing it to football."
Bill Yeoman, the coach for 25 years at the University of Houston, could not agree more. He called football "a major consideration in the thought process of the people of Texas."
"Texas is football," he said.
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