"It's true of anybody," says die-hard Houston football fan John Pirkle. "If you watch the Oilers long enough, they'll make you cry." Pirkle didn't have to watch very long. When he was just four years old, he started going to games and joined the "Oiler Buddies," a program that paired kids with players. His "buddy" was quarterback George Blanda. When Houston fans booed the NFL veteran, as they were wont to do with any quarterback, it brought young Pirkle to tears.
Pirkle had plenty of opportunities to cry again: when mercenary owner Bud Adams fired beloved coach Bum Phillips; when the Oilers traded away Steve Largent and the rights to Joe Namath; when a seemingly endless slew of Oiler coaches and players got into fisticuffs with the likes of sportswriters Fran Blinebury and Dale Robertson; when defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan punched offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride on national television; when the Babygate scandal made the news; when the Oilers blew a 32-point second-half playoff lead to the Buffalo Bills in what has been called the biggest choke in NFL history; when it became clear that the Oilers would go down in history as the only original AFL team never to play in a Super Bowl; and even when Adams packed up the team for Tennessee.
But now it looks like Pirkle may be laughing all the way to the bank. In 1996 the San Francisco-based attorney moved back home to Houston to help his mother through an illness. Unable to practice law in Texas, he looked for something to keep his mind off his worries. The Oilers were an obvious choice. Adams had already announced his plans to move the franchise to Tennessee, and Pirkle thought it was the perfect time to chronicle the maddening, but colorful, team's history. The result, Oiler Blues: The Story of Pro Footballàs Most Frustrating Team, is Amazon.com's 15th-best seller in Texas.
Why are Texans reliving the pain of the Oilers? Pirkle says it's about healing: "Houston needs to get on with things." After all, a new franchise is on its way, and with it comes the possibility of a winning team.
But the Titans are playing much better than they ever did as the Oilers. In a recent playoff they even paid back the Bills for that 1993 debacle with an amazing, if questionable, lateral that set up a 75-yard winning touchdown in the game's final seconds. Tennessee's wins like this beg the question: Was the problem not with Adams or the Oilers but with Houston itself?
"A lot of us feel that way, that the city's cursed," says Pirkle, "but that's not realistic." Still, Pirkle devotes one chapter of his book to the fact that until the Rockets' championship win in 1994, Houston was a city of losers. But the problem wasn't with the fans or the players or even the water. "In this city," he says, "we've just never had ownership of sports teams committed to winning maybe Les Alexander, but I think the jury's still out on him."
The jury wasn't out for long on "Bottomline Bud" Adams. Pirkle says the owner concerned himself more with money than with winning, a principle antithetical to pro football that resulted in "a team without a soul." The author has high hopes, though, for new franchise owner Bob McNair. So far, in the eyes of this football fan, he has done everything right. "I'd like to see the city get behind somebody," Pirkle says. Then, just maybe, gridiron glory will be ours at last.
John Pirkle signsOiler Blues: The Story of Pro Footballàs Most Frustrating Team on Thursday, January 20, at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble Bookstore, 5000 Westheimer. Call (713)629-8828 for more information.