I was wide awake at 4 in the morning on game day, a full hour before my alarm was set to buzz me into motion toward NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans. Over the past few seasons, many questions have circled the local NFL team. But, lying in bed and peering into the darkness, I had only two: is it wise to attend a professional football game during the current COVID surge? And are the Houston Texans the sort of team one should risk potential infection to watch?
I already knew the answers to both those questions: no. The answers were the same when I plodded bleary-eyed into the kitchen to fix a pot of coffee. They didn’t change when my wife woke up and helped me prep for the day’s tailgate. Taking a shower, stretching into my new Texans T-shirt, driving from home toward the Blue Lot, my notions about the risk-reward of the day’s events never changed.
At 9 a.m., my brother and I and our wives pulled near the “21” signpost on our assigned parking lot and began unloading our tailgate equipment. Soon, we’d be surrounded by others doing the same. Once we got in the stadium, we’d be with 60,000 or 70,000 people. I was certain if I asked those folks the same two questions, they too would say the risk was not worth the “reward.”
So, I decided to ask a few. Before entering the stadium, I asked to speak to whomever was in charge of a group called Torito Tailgaters. The gathered were watching the football game on a wide screen television under tents. A deejay was playing music and folks were cheering as the Texans took an early 7-0 lead against the Jacksonville Jaguars and their rookie coach and QB. Someone summoned Emanuel Hernandez, the de facto spokesperson for the group.
“Are you anxious about being out here?” I began. “I mean, we are in a pandemic.”
“Yeah, kinda, a little bit,” Hernandez said and noted that the feeling was apparently shared by some of the group’s tailgaters. “Usually, we have more people on our tailgate. The first year we probably had about 60 to 80 people. Last year we couldn’t tailgate, of course, they didn’t allow it. And this year we’ve probably got about 40 people.
Emanuel Hernandez, Torito Tailgaters
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
“(I’m) a little bit nervous about the pandemic,” he reiterated, “but I mean, we love tailgating. That’s the reason why we’re here.”
Hernandez said some of his group entered the stadium for the game. When they did, they would have done so without any Texans officials asking for proof of vaccination. The team’s webpage just says anyone with COVID-19 or its symptoms or just not “100%” should “please stay at home.” The same page says masks are “strongly encouraged for all fans, regardless of whether or not you are vaccinated.” The overwhelming majority of game day attendees in or outside of the stadium were not masked.
Hernandez predicts three wins for the Texans this season. I asked my second question.
“Is it worth coming out here for such a bad team?”
“We still love the Texans,” he said. “We trust the process. I know the process right now is not great, we’re disappointed from all the moves they have made, but we’re at the bottom right now and there’s only one way to go and that’s up.”
Jose Alberto Montano said he was part of the Red Eyed Tailgaters, which has been doing its thing for about five years now.
“Except for last year, of course, because of coronavirus. That’s why everybody’s here now,” he said, and nodded towards the group, which was pretty large. “Everybody’s excited to come back and show love and support the team.”
J.A. Montano's Texans bling
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
Montano said he didn’t feel nervous about the virus because he considers himself young and healthy. He certainly dressed the part of diehard Texans fan. He was weighted down with red, white and blue bling. But, the more we talked, it became clear he was mostly seeing red.
“Even though we don’t agree with our owner, the mistakes they’ve made, we’re still Houston Texans fans. For someone to come here and check out the vibe, it’s great,” he said, and his voice tailed off.
“But, as a diehard football fan?” I asked and he responded, “It hurts. You know, everything that’s going on with the franchise quarterback and all the mistakes that Bill O’Brien made, him and Jack Easterby. Man, I don’t get it, why it’s come to this point.”
Inside the stadium, we wandered onto the open air patio near section 139, where our family has had season tickets since the first game (a win against the Dallas Cowboys!) back in September 2002. I met a fellow lifelong season ticket holder, Rod Martin, and his friend Jesse Moreno.
“I’m just glad to be back watching football, because last year during the pandemic there were so many restrictions. But now that were back, we’re enjoying football, we’re trying to get back to normal,” Martin said. “I mean, our team isn’t what it used to be but I’m glad to see lots of people out here supporting our team."
They were both incredibly nice, neither seeming to mind very much when a masked fellow interrupted their conversation with these intrusive questions. Martin said he was one of the 12,000 fans the team allowed into the stadium for an October 2020 contest, in the throes of lockdown. He said he had to be at that game because the Texans' opponent that day was the Minnesota Vikings, his second-favorite football team. Martin said he was Fran Tarkenton’s ball boy as a second grader.
“So ever since then, always a Vikings fan,” he said proudly.
Moreno (L) and Martin recalling former Texans greats J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson
Photo by Jesse Sendejas Jr.
“I’m born and raised in Houston, I support all my Houston teams, I love them all, good times, bad times, I’m a true fan,” Moreno jumped in. “Rod invited me to the game and I love it. We’re out here but in the stands, when we’re sitting in the seats, we have the masks on and it’s great to have the fans back in there. The energy is amazing, we love being out here.”
Did they feel safe, though? I didn’t mention that only three NFL teams — Seattle, Las Vegas and New Orleans — are requiring proof of vaccination to watch a pro football game live, in stadium. Every team can fill its stadium to capacity.
“My feeling is the Texans are like many entities — we’re responsible for ourselves,” Moreno said. “We’re social distancing. When we’re sitting down, we’re wearing our masks. We’re washing our hands. We’re being safe for our own safety because that’s what it’s like everywhere else. So, we’re going to take care of ourselves and try to enjoy life to the fullest.”
Martin and Moreno were wearing familiar jerseys. Martin was repping Andre Johnson and Moreno wore J.J. Watt’s number 99. Their gear honored the two best players in the Texans’ entire history. But, they’re both gone. The jerseys were stark reminders of better days.
“I have friends that are like fair-weather fans,” Martin said. “Actually, a partner of mine who comes to the games does not want to come to the games anymore because of all the bad decisions the team has made. But, that’s not me. I’m going to support my team and my city no matter what happens.”
“People used to make fun of me when I wore my Astros gear years ago, but I’m not a fair-weather fan so I was with them in the lean times and I love watching the Astros now,” Moreno added. “So, I’m hoping that the Texans are building a solid foundation for years to come. I’m going to continue to support my team, no matter what. I hope they make better decisions moving forward and hopefully this is just some growing pains for future years and we have a solid team for years to come.”
There were many empty seats in the stadium but a satisfied crowd by game's end
Photo by Jack Gorman
At our seats, we caught some of the second half. The Texans were delivering a beatdown to the hapless Jags thanks to Tyrod Taylor, the Texans starting quarterback, even though the “franchise quarterback” who is hailed as one of the league’s top talents remains in a weird limbo and down the depth chart thanks to some serious sexual assault allegations and other dubious behavior. Just one of those many questions surrounding the team. For the moment, I was getting something like an answer about whether it was worth the risk being at the game.
Since we’ve been season ticket holders since the beginning, my brothers and I have made many friends in the seats surrounding us. When we bought the tickets all those years ago, my parents were alive and came to games with us. The people in our section knew my folks. They consoled us when the passed away, Dad during the 2006 season and Mom a season later. They’ve cheered alongside our wives and know our adult kids.
We know them and lots of their folks, too. We were happy to see familiar faces, like Bill and Toni, who’ve been married 40 years and have spent nearly half that time at Texans games. We toasted each other for all getting vaxxed and bemoaned our 2021 prospects, settling on a probable 5-win season. A fellow we've seen at games for years had his infant child with him, a brand new Texans fan in the making. We also saw a friend we’ll call Chris. He showed photos of his 11 year-old twin sons and we pondered the passing of time. We learned that his 95 year-old father, who we'd watched many games with over the years, had been diagnosed with cancer and then promptly kicked it, like Ka’imi Fairbairn putting one straight through the uprights. When we mentioned that his dad was one tough guy, he said his father’s favorite NFL teams were the New Orleans Saints, the Houston Oilers and the Texans. One Super Bowl win in 99 seasons combined could make anyone tough, Chris reasoned.
It’s a scary thing, thinking about going to a pro football game with COVID still running loose and charging hard like Danny Amendola scuttling into the end zone for a score in his first game as a Texan. It might wake you up in the middle of the night. If you ask yourself whether you should risk it and the answer is no, you somehow still might find yourself out there. And, if you do go, I wish you well, just like I wish my family, my football family at NRG Stadium and the folks I met yesterday well. You’ll have your reasons for defying your own logic, I bet. Maybe it’s because you need that connection to something larger and that larger thing is big enough to fill a parking lot or a whole stadium or even just a few special seats on your row and the rows near you.