Published September 25, 2010
AUSTIN, Texas – Clad in a white Tony Romo jersey, Melissa Tellez was posing for a picture on the steps of the Texas Capitol when she was asked which NFL team is No. 1 in the Lone Star State.
She rolled her eyes and didn't answer. Instead, she illuminated her cell phone to display the screensaver with images of players for the Dallas Cowboys.
Deep in the heart of Texas, and pretty much everywhere else in the state, the Cowboys are king and the Houston Texans aren't much more than an afterthought outside the city where they play.
Never mind that the Texans are 2-0 and the Cowboys are 0-2 heading into Sunday's matchup in Houston. This nine-year-old expansion team can't compete with the popularity the Cowboys have gained in an illustrious 50-year history filled with larger-than-life figures who are ingrained in the fabric of the state.
Texans owner Bob McNair understands that and knows the best way to change things is by winning, something Houston didn't do much of during its first few seasons.
"We think it's an opportunity here in Texas to have a great rivalry that creates a lot of interest for football, and the NFL," McNair said. "Frankly, the more we beat the Cowboys, the more interest there will be. We're the new kid on the block, and we have to prove ourselves. The quicker we do that, the more fun everybody in Houston is going to have."
There were six years where Houston didn't have an NFL team after the Oilers left, leaving no other option than to pull for the Cowboys for fans wanting to be loyal to their state. And the Texans might not even rank second, since there is a fanatical following for the Texas Longhorns throughout much of Texas.
Loyalty to the Longhorns run so deep that many locals vowed never to support Houston after the team drafted defensive end Mario Williams instead of Vince Young with the first overall pick in the 2006 draft.
"They really messed up in passing up Vince Young," said Richard Raymond, a state lawmaker from Laredo. "It's still hard for me to forgive them for that. I would have certainly liked the Texans a lot more had they gone with Vince Young. They let that one get away."
Houston is also oddly still competing with a team that left the state 14 years ago. Bum Phillips, who coached the Oilers during their "Luv Ya Blue" heyday in the late '70s, thinks Houston's success this season could finally win over fans who soured on the NFL when Bud Adams moved the Oilers to Tennessee after the 1996 season. That team is now the Titans and they happen to be led by Young.
"The Oilers and the city tied together so great during a long period of time that when they left a lot of people just really lost interest in football," Phillips said. "It took a while, it took what the Texans are doing now, which is winning, to get them back excited and back to football again."
It was Bum who, at the height of the Oilers' success, famously said of the Cowboys: "They may be 'America's Team,' but we're Texas' team." He still believes it.
"They are the state's team," he said of the Texans. "As far as I'm concerned they've always been the state's team. The thing I thought that made the Oilers the state's team is the effort they put out ... that's what inspired Houston to get behind them and the Texans are doing that right now. They are laying it all on the line every game."
Gov. Rick Perry, not surprisingly, expressed support for both teams and their "competitive spirit."
"While these two teams have gotten off to very different starts, nobody participating in this game needs to be reminded how quickly things can turn around in the NFL," he said.
Still, as a Texas A&M graduate living and working in Austin, Perry has to understand how it feels to root for the other guy. His Aggies, of course, trail the Longhorns in popularity.
Raheel Ramzanali grew up in Houston and hosts a local radio show. He said he's never seen Texans fans more excited.
"The Houston Texans always have the little brother syndrome because they are the newer team," he said. "There's not many Texans fans outside of Houston. It's a Dallas state where everybody roots for the Cowboys. No matter what they do, big brother's going to get more attention ... they're proud of the Texans, but yet they always feel like they're disrespected no matter what happens."
In some cases, the reach of the Cowboys might be a product of geography, with the cities closer to Dallas latching on to the team in their vicinity. However, some of the most ardent supporters of the Cowboys live in the Rio Grande Valley, which is much closer to Houston. Of course, the Cowboys training in San Antonio, as they did this year, allows fans easier access to their favorite team.
Raymond, the South Texas lawmaker, thinks his region's love for the Cowboys can be traced to Tom Landry, who coached the team from its 1960 inception through the 1988 season, winning two Super Bowls along the way.
"I think it's safe to say that the Cowboys will have more folks cheering for them in Laredo than the Texans will," Raymond said. "Tom Landry, who was their first coach, is from down in the valley, from Mission. So I guess historically there's always been a strong connection to the Dallas Cowboys in part because of that."
But it isn't just South Texas and Austin where the Cowboys rule. In Amarillo, College Station, El Paso and almost every city in between — including the Houston suburb of Katy — there is an official Cowboys shop with team gear. There are six of those stores scattered throughout the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth airport alone.
Fans looking for a similar Texans store outside of Reliant Stadium are out of luck. One opened in The Woodlands suburb in 2008, but has already closed. And while many Cowboys games are broadcast nationally, Texans games aren't always shown in some parts of Texas; during Houston's franchise-worst 2-14 season in 2005, a game was being shown in the Panhandle but the network switched to another game after the Texans' fell far behind early in the third quarter.
Erin Hogan, the program director for an ESPN radio affiliate in Austin that broadcasts Cowboys games, happens to be a fan of the Texans. He tries to drum up talk about Houston on his show, but says about 80 percent of his listeners only want to talk about the Cowboys.
"I don't think there needs to be a debate of why they're popular," he said. "They're America's team, so it goes without question that they're Texas's team. I don't even argue it."
Some think it will take the Texans winning a Super Bowl to win over people in the state. Others say it will never change.
Bum, the ol' coach, pauses for a second when posed with the question and then drawls out his guarantee.
"Let me tell you one thing, just keep going the way they're going and they will overtake them real quickly," he said.
The 87-year-old Phillips finds himself in a quandary this week. Does he root for Dallas, where his son, Wade, is the coach and grandson Wes is an assistant? Or does he go with his beloved Houston?
"Obviously I've got a family connection with the Cowboys, but I've got an even longer family connection with Houston no matter who it is, whether it's the Oilers or the Texans," he said. "So I'm kind of torn between two things. In fact, I'm so torn I'm not even going to go to the game."
He will remain on his South Texas ranch in Goliad, where he retired a few years ago.
"I'll watch it, but I don't want the wrong people to see me crying or laughing," he said, only half-joking. "You win both ways. Either your favorite city wins or your favorite son wins."
If only it were that easy for the rest of Texas.
AP Sports Writer Chris Duncan and AP Writer April Castro contributed to this report.