In another Houston, in another century, Chris Lockridge was the Oiler Freak. He wore Oilers tattoos on both biceps. He transformed a room in his house into a shrine to Earl Campbell, Bum Phillips and Luv Ya Blue. Why, he even named his son, Derrick, after the Oilers' logo, a sturdy old well that never ran dry—until 1997, when owner Bud Adams moved the team to Tennessee. For five years the Lockridges have waited for Sept. 8, the day the NFL returns to Houston, the day their Texans open against the Great Satan up 1-45. "When I was born, my mama told me, 'You hate the Cowboys,' " says Lockridge, 36, his two fresh Texans tatts blazing on his arms. "And I've hated 'em all my life."
Meet the Texan Freak, a newly rampant species in Houston, where an expansion team is turning more heads than the Women of Enron. Already the Texans have sold 59,000 season tickets to their $417 million Xanadu, Reliant Stadium, 11,000 more than the Oilers did at their peak. The Texans' logo, a bull's head that looks like a Picasso painting of the Lone Star State, stares proudly from T-shirts, caps and shop windows. On Aug. 2 a crowd of more than 27,000 came to Robertson Stadium at the University of Houston to watch a scrimmage against Dallas.
Energy tycoon Bob McNair paid $700 million for the Texans, and for that kind of money you get to pick your inaugural foe. McNair didn't mull the choice for long. "We don't want to be America's Team, we want to be Texas's team," he says of the showdown against Dallas.
"We've got to win that game to set the tone for our season," says Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, whose team has had back-to-back 5-11 campaigns.
"It's gonna be the state championship game," says Texans rookie quarterback David Carr, the No. 1 pick in the draft out of Fresno State, who unnerved his coaches by jumping into a fight that got Houston center Steve McKinney ejected from the Cowboys' scrimmage.
Uh, Steve, how do you get tossed from a preseason scrimmage?
"He was playing dirty, and something had to be done," McKinney says, claiming Dallas defensive tackle John Nix had jabbed a hand into his face mask. (Is it any surprise McKinney grew up in Houston hating the Cowboys?) At a joint practice earlier that day, the teams traded verbal jabs after Dallas rookie safety Roy Williams popped Texans wide receiver Sherrod Gideon in a noncontact drill. "You don't put your head down in a noncontact drill, try to run somebody over and expect not to get hit," Williams says, venom in his voice. For its part Houston says the Cowboys had no business opening the scrimmage with a safety blitz.
Though the rivalry is off to a rousing start, sustaining it won't be easy. McNair and Dallas owner Jerry Jones had hoped their teams would meet at least once a year during the regular season—after realignment the Cowboys remain in the NFC East, while the Texans join Adams's Titans in the AFC South—but the NFL rejected a scheme to stage annual games between regional, nonconference rivals such as the Eagles and Steelers, Raiders and 49ers and Giants and Jets. (The suits argued that several teams, like the Seahawks, have no geographic partners, and that the best rivalries—Chiefs-Raiders, anyone?—are sometimes built more on familiarity than proximity.) It's a shame: After Sept. 8 the Cowboys won't face the Texans until 2006, and they won't square off in Houston until 2010.
Then again, the teams hope to schedule a standing preseason meeting for a Texas-sized trophy called the Governor's Cup. (Look for them to meet soon in Mexico City, where the Vaqueros and Petroleros drew more than 112,000 fans for a 1994 exhibition game, the NFL's largest crowd ever.) "This is Texas," says Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen, a Texas A&M alum, "so you always want to compete for bragging rights." The Rumble in Reliant has already ignited a flare-up of intrastate smack talk between fans. " Dallas blows," says Jeremy Radcliffe, a 28-year-old partner in an investment firm and a Texans season-ticket holder. "You want to know what Dallas is? Dallas is big hair, leased BMWs and credit-card millionaires."
"Houston?" says Chad Jones, 26, a software salesman and Cowboys diehard. "All Houston's good for is traffic, humidity and a ship channel that catches on fire. How loyal can the fans be when they already ran one team out of town?"