A tale of two cities

Just another game?

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Yeah, right.

That's what many of the Texans players have been trying to sell the media the last couple of weeks leading up to their game in Irving, Texas.

Texans defensive tackle Travis Johnson insists that this game against the Dallas Cowboys is nothing special and punctuated his contention with a surprising thought.

"It is just another game, but I get up for all of them," Johnson said. "If my mother put on a different jersey, I'd have a strong dislike for her."

Many of the other players have tried just as hard to pass this off as something important only to the fans. Like wide receiver Andre Johnson.

"I just know that it is a big, in-state rivalry," Johnson said. "Sometimes when you're out and you see fans, they talk about how you have to get this one because it is against the Cowboys.

"But to me, I just look at it as another game that we have to go out and win."

Player after player has taken that line, that it's just another game like the Miami Dolphins or the Washington Redskins or whoever . . .

It brings me back to a Thanksgiving Day game in Irving in 1979. The Houston Oilers were 9-3, the Cowboys were 8-4, and both were aiming for the playoffs.

Then coach Bum Phillips insisted the week before that this was "just another game." There was nothing special about it being the Cowboys, Phillips kept telling us. It was just an important game because of the playoff implications.

For a while, those of us in the media thought Bum was getting a little dizzy under that big cowboy hat. This was the Cowboys. It was Thanksgiving Day. There was more hysteria around the state than even the Texas-Texas A&M game could whip up. Cowboys fans were long on smugness and arrogance. Oilers fans had just been long suffering.

We finally learned the truth after the game. Earl Campbell rushed for 195 yards and Roger Staubach hit 21 of 30 for 287 yards. But Staubach had two interceptions and late in the game, Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini hit Kenny Burrough streaking down the right sideline for a 32-yard touchdown pass to win it 30-24 in front of a packed house of 63,897.

In the post-game press conference, Phillips came clean.

"Remember how I told you guys last week this was just another game?" he said with a huge, impish smile. "I lied."

For a long, tall Texan who had heard about America's Team for too many years, Phillips had to admit that this win had been about as special as they come. Phillips was never one to denigrate another team and had always admired Tom Landry. But he couldn't help himself after the game.

"Let them be America's Team," Phillips said. "I'd rather be Texas' team."

Through the years there have been other indications of the enmity between the teams from opposite sides of the state. Coach Jerry Glanville also admired Landry, but after his team beat the Cowboys 25-17 in 1988, Glanville never forgot how Landry met him at midfield to shake hands and said, "Great game, Gary."

The record for a Dallas preseason game at Texas Stadium before its stadium expansion is the Oilers game of 1972 when 66,311 weathered the August heat. Both teams' franchise records for attendance is the 112,376 who watched the preseason game in Mexico City in 1994.

Now, of course, the Oilers are gone, though the rivalry lives on in the hearts of Houstonians whose hatred for Dallas is eclipsed only by their hostility for Baghdad.

So when the Texans started their inaugural season with that 19-10 victory in 2002, fans in the city fell even more madly in love at first sight than they had ever anticipated.

The players who were here that day admit they'll remember it as long as the fans.

"They love it," Steve McKinney says. "It gives them bragging rights. The Cowboys have a lot over us right now. They have the world championships, the storied past, you know, America's Team.

"That's all we have to hang our hat on is that we beat them, that we're 1-0 against them. I think the fans are really fired up, and I know how much they would like to be 2-0 against them."

And to his credit, coach Gary Kubiak doesn't hide the fact that this is not just another game to him. Growing up in Houston, Kubiak was a ball boy for the Oilers for two years.

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"Yeah, it means a lot. It does," Kubiak said last week. "There is no doubt about that. It will be a special, special game."

It even was significant to Kubiak when the Texans beat the Cowboys in 2002. Kubiak heard about it long-distance as offensive coordinator for the Broncos.

"Yeah, I remember it," Kubiak says. "I remember the coaches here talked to me about the atmosphere being one of the greatest atmospheres they've ever been around in pro football.

"I remember how much hype there was for that game. Being from here, you never lose sight of the fact of that rivalry and I'm sure it'll be the same next week."

And Texans fans now just hope Bill Parcells will meet Kubiak in the middle of the field after the game and say, "Great game, Jerry."

What could be more apropos?

EDITOR'S NOTE:Jim Carley is a veteran Houston sportswriter who has covered the NFL for more than 25 years. He has worked for such newspapers as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Houston Post, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the National Sports Daily covering such teams as the Dallas Cowboys, the Houston Oilers, the Los Angeles Rams and the Oakland Raiders.


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