Texans Ambassador profile: Gifford Nielsen

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Gifford Nielsen, who played quarterback for the Houston Oilers from 1978-83, is in his first season as a Houston Texans Ambassador.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine on Dec. 13, 2009, for the Texans' home game against the Seattle Seahawks.

Gifford Nielsen remembers the most glorious day of his pro football career as if it happened moments ago.

It was playoff time for the Houston Oilers in 1979. The town was at a fever pitch over the Luv Ya Blue Oilers and their quaint coach, Bum Phillips. The team was one step away from an AFC championship showdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers, two steps from the Super Bowl.

Despite the excitement, it didn't look good.

Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini and Ken Burrough, the Andre Johnson of that era, were out. The Oilers faced the San Diego Chargers with Dan Fouts and the NFL's most feared offense of the time. No one gave the Oilers a snowball's chance.

Nielsen, a second-year quarterback out of BYU, stepped wide-eyed into the huddle and led the banged-up Oilers to a 17-14 victory that became one of the centerpieces of Luv Ya Blue lore.

"I keep saying, 'Thank heaven for that game for my career,'" Nielsen said. "It was the epitome of teamwork, and that's what Bum preached. That was the epitome of the entire experience with the Oilers in the late 1970s."

That game is at the top of Nielsen's personal memories.

"It signified so many things I believed," he said. "It signified a team coming together. It was like David and Goliath, like slaying the giant. Those guys were the highest-scoring team in the NFL, and our defense played so well."

Nielsen played six seasons in the NFL. Never again did he experience a moment so rewarding. He went on to a 25-year career as sports director at Channel 11 in Houston before retirement this year.

He is an active church leader and banker now, but Nielsen finds time to be a part of the Texans Ambassadors program. The Ambassadors are former NFL players living in the Houston area who sign autographs before home games and help the Texans with other community projects.

"Mr. (Bob) McNair is such a class person, I'd do anything for him," Nielsen said of the Texans' owner. "He's the best, and he wants so badly to win big here. If he calls and says, 'Hey, Giff, will you be a part of this?,' I'll come and be a part of it."

Nielsen believes McNair's commitment eventually will bring a championship to Houston.

{QUOTE}"He's going to get it done if they can just find a way to believe in themselves," Nielsen said. "That's what Bum gave us in the late '70s. He gave us a belief that we knew we were going to win. When you get to that point in the NFL, it's really fun."

Nielsen retired from pro football in 1983 after six seasons, all with the Oilers. From 1984-87, he served as a color commentator on Oilers radio broadcasts. Nielsen then became sports director of KHOU-TV Ch. 11. He retired from the station in 2009 after 25 years of service.

"It was harder retiring from professional football than television," Nielsen said. "You work so hard all through your life to get to a position like the NFL, and when I finally made it, I was euphoric. Then, to be able to play for Bum Phillips and go through the Luv Ya Blue era, which I still believe was the greatest in the history of sports in the Houston area, it was absolutely something we cherish."

Nielsen's continued presence on the Houston sports scene has made him a double celebrity. He's recognized by the older set for his days with the Oilers and by younger fans who watched his daily sportscasts.

"There are a lot of fans from all the way back to the '70s that come up and want autographs," Nielsen said. "They remember how special that time was. A lot of people come up to me and say, 'We miss you on television.' It's probably 50-50."

Nielsen was a third-round pick of the Oilers in the 1978 draft. He played in 55 games and started 14. His career stats include 3,255 passing yards for 20 touchdowns and a 70.0 passer rating. Nielsen was an All-American quarterback at BYU and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1994.

Still, if you want his ultimate highlight, Nielsen quickly recalls "The Game."

"It was miraculous," Nielsen said. "What we were able to do facing Dan Fouts and 'Air Coryell' with John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, was amazing. That was our chance to go to the Super Bowl.

"We kept our game plan conservative. I didn't have a lot of experience; I just managed the game and took advantage of the mistake they made near the end of the game. They blitzed me and I hit Mike Renfro over the middle, and he's not supposed to be able to outrun some of these defensive backs and yet he outran everybody for a 47-yard touchdown.

"It's the most satisfying thing I've had in sports, to be able to have that ball with 30 seconds left and they didn't have any timeouts and to realize what we had accomplished. It was Bum, it was Texas, everything that I've learned that Texas represents. It was great."

Nielsen thinks that Houston's modern-day Texans could learn from the togetherness of the Luv Ya Blue Oilers.

"They need to find a personality where they know they are going to win," Nielsen said. "You do that through believing in each other and preparation and knowing that somebody is going to make a play to win. I can tell you that because that's what we experienced."

Another lasting memory of Nielsen's football career and the victory over the Chargers came at his broadcasting retirement party.

"At my retirement, Bum told everyone over the speaker phone at Channel 11 that it was 'the greatest experience I'd had in coaching,"' Nielsen said. "When I think of all the games we played and he said it was the greatest experience I ever had coaching...

"I said to him in front of the staff, 'Bum, could you say that one more time, and could someone start the recorder?"'

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky., Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro teams.

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