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Texans honor Bum and the Boys

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It wasn't the Astrodome in 1978 or 1979. They weren't dressed in Columbia blue uniforms and the crowd wasn't chanting, "Luv Ya Blue." They've put on a few pounds here and there and there was plenty of gray hair.

They were still proud, though, Bum Phillips and his boys, striding into a sold-out Reliant Stadium Sunday to be honored and celebrated as one of the most charismatic teams in the city's sports history.

Longtime Houstonians remember the hypnotic attraction of those Oilers teams. The rest must be told. It was a touching halftime scene, the old Oilers being honored by the new Texans.

"If you don't know about Luv Ya Blue, it's hard to explain. If you do, it's easy," Phillips said.

Long before the Texans became Houston's team, the Oilers captured the heart of the city. They were a bunch of characters who believed what Phillips told them. Their blue collar work ethic almost got them to the Super Bowl.

{QUOTE}The Pittsburgh Steelers knocked the Oilers out of the playoffs two consecutive years and both times the Oilers' loyal fans were waiting their return to the Astrodome, where huge crowds honored their defeated heroes with postgame rallies.

"It's the greatest tradition that's hit this town in the last 30 years," former Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini said. "We came back here in 1978 and 1979 to those pep rallies. It was born on Monday night football in 1978. We walked out and that stadium was nothing but powder blue pom poms.

"It took off after that. It really was a 12th man situation like at (Texas) A&M. Everywhere I go, people remember Luv Ya Blue."

The Astrodome now stands silent a few yards from its modern-day replacement. The memories are as clear and fresh as ever for the former Oilers.

Defensive end Elvin Bethea, resplendent in his Hall of Fame blazer, was among the group honored at halftime ceremonies, his famous gap-tooth grin as bright as ever.

"This is the greatest thing that we could come back as a group and see all the old guys come back and talk about the great times, the Pittsburgh years," Bethea said. "We talked about how the fans were here for us in the Dome two years in a row."

Texans coach Gary Kubiak remembers. He's a former ballboy for the Oilers.

"Before the game, I had Robert Brazile and a couple of the guys screaming at me in the end zone," Kubiak said. "I went over and they remember me when I was a 16-year old kid.

"For our team to play with the heart they did today, that's what those teams did back in the day. It was great to see them."

Bethea has remained in the city and watched the blossoming of the city's new franchise. The Texans held on to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, improving their record to 6-7.

Bethea cheered on the Texans, but the team hasn't yet achieved the thrill that gripped the city during the Luv Ya Blue era.

"I don't know that they've grabbed the city by the horns the way we did," Bethea said. "Back then, we didn't realize what we had."

The Oilers had the misfortune of battling the great Steelers teams of the late 1970s. The Oilers lost to the Steelers 34-5 in Pittsburgh to end their 1978 season in the AFC Championship game. They were greeted by 50,000 fans in the Astrodome on their late-night return.

The same scenario occurred the following year, this time in a 27-13 loss to the Steelers.

Phillips, now 84, was delighted to be back with his players.

"It's one of the best things that's ever happened to me," Phillips said. "To be a coach and have your players come back who played for you 25-30 years ago and to get to stay with them a couple of days and visit, that's unprecedented. I really appreciate (Texans owner) Mr. (Bob) McNair going to that expense."

McNair, who brought back pro football to the city in 2002, wants the current fans to know the city's sports past. The Texans helped bring back the former Oilers.

Brazile, the former Pro Bowl linebacker, cheered the Texans' NFL alumni ambassador program that helps former players reconnect with fans. When the Oilers moved to Tennessee, he felt a big loss.

"I've felt lost and hurt because my team wasn't here," Brazile said. "My team shipped off and didn't exist. It was like we'd never come back again. When they started having ambassadors, I've felt closer to the Texans than I've ever been.

"I want to thank the Texans for bringing all of us back. That's the greatest weekend I could ask for."

The Oilers have a hard time explaining to young fans what their era was like.

"Luv Ya Blue, to me, was true brotherhood, true love for a city, true love for team," Brazile said. "When you said, 'Luv Ya Blue,' people knew what you meant. I try to tell people I played professional football and they'd say, 'Where?' and I'd tell them to ask their granddad."

The Luv Ya Blue Oilers were built around Earl Campbell, Pastorini, wide receiver Kenny Burrough and great defensive players like Brazile and Bethea. They were mostly over-achieving players who played beyond expectations.

"This brings back a lot of good memories," Pastorini said. "We saw the highlight reel last night and said, 'Gee, did we really do those things? It's good to see these guys. We were a tight group of guys.

"Bum had a way of bringing out the best in all of us. Our good players played great. Our bad players played good and our horrible players played bad, but good enough."

Gregg Bingham was another outstanding defensive player who had a long career with the Oilers.

"It's good to see your guys you played with," Bingham said. "We had great characters on this team. They were great human beings. We could do things that nobody else could do."

Can the Texans reach the level of fan adoration as the Luv Ya Blue Oilers?

"I hope so," Pastorini said. "The selfish side of me says, 'No, I don't want them to.' But everyone should enjoy that experience.

"If they bring a team of respectability, this town will get behind them. But I'll tell you what, it's going to be hard to beat. This town hasn't seen anything like that."

As for Bum, he's still actively ranching in South Texas and enjoying being around his players.

"I do everything I always did, I just don't do it as fast," he said.

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 sports. *

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