HOUSTON – Memories won’t feed a family or rebuild their house, which is why the first thing J.J. Watt brought back to his adopted hometown in the wake of Hurricane Harvey was $28 million in contributions.
A week earlier, the Texans’ All-Pro defender stood at the head of a line miles-long stretch of cars, handing out food and emergency supplies to families that lost everything. Scenes like those could soon be repeated in Florida, where Hurricane Irma is already wreaking havoc as it bears down on the coastline.
So when the Texans open the NFL season Sunday against Jacksonville at NRG Stadium, Watt and his teammates want to deliver a different kind of gift – one of those iconic sports moments that will live long after the flood waters recede.
“I know for a fact,” Watt said, “that our guys are going to give every single thing we have to make sure that we put a smile on this city’s face.”
Sports can become a rallying point at times like this, the public face of a community determined to show the world it’s been knocked down but not out.
Think about that moment the Saints returned to a refurbished Superdome for a Monday night game little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. Just 90 seconds in, New Orleans safety Steve Gleason burst through the middle of the Falcons line and smothered the punt off kicker Michael Koenen’s foot. The ball bounced backward, teammate Curtis Deloatch fell on it in the end zone and a town that had shed little besides tears let loose a collective howl that nearly tore the roof off the place.
Today, a larger-than-life bronze statue of Gleason’s block, titled “Rebuild,” commemorates that singular sports memory forever.
“It felt like the whole city brought their energy into the building that night,” Jonathan Babineaux, who was playing for Atlanta, recalled. “It was just something, as a player, I’d never felt before and I still remember it to this day.”
In Boston, folks still remember nearly every word slugger David Ortiz spoke in his pregame remarks as the Red Sox returned to Fenway Park just five days after two bombs placed at the finish line of the city’s annual marathon exploded, killing three people and injuring hundreds.
“This is our f—-ing city!” Ortiz yelled. “And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong!”
Stories like those grow fonder in the retelling. At the moment, people around Houston are still struggling to survive and salvage what little Harvey hasn’t swept away or destroyed.
The return of ballgames is one budding sign of normalcy returning. The players feel a commitment to craft something memorable from the chaos.
“Our city won’t be over it anytime soon,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, whose squad is a near-lock to bring playoff baseball to town next month. “But our families are safe, our city is on the rebuild process and there has been a collective exhale that we can play games for the city of Houston and feel proud.”
Here are five teams that gave their recovering communities badly needed moments of respite after a tragedy.
Boston Marathon Bombing (April 20, 2013)
Filing into Fenway Park that morning, Red Sox fans were still on edge. The night before, the surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (whose brother, Tamerlan, killed in a shootout with police), had been captured.
A few days earlier in Cleveland, where the Red Sox had resumed playing, third baseman Will Middlebrooks tweeted out the hashtag that would become Boston’s unofficial motto: “I can’t wait to put on my jersey today… I play for the strongest city out there (hash)BostonStrong.”
The emotional Fenway ceremony built to a crescendo when Big Papi took the microphone.
“We didn’t know he was going to drop the F-bomb,” recalled Boston first baseman Mike Napoli, now with the Texas Rangers. “… Coming from him, I think it comforted everyone, even us in the clubhouse, because he’s a guy that everyone looks up to, idolizes. I still get the chills thinking about it.”
Down 3-1 to Kansas City in the eighth, Daniel Nava slammed a go-ahead, three-run home run. As the ball cleared the right field fence, broadcaster Don Orsillo said simply, “Boston, this is for you.”
The Red Sox went on to win 97 games and the World Series.
Virginia Tech Shooting (Sept. 1, 2007)
The first football game came five months after a gunman murdered 32 people on the Blacksburg campus. After a moment of silence and the national anthem, four F-15 fighter jets flew over Lane Stadium in the missing man formation.
Cheryl Beamer, the wife of then-coach Frank Beamer, remembers scanning the crowd of 66,000.
“You could look around the stadium and see people crying,” she said. “You think you’ve cried the last time, but then something happens to trigger it again.”
From the sideline, 32 orange balloons were launched into a gloomy autumn sky. Tech’s team ran onto the field alongside their opponents from East Carolina. Then Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Tech’s familiar walk-on music, blared from the loudspeakers and the familiar rhythms of football reclaimed the afternoon. The Hokies won 17-7.
Those good feelings lasted for months. The Hokies went on to win and finish the season 10-3, clipped by Kansas 24-21 in the Orange Bowl.
Hurricane Katrina (Sept. 25, 2006)
Like countless other New Orleans residents, the Saints spent much of the previous year coping with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Then-coach Jim Haslett and the team relocated to San Antonio.
“We had guys lose their homes, we had families that got looted,” Haslett said. “… There was a lot of things going on and it wasn’t conducive to winning and the NFL didn’t really know what we were going through until later in the year when they came out. So it wasn’t the greatest thing.”
New Orleans went 3-13, prompting owner Tom Benson to hire Sean Payton as coach and bring in quarterback Drew Brees. They played four preseason and their first two regular-season games on the road while repairs continued on the Superdome.
Brees and his teammates took part in recovery efforts. Two days before their Monday night home opener, Payton brought the team into the stadium, cut the lights and played a video. It showed residents rebuilding their homes and business against a backdrop of devastated streetscapes.
“Many of us had not been here for Katrina, but we’d seen the aftermath, seen the effects, we’d spoken to so many people, had relationships with so many people who’d been affected,” Brees recalled earlier this week.
“It brought us to tears. There were real emotions there that didn’t have anything to do with football,” he added, “yet we realized what football could do for all of those people.”
The Saints signaled their readiness to join the effort from the opening kickoff. Gleason’s early block keyed a 23-3 win and unleashed a pent-up passion animating the city’s recovery effort even today. The team reached the NFC title game that season, and won the Super Bowl in 2010.
9/11 (Sept. 21, 2001)
Most people remember the Yankees’ magical season, but it was the Mets who returned home first.
Lower Manhattan still smoldered in the distance. For days, the team’s parking lot served as a staging ground for disaster relief work and then-manager Bobby Valentine rarely left his post at the center of the effort. Members of his squad, some dealing with losses of their own, had visited hospitals and food banks to spend time with victims.
“They just wanted to talk,” Mike Piazza remembered. “We realized it was all they wanted to do – tell us about the people who helped them.”
The umpires and Mets players donned caps representing the city’s police, fire and emergency personnel for the game. After then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and singers Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli took part in pregame tributes to the victims and first responders, Piazza drilled a two-run homer in the eighth to spark a 3-2 win over visiting Atlanta.
Mets players, coaches and staff donated one day’s pay – about $450,000 – to the families of police and firefighters killed.
“I’m just glad,” Piazza said, “to give them a diversion from the sorrow, to give them a thrill.”
The Yankees were to provide an even longer-lasting memory. After winning a fourth straight pennant, there was shortstop Derek Jeter’s sublime flip throw to home to beat the Oakland A’s in the A.L. Division Series, followed by walk-off home runs in back-to-back games at Yankee Stadium against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series.
AP sports writers Tim Booth in Seattle, Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Brett Martel in New Orleans, Jimmy Golen in Boston and Ron Blum in New York contributed to this story.
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