HOUSTON (AP) – With all eyes on the tunnel leading under the stands, J.J. Watt emerged. He raised a Texas flag skyward before screaming “let’s go,” sending NRG Stadium into a frenzy.
Watt and the Houston Texans opened their season Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, giving the area ravaged by Hurricane Harvey and its flooding a much-needed distraction from the harsh reality of life in the wake of the storm.
Watt has become the celebrity face of the recovery from Harvey after raising a staggering $31 million in the two weeks since it devastated not only Houston but much of southeast Texas. He addressed fans in a video message played on the big screens before Sunday’s game as images of the flooding flickered alongside the defensive end.
“Let’s start this season off right and show what Texans are made of,” Watt said in the video, drawing a huge roar from the crowd.
Before the national anthem, fans were asked to pause for a moment of silence for the victims of Harvey as well as those in the path of Hurricane Irma, which was hitting Florida on Sunday.
Louie Galvez, an Iraq veteran, tailgated before Sunday’s game with a group of friends and family outfitted in matching shirts that read “Houstrong.” Galvez was glad to get away from the job of replacing carpet and sheet rock in his suburban Houston home after it was hit by Harvey’s floodwaters.
“We’re taking a break from what actually happened, the reality,” he said. “We’re going to watch our Texans. We’re going to support them all the way … it gives us a little bit of hope. As well as they do is how we feel we might do in life.”
As Galvez prepared for the game he had an eye toward Florida, worried about the fate of friends and relatives in Jupiter and Jacksonville as Irma approached.
“This is bigger than football,” he said. “We know exactly what they’re going through. We feel their pain.”
The Texans honored first responders for their work during Harvey, and hosted many of them at Sunday’s game. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, chief of police Art Acevedo and fire chief Samuel Pena were on the field during introductions and fans were asked to remember Steve Perez, an officer who drowned in Harvey’s flooding on the way to work.
“Football definitely matters in a time like this because it takes our mind off what is actually happening to us right now,” fan Steve Beckholt said. “This gives us a little bit of a release, a little time to not focus on the damage, not focus on everything else and just focus on a little bit of team, a little bit of community.”
Pati Cream, a Texans fanatic who is known simply as “The Horns,” wore a hat topped with bull horns and a bobblehead of Watt which held a sign that read: “Harvey Relief Houston, $30 million J.J. Watt.” She’s part of an organization called the “Super Fan Alliance” that connects fans from around the league. In the days after Harvey struck, fans in the cities of every team and even some in Mexico reached out offering help.
Donations from fans of all 32 teams piled in and resulted in the arrival of several semi-trucks filled with supplies to help those affected by the storm.
“The outpouring has been overwhelming,” she said. “It’s just mindboggling to me. It’s been incredible. We haven’t asked for anything.”
The group collected 250 cases of water, 300 blankets and 1,000 tote bags to help the Houston area. But that shipment hasn’t been able to get to town, stuck in Tampa, with Irma expected to strike there.
“I told them: ‘hunker down and if you guys need it, open the trucks and use the stuff,'” Cream said. “We’re in recovery. We’re OK.”
Things for Cream have been so chaotic in the days since the storm that many times she “couldn’t have told you what day it is.” But on Sunday, as the sequins on her shirt twinkled in the sun and her eyes filled with tears while talking about the generosity of strangers, it was game day. The pain of the past two weeks was nothing compared to the pride she felt about how the community has bonded.
“If you don’t live in Houston and you don’t know Houston, you need to come down here, because this is how people are,” she said. “We’re compassionate. We pull together.”
And Galvez wants those outside the area to know that Sunday’s return to normalcy was only a flicker of how Houston is going to bounce back.
“We’re not going to let Harvey knock us down,” he said. “You can come and try to do what you want to do, but we’re from Texas and we’re ready for anything.”
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