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Volume 22 No. 19
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Remembering the tallest Texan

Bob McNair, who died last month at age 81, brought the NFL back to Houston and is recalled fondly by friends and colleagues.
Bob McNair paid a $700 million expansion fee for an NFL team that started playing in Houston in 2002, six years after the Oilers last played in the city.
Photo: Getty Images

The night before the Houston Texans’ inaugural game, a prime-time affair in September 2002 against the Dallas Cowboys, team limited partner Javier Loya was entertaining 40 friends and families at the Italian restaurant Maggiano’s when he exited the back room to check on the food.

 

And there he spied in the checkout line, waiting patiently, team owner Bob McNair, who had paid $700 million to bring the NFL back to Houston three years earlier.

 

“I walk over there and go, ‘Bob, what are you doing here?’” Loya recalled. “He’s like, ‘Javier, good to see you. Oh, the grandkids got hungry, so I decided to pick up some food for them.’ So, on the night [before] the biggest game, he’s thinking about his grandkids being hungry, he’s going to get some food for them. He could have easily have some people who work for him make this happen, but he [was] selfless like that.”

 

Those who knew the late McNair, an energy entrepreneur who passed away last month after a battle with cancer at the age of 81, use words like selfless to describe him. He was a well-known philanthropist in Houston, spending north of $500 million on causes ranging from the arts to medicine.

 

Robert C. McNair

Jan. 1, 1937 — Nov. 23, 2018
Hometown:
Houston (moved there in 1960)
Education:
University of South Carolina, graduated 1958
Business:
Founded Cogen Technologies, sold in 1999 for $1.1 billion to Enron to fund Texans purchase
NFL: Oct. 6, 1999:
Awarded 32nd franchise for Houston, paying $700 million
Family:
Wife Janice; two sons, Cal and Cary; two daughters, Ruth and Melissa; 15 grandchildren; and two great-grandsons

Just last year, McNair reportedly made a controversial remark regarding the national anthem protests, saying during a league meeting, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” He also backed former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who sold his team earlier this year amid reports of workplace harassment.

 

Loya said the incidents pained McNair’s family and friends because they were taken out of context and did not reflect the man they knew who hired and mentored minorities.

 

“You have got to understand, he was a Southern gentleman from South Carolina, some of the phrases may not translate very well in a media-intensive business like the NFL,” Loya said. “We all felt bad.”

 

McNair would apologize for the inmates remark, though previously he had said the comment referred to league office internal dynamics, not player-owner ones. Many were thus mystified why he needed to apologize, but, Loya explained:

 

“Bob was the first one to apologize not because he had [done] anything wrong, only because it was conveyed as something that wasn’t what he was about.”

 

Mike Tirico, formerly with ESPN and now an NBC Sports broadcaster, got to know McNair, and he said what stood out about the tall Texan was his passion to make the NFL work in Houston. The city had lost the Oilers to Nashville after the 1996 season, and with football all but a religion in Texas, the pressure was on to get another team in Houston.

 

“Above and beyond most owners, he felt it was his duty to not just bring the entity of the NFL back to Houston, but to build a franchise that represented the area and community,” Tirico said. “Every time we interacted with him or related with him, you knew there was an undying passion to get it right.”

 

While McNair’s widow, Janice, will officially be the new owner, their son, Cal, the team’s chairman and COO, is expected to assume control of the team. It is not clear what committees he might join; his father was chairman of the powerful finance committee and a member of several others, including the one that handled the Los Angeles relocation issue.

 

“His presence in the NFL helped grow and develop our league on so many levels,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a prepared statement. “Bob’s stature, and the manner in which he carried himself and guided his franchise, commanded the respect of everyone in the ownership room of the NFL.”