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Bum Rush

The fat lady sings about an Oilers icon

LAST THURSDAY the marquee outside the Stafford Centre in suburban Houston advertised Bum Phillips: All-American Opera, Sept. 24, followed by Houston Natural Hair Blowout, Sept. 27. It's unlikely that Phillips would have had much use for either.

The Oilers coach and Marine vet kept his hair high, tight and usually under a Stetson. As for an opera about his life, "Let's face it, Bum Phillips and opera don't belong in the same sentence," said former Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini as he introduced the production.

Besides Pastorini, Earl Campbell was there, as were former Oilers Billy Johnson, Ken Burrough, Robert Brazile and plenty more. Patrons paid up to $500 to see the performance, which raised money for Bum Phillips Charities. The evening wasn't black tie, but Johnson's white shoes carried a high shine and those in Campbell jerseys did respectfully tuck them into their khakis.

The Pastorini-meets-Pagliacci production was the creation of Luke Leonard, a native Texan. It had a three-week run in New York City in 2014, months after Phillips died at age 90. Pastorini saw it with Phillips's son, Wade, and after both men left the production with tears streaming down their faces, Pastorini decided he had to bring it to Houston.

Football might seem an odd subject for an opera, but not in the Lone Star State. As one character—a female, no less—sang, "Hell, in Texas we eat a football for breakfast and s--- a field goal for lunch." Like most operas, this one was heavy on violence and men whose actions are driven by their nether regions. The story hinges on the 1979 season, when the Oilers lost Pastorini, Campbell and Burrough to groin injuries in the same wild-card game and still made the AFC title game, allowing Pastorini's character to sing the memorable line, "My groin!"

An alternately touching moment was an aria sung by the character of Debbie, Phillips's second wife, who reminds him where his home truly is. Debbie herself was in the crowd, moved by what she was watching, as were the Luv Ya Blue--era players. Traditional? No. But as Leonard said, "We make art about gods of our times." In Houston, that's Bum.