Culture / Sporting Life

The Most Touching Scenes From Bob McNair’s Stadium Funeral: Jerry Jones’ Tears, Janice McNair’s Grace, Powerful Words From Heads of State and J.J. Watt and Kealia

BY // 12.07.18

With the green of NRG Stadium’s playing field still visible in parts, more than a thousand folding chairs stand at attention in neat rows, waiting for their VIP guests. This is usually a surface where touchdowns are caught — the green and the Texans lettering of one full end zone remains uncovered — and tackles are made.

But on this rain-splattered day in Houston, at the end of a long week of remembrances and goodbyes in the nation’s fourth-largest city, it is the stage for a public celebration of Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s life.

“Houston has lost two of its very greatest and admired sons,” former Secretary of State James Baker says from the platform stage erected on the field.

For Baker, who also spoke at George H.W. Bush’s state funeral in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, this is his second goodbye to a close friend in a matter of days. He calls the Texans’ 72,000-seat stadium, “the house that Bob McNair built.”

And, well it’s true that McNair bringing NFL football back to Houston will be his most public legacy, the remembrances in this memorial service center more on the man. A man of principle and faith who lived life by a code of doing right.

With everyone from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to Texas Governor Greg Abbott to Texans superstar J.J. Watt and his soccer star girlfriend Kealia Ohai in the crowd, McNair’s rare combination of determination and patience is recalled.

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“He was a calm man,” Goodell says. “A man of great faith…

“Bob McNair was less about talking the talk and more about walking the walk,” says Dr. Harris Pastides, the president of the University of South Carolina, McNair’s beloved alma mater.

And of course, the talk always came back to Janice McNair and Houston, the two great loves of McNair’s life. Janice McNair does not speak, but her grace and strength still comes through. So does McNair’s devotion to Houston.

“He was a homer for Houston as he so fondly liked to say,” Goodell says.

No matter what you think of his legacy, it’s hard to argue with Robert C. McNair’s deep feeling for his adopted city. The city where he went from flirting with bankruptcy to becoming a billionaire. The city where he raised his four children with Janice, the woman he loved for 61 years. The city where he saw his 15 grandchildren.

The city he helped transform and bring the bright light spotlight of two Super Bowls to, focusing international attention on a place once largely known as an oil town.

“Houston’s standing as one of America’s great cities is now beyond question,”  Goodell says.

It sounds somewhat silly to argue that the NFL’s return played a major part in Houston’s current world standing. You can even argue that shows twisted priorities as a society. But none of that makes it any less true.

“He changed the city forever,” Watt says.

Emotional Goodbyes

This day finds even Jerry Jones at something of a near loss for words. A teary-eyed Jones only talks to the media for a few minutes, surprising even Goodell with how quickly he’s done at the microphone.

“I’m a little emotional,” Jones says. “The only other time I ever teared up was right on this field when the Texans and Bob kicked our butt the first game that was ever played in this stadium. The Texans put it on the Cowboys, and it was a glorious night to begin the Texans.

“Bob was so special. I was so excited for Houston to get an NFL franchise, but I was particularly excited when I saw the character and the person that was going to lead the way in Bob.”

When Jerry Jones doesn’t feel like talking all that much, you know something’s bothering him. McNair’s death at age 81 of cancer has clearly impacted the 76-year-old Jones.

McNair’s memorial service also brings some smiles. Dr. Dave Peterson — a pastor and the director of community outreach for The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation — tells two of the weirdest food stories you’ll ever hear and somehow relates them to McNair’s life. One story is about microwaving a hard-boiled egg, the other is about driving with a tray of lasagna buckled into his back seat (you had to be there to truly appreciate it).

J.J. Watt and his girlfriend, Houston Dash Kealia Ohai
J.J. Watt and his girlfriend, Houston Dash player Kealia Ohai watch a video tribute during a public celebration of life for Houston Texans owner Robert C. McNair at NRG Stadium. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, POOL)

The Texans’ current players — Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and Jadeveon Clowney sit side by side, only four rows from the very back — and many former players (Andre Johnson, Wade Smith, Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham and Kevin Walter among them) quietly take it all in.

Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane are also in the crowd. As our many unfamous people whose lives Bob McNair touched, including Kevin Cooper, the Texans’ former senior director of media relations.

All 1,200-plus attendees hold hands at one point at Reverend Eric S.C. Manning’s urging.

This is a celebration of McNair’s life. But it’s also a celebration of Houston coming together.

“When Bob succeeded, we succeeded,” Baker says.

“He would do the kindest things at random moments, and he would do it many times when people had no idea that he was doing it,” Watt says. “So, I consider myself, like I said, lucky to have known him, lucky to have learned from him and I can only hope that I’m making him proud in the way that we represent his organization.”

McNair always wanted his Texans teams to be made up of good guys. It became an organizational philosophy, probably helped lead the Texans to drafting the high-character Watt, who raised $41.6 million in Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston’s darkest moment.

In many ways, Watt became the personification of the McNair mantra.

It was a remarkable life, from its start in a small North Carolina town that didn’t even have a paved main road all the way to the owner’s suite of a mammoth stadium.

“Saint Peter will welcome you to heaven, Bob McNair,” Baker says in his closing. “You have won the Super Bowl of life.”

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