"Places, Old Lady!" the stage manager shouts. "Places, Hippie Pig!"

A titter goes up in a venerable theater in Manhattan's East Village, where a collection of actor/singers, bedecked in replicas of the Houston Oilers' home blue jerseys, are milling about onstage. The director is trying to fix the timing of the entrance for the Hippie Pig, who is being played by a sort of biker-ish guy, bearded, long-haired, and shirtless, while the harried stage manager is trying to diminish the general hubbub.

When order is restored, a projection of the roof of the Astrodome begins once again to swirl on a screen, and everyone returns to the task at hand: a stumble-through rehearsal for Bum Phillips: All-American Opera. They're working out the knots in the staging of a number near the end of the first act. It's a song about Earl Campbell, and it transitions into a full-throated rendition of "Houston Oilers, Number One," because what else would you expect to encounter at a night at the opera?


(a growing number)
Look out football, here we come, Houston Oilers, number one.
We've got the Astrodome
the world's eighth wonder
We've got a state as big as the sun

We've got a coach

We've got a coach

We've got a running back all-star

We've got Earl Campbell!

BUD and BUM:
We've got tons and tons and tons of fans
we need a song!

Look out football, here we come
Houston Oilers, number one
Look out football, here we come
Houston Oilers, number one

Look out football, here we come
Houston Oilers, number one
Look out football, here we come
Houston Oilers, number one!

Which, yes. Feel free to raise an eyebrow. I'm not at the Ellen Stewart Theater/LaMaMa E.T.C expecting to see high art. Bum Phillips: All-American Opera is not La Bohème. Bum Phillips is a guy standing behind a trading-card-like prop frame, striking a classic QB pose. It's you, in the audience, wondering, "Is that supposed to be Dan Pastorini?"

But if you spend a few moments watching the production unfold—and I was lucky enough to be allowed to watch them run through the end of Act 1 and a portion of Act 2—you realize that, yes, there is a natural kinship between the NFL and the grand clash of high emotions that is usually opera's terrain. One involves lots of oversized and oversexed pituitary cases being subjected to epic violence and cruelty. The other is professional football.


Of course, we're not talking about just any professional football team; we're talking about the late '70s/early '80s Houston Oilers, in all their glorious wackiness: the "Luv Ya Blue" signs, the John 3:16 guy in the rainbow wig, everything about them striking a giddy contrast with their dynastic foe, Chuck Noll's Pittsburgh Steelers. Amazingly, in the brutish and brutal world of the NFL, they actually seemed to be having fun.

That was mainly due to their coach and general manager, Bum Phillips, who died last October and whose part in the opera is performed by Gary Ramsey. He was at the center of those wild, rambunctious teams—an honest-to-God Texan, prowling the sidelines in his cowboy boots, a wide-lapeled shirt, and a white Stetson resting on top of a Marine's buzz cut, bellowing like a sort of shitkicker Maximus to a delirious Astrodome crowd of more than 70,000 who had just watched their team lose in the AFC championship game: "Last year, we knocked on the door. This year, we pounded on the door. I'm telling you, next year we're going to kick that sumbitch in."

There was lot more to Bum than the sports-flick-friendly narrative—colorful character takes rag-tag bunch of plucky upstarts to within inches of winning it all—might suggest. The dramatic arc of the opera covers, yes, the fabled playoff runs, but also tells the story of his time in the Marines in World War II, during which he was forbidden from revealing his exact location and had to alert his family to his location via code: "Love, from S.I.," for example, to indicate that he was in the Solomon Islands. There are scenes depicting the origin of the name "Bum," his retirement, divorce, and most notably, his efforts with ex-Oiler Mike Barber to minister to convicts. Take the very goofiest song-and-dance numbers from Gravity's Rainbow and you'll have an idea of what's going on here.

Musical director/composer Peter Stopschinski and director Luke Leonard, both of whom were rabid fans of the team at the time, came up with the idea of an opera about Bum after reading his autobiography, Bum Phillips: Cowboy, Coach, Christian. Librettist Kirk Lynn, who crafted the script from Bum's book but also drew heavily upon NFL Films footage, says: "I grew up loving Bum. When I was reading the book, I thought, 'He speaks like my Dad—funny, but also completely sincere and serious,'" he said, "Honestly, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about people thinking about Texans and how we're stupid based on the way we speak. I wanted to let Bum be Bum and just be proud of it, because Bum was so great."

Stopschinski and Leonard ventured down to Bum's Texas ranch to meet with him and discuss the project. It was a seminal event that altered how they viewed the piece, both in style and content.

"I was wondering how we were going to present football in a way that isn't ridiculous or even offensive for a professional athlete," Leonard said, "But when I met him, I realized that cannot be the only thing. He was so kind and generous. The house filled up with his family. They were just so happy to meet a couple of strangers that were making an opera about their father. ... That's what I felt when I left, that we had this weight of responsibility. We can't mess this up or Texans will shoot us, because they love Bum Phillips!"

Leonard continued: "People worshipped him on the level of a saint." He mentioned Bum's prison ministries. "They were going to Angola, where 70 percent of those guys are doing life sentences. And nobody loved those guys, but Bum did. And that's what made Bum special. Bum loved first. His love was unconditional. And that's what hit home for me. That's what it's about. And that's what we felt when we went to meet him. I felt like, well, he loved us."

Stopschinski chimed in: "It wasn't an act. He was never putting anything on."

Like any tragic protagonist, the profound love he had for his players was also his undoing as a coach (though it was his saving grace as a human being). Bud Adams fired him in 1981, partly because he refused to change his ways and partly because, in a pattern that continues unabated to this day, the owner felt that in order to snag that elusive crown, he needed a "disciplinarian" to replace the lax, easygoing "player's coach."

One of those players, Dan Pastorini, will be coming to New York for a benefit performance on Thursday. He'll be joined by Bum's son, Wade, and Lawrence Harris, a former Oilers offensive lineman who is now an accomplished baritone and who will be singing the national anthem before the curtain rises. ("Every opera should begin with the national anthem," Stopschinski said.) Pastorini isn't a fan of the modern NFL. "I don't really like the game anymore, and I don't watch it," he told me. "You know, the way the NFL treats retired players is ridiculous… They should be ashamed of themselves. It's kind of disgusting. Drew Brees made a comment about the retired players wanting their money and the alcoholics.

"He should kiss the ground we walk on, because we were the ones who laid the groundwork so he could make 17-18 million dollars a year."

He holds Bum Phillips in the highest regard, however. "He said, 'You'll fight more for your family than you will for your teammates,' and that's how it is to this day. We've got Carl Mauck, Curley Culp. We see each other all the time at various charitable events and we've all stayed close. We will always be close because of Bum Phillips. … I loved him like a father. He's the best human being I ever met in my life."

So let's give the man his opera. He's earned it. Let's give his second wife an aria. Let's give him a Greek chorus of toupee'd, yellow-blazered color commentators and a player on the ground clutching his groin and a supernumerary getting knocked on his ass by Earl Campbell, his helmet sent skyward in slow motion. Let's give him a literal Deus Ex Machina in the form of Jesus Christ himself.

And, in lieu of the fat lady, let's give him a chorus of 300-pound linemen:

Niel-sen's the quart-er-back
Carp-en-ter catch-es
Hit him so hard the moth-er fuck-er retch-es
Carp-en-ter's out
call an-oth-er play
Niel-sen's got to run or we fuck-ing lose to-day!

Robert Silverman is a Contributing Editor at KnickerBlogger.net and a freelance writer whose work has appeared at the New York Times, ESPN.com, The Classical, and VICE, among others. He co-wrote We'll Always Have Linsanity: Strange Takes on the Strangest Season in Knicks History. You can follow Robert on Twitter at @BobSaietta.

Photographs by Corey Torpie