One look at Connor Barwin triggers a burst of laughter from J.J. Watt.
The Clown Prince of Defense is at it again, throwing silly fun into a league that often seems to take itself as seriously as the Pentagon. Everyone knows Barwin is going to do something. He's not going to let training camp — the most-anticipated training camp in Houston Texans history, and arguably in the history of Houston professional sports period — come without a significant marker.
So Barwin makes one out of his hair.
"Yes, I'm going with the high and tight flat top for training camp," Barwin says. "The Gary Kubiak."
Schaub told Johnson he hasn't been this excited for a training camp since this rookie year. Johnson told his quarterback he feels the same way.
That would be Texans coach Gary Kubiak, whose hairstyle might not have changed since he first went to the barber in the 1960s. Barwin's kidded Kubiak about his hair since he joined the team — and now he's made the ultimate sacrifice, cutting off his own usually puffed-up, pompadour-like locks to make a point to his coach about how bad a grown man can look in a flat top.
It's one of those made-for-training-camp gags, one that could have made Connor Barwin the center of a Hard Knocks episode — if the coach with the flat top wasn't allergic to such things. As is, the Texans are happy to have Barwin simply cracking up the team and a media contingent that hardly could be described as a New York-level horde on the day the players report to training camp.
The volume and intensity will turn up considerably when the fans pour in early Saturday morning for the first sold-out practice of the season. That's what the Texans almost to a man seem to care about most anyway. This season isn't about the supersized expectations, the national attention sure to come or any unexpected drama that's bound to ensue.
To the players it's about the people who pour into Reliant Stadium, turning any Sunday Gameday into a Houston holiday — and the millions more who fervently follow the team from their couch. It's for the people who stop Watt and express their thanks when he goes around town, for the people who are more fascinated by Arian Foster's diet than their own, for the people who don't fit the stereotypical look of a big-gutted football fan who give Barwin love at the art events he attends.
"Houston's on fire and it's up to us to keep it that way," defensive end Antonio Smith says.
It sounds sort of hokey. And with another group of professional athletes it might come across as more than forced and fake. But the Texans are still early enough in their run with enough of their stars clearly ingrained in the city that on Kirby Drive, it still seems real.
"Houston's such a huge city with so many different groups of people," Barwin says. "Football's the one thing that can bring all those groups together."
Case in point? Barwin spent his last night with good hair at the wild party (though maybe not by football player standards) at Hotel ZaZa that saw reality TV stars Kalon McMahon and Erica Rose getting dunked by Houston's beautiful people. And yes for the record, Barwin did dunk the Bachelor Pad boy with a sure throw.
The Real Story
Everyone looks good on the first day of training camp. Except Connor Barwin gone Kubiak.
Several Texans acknowledge this amid all the serious Super Bowl talk (do you prefer center Chris Myers' "Super Bowl or bust," Smith's "no lower than the Super Bowl" or quarterback Matt Schaub's "anything less will not be getting the job done" declaration? — it's a virtual buffet of big game banter). There is recognition among the Texans' players that almost every team in the NFL loves their team going into training camp.
How Schaub's rebuilt right foot holds up is the key to getting to New Orleans. While insisting he's fine, Schaub admits he'll be wearing a "little orthotic" on his foot.
Tight end Owen Daniels talks about these Texans being more "mature" than the groups that heard they were ready to break into the playoff picture year after year only to fail (until last season).
This team is not set up to fail though. Not with Watt adding eight pounds of lean muscle, having come to the realization late last season that he could play the power game he loved to play at Wisconsin in the NFL after all. Not with Schaub and Andre Johnson — the two injury-recovered linchpins of the Super vision — sharing their determination while commuting together to workouts at the University of Houston.
Those car conversations with No. 80 reveal more about his state of mind though. Schaub told Johnson he hasn't been this excited for a training camp since this rookie year. Johnson told his quarterback he feels the same way. Just two proud warriors sharing dreams that have little to do with the millions both men have already made.
"He was my chauffeur," Johnson cracks of Schaub.
"I think it was a great time for me and him to bond," the veteran wide receiver continues, turning serious now.
No one will ever mistake Johnson for some overamped, berserk football player. Andre Johnson more excited about training camp than he's been in 10 years looks and sounds a lot like Andre Johnson on any other day of any other year.
You don't faze No. 80.
It's clear the 31-year-old Johnson is driven to reclaim his place as one of the best wideouts in football though. Any idea that Johnson's been passed by — that he's not capable of getting right back to his 1,500-yard self — clearly rankles the University of Miami product.
"I’ve been hearing things about people saying I’m getting old and stuff," Johnson says. "I know that I can still play at a high level. I know that I can still put up big numbers."
The determination comes through in Johnson — and it's trait running up and down Rick Smith's roster. It may not be as easy to see — or as surprising — as Connor Barwin going Kubiak, but it just might be the most important thing of all going into training camp.
Everyone loves their team this time of year in NFL. But few are as driven as these Texans.