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Photo courtesy of Houston Airports

We can now dub Houston the city of first-class airports and first-class service.

During the 2023 Skytrax World Airport Awards in Amsterdam, the Houston airport system earned several prestigious honors, including a second consecutive five-star rating.

Skytrax is the leading international air transport rating organization; they determine their ratings based on annual audits of every airport. This year, the Houston airport system won in a new category that was unveiled at the ceremony – “Best Art in the Airport” – which was determined by a panel of judges.

Mario Diaz, the director of aviation for Houston Airports, said in a press release that superior customer service is the “guiding light” for the city’s airport system.

“Excellent customer service is at our core; an expansive and eclectic arts program, just awarded World’s Best Art Program in 2023, provides a meaningful and memorable experience,” said Diaz.

The awards continued to stack up. William P. Hobby Airport maintained its five-star rating for the second year in a row. It is one of 18 total five-star airports in the world, but the one and only five-star Skytrax airport in North America.

Other accolades the Hobby Airport earned include:

  • Best Regional Airport in North America, for the second consecutive year
  • No. 2 Best Airport in the United States
  • No. 3 Best Airport in North America

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) maintained its four-star classification for the sixth year in a row. It was also named the fourth best airport in North America, and third best in the United States.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said the Skytrax awards reaffirm the city airports’ “dedication to detail and commitment to customer service.”

“Houston truly is a global city where our guests are valued and celebrated,” he praised. “Another year of [five]-star and [four]-star ratings is proof that the investments we continue to make in our Houston Airports arts program, airport infrastructure and technology and team members are smart and successful investments that lead to a world-class and award-winning passenger experience.”

More information about the awards can be found on fly2houston.com.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Gow Media powers up new site to report on Houston's energy transition news

go time

Houston's newest media platform has officially gone live.

EnergyCapitalHTX.com, originally announced in March, is now up and running. Houston-based Gow Media, a multi-platform media company and the parent company of InnovationMap, CultureMap, SportsMap, and ESPN Radio 97.5FM and 92.5FM, launched the site tonight at an event at Gow Media's office.

“We are excited to roll out our new outlet, EnergyCapitalHTX.com. We have been very impressed by Houston’s efforts to lead the global transition of energy and to address the 'dual challenge' of meeting the world’s growing demand for energy while at the same time reducing carbon emissions,” says David Gow, CEO of Gow Media.

“On our new site, we plan to provide informative, unbiased coverage of the Houston-based initiatives, spanning big corporations and startups," he continues. "We hope that a site dedicated to the transition will bring visibility to the city’s substantive progress and to the path forward.”

The site will cover Houston's energy transition ecosystem — the people, companies, capital sources, and numerous initiatives in Houston. Lindsey Ferrell serves as the inaugural editor of the site.

The site’s inaugural sponsor is HETI, which launched in 2021. Led by Executive Director Jane Stricker, HETI was founded to drive economic growth in the Houston area within the energy transition toward a lower carbon future.

“We are excited to support Gow Media with the launch EnergyCapitalHTX.com,” Stricker says in an earlier news release. "There is so much innovative and exciting activity in our ecosystem. Houston is the Energy Capital of the World, and this platform will amplify the energy leadership that is already happening here.”

Former NFL QB Ryan Leaf reveals riveting story of his fall from grace and recovery at Menninger Annual Luncheon

a new leaf

Photo by Daniel Ortiz

Susie Peake, Ryan Leaf, Poppi Massey, and Armando Colombo.

In a sports town like Houston — where victory is celebrated and champions revered — how is being a champion defined? Is it how many rings a player earns? Is it who gets named MVP? Who hoists the most trophies?

Or, is it the one who perseveres against overwhelming odds? Perhaps the one who confronts demons and slays them — not publicly, but privately — day after day. The one who goes from rock bottom to a place of security and finally, peace.

This is a story about how to fail.

It’s the story of Ryan Leaf, who appeared in conversation with CultureMap's editor Steven Devadanam at the Menninger Clinic Annual Luncheon in a nod to Mental Health Awareness Month. The luncheon, chaired by Susie Peake and Poppi Massey, raised more than $375,000 to help establish a new Center for Addiction Medicine and Recovery at the Menninger Clinic.

The golden boy with a secret

From his earliest days in Great Falls, Montana — what he called a “cowboy town,” Leaf was a gifted athlete gushing with potential star power. “I was placed on a pedestal pretty early,” he said of his junior high and high school sports days. But young Leaf eschewed the quiet cowboy mentality that permeated the area.

“My heroes weren't what the very conservative Montana establishment wanted,” he explained to Devadanam. “My heroes were the Fab Five from Michigan [the iconic college basketball champions] — wearing your shorts down to your knees, the black socks, I had my head shaved.”

That bad boy, urban hoops vibe didn’t jibe with Montana’s cowboy culture, and locals let Leaf know. “They wanted a great athlete and instead they got me,” he said pointedly. His way to get back, he recalled, was to play with rage, win, become a pro athlete, “and rub it in their faces,” he recalled. Since they didn’t approve of his aggressive play and image, “that meant I was a bad person,” said Leaf, “ because of the way they treated me.”

Leaf recalled feeling superior to everyone around him. He didn’t drink at parties, instead lugging around a six pack of 7-Up, to let the drinkers know he was better than them and would never end up like them. He refused to even date anyone who attended his same school.

Admittedly, Leaf towed the fine line “between elite athlete and as*hole,” he said, garnering a big laugh from the audience, before being firmly entrenched in the latter category. But that cocky swagger — a defense mechanism — belied the quiet young man who just wanted to make his father, a Viet Nam war veteran, business owner, and sports lover, proud.

When Devadanam noted his surprise that Leaf wasn't the big man on campus in high school, Leaf explained the dichotomy of his personas. The young introvert Leaf was “an extreme extrovert” on the football field and basketball court. “I tell people all the time that I was a drug addict long before I ever took a drug, in how I behaved,” he noted.

“I was an egomaniac with a self-esteem problem,” he recounted. “And that stemmed from being shamed” — mostly by his mother. Mrs. Leaf, he noted, was worried about her son’s public image and how he was perceived, the victim of an alcoholic father herself. And she saw her father’s traits in her son. “I never felt I could be who I truly was,” Leaf recalled of her treatment.

That meant Leaf poured himself into sports and little else, learning no life coping skills. “I think my development was arrested probably when I was around 13 years old,” he said of the coddling and pedestal he was placed upon as a “golden arm” athlete. While keeping his innate sense of shame a secret, he won on every level in sports, which kept the demons at bay.

“We always do whatever we can — whether that’s a negative and toxic way of doing things — if you’re successful. But what happens if you fail at the biggest possible level?”

A Montana kid makes history

Aggressively recruited by the biggest football schools in the nation, Leaf joined the Washington State Cougars and led them to their first Pac-10 championship in school history. His strong showing in the 1998 Rose Bowl made him the first Heisman Trophy finalist in Montana's history.

Soon, pro sports and football chatter turned to whom would be selected No. 1 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft: Leaf, or future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, the Tennessee standout and football prince. The pair — Manning in khakis and frat ready and Leaf with a rock star image — made the perfect foil for each other.

Manning, many said, was cerebral, while Leaf brought intensity, a cannon arm, and a linebacker physique in a quarterback's body. The prototype of today's ideal QB, Leaf was selected right behind Manning, who famously joined the Indianapolis Colts. The two would be forever intertwined. Friendly Manning at No. 1 to the Colts; swag-dripping Leaf at No. 2 to the San Diego Chargers.

From NFL dream...to a nightmare

Leaf would be the first Montanan ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft and at the time, signed the biggest rookie bonus in NFL history: an $11.5 million add-on to his four-year, $31.25 million contract. Leaf was immediately named the starting quarterback and the Chargers' future leader. He won his first two games.

And then he imploded.

Looking back, the fall could be traced to a viral moment in which Leaf had a heated exchange with San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jay Posner, screaming at the writer to “knock it off!” Leaf had to be led away by team captain Junior Seau and was forced to issue an apology to Posner — which he demonstrably crumpled and trashed after reading.

His fiery outburst became fodder for national sports talk radio, with sound bytes playing daily on syndicated programs like The Jim Rome Show.

When Devadanam asked Leaf how a 22-year-old football pro handled his worst day at the office becoming a national discussion and mockery, Leaf dryly responded, “badly.”

Indeed. He struggled with work ethic, injuries, and what was deemed bad behavior. His reputation became that of the top draft bust in the entire history of the NFL. And when his career with the league ended in 2001, his troubles didn’t.

He went back to Washington State University and finished his degree, and he bounced around in a bunch of jobs: a volunteer quarterback coach, a business development manager, a writer.

His downward spiral took him into drugs, with both probation and prison sentences. There was a domestic violence charge. A suicide attempt.

The lonely fall from grace

It was a crushing fall. In a lot of ways, it was also inevitable.

The candid conversation shed light on the important work done by mental health facilities like Menninger, as well as the need for more openness about mental health issues. Leaf told the audience that growing up in Montana, he had no role models for being able to show how insecure he felt, or ways to express when something was wrong.

He found himself absolutely unable to cope with the pressure of big-time football and handling the ins and outs of adulthood.

“I thought [being a pro football player] was what it was supposed to be,” he said. “I expected to be there. What I didn’t fully understand was what came with it. I was this redneck kid from Montana who all he wanted to do was play ball and be liked. And instead of saying that, I was kind of characterized as versus Peyton — kind of the black hat. And I didn’t correct anybody. I’ve never been able to correct anybody. I didn't like confrontation unless I was the one who was trying to intimidate. So, I thought, okay, this is what people want. So, in the darkest of moments, whether it was a reporter who was telling a negative story about me or a fan yelling at me, I had no way to deal with that in a healthy, positive way. So, my way was to battle.”

Of course, battling – both literal and metaphorical – led to other issues. By the time he wound up with the Seattle Seahawks, he said he was tired of being beat up, physically and emotionally.

“I was starting to develop the real mental health issues I didn’t know I had,” he said. “I was sad all the time, I couldn’t get out of bed. I felt really lazy; I gained a bunch of weight. So, instead of walking into my head coach’s office and telling him all those things, I just quit the thing I’ve wanted to do since I was four years old. And I thought I could just disappear.”

Numbing the pain, fighting the pain

Leaf quickly learned, to his surprise, that wasn’t the case. Because, despite his success, the money he’d earned and what he calls “the power” of having that money, he couldn’t make his feelings or what people said about him go away.

“What I didn’t fully understand when I walked away, was that I could have a normal life. When you’re drafted alongside arguably the greatest to play the game — Peyton Manning — my name doesn’t just go away,” he said.” So, if my name wasn’t going to go away and I hadn’t found a way to deal with this in a proper way, there was no way I was going to get better.”

Leaf went downhill both gradually and suddenly, it seemed. Having been prescribed Vicodin in the past for his physical injuries, he began using it to dull emotional pain. He faced drug charges in both Texas, where he’d coached football, and in Montana, serving 32 months in prison. At the time of his sentencing, he recalls feeling so down on himself that he didn’t understand why the judge didn’t give him a harsher sentence.

Prison, it turned out, would be a turning point. After rebuffing several attempts by a warden to speak with groups of visiting students as part of intervention programs, he finally relented. Sharing his story helped him begin to step outside himself. But there was still a long way to go.

“I was released. I go home and the next morning, my hometown newspaper, there was a cartoon there: Ryan Leaf just got out, lock up your medicine cabinet,” he said. “In that moment, I thought, ok, this is what it was going to be like. Forever. There’s no hope. And I got that reprieve when I was accepted into a treatment program.”

Getting into a program wasn’t easy. The NFL Players Association, whom he first contacted for help, flat out told him that assisting him would be “throwing good money after bad,” a crushing thing to hear. But, a nonprofit called the Player Care Foundation was in its infancy, and Leaf applied for a grant to fund treatment. It was accepted. He recalls Andrew Joe, the organization’s founder, calling him with the news.

“If he doesn’t do that, I don’t get the treatment I need, I doubt it one hundred percent I am here telling that story,” he said. “That’s where it all started. And it’s about what the Menninger Clinic does; it’s what treatment facilities do to give individuals hope.”

A new Leaf

Treatment allowed Leaf to begin rebuilding his life and his approach to his feelings of doubt and insecurity. Over the last decade, he’s taken on speaking gigs around the country and works with the Disney Corporation, something he couldn’t have imagined a decade ago.

“I just needed someone to believe in me,” he said. “My therapist and I have worked on an affirmation that I say every day in the mirror: what other people think of me is none of my business. It sounds simple, but my brain believed any of the outside noise.”

He noted that it was easier for him to believe the negative things that people said than it was to embrace their compliments. He worked to train his brain, however, so that today, when he states that affirmation, he believes it.

“I’m okay with who I am,” he said. “I’m this flawed human being like everybody else who is just trying to be better every day. This is a story about how to fail.”

Esquire toasts Heights watering hole as only Texas spot on 2023's Best Bars in America list

Esquire's favorite Texas bar

One of the Houston’s hottest new bars is basking in the national spotlight. Esquire magazine named EZ’s Liquor Lounge to its list of The Best Bars in America, 2023.

Notably, EZ’s, which is part of the Agricole Hospitality group that also includes Coltivare and Eight Row Flint, is the only Texas establishment that Esquire's editors included among the 31 bars on the list. After in Chicago, Tell Me Bar in New Orleans, and Jellyrolls at Disney World in Orlando, Florida are also among the honorees.

Agricole opened EZ's Liquor Lounge last year. It takes its inspiration from classic neighborhood bars that used to be staples in the Heights, such as Alice's Tall Texan and the Shiloh Club. Unlike those establishments, EZ's also serves carefully crafted cocktails and a tidy menu of food that someone would actually want to eat.

“You’d think a great dive bar couldn’t be built; it could only be arrived at through decades of benign neglect. You’d think that, at least, until you visited EZ’s Liquor Lounge,” writer Beth Ann Fennelly declares. She praises the decor that includes vintage neon signs and recommends patrons try the Hillbilly Highball cocktail, which is made with peanut butter bourbon and Mexican Coke.

In a separate introductory essay, the magazine notes that all of the bars on this year's list offered a fresh perspective or distinct environment. “This is our 18th edition of the list, and in all my years of bar crawls, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much spirited originality — as many bars that make you say, ‘So strange, yet so awesome,’” Esquire editor Kevin Sintumuang writes.

EZ’s operating partner Matt Tanner tells CultureMap that he’s thrilled with the recognition. He spent more than a year sourcing the vintage signs and other decor that give EZ’s its retro, dive bar-inspired atmosphere.

“We put together a place that we wanted to hang out and thought would be a good neighborhood bar,” Tanner tells CultureMap. “Turns out a lot of people enjoy it. It’s just a really great feeling to see people in there smiling, having a great time. Having Esquire come in and think it’s one of the best places in America, it’s just a really cool feeling.”