Stars come out for festivities

Updated: January 27, 2004, 12:37 AM ET
Associated Press

HOUSTON -- Some of the brightest stars in Houston sports history turned out Monday night to mix and mingle in a first-of-its-kind opening ceremony to kick off Super Bowl week.

Many of the luminaries said they had been looking forward to the charity dinner for the same reason as the 5,000 paying customers who spent $100 to $1,000 a ticket: to rub shoulders with the honorees.

"I can't wait to see some of them," new Astros pitcher Roger Clemens said as he entered Reliant Arena with his family. "I've been fans of theirs, that's for sure. I've been watching quite a few of them for a long time."

Clemens was among a majority of the 41 honorees on the list to attend the gathering, the brainchild of CBS sportscaster and former University of Houston golfer Jim Nantz. Some were from the area (Olympic gold medalist Leroy Burrell, George Foreman), others made their mark in Houston (Bum Phillips, Cynthia Cooper); and still others fit both categories (Nolan Ryan, Clyde Drexler).

Joining the festivities were former President George Bush, top NFL brass, the owners and coaches of the Super Bowl teams and musician Yanni, who provided the entertainment.

The real attractions for the stars, though, were the other stars on the list that originally was supposed to be 38 but grew because of ties among the local media voting.

"Houston is a city filled with incredible, phenomenal athletes, and I'm just proud to be one of the 38," said Olympic gold medal gymnast Mary Lou Retton, celebrating the 20th anniversary of her triumph this year. "I'm proud to [have been] here since I was 14 years old."

Drexler, who starred in high school and college in his hometown before helping the Rockets win a championship in the pros, said he felt humbled.

"It's a tremendous honor because people recognize the fact that you are from here," Drexler said. "I've always been extremely Houston proud, and it's a significant honor. It also could mean they ran out of guys and they needed a 38th."

If that's the case, it wasn't on account of Foreman, who put Drexler at the top of the heap.

"I've been a fan of his for years," Foreman said. "There couldn't be a list without Clyde Drexler. I'm looking forward to running into all the guys. I can't wait to see who's here, sign some autographs and get some autographs signed."

The celebrities got the red carpet treatment as they arrived at the dolled-up rodeo arena next to Reliant Stadium. The highlight was when the football that will be used at kickoff between the Panthers and Patriots on Sunday was passed from honoree to honoree down to Bush, who handed off to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in a torch-like relay.

Tagliabue said it would be tough for future Super Bowl cities to match Houston's star power for a similar event.

"I know Jim Nantz would love to think it will catch on, but maybe the trick here is that it is so unique," Tagliabue said. "Having a former president and having [41] of the greatest heroes of sport is not something every community can duplicate."

Proceeds from the dinner were earmarked for two after-school centers for underprivileged children.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press