Ever since it first appeared on a Union Pacific railway trestle over Interstate 45 seven years ago, the huge, bold, and blue “Be Someone” graffito has served as a beacon of hope for the tens of thousands of 9-to-5-working Houstonians who trudge past it, often well below posted speed limits thanks to godawful traffic, on their way to work downtown.
Last year, a Change.org petition called for the legitimization of “Be Someone”—technically illegal street art—by granting it official status as a protected landmark. If that proposal had been put to a popular vote, it would have won in a landslide. Anytime “Be Someone” lands in the news—as when it was defaced last week—reporters almost invariably refer to it as “iconic.” It’s almost like there’s a law or press club bylaw governing this usage: “All news reports concerning either the Astrodome or the ‘Be Someone”graffito must refer to said entities as ‘iconic’ on pain of forfeiture of media privileges.”
When the artist, still known only as Be Someone, first risked a painful death by dangling above the freeway to daub those nine hopeful letters on that rusty old bridge, Ed Oliver was 14 and growing up on the northside. The message has been there through Oliver’s rise as a high school All-American at Westfield High School and his unprecedented athletic feats at the University of Houston. It was with him last week as well, literally the closest thing to his heart, when he finally moved on from the city he loves so much.
Shortly after the Buffalo Bills made Oliver the ninth overall selection in this year’s NFL draft, he tweeted out a picture of the blazer he chose to wear on the biggest day of his young life. Its charcoal gray pinstripes were suitable for a business meeting or even a funeral, but the liner was far more personal—it featured a photograph of “Be Someone.”
This here is for the greatest place on earth Houston MF Texas #•€ pic.twitter.com/Foe9zDDFTs
— Ed Oliver (@Edoliver_11) April 25, 2019
For Houstonians, as opposed to fans of the Houston Texans football team, Oliver’s attire was the story of the day. The Texans rolled their first-round dice on a guy named Tytus Howard, from tiny Alabama State University, in the hopes that he might one day become the foundation of an offensive line worthy of third-year quarterback Deshaun Watson’s transcendent talents. The Battle Red brigade greeted his selection with cautious optimism at best, predictions of a bust at worst, and a broad consensus of “meh” in the middle.
Picking at No. 23, the Texans had no shot at Oliver, the greatest football talent Houston-area high schools have produced since Vince Young. Instead, he’s heading to Lake Erie to play for a team that, even after all these years, gives Houston football fans of a certain age the heebie-jeebies (thanks to the game known in Houston as the Choke and in Buffalo as the Comeback—no more of it can this Oilers fan bear to write, even 26 years after the final gun.)
When Oliver finished his high school days, all the big universities came calling, but Oliver shocked the world when he spurned powerhouses like Alabama, Oklahoma, and LSU to stay home and play for then-coach Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars. (In doing so, Oliver became the first ESPN five-star recruit to sign with a non-Power 5 conference team.) Along with quarterback Greg Ward, Oliver spearheaded the #HTownTakeover, the brief renaissance Cougar football enjoyed under Herman, one that saw them nationally relevant, playing in a new stadium, and in the conversation for a possible slot should any Power 5 conferences expand.
Much of that Cougar hoopla was Oliver’s doing. In his first game, he sacked future Heisman winner Baker Mayfield twice as the Cougars stunned the heavily favored, third-ranked Oklahoma Sooners. Later that season, Oliver repeated the feat—twice sacking a future Heisman-winning quarterback of a then-third-ranked team—in ruining the evening of Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in another Cougar upset. Those two wins, along with a Peach Bowl triumph over Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State Seminoles, set Herman on the road to the 40 Acres in Austin. If old Yankee Stadium was the House that Ruth Built, Herman’s tenure at UT is the Era that Ed Oliver Initiated. Now that Oliver’s played his last game at UH’s TDECU Stadium, it’s the end of an era for the Coogs, and #HTownDoOver.
Life is all about change. Even more so in Houston, where the only way to preserve the former Eighth Wonder of the World (as the Astrodome was once unironically known) is to transform it into a parking garage for the shiny, fancier new edifice next door. (We have a thing here for parking garages—the former site of the city’s first is memorialized downtown, and when the Shamrock Hotel, another local structure considered “iconic,” was demolished in the 1980s, its parking garage was spared.) Four of the seven places I’ve called home in Houston have been demolished in the last twenty years, a span in which entire neighborhoods have been razed and reborn with new names: Fourth Ward as Midtown and parts of Second Ward and Third Ward as “EaDo,” to name a couple.
Is it any wonder that in a city as developer-dominated as Houston, guerrilla art would strike such a chord? That in a city as ephemeral as this, a strategically placed, vaguely-worded exhortation would have such resonance? “Be Someone” is the perfect motivational sermonette for this Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches, Etch-a-Sketch of a city, this perpetual boomtown on the swampy prairie, where absolutely anything could happen to anyone at any time or absolutely anybody could make themselves into anything. Failed health club owner Jim McIngvale transformed himself into beloved civic icon “Mattress Mack” via strategic philanthropy and shouting about furniture on TV for years. Hugo Ortega arrived in Houston as an undocumented teenager from Mexico City and worked his way up from dishwasher to internationally renowned chef. Raised by a single mother in Fifth Ward, James Prince went on to put Dirty South hip-hop on the map via his label Rap-a-Lot Records and their first star artists, the Geto Boys.
Maybe Tytus Howard will be the foundation of a sturdy new Texans offensive line. Maybe new coach Dana Holgorsen will take the Cougars back to where they were under Herman. But one thing is certain—the city of Houston has said goodbye for the foreseeable future to a homegrown hero who stayed here as long as he could and said goodbye with grace and panache.