On March 7, quarterback P.J. Walker dropped back on a third and goal play from the five yard line while his team, the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks, were down 23-20 against the Seattle Dragons. Walker, poised, found receiver Cam Phillips with just over nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter, giving the Roughnecks their first lead of the day. It was a statement play, the kind that told fans that the Roughnecks were the real deal, capable of turning around a game where nothing had gone right to secure and maintain a lead. A few minutes later, Walker and Phillips would connect for their second touchdown of the day, and put the game out of Seattle’s reach.
Five days later, the XFL canceled the remainder of the season, after ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus had already put the NBA season on ice and indefinitely delayed Major League Baseball’s opening day, which had originally been scheduled for late March. That meant the undefeated 2020 Houston Roughnecks would never lose a game, but they’d also never be champions.
There are countless genuine tragedies amid the crisis created by the outbreak of COVID-19. There is also an endless supply of small disappointments that pale in significance to the life-and-death stakes of a spreading pandemic—but we feel them nonetheless, because what else is there to think about (besides things that are so much worse)? And one of those losses is that the Houston Roughnecks—a surprisingly fun, scrappy team playing football in a league that had no urgent reason to exist when it launched—will never get to earn the championship that the dominant, exciting play from Walker, the league’s breakout star, and his teammates could have delivered.
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I didn’t have high hopes at start of the XFL season. The league’s 2001 incarnation was weird and embarrassing, a combination of mediocre football, pro-wrestling-style theatrics, and a handful of technical innovations. The inaugural 2020 season of the revamped league launched just a year after another high-profile spring minor league football contender, the Alliance of American Football, lost funding halfway through its first season. The new XFL promised fewer of the gimmicks of its predecessor—essentially, its entire existence seemed like a giant “why bother?”
But the games were fun. I live in Austin and adopted the Roughnecks as my team because my brother lives in Houston, and he decided to splurge on season tickets (he paid about $140 for them). My mom, who is retired in Indiana, decided to watch the games on TV, and cheering for the team became a surprisingly fun part of the transition from spring to winter—which was, after all, the point of the league. It launched around the NBA all-star weekend, a time when football is over but still fresh in our minds, baseball has a few weeks before it returns, and basketball’s seemingly endless season still has months to go before the playoffs. A ten-week football season featuring players we half-remembered from college or so-so NFL careers seemed like a good distraction.
The Roughnecks were good, too, which made it easy to get invested. Quarterback play around the league wasn’t great overall, and Walker was the XFL’s brightest star, a competent signal-caller who could put a team on his shoulders. Fans in Houston took to the Roughnecks, too—attendance grew week over week, with just fewer than 20,000 people in the stands at TDECU Stadium for the week five matchup against the Dragons in early March. No one grew up a Roughnecks fan, and nobody was cheering for the team the way their dad or granddad did—but that meant that anybody who bought into the XFL was doing so as a matter of belief, like clapping for Tinkerbell. When the Roughnecks played the Dallas Renegades on the road in week four, fans at the home team’s Arlington stadium taunted the visitors from Houston by banging on trash cans, a la the Astros—a sure sign that the XFL had become a new venue to air their passions around the perennial Dallas versus Houston rivalry. When the Roughnecks’ dominant season looked like it might be derailed by the Dragons, I was cheered by Walker’s precise passing, by Phillips’s determination to get open. Houston would be hosting the XFL’s championship game in late April—and it would have been fun to see the home team play in it.
Then, of course, there were no more sports.
There is still sports news, though, which makes it weird. The XFL has vowed to return for 2021, but that year’s version of the Roughnecks won’t be the same—Walker parlayed his success with the minor league team to the NFL, signing a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers, where he’ll back up newly signed starter Teddy Bridgewater. Phillips—the XFL’s leading receiver in yards, receptions, and touchdowns—is being courted as a free agent, and may well end up a Miami Dolphin or Cincinnati Bengal before the end of the week. The opportunity to jump from the XFL to the NFL was part of what enticed these players to put their bodies on the line in a league where the average salary was $55,000, so it’s good to see that promise being fulfilled—but it feels like unfinished business, all the same.
The future is deeply uncertain right now. There’s no guarantee there’ll be a 2020 NFL season as we know it, let alone a 2021 XFL season. Making plans for what will come is a sucker’s game right now, and the too-early end to the Roughnecks season is just one of many things changing around us. If you’re a Baylor basketball fan, you lost the chance to see both the men’s and women’s teams potentially enter March Madness as top seeds. If you’re a fan of action movies, you’re missing watching Vin Diesel toast “to family” while hoisting a Corona to the sky in Fast & Furious 9. If you had concert tickets, or planned a family vacation, or wanted to just eat in a restaurant, then you know the feeling. In the end, there are too many things to miss right now, and who has tears to cry for the unfulfilled promise of the 2020 Houston Roughnecks season? Still—they had a good run while it lasted.