When they boarded a flight in Australia on Sunday, the Rice Owls didn’t know where they would be sleeping that night.
It might be Los Angeles, where they were headed. Or, depending on what flights were available, it might be somewhere else.
But it sure wouldn’t be Houston, their home.
Both airports were closed, and the city was strained to a breaking point by the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey.
Head coach David Bailiff and his players, fresh off a season-opening loss to Stanford in Sydney, knew all that. All he kept thinking was, “Just make it to Texas.”
“Because we’re not stuck in Texas,” he said. “It was important for me to get this team back to Texas, to get this team closer to their families. If we made it to Dallas, we’re four hours away for their parents.”
The Owls made it to Texas on Monday.
Accepting TCU’s invitation to use their football facilities for as long as they needed, the Owls set up shop at the Worthington Hotel and began to think about when and how they would make it back to Houston.
And what they would find.
“Our house is done for,” said fullback Paine Matiscik, who shares a home with center Trey Martin and guard Peter Godber. “So we might have to move out. We’re trying to figure out where we’re going to go when we get back.”
But in Fort Worth, the Owls have found some comforts of home. Kelsey Patterson, the wife of TCU coach Gary Patterson, assembled toiletry bags for every player. After practice and weight-lifting sessions, TCU athletics has provided recovery foods. Bailiff said a dry cleaner came by to pick up the team’s laundry on Tuesday and another was due Wednesday.
“The entire team got to give him five articles of clothing,” he said.
The Owls are the guests of TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte, who as athletic director at Rice in 2007 hired Baliff as head coach, and Patterson, who hired Baliff in 2001 to be part of his first staff with the Horned Frogs.
It was a natural fit for the Owls, who practiced and played at TCU in the 2012 Armed Forces Bowl.
“It was nice to have Texas food again,” guard Kenneth Thompson said. “Brisket at the hotel.”
Bailiff said the Owls could have easily accepted invitations from SMU, Baylor and UTEP to use their facilities. The Owls play at UTEP on Sept. 9, their next game, but that would not have mattered.
“Texas football is a big family at the end of the day,” Martin said. “Most of the people that go to Texas schools, you’ve heard of them, you’ve played with them, gone to camps with them. It’s cool to see how everyone looks out for each other at the end of the day, how they open their doors to you.”
A trip to Waco would have given Mitascik a chance to see his younger brother, Ross Matiscik, an offensive lineman at Baylor. But the stay in Fort Worth still meant a chance to see his mother, who drove in immediately from McKinney to take care of his and other players’ laundry.
“He said all these other Texas teams are looking out for us,” Matiscik said of his brother. “He said after every practice, they pray for us, that we’re on their minds, that they really care. It really means a lot that other Texas schools are not just saying it, they’re doing something about it.”
And Martin, the center, is from the same hometown as former TCU center Joey Hunt and current TCU tight end Cole Hunt, a Rice transfer. The Owls’ reunion with a former teammate has been a highlight of the week.
But they still want to go home.
When will that be?
Bailiff is targeting Friday, when there is a greater chance things are more settled in Houston and on campus. He remembers taking the team home too soon from a game at Vanderbilt in 2008, when Hurricane Ike hit while they were away.
“We got in a rush to get home and we got them home and it was hard to feed them and it was hard to stand in line at the grocery store and to get gas,” he said. “Right now, the university is closed until next Tuesday. When I know it’s safe to bring them back and get them fed and we’re not extending the infrastructure of Rice — as anxious as we are to get home — we just want to do what’s right for Rice and the city of Houston.
Some of the boosters and non-staff members who were part of the Australia travel party left for home Monday or Tuesday, but Bailiff kept the players and staff, more than 100 people, together. He said it was his responsibility to the players’ parents to make sure they are in his care the entire time.
“When we get back, nothing’s going to be about football,” he said. “It’s going to be about what they need as humans. We need to go clean out their apartments, get their cars, get them back on their feet before we start practicing and worrying about football.
“That’s what I told the team. We’re going to mobilize to help out our family and teammates. That’s what it’s going to be about, more than football.”