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Houston Texans Cheerleaders Tryouts

This year, I covered the Houston Texans Cheerleader Tryouts and I met a really diverse set of people. More than 600 hopefuls showed up for the chance to earn their spot on the squad. In the end, only about 50 or so made it to the finalists round and the squad was whittled down from there. The fact that everyone, regardless of if they made it or not, was brave enough to try out is admirable to me. I only tried out for a squad in junior high school! Veterans weren’t guaranteed a spot on the team. They had to audition again just like anyone else.

For a look at some of the people who tried out and their stories, check out my photo essay here.

I also took a few shots of my own including of some of the Texans super fans who were invited to judge tryouts.

Leather and Laces Super Bowl Party

After a year of build up and a historic night, Super Bowl LI has come and now gone in Houston. I remember when it was first announced that the game would be coming to our city and then doing the subsequent countdown to the big day. I was part of the experience over the last two weeks, first as a Super Bowl volunteer and then this past weekend, covering two of the parties happening in town.

The first was Leather and Laces at Hughes Manor on Washington Avenue. The annual event started in Houston back in 2004. It returned to the Bayou City this year with co-hosts (and married couple), Jenny McCarthy and Donnie Wahlberg. Past guests have included Adriana Lima, Joey Fatone and Jeremy Piven. I covered the event for CultureMap. You can check out the story here or read the full article below.

Marriage proposal and Super Bowl predictions take center stage at sexy Leather and Laces party

is In the Air” might sound more like a phrase best saved for Valentine’s Day, but it managed to find a place at the 14th Annual Leather and Laces Super Bowl party Friday night.

Actress Jenny McCarthy and husband Donnie Wahlberg co-hosted the event at Hughes Manor on Washington Avenue, but the couple turned the spotlight over to their friends shortly after the clock struck midnight. Wahlberg, who is the star of CBS’ Blue Bloods, handed the microphone to his friend, Tony, so he could propose to his girlfriend (and for the record, she said, yes).

That was probably the most surprising moment at the party, which is making its return to Houston after being founded here in 2004.

But let’s not forget one of the main reasons bringing partygoers out this weekend: Super Bowl LI. Predictions for who will win leaned more in the New England Patriots’ favor than the Atlanta Falcons, with the most notable push for the Pats coming from Wahlberg, a Boston native.

Special guest and NASCAR driver Kyle Busch also threw his support behind the Bill Belichick-led team, while former Houston Texan Marcus Spears elected to stay neutral saying, “We’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

Even if some fans didn’t outwardly show their love for the Falcons, they did have a chance to take home some memorabilia from the team’s quarterback. A silent auction featured a Matt Ryan autographed jersey, along with signed guitars from Pink Floyd and Paul McCartney, movie posters with cast signatures on them, and other items from NFL teams. But when paying to play in auctions gets too expensive, you can always get the autographs from the athletes and celebrities in the flesh. And there were plenty opportunities to do that.

La’Roi Glover, Roy Williams, B.J. Johnson, Victor Ortiz, Bryan Braman and Ryan Klesko were among the former and current professional athletes to walk the red carpet. Sports Illustrated model and Texas native Hannah Ferguson also made an appearance.

But dancing was the main theme of the night as popular music blared from a room with white cabanas and a lit-up dance floor. Performers with Cirque USA dangled from the ceiling as open bars throughout the venue kept the drinks flowing. DJ Michael Jerome entertained in another area, where guests could feast on macarons, chocolate and strawberries from Dolce Delights, or briefly play dress-up at the photo booth.

For those interested in watching the scene rather than being part of it, covered seating on the deck was an option, complete with a big screen airing NFL Network. One of the lushest rooms was a lounge with a Moulin Rouge flair, including red curtains and velvet ceilings.

Friday was the first of a two-night event. The party continues Saturday with models Emily Ratajkowski and Sara Sampaio expected to headline. Parking seemed limited on the Hughes Manor campus, with valet being the closest option if you plan to navigate the streets yourself on the night before the Super Bowl. Otherwise, you can grab an Uber right outside the club.

A lounge ticket starts at $400 and goes up to $20,000 for a celebrity cabana. You can find more information on the Leather and Laces website.

 

 

 

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Letting Off Some Steam

Hours before the AFC Wildcard showdown took place at NRG Stadium, another battle of sorts was going on at the George R. Brown Convention Center. It was a fight between fans of the Houston Texans and a car covered in Kansas City Chiefs decals.

The Bridal Extravaganza may have seemed like an unlikely place to take a sledgehammer to a busted old car, but the show’s organizers say it was a  fitting way to let brides-to-be and their soon-to-be husbands relieve some of the stress that comes along with wedding planning. Fans also say it was payback for the way the Chiefs beat the Texans at the beginning of the season.

Although we know how the story ended (KC shut out Houston 30 to nothing), fans were thrilled to destroy anything Chiefs-related, even before the game that put a wrap on the Texans post-season run.

This story was a lot of fun to do. I admit destroying things (in a somewhat healthy way) can be a great stress reliever. I could barely hold the sledgehammer, but I got a couple hits in! Check out the story above. I wrote and edited it.

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A Houston Homecoming

Getting back to the University of Houston was as much of a homecoming for me as it was for the person I was doing a story about that day. I hadn’t been back there since I graduated in 2013. The part that I went to, the Athletics/Alumni Center, was much like how I remembered it. The youth football camp hosted by Oakland Raiders cornerback and NFL star D.J. Hayden was held on the practice football field. That was just as fresh as I’d left it, too, having last been there for an actual practice when I was a production intern at CSN Houston. The new turf laid down there probably helps, but I digress.

Hayden came back to host his second annual camp and launch his foundation to see to it that kids who might not otherwise have the chance get to learn from a pro athlete.

If the atmosphere at the camp could be described in one word, I’d say it’s “family.” Well, maybe also “hot” because the sun was blazing even though the camp started early in the morning.

The full story is posted here on CultureMap. Or as always, you can get the scoop below. Enjoy! And are you ready for some football?

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“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go! I know we aren’t walking!” The commands blaring through the bullhorn are being well-received by the football players running onto the field at the University of Houston’s Athletics/Alumni Center.

The aspiring athletes quickly fall into formation, warming up with lunges, sprints and back pedal exercises. It’s only 8 in the morning, but it doesn’t take long for beads of sweat to start bubbling across the foreheads of this ambitious group of athletes.

But are they really listening to that voice coming through the bullhorn?

“Of course. They don’t have a choice. I’m very convincing,” Zachary McMillian says, with a smile.

It turns out McMillian is a close friend and former teammate of the man these 100 or so players are here to see – Oakland Raiders cornerback and former UH standout D.J. Hayden.

A few minutes later, they’re huddled around him as the NFL star opens the activities with a simple demand, “Work hard.  Make plays.”

It’s a theme summed up in a few words that would set the tone for the rest of the day at Hayden’s Second Annual Play Your Heart Out Football Camp.

The free camp gives kids ages 10-14 the opportunity to learn techniques and sharpen their skills on both sides of the ball, whether their dream is to be a starting quarterback or a linebacker.

“When I was younger, I didn’t really go to camps like this and I wasn’t a part of them,” Hayden says. “For me, to have it at the University of Houston, it’s just giving back.  For them to see me doing what I’m doing lets them know that they can do it, too.”

No doubt, boys like 13-year-old D.J. Pena have taken notice.

“It’s the first time I could see an NFL player up close. It’s good that he came from Oakland down to Houston to teach us kids how to play football,” Pena says.

The connection to Hayden could be closer than Pena and the other middle-school students at the camp might think.

The offensive and defensive drills they’re running on the practice football field are similar to what Hayden and his teammates were doing on the nearby Carl Lewis Field almost three years ago. The field was also the place of a serious accident where one moment could have been Hayden’s last.

“He went down and we didn’t think anything was wrong,” McMillian says. “We moved the drill up, we kept going and he was out there on the floor.”

On November 6, 2012, Hayden had suffered a life-threatening injury.  During a passing drill, a teammate had crashed into Hayden, accidentally hitting him in the chest with his knee. That collision would result in a torn inferior vena cava – the main vein that pumps blood from the lower half of the body to the heart.

The injury is typically 95 percent fatal and one that is often seen in high-speed car crashes. However, Hayden went on to make a full recovery, becoming a first round draft pick, selected by the Oakland Raiders in 2013.

Now two years later, Hayden is healthy and looking ahead to the start of the football season.

“OTAs (organized team activities) were great with the whole new coaching staff,” Hayden says. “With head coach Jack del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton, Jr., I feel like we’re going to do some special things this year.”

But before Hayden rejoins Raider Nation for training camp, he has some unfinished business to tend to at the home of the Cougars.

That’s because his camp also serves as the kickoff of his DJ Hayden Foundation.

“Whether it’s helping kids with clothes or anything they need, we’re just giving back to them,” Hayden says. “My foundation will be giving back to underprivileged kids, kids in the hospital with heart problems. We want to give them a solid foundation with everything.”

Current UH linebacker and camp volunteer Rasheed Tynes says he wouldn’t expect anything less from Hayden. And like many of the young men there to help, he also echoes a common sentiment.

“This is great. It’s what’s supposed to get done. Nobody helped me when I was younger. I always had to struggle and fight for everything I ever had, so it’s always good to find somebody and help them out,” Tynes said. “You’re never supposed to forget where you came from.”

The friends, relatives, UH players and staff surrounding the practice field probably wouldn’t let Hayden forget even if he tried.

That includes Andre Johnson, a family friend who says he watched the star cornerback grow up. He’s known Hayden since he was about 3 years old and says he was also the ring boy in his wedding. Johnson brought his son out to the camp, hoping he could pick up a thing or two from Hayden.

“It’s a good feeling knowing that he got this far, and God blessed him even during his injury,” Johnson said. “Every time he’s hurt or had difficulties, he’s still out there making it happen.”

Even though Johnson’s 13-year-old son, Avante, normally plays defensive back, he’s mixing it up at the camp, running fade routes as a wide receiver.

“I want to say thanks. It’s a good opportunity for me to get better and for players around me to get better,” Avante says.

He offers this advice to future players looking to join the camp next year.

“Do your best. Whatever you’re capable in, just play hard.”

Sound familiar?

“Just go out there and play your heart out,” Hayden says. “I see a lot of kids second-guess themselves because they don’t feel as athletic as some of the other ones.  But if they go out and give it their all, the sky is the limit.”

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Learning How to “Dynamize”

Over the summer, I added a new word to my vocabulary: “Dynamize.” OK – you won’t actually find it in the dictionary, but it does describe how Dynamo Charities gave back to a family in the East end of Houston.

The project is part of a joint initiative with  former Dynamo soccer star turned Houston Dash managing director, Brian Ching,  and Habitat for Humanity. Ching partnered with the organization to form the House That Ching Built, which raises money to build homes for deserving families in Houston.

The first house in the project was completed back in 2010. Now, the second house is finished, but I was able to catch volunteers add on the finishing touches before the home was presented to the Garcia-Andrade family.

Dynamo Girl Olevia teamed up with Dynamo Charities to help make the house fit for a Dynamo fan. Let’s just say, she definitely put her interior design skills to use!

Fun fact: Funding for this house came from the proceeds that were raised from Brian Ching’s Testimonial Match last December. Overall, $125,000 was raised – enough to cover this house and get started on a third one next year.

Get the full story on Dynamizing the home, below!

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Bald is Beautiful

This Mother’s Day, some Houston Dynamo fans decided to skip brunch and get their heads shaved for Mom’s special day. But doing that had nothing to do with honoring mothers everywhere (although they’re totally deserving!). It was all about showing support for children with cancer through the annual event, Bald is Beautiful,   sponsored by Dynamo Charities.

Now in its’ sixth year, the Bald is Beautiful campaign seeks to raise money for awareness and research in the effort to find a cure to end childhood cancer by donating money from the event to the Curing Children’s Cancer Fund. All the action happened right before the Houston Dynamo took on Real Salt Lake at BBVA Compass Stadium.

“Dynamo Zone” co-host Jason Simon participated to mark his third time at the event and ended up giving over $600.00. But he wasn’t the only one. Susan Leining, a retired teacher and soccer coach from Santa Fe, Texas, also joined in. Learn more about what inspired her to get involved, below.

In the past, former Dynamo players Mike Chabala and Craig Waibel have spearheaded the event.

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Dash On

Former Houston Dash player Nikki Washington, 25, received a huge homecoming at the Dash’s inaugural game and season opener, April 11,  against her previous team, Portland Thorns FC. Why do I say former already although the season kicked off just under a month ago? Washington now plays for the Boston Breakers in a trade that has brought Canadian midfielder Kaylyn Kyle to Houston.

But before the Mesquite, TX native returned to the northeast (she played for the Breakers in 2011) , she proudly sported Dash colors. I interviewed Washington after the team’s first match to find out more about what it was like to be back in her home state playing in front of two very familiar faces and got her thoughts on what some considered a questionable call in the 90th minute of the game.

The Dash return to action at home, May 3, (sans Washington) against FC Kansas City. Washington won’t be back on the pitch in Houston until July, when the Breakers take on her newest old team.

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Sports, Scandal and Monday Night Football

It’s not everyday that I have the opportunity to interview talent from one of the largest TV markets in the country. So, when former KHOU Sports Director Butch Alsandor agreed to stop by HCCTV, I knew I had to dig deep to impress someone who has been in the industry for over two decades. It was an honor to interview Butch and learn about his experiences (plus – what he watches on Thursday nights!). Below are pictures from the set. You can watch the full interview here on the Videos page: http://brittaneywilmore.com/?page_id=14

What's the Score? Interview