Simply irreplaceable

This appears as the cover story in the November 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine. It is part of a package on irreplaceable players. You can read the rest of that package by going here.

Steak knives rest in midair as the players brace themselves, waiting.

Each week Andre Johnson and other members of the Texans' offense go out for dinner. On this warm November night, they've gathered on the second floor of Del Frisco's steak house, which overlooks the Houston Galleria. Except for their baseball hats and saucer-size watches, the group looks and behaves like many co-workers socializing after work. They crack up over YouTube links and share Halloween pics of their kids. They gossip about quirky teammates and dirty opponents. They tease each other about nodding off in meetings. At one point, fullback Vonta Leach is promising to sing "Happy Birthday" to himself, wideout David Anderson is impersonating Ron Jaworski, and Johnson is conducting a tablewide debate about the longest highway in America.

When the food arrives, large plates of broccoli, potatoes and mushrooms are passed around. Feeding off Johnson's chilled, unassuming vibe, the atmosphere is festive and relaxed -- until, that is, an overserved diner, sporting thick rectangular glasses, elbows his way to the edge of the table. "Let me ask you guys something," he begins. The cutlery comes to a halt as the players let out a soft collective groan. A beat later, the fan continues: "Doesn't Terrell Owens play for the Texans?"