The first weekend in April was a big one for the city of Tomball, Texas as the entire city dropped everything for one big event.
After all, the German Fest only happens once a year.
“There’s a downtown,” UNC sophomore swing man Justin Jackson said of his hometown, “but you can snap your fingers, and you’re already through it.”
Not on German Fest weekend. The traffic was lined up 10 deep as pedestrians drifted across Farm to Market Road.
One thing is clear, despite the easy narrative, Justin Jackson is not returning to his hometown for the Final Four. Calling Tomball a part of Houston is like saying someone from Siler City, Mebane or Garner is playing in his hometown at the Dean Dome.
Tomball, who boasts its population of 10,753 on the sign at the town limits—along with a “take THAT, Flint” sign touting its “Superior Public Water System”—is much farther from Houston than the odometer indicates.
This quiet unassuming town produced a player who matches its personality, at least off the court. He’s earnest and thoughtful, speaking in a slow, deep drawl that almost sounds like a Brooklyn accent at times.
Much like his play on the court in his two years at Carolina, each of which featured a prolonged shooting slump early in the season, Jackson sometimes overthinks things in interviews, trying too hard to be perfect when answering questions.
“It’s a little city,” Jackson says of his home town, “but it’s not too big.”
“I’ve been to a Texans game,” he says of his history at NRG Stadium. “Have I been to a Texans game? I think I might’ve been to one Texans game.”
“I’ve made that trek plenty of times,” Jackson says of going to Houston. “My home-school team—which I’m sure that’ll stir up a whole lot of jokes—had to practice at a high school toward downtown Houston. So yeah. Obviously, Houston’s huge anyway, so you’ve got to drive a distance to go anywhere.”
Nothing about Tomball is huge, but there’s still plenty of driving, as cars fill every inch of grass and dirt surrounding the main road through town. Everyone has come to German Fest.
With a little patience, a parking spot could be found in the gravel next to the railroad tracks. Back in the day, Tomball was known for its railroad station. The location and landscape of the town—close to the coast, not too hilly—made it an ideal spot for a train stop.
While BNSF freight trains still run through Tomball from time to time, it appears that the railroad has faded as the backbone for the local economy over the last 100 years.
Driving the 35 miles from downtown Houston to Tomball, an outsider entering from the east, on Farm to Market Road literally approaches town on the wrong side of the tracks. Boarded up stores and restaurants litter both sides of the highway, as well as plenty of industrial warehouses with “For Lease” signs out front.
Inside Tomball town limits, however, things pick up. Signs welcoming visitors to Old Town Tomball neighbor the train tracks on both sides of the street, and the area is a thriving cluster of antique shops, and stores whose names include “vintage” or “heritage”.
There’s Ricca’s Shoes and Boots, and Charlotte’s Saddlery (which features both English and Western Tack).
The group of stores in a plaza called Relics by the Railroad include a tea room (called The Whistle Stop, of course), a group of gift stores and something called the Burlap Ranch.
It’s here, in this three-block section of town that relies on a nostalgia-based economy, that the German Fest is located. There are rides for the kids, a polka band and plenty of brats and kraut at a variety of German food booths (including one called Schnitzels and Giggles).
Ignoring the people in lederhosen, one thing becomes apparent from the people attending German Fest. There are plenty of Astros and Texans gear. Texas A&M is well represented on the hats and shirts of attendees, but there’s nothing representing the college choice of town’s most-famous son.
After a prolonged hunt, one man, at a booth selling baked goods, is wearing a Carolina t-shirt. It turns out he’s a vendor who came to Tomball’s German Fest from another part of Texas. He wore the shirt thinking it would pander to the locals.
There are no Carolina signs in local shop windows, no restaurants advertising viewing parties for UNC’s Final Four games.
“Honestly I don’t think many people know who I am, which I don’t really mind,” Jackson said earlier in the week. “Being home schooled, I think that closed me off a little bit. But who knows? Maybe people know me now.”
Leaving Old Town Tomball for Tomball proper, the boutiques give way to a more town-like group of local businesses.
The letter T must take up a majority of the Tomball yellow pages, because it seems that every locally-owned store features the town name. There’s Tomball Pet Resort and Tomball Acupuncture. Tomball Moving and Storage, as well as Tomball Pool and Spa.
The fixation on the town name is interesting, since it’s based on a typo. Originally named Peck, the city was renamed in honor of local congressman Tom Ball in 1907. At some point, two words became one, and the name stuck.
One store has a rack of phone books out front, free for the taking. It’s the type of oddity that is common to small towns. Someone thought it was a good idea at some point, and we’ve done it that way ever since.
It’s a trusting and naïve gesture, one that likely seems perfectly normal to people that live in Tomball. Jackson, who got duped out of his game jersey in Washington D.C. prior to an ACC Tournament start, wouldn’t bat an eye.
The directory gives the answer to one question—there are 112 businesses and organizations in town that begin with the word Tomball.
Traveling west on Farm to Market Road, the local businesses are replaced by chains. Jackson said that his one hope in returning to Houston was that the team would get to eat at Whataburger, a Texas chain restaurant, at some point during the week. As of Saturday’s national semifinals postgame, the Tar Heels hadn’t made it there.
Fields of longhorn cattle signify that Tomball has passed, but a few miles down the road, a right turn leads into a housing development. People are out mowing their lawns, and joggers wave at strangers in passing cars.
Every house seems to have a flagpole, and the Lone Star flag is below Old Glory on each. Ducks wander near a pond that looks manmade.
One house stands out from the rest. It’s not because of the full-size basketball court in the back. That’s not visible from the road. No, the place stands out, because it has the only acknowledgement that someone from town is playing in the Final Four on German Fest weekend.
A blue banner hands above the front porch, and a pair of Tar Heel signs adorn the front door of the Jackson house—Jackson’s alma mater.
He won’t get to see it this week.
“It’s not going back home, it’s going to the Final Four to play basketball,” coach Roy Williams said when asked about Jackson’s homecoming before leaving Chapel Hill.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it up there,” Jackson said, plain-spoken and straightforward as always–Tomball to the core. “We’ve got Final Four stuff.”