Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

John Prock: Man of influence

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

The information that’s compiled on football players and coaches at the NCAA Division II level isn’t nearly as extensive as the plethora of facts and figures we can find on those who play and coach at the BCS level.

Ken Bissell, a native of Nashville in Howard County and a graduate of Harding University at Searcy, knew what faced him when he began working on a book about John Prock, Harding’s head football coach from 1964-87. There would be dozens and dozens of interviews to conduct. There would be a lot of digging through old files and scrapbooks.

Google the name of any FBS head coach, and dozens of stories will appear.

Google the name of John Prock, and you won’t find much.

To me, though, John Prock was as big a college coaching name when I was growing up as any head coach in the Southwest Conference, Big Ten or SEC. You see, I was a child of the now defunct Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference, raised by a sporting goods dealer in Arkadelphia in a home that was walking distance from the football stadiums of two AIC schools. If we weren’t in Arkadelphia on a fall Saturday, we were in Searcy, Conway, Russellville, Magnolia or Monticello.

This was college football to me, and the men who were coaching those AIC teams of the 1960s and 1970s — a Prock at Harding; a Benson at Ouachita; a Sawyer, Berry or Carpenter at Henderson; a Dempsey at Arkansas Tech; a Bright or Stephens at what’s now UCA; a Powell at what’s now SAU — were among the giants of my childhood.

Buddy Benson, the head football coach at Ouachita for 31 seasons, was like an uncle to me, and Prock was the AIC coach who — at least in my mind — was most like Benson: A ruggedly handsome, tough, driven man at a private university, forced to compete without the resources of the state schools.

Ken Bissell and I have much in common. We both hail from southwest Arkansas. I graduated from Ouachita in 1981. He graduated from Harding in 1984. We both were heavily involved as students in sports writing and in sports information work at our alma maters. Our mentors were legendary small college sports information directors, Stan Green at Harding and Mac Sisson at Ouachita.

Bissell later would serve as the sports editor of The Nashville News in his hometown and The Daily Citizen in Searcy before returning to Harding as sports information director in 1987. He was a natural to write “Many Sons To Glory,” which was released this fall.

“My relationship with Coach Prock began in 1980 when I was a freshman sports reporter for The Bison, Harding’s student newspaper, and further developed as I worked for four years as a student assistant in the school’s sports information office,” Bissell writes. “I wouldn’t call our relationship close, but I always found Coach Prock to be supportive and encouraging as we interacted through the years. While studying at Harding, I debated between sports writing and coaching as a career path so I pursued a major in journalism with physical education as my minor, which placed me in Prock’s ‘Coaching Football’ class.

“He frequently poked fun at my questions in the classroom, asking if my inquiries were more from a writer’s than a coach’s perspective. I determined quickly that my skills and demeanor were better suited for the press box than the sideline, but I’ve often wondered what might have been had I chosen the life of gridiron mentor over that of journalist and later PR and marketing professional. I have no regrets, it served my family and me well, but I loved coaching my sons’ youth league teams.”

Bissell explains Prock’s “faith in his assistant coaches to squeeze every drop of talent out of the players, and his determination to stretch every dollar, even at his own expense. … Ask his former players how he influenced their lives, and they often speak with such affection that lumps fill their throats and tears come to their eyes. Many of them are successful high school head coaches with multiple state championships.

“But warm feelings from former players and successfully building a program don’t necessarily warrant writing a book about a coach. There are many sports mentors who endear themselves to their teams and face challenges with determination. What set John Prock apart was the grace with which he faced his adversity-filled youth; the faith-based example he demonstrated with his family and the young men who played for him; and the integrity, humility, character and leadership he displayed throughout his life.”

Prock, an inductee into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, died in July 2012. He was born in March 1929 in the small southwestern Oklahoma town of Hollis, which produced a fellow named Darrell Royal, another college football coach you might have heard of.

“Hollis was like any other plains town in the 1920s and ’30s,” Bissell writes. “With a population of a little more than 3,000, it was the county seat and center of commerce in Harmon County where the large majority of residents made their livings as farmers. Hard work in the fields through the week was typically rewarded with a trip to town on Saturday to buy provisions and other necessities and perhaps catch a flicker show at the LaVista movie theater. Sunday was reserved for church services and rest. That reliance on agriculture as the economic lifeblood of the nation’s breadbasket would become the bane of its existence as the Great Depression and severe drought converged to create the perfect poverty storm known as the Dust Bowl.

“The section of country that embraced the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado and northeastern New Mexico became vulnerable as the influx of homesteaders increased through the first two decades of the 20th century. Endless fields that had served for centuries as the grazing home to buffalo and later cattle herds were converted into millions of acres of wheat in support of World War I food efforts and beyond. Poor land management combined with a three-year drought from 1930-33 eventually destroyed the area’s topsoil. The spring winds of 1934 lifted exposed, parched dirt that was no longer bound together by native grasses and swept it into boiling storms that were aptly called Black Blizzards. Suddenly those whose livelihoods depended solely on crops were left with nothing but silty wind-blown soil covering everything in sight.”

Prock’s parents weren’t among those who headed west to California. They stayed in Oklahoma. In May 1931, Prock’s mother died. The official cause of death was blood poisoning. She was pregnant when she died. Some believed she caught her husband, who was a truck driver, in an affair and tried to abort the baby. At age 2, John Prock moved in with his paternal grandparents. His grandfather died in 1934, leaving his grandmother to raise him during the depths of the Great Depression.

Prock’s grandmother died in April 1941, leaving him to be raised as a teenager by an abusive stepmother.

“As it was with most small rural communities in the 1930s and ’40s, sports served both as an outlet and escape for young men in Hollis,” Bissell writes. “When they weren’t working in the fields, it was common to find the neighborhood boys playing summer pick-up baseball games on makeshift diamonds, fall rag-tag football scrimmages on dusty gridirons or hoops on barn-side dirt basketball courts in the cold of winter. Any boy worth his salt was honing his ball skills with dreams of playing for the Hollis High Tigers and the University of Oklahoma Sooners.”

In a 1996 interview, Prock said: “I was living with my grandmother, and I told her I wanted to be a football coach. I never changed my mind.”

Prock went on to play three seasons of college football — 1952-54 — at Southwestern Oklahoma in Weatherford, lettering each year and earning all-conference honors his final season. He graduated in three years. Prock was hired as the head football and track coach at Buffalo High School in northwest Oklahoma. As August practices approached, however, he accepted a position as an assistant coach in Clinton, Okla., where he began his coaching career under Carl Allison.

Allison, who had starred in football at the University of Oklahoma, was hired by Harding in 1959 to revive the program after a 28-year hiatus. A year later, Prock joined Allison in Searcy. Allison left Harding in 1964 to join Gomer Jones’ staff at Oklahoma. Prock was promoted to head coach. For the next 24 seasons, he would be the face of the Harding football program.

Former Harding President Clifton Ganus wrote the foreword for “Many Sons To Glory.”

“I have often said that a man is what he is taught to be,” Ganus writes. “He is the sum product of his experience and teaching, formal and informal, right or wrong, good or bad. Coach Prock is good example of this. A strong Christian, faithful family man, coach and mentor didn’t happen overnight. A lot of blood, sweat and tears helped mold him into the successful man that he became.

“An early dysfunctional family life was overcome by a loving grandmother and a junior high coach named Joe Bailey Metcalf. He also coached John in senior high and college and left a deep impression on his life. Later, his beloved Charlene entered his life, and he became a Christian. Finances were always meager, and John had to learn how to be economical and to use his hands to build and to improvise. This ability helped him greatly in years to come. John loved football, and his coach became a father figure to him. He also looked up to outstanding players and coaches, one of whom was Carl Allison, a fine Christian man who became his close friend.”

What about the book’s name?

“Many Sons To Glory” comes from the New Testament. Hebrews 2:10 to be exact: “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

At Prock’s funeral, former player Jim Citty described his old coach this way: “He was a Bulldog from Southwestern Oklahoma before he became a Bison. From his humble beginnings, he became an inspiration to many. He was resourceful and made the most of the facilities and the athletes that he was given. For those of you who didn’t play football, I know it is hard for you to understand this bond. … Coach taught us that you had to work hard, and pain was not a factor. His philosophy was that football provided one of the greatest training grounds available for life, self-discipline, team discipline and Christianity.”

The hearse drove two laps around the football field before heading to the cemetery.

Bissell describes the scene this way: “In a fitting last tribute to the man who did so much more than coach football games on that field, several former players held up a sign on the home side bleachers that read ‘Farewell Coach Prock’ as the hearse made one final lap around the track. They represented the hundreds of Prock’s sons who waged battle on that turf and were forever influenced by the humble Oklahoman.”

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A very Southern Christmas

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

While preparing to write a Christmas eve column for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I decided to have a blast from the past by invoking the Helena oyster loaf.

That’s right, I said oyster loaf.

Those of a certain age will remember that Richard Allin, who authored the “Our Town” column for the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, would write each Christmas about the oyster loaf.

Food traditions are an important part of Christmas. Each year, I delight in gathering the various food catalogs that have arrived in the mail so I can order pecans from Georgia, grapefruit from Florida, country hams and bacon from Virginia, brisket from Texas and wild salmon from the Pacific Northwest.

I was in Helena last week, passed the historic Allin house and decided to bring up the oyster loaf.

In my library is a delightful book published in 1978 by the Phillips County Historical Society. It’s titled “Helena: The Ridge, The River, The Romance.”

It includes a chapter by Allin, who died in October 2007 at age 77, about Christmas in Helena.

Here’s his recipe for an authentic Helena oyster loaf: “Slice the top from a long pullman loaf. Remove all the crumb from the loaf, leaving only a boat made of the crust. Brush melted butter generously over the inside of the loaf and on the inside of the top, and toast under the oven broiler until pleasantly browned. Roll oysters in cornmeal and fry until golden brown and crispy. Assemble lemon wedges, green olives with pits, tomato ketchup and mustard pickle.

“After the loaf is toasted and the oysters fried, place a layer of oysters in the bottom of the loaf. Put in two or three lemon wedges and as many olives. Repeat the process, adding from time to time some of the ketchup and the mustard pickle. Continue until the loaf is filled, and top the oysters off with more lemon wedges, olives, ketchup and mustard pickle. Add the latter two items with care. If you wish, you may add them after the loaf is sliced and served. But if you do, you are not making the Helena version of the oyster loaf.

“After the loaf is assembled, cap it with the buttered and toasted top and put it back in the oven to heat for a while. When ready to serve, slice it across in about two-inch-wide sections. A chilled white wine goes well. So does beer. This is a Christmas eve dish. If you eat it at any other time, you do so at your own risk.”

Allin noted that mustard pickles had become hard to find. The old-fashioned recipe consists of cucumbers and onions pickled in a mustard sauce along with turmeric and celery seed.

“The tradition of eating the oyster loaf on Christmas eve got started, in my family at least, many years ago when my grandfather would stop by an old Helena restaurant-delicatessen and pick up a couple of these specialties. In those days, that particular restaurant made its own bread, a type of which was the long pullman loaf, named, I suppose, because it had the same dimensions as the railroad car. By the time I was invited into the family, it had become the practice to make the oyster loaf at home, although still using the restaurant’s singular bread. It was more economical, and the homemade loaf was more generously treated. So many good traditions have passed. The restaurant no longer makes either oyster loaves or bread. About the best we can do in Helena these days is . . . well, never mind.

“The tradition of the oyster loaf perhaps came up the river from New Orleans. It is known there as the mediatrice, so named because it was frequently brought home by wayward husbands who wanted to make peace with their angry wives. In Helena, it was simply a seasonal food item. Other methods were used to restore family tranquility. By the time the oyster loaf had arrived in Helena from New Orleans, there had been made a few changes in its structure. The New Orleans mediatrice was simply a hollowed-out, buttered and toasted loaf of French bread into which mealed and fried oysters were piled. The top was put back on, and the delicacy was then sliced into serving portions.”

Allin hailed from a prominent east Arkansas family. Born in October 1930, he graduated from high school in Helena in 1948 and finished the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., in 1952 with a degree in English literature. He served more than three years in the U.S. Navy, including working at the Pentagon in the Office of Naval Intelligence. His first job after leaving the Navy was as a roving reporter covering the Mid-South for The Commercial Appeal at Memphis. Allin joined the Gazette after three years of working for the Memphis newspaper. He played the tuba for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra for a decade, and his tuba exploits often were the subjects of columns.

I still have his “Southern Legislative Dictionary” and “Wad and Gudge Creek Chronicles,” two little books he compiled.

His older brother, the Right Rev. John Maury Allin, was also a Sewanee graduate who went on to become the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA from 1974-85. John Maury Allin died in March 1998.

“One of the surest signs of the approach of Christmas at my house in Helena was when my mother began muttering, more or less to herself, something about pecans,” Richard Allin wrote. “‘I’ve got to see about my pecans’ would suddenly come from the other room, and I would say, ‘Why did you say?’ and there would be no answer. About a month before Christmas, one of the chairs at the kitchen table would be pre-empted for a time by a huge brown paper sack containing always 10 pounds of pecans still in the shell.

“Times were dangerous in the kitchen during the next week or so. The air was filled with shards of pecan shrapnel that whizzed around the room every time the lever on the pecan cracker was pulled. Scientists and sages have tried down through the ages to build a better nut cracker, but the only kind ever used at our house was the type that you screwed to a table. It had a lever that worked against a ratchet, and when you pulled the handle the pecan would shatter around on all sides. When 10 pounds had to be attacked, you had to bring in the heavy machinery.

“To this day, cracking pecans seems to me like one of the universe’s most boring activities. But my mother greeted each pecan as a new challenge to be attacked with unwavering ferocity. Shucking 10 pounds of pecans is no mean task.”

The 1978 collection of stories about Helena also contains a piece by Frank Jeffett about a Christmas eve duck hunt in which he and some friends narrowly avoided disaster. This story appealed to me because my late father was an avid outdoorsman. The Christmas holiday always included quail and duck hunts. On Christmas afternoon, when my father had been in the house long enough, he would say to me: “Let’s go give the bird dogs a little exercise.” We would head out and hunt quail until dark.

Sometimes we were up before daylight on the day after Christmas for a duck hunt. Jeffett wrote: “Only one who has duck hunted can fully appreciate how cold it can be when the wind is blowing and the thermometer has dipped below the 20-degree mark — and to know how really cold you can get, you’ve got to get in an open motorboat under those conditions before the first daybreak has appeared in the east.”

We often had baked wild ducks on Christmas eve (with cornbread dressing) and fried quail on Christmas morning (with biscuits and gravy).

A book I’ve been reading recently is “The Edible South” by Blytheville native Marcie Cohen Ferris, who’s now an associate professor of American studies and Southern studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is married to Bill Ferris, a noted Southern scholar who once chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the preface to the book, she writes about Christmas vacations spent on the farm near Vicksburg, Miss., where her mother-in-law, Shelby Flowers Ferris, lived until her death this past August at the age of 96.

Shelby Ferris grew up at Vicksburg, graduating from All Saints Episcopal High School and then going to New Orleans, where she received her bachelor’s degree from Sophie Newcomb College of Tulane University. She married William Reynolds Ferris in 1941 and began living on the family farm, named Broadacres, south of Vicksburg.

According to her obituary: “As a young bride, she made many adjustments, leaving behind a comfortable urban life in Vicksburg for an isolated rural life with dusty roads, no telephone, a generator to provide electricity and a well for water. She embraced and loved this life and soon developed a lifelong passion for gardening, planting extensive flowerbeds around her hilltop home, which she lovingly tended for almost 75 years. … Over the years, visitors from around the world enriched her rural Mississippi environment and were in turn enriched by it.

“Relatives from Boston and Chicago brought friends who talked about their lives, so different from daily life on the farm. The wide web of visitors increased over the years. Shelby’s children’s friends spent weekends riding horses, swimming in the lake, driving the Jeep and paddling down the Big Black River. Many learned to drive on the farm, across the wide pastures. These rich experiences nurtured the adventurous spirits of those who visited and left memories for generations of people who enjoyed Shelby’s hospitality and generosity, as well as her humor, the freewheeling conversations and delicious meals served at her dining table. Throughout all the years, Shelby continued to welcome old friends and make new ones, always with great hospitality and grace.”

She sounds like someone I would have loved to have known.

Marcie Cohen Ferris wrote this about the Christmas visits to the farm: “Food is the center of our holidays at the farm where my husband was raised in Mississippi. On Christmas Day, the family gathers around the dining room table. The ritual surrounding the preparation for the Southern meal is elaborate. Activity begins months in advance as casseroles and desserts are prepared and frozen by Liz Martin, a expert cook and housekeeper. She has worked in culinary tandem with Bill’s mother, Shelby Flowers Ferris, for over 30 years. In the last 24 hours before the meal, work reaches a crescendo. Bill’s three sisters, and now the next generation of grandchildren and nieces and nephews, divide up chores, polishing silver, setting tables and arranging bowls of camellias. The other meals surrounding Christmas Day are just as important, such as the traditional gumbo we enjoy for supper on Christmas Eve. Eating this meal reminds us of the family’s deep ties to New Orleans, the Creole city that has seduced each generation of Ferrises.

“Throughout the holiday, we gather daily for breakfast, a hearty noontime dinner and a light supper in the evening. Mrs. Ferris sits at the head of the table. She is the center of life at the farm. She still plans the menus and coordinates our meals. It is difficult to rise before her, at 5 a.m. each morning. There are fresh grapefruits cut and ready for each of us at our places at the table, designated by napkin rings personalized with our names. These rituals reinforce our Southern family and Shelby’s love.”

Christmas traditions, whether they’re about food or hunting trips, are important. You see, the memories you make are a key part of the Christmas season.

Merry Christmas.

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Tears at 10-0

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

As the clock ticked down to 0:00 on a cold, gray Saturday afternoon, I tried to describe the scene at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium in Arkadelphia to those who were listening to the broadcast of the 88th Battle of the Ravine.

For the previous 30 minutes — since it had become likely that Ouachita Baptist University would beat Henderson State University to go to 10-0 for the first time in school history — the messages had been flooding my phone. They came from Ouachita graduates across the country who were listening online.

I attempted to paint a verbal picture as the packed Ouachita stands emptied, students and even some adults storming the field in the wake of one of the most historic victories in the rich annals of a football program that dates back to 1895. Henderson had become the giant among NCAA Division II football programs in the state, going undefeated during the regular season in 2012 and 2013 and winning the four previous Battles of the Ravine. The Reddies were 30-1 in regular-season games since the start of the 2012 season, having only lost to a talented Harding squad in the final minute earlier this season.

Ouachita was ranked No. 9, and Henderson was ranked No. 14 in Division II coming into Saturday’s game.  Despite Ouachita’s higher ranking, 100 percent of those who picked the game on the Great American Conference message board had gone with Henderson.

No doubt, the Reddies were Goliath.

As I drove from my home in Little Rock to Arkadelphia on Saturday morning, the clouds thickened. The day reminded me of the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 1975 when Ouachita and Henderson met in another classic at the same stadium. The two schools held a joint homecoming for a few years in the 1970s with the game played each season at Henderson’s newer and larger stadium. Even though the 1975 contest was at Henderson, it was technically Ouachita’s home game and Ouachita sports information director Mac Sisson was on the public address system that day.

Mac would always give the weather before the game, and I can still remember his words in that distinctive baritone: “Winds out of the north at 10 to 15 miles per hour with a temperature of 29 degrees.”

A bit of personal history: I grew up a block from Ouachita’s football stadium, the son of a former Ouachita quarterback and a former Ouachitonian beauty (I still have the yearbook in which my mother was featured as such). I’ve bled purple since birth.

The football series between Ouachita and Henderson was suspended following the 1951 game due to excessive vandalism and was not resumed until 1963. I would have been 4 years old in 1963, and I would have been at the Battle of the Ravine. I’ve been at every Battle of the Ravine since 1963, in fact, with the exception of the 1986-87 games when I was working for the Arkansas Democrat in Washington, D.C. It is, to put it simply, a part of who I am.

Like most boys who grew up in Arkansas, I rooted for the Razorbacks. Unlike most boys, Arkansas was not my main team. Ouachita was.

We didn’t often go to Hog games in Fayetteville or Little Rock. We were too busy following Ouachita. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of trips back from places like Searcy, Conway, Russellville, Magnolia and Monticello in the back of my father’s big Oldsmobile.

From about age 6 through high school, I walked the Ouachita sidelines during games. Legendary Coach Buddy Benson was like an uncle to me, and he welcomed a group of boys — Tab Turner, Neal Turner, Mike Balay, Richard Balay and others — to work as ball boys and water boys.

I was in the 10th grade when that 1975 game occurred. I played high school football on Friday nights but spent my Saturdays watching Ouachita. On the morning of the game, I accompanied the team’s head manager, Wesley Kluck, to my father’s downtown sporting goods store to borrow Coleman stoves, which we put along the sideline so the players could warm their hands on the frigid afternoon.

Henderson was 9-0. Ouachita was 8-1, having lost to Southern Arkansas in Magnolia three weeks earlier. Both teams were ranked nationally.

I love those November games that begin in the daylight and end under the lights. The lights were on and darkness had descended on Arkadelphia. Ouachita trailed 20-14 and faced a fourth-and-25 with time running out.

One last chance.

Quarterback Bill Vining Jr., who had grown up just down the street from me in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood, passed to Gary Reese across the middle. Out came the chains.

The stadium was packed but dead quiet as those chains were stretched. The referee went to a knee for a better look. Then, he came up and signaled that Ouachita had made a first down by inches.

New life.

Two plays later, Vining passed to Ken Stuckey for a touchdown. Russell Daniel kicked the extra point.

Ouachita 21, Henderson 20.

I’ve had the good fortune in my career of covering Super Bowls, Sugar Bowls, Cotton Bowls and more. That still rates as the greatest football game I ever attended.

I still have a photo of the players carrying Coach Benson off the field. It was among the most memorable days of my life.

I thought about that day as I pulled into the parking lot of Henderson’s Carpenter-Haygood at noon last Saturday.

Same stadium. Same weather. Same big stakes.

At age 55, I find myself becoming more nostalgic.

I sat in my car for several minutes before walking to the press box and thought about the past.

I thought about how I wish my dad, who died in March 2011, could be here. Oh, how he would have enjoyed the atmosphere that electrified Arkadelphia.

Dad had been raised poor during the Great Depression in Benton. Following his high school graduation in 1942, he took a job with the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., which was building the aluminum plant in Saline County. The United States had entered World War II in December 1941, and there was a rush to get the plant finished so it could contribute to the war effort. Dad was paid union wages and found himself making more than his father had ever made. He told his parents that he would stay with the company rather than going to college.

He had been offered a football scholarship to Ouachita, and my grandmother was insistent that he go to college, something neither she nor my grandfather had done. She called the Ouachita head coach, Bill Walton, and ordered him not to let my father come home once he reached campus for a visit.

The 1942 Ouachita team went 9-1, losing only to Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Dad joined the Army Air Corps the following spring and served for two years. He returned to Ouachita after the war to obtain a degree and played on the 1945, 1946 and 1947 teams. He met a pretty young lady named Carolyn Caskey from Des Arc and married her prior to graduation in the spring of 1948.

My sister was recently cleaning out the house we grew up in and found the program from the Battle of the Ravine on Thanksgiving Day 1947. My father is listed as the starting quarterback. She gave me the program, which I now consider to be among my most cherished possessions.

As I sat in my car Saturday, I also thought of Coach Benson, who was my childhood hero along with my father and Coach Bill Vining Sr. This would have been his type of game. Buddy Benson had been among the nation’s most highly recruited high school players coming out of high school at De Queen. He signed with Oklahoma, a powerhouse in those days, but later transferred to Arkansas, where he threw the famous Powder River pass to beat nationally ranked Ole Miss at War Memorial Stadium in 1954.

Coach Benson was the head coach at Ouachita for an amazing 31 seasons, winning more than he lost while playing much larger state schools with bigger athletic budgets. He passed away on Good Friday in that terrible spring of 2011, just weeks after I had lost my dad.

I also thought of the aforementioned Mac Sisson, my college mentor who gave me the chance as an untested freshman in 1978 to begin broadcasting Ouachita games, something I’m still doing all these years later. Mac and I spent fall Saturdays for years traveling through Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas and other states for Ouachita games. I miss him every day.

I thought of family friends like Ike Sharp and his son Paul, also gone. They had both played at Ouachita and personified what my alma mater’s football program is all about.

To be fair, I thought of men who had been among my mentors who were on the Henderson side and are also gone, coaches with names like Wells, Sawyer and Reese. They were giants to me. They also would have enjoyed this big-game atmosphere.

Ouachita trailed 17-7 in the first quarter of Saturday’s game, and it appeared the Reddies were poised to blow the Tigers out.

I didn’t say it on the radio, but I thought at that point in the game about something Coach Benson would tell his team before every game: “If at first the game or breaks go against you, don’t get shook or rattled. Put on more steam.”

You see, it’s a 60-minute game.

Coach Benson had played for Bowden Wyatt at Arkansas. Wyatt had played for Gen. Robert Neyland at Tennessee. Wyatt would repeat Neyland’s pregame maxims before each game. Buddy Benson would continue that tradition at Ouachita.

Ouachita indeed put on more steam, outscoring the powerful Reddies 34-3 the rest of the way.

I counted down the final seconds on the radio and looked at the Ouachita fans pouring from the stands. That’s when the tears came.

Silly, you say, for a 55-year-old man to cry at the end of an athletic contest. It’s only a game, you say.

I’m sorry, but it’s more than a game to me. Ouachita football has been one of my passions since birth.

My wish for my sons and for you as we near Thanksgiving is that you have one or more great passions. It might be a passion for music. It might be a passion for acting. It might be a passion for writing. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with sports. It has to do with finding something you care about deeply throughout your life. It’s even more special if you’ve suffered defeats so you more fully appreciate the high points.

I know defeat.

So does Ouachita’s head coach, Todd Knight. I was on the committee that was appointed to search for a head coach following the resignation of Red Parker at Ouachita after the 1998 season. We ended up offering the job to Knight, a former Ouachita player, who had led the Delta State in Mississippi to its first Gulf South Conference title. Delta is bigger, richer and had things rolling.

Todd turned down our offer. He turned it down multiple times. The then-Ouachita president, Andy Westmoreland, wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept telling Todd to pray about it. Shortly before Christmas, Todd decided to come to Ouachita despite having recruited players to Delta who would win the Division II national championship in 2000.

His 1999 team started 3-1 but, lacking depth, finished 3-7. When you’re a small school like Ouachita, you welcome anyone who wants to jump aboard the bandwagon. Yet I suspect this year’s undefeated season is even more special for those of us who were in Tahlequah, Okla., on the afternoon of Oct. 16, 1999, as Northeastern State beat Ouachita by a score of 57-0. Or those of us who were there for the last game that season as Harding beat Ouachita by a score of 41-7.

Seven of Todd Knight’s first nine seasons at Ouachita, one of the smallest schools in the country to play the sport at the Division II level, were losing campaigns. Most schools wouldn’t have stuck with a coach that long. Ouachita stuck with Todd Knight, and Todd Knight stuck with Ouachita.

Patience paid off.

Ouachita is now the only college football program in the state — at any level — with seven consecutive winning seasons.

So as the students stormed the field and the tears rolled down my cheeks at about 6 p.m. Saturday, my mind wandered.

I thought about Dad, Coach Benson, Ike Sharp, Paul Sharp, Mac Sisson and other men who bled purple who were watching from above.

I thought about Coach Knight and that day in Tahlequah when I had struggled to broadcast the end of a 57-0 blowout.

I thought about how happy I was for the students, the faculty, the staff, the alumni and the other good people associated with this school that has been so much a part of my life.

I thought about my wife and son sitting in the cold across the way, no doubt also enjoying the moment.

I thought of past Ouachita presidents like Dan Grant and Ben Elrod, Arkansas leaders who know how difficult it is for a little school like Ouachita to make it to 10-0.

And I thought about how happy I was to share it all with what I call my “Saturday family,” the men with whom I share the broadcast booth.

My childhood friend Jeff Root, who grew up a few houses down Carter Road from my house, has been in the broadcast booth with me for more than a quarter of a century. Jeff, who is now the dean of the School of Humanities at Ouachita, and I have a special bond. Jeff also was on the committee that hired Coach Knight. Saturday was the culmination of all we had hoped for 16 years ago.

I also was glad to have Richard Atkinson and Patrick Fleming, who have been in the booth for eight years, there. It’s hard to explain to those who aren’t broadcasters, but you really do become like family.

I continued to broadcast — after all, there was still work to do on the postgame show– as the tears ran down my cheeks. I’m not really sure what I said, though. On this cold November day, I had been transported back in time.

I was a kid again, marveling at my good fortune; the good fortune of one who grew up in a small town in the South and attended a small school where people call you by your name and care about you. A place where people give you opportunities. After all, who has ever heard of a 19-year-old college play-by-play man?

Once again, I was in the back seat of the Oldsmobile, fighting to keep my eyes open as Dad drove us through the autumn Arkansas night, home from a Ouachita victory.

Once again, Buddy Benson was on the sideline in his starched shirt and tie, and Mac Sisson was in the press box.

Once again, my beloved Tigers were on top and the future was limitless.

I’m blessed; blessed beyond description as we enter another Thanksgiving season.

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My perfect summer meal

Monday, July 7th, 2014

A version of this story can be found in the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

Summer is upon us, and my thoughts turn back more than 40 years to long, lazy mornings fishing with my grandmother on the dock in front of her cabin at Lake Norrell in Saline County.

Lake Norrell was constructed in 1953 as a water supply reservoir for the city of Benton. It originally was known as Brushy Lake and later was named for William Frank Norrell, an Ashley County native who first was elected to the U.S. House in 1938 and represented part of south Arkansas in Congress until his death in 1961.

Lake Norrell covers just 280 acres, which is considered tiny in a state that boasts such huge U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments as Bull Shoals, Ouachita and Greers Ferry. To a boy growing up in Arkansas in the 1960s, though, Lake Norrell might as well have been the Atlantic Ocean. It’s where I learned to swim, water ski, fish, run a trotline, catch crawdads and gig frogs.

More important than any of that, it’s where I learned that the finest summer meal is fried fish, fresh out of an Arkansas lake or stream, served with fried potatoes, cornbread and fresh peas cooked with fatback. The platter in the middle of the table must have tomatoes, bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden.

A couple of years ago, a website owned by the giant Hearst Corp. featured a story headlined “All-American Eats: Must-Try Foods from the 50 States.” The editors chose one ingredient or dish to represent each state.

What did they choose that best represented Arkansas?

Would you believe chocolate gravy?

The website described it as a “breakfast staple in Arkansas.”

I had two grandmothers who were great Arkansas cooks. One lived on the Grand Prairie, and the other lived in central Arkansas. Both lived well into their 90s, and neither ever prepared chocolate gravy. That’s not to say it wasn’t served in some Arkansas families. I know. I’ve heard from some of you since I wrote on this subject for the July issue of Arkansas Life magazine. But it’s far from “a staple” in this state. Had the website said cream gravy or even redeye gravy, made with the drippings of a salty country ham and a bit of coffee, I might have given those editors a pass.

Far too often, writers and editors in places such as New York and Chicago list what they think those of us in Arkansas should be eating and drinking as opposed to what we’re actually eating and drinking. In addition to chocolate gravy, examples of this are sweet tea and fried green tomatoes. Both have become trendy in the state, but these aren’t things I was raised on.

When I was growing up, if you wanted your tea sweet, you took a spoon, put sugar in the glass and stirred. It wasn’t brewed that way. Tables at restaurants and tables at homes all had bowls filled with sugar.

And, yes, my grandmothers fried about everything — potatoes, okra, squash. Yet we were much more likely to have fried green apples than fried green tomatoes in the summer. If tomatoes fell off the vine early, you put them in the windowsill to ripen rather than battering them and putting them in a skillet.

Sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are more a staple in the Deep South than they are in Arkansas. Defining Arkansas, its habits and its customs long has been a problem for those who aren’t from here. Outsiders fail to understand that this is a fringe state, not solely a part of any one region. We’re mostly Southern but also a bit Midwestern and a tad Southwestern. Northwest Arkansas is far different from southeast Arkansas, and northeast Arkansas doesn’t have much in common with southwest Arkansas.

Once we’ve passed the age of 50, we’ve started to understand ourselves. But we still have a heck of a time explaining Arkansas to outsiders.

As for those younger than 50, well, let’s just say that for some reason they think chocolate gravy, sweet tea and fried green tomatoes are longtime Arkansas staples.

Just how difficult are we to define?

Consider the fact that people from outside Arkansas think Bill Clinton came of age in Hope. Granted, he was born at Hope but moved to Hot Springs as a child. He finished elementary school, junior high school and high school in the Spa City. Arkansans always considered him to be a Hot Springs product until that 1992 presidential campaign came along. Some political consultants evidently determined that “I still believe in a place called Hot Springs” just didn’t have the same ring to it. It’s another example of how this state of constant contradictions confounds outsiders.

I digress. Let’s get back to that wooden dock on Lake Norrell.

When the lake was built, the first lots were offered to Benton city employees. My paternal grandfather was the Benton street superintendent. He bought a lot and built a small wooden cabin that would in the next decade come to represent summer nirvana for a certain redheaded boy. His Christmas trees were tied to concrete blocks and sunk at the end of that dock each January. Bags of dry dog food with holes punched in the sides were submerged there. He would try anything he thought would attract fish.

Summer mornings at Lake Norrell with my grandmother were spent with cane poles in hand, sitting in metal chairs at the end of the dock. My grandmother would bait the tiny hooks with the red wigglers my grandfather had raised. Before dropping the worm into the water, she would spit on it for good luck and say, “Nelson sugar.”

It wasn’t uncommon for us to catch several dozen bream before lunch. We threw nothing back. My grandmother’s motto was, “If it’s big enough to bite, it’s big enough to eat.”

At about 11 a.m., we would end our fishing, go inside the cabin and ask for my grandfather’s help in cleaning the bream. You scaled them with a spoon. The smallest ones were fried to the point that you could eat them bones and all.

The vegetables from the garden were a necessary complement to the fried bream, fried potatoes, peas and cornbread. Together they formed the great Arkansas summer meal.

The sliced tomatoes were particularly essential.

Each summer on the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Paul Greenberg writes his ode to that finest of all tomatoes, the Bradley County Pink.

Arkansans are serious about their tomatoes.

Last month, Paul and I received this note from Bob Nolan of El Dorado: “The winter of my discontent ended precisely at 6:47 a.m. on June 6 when, with great care, I lovingly twisted the stem of this magnificent Cherokee Purple heirloom, separating it from its mother plant. As I was once told, ‘It ain’t braggin’ if it’s fact,’ but I’m not sure it’s true because I’m pretty darned puffed up.

“Being mindful of the supposed ‘art’ of photoshopping, I have, to the best of my ability, framed this beauty with, first, my cupped hands, then secondly, juxtaposed on the cover of my favorite food magazine, Cook’s Illustrated. I honored my forebears this year by planting on Good Friday and not before, and thank God for their guidance, because the Lord smote down all gardens planted in south Arkansas prior to Good Friday with killing frost – period — here endeth the lesson.

“Question: Am I to be discomfited by the fact that my first harvest was not an Early Girl, a Bradley Pink, Big Boy, Better Boy or Celebrity but was a Cherokee Purple heirloom, vis-a-vis the Trail of Tears and all that guilt? I leave it to you scribes to tell me whether I should be directed towards absolution.

“Now, four days later, my harvest has begun in earnest. Bush Goliaths are particularly impressive and tasty. These are a ‘determinant variety’ (how impressed are you with my knowledge?), and you all should try them, either in your garden or in containers — trust me on this one.

“I will be signing off now, before the inevitable ‘blossom end rot’ attacks my treasures as a result of the unusually heavy rains of the last several days. So for now, here from our patio on Calion Road, we praise our Lord for the bounty of the earth, we thank him for this deliciously cool spring evening and we wish you the blessings of this beautiful late Arkansas spring.”

I told you Arkansans were serious about their tomatoes.

So you have my perfect Arkansas summer meal.

Fried fish, caught just hours before with a red worm and a touch of “Nelson sugar.”

Tomatoes, bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers and green onions fresh from the garden.

Fried potatoes.

Fresh peas cooked with fatback.

Cornbread.

Maybe even a cobbler made from wild dewberries picked earlier in the week.

I’ve just defined what an Arkansas summer tastes like.

You can save the chocolate gravy for a visitor from up north.

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The duck season ends

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

The sun is setting on another Arkansas duck season.

Though the 4 a.m. ringing alarms and the drives through the dark will end for now, the stories will continue to be told and retold.

You see, in a duck hunter’s heart, the season never really concludes. There’s just more time to read about duck hunting, tell stories about duck hunting and quietly contemplate future hunts.

One of the people with whom I’ve hunted through the years is fond of saying, “I’ve gotten to the point where I rather talk about it than actually do it.”

The older I get, the more I think back on duck hunts with my father and his friends. They were men who influenced my life greatly.

As a small gift to end the season, I thought I would share this story by longtime Little Rock lobbyist Bill Brady, who grew up at Gregory in Woodruff County and often hunted ducks with his dad. Enjoy.

Take it away, Bill:

“I killed my first duck on Broadwater.

“That’s what we called the wide place on the Cache River where my dad and some of his hunting buddies had a duck blind. My dad was an avid hunter. Deer, duck, quail, squirrel, dove, you name it. If it was game in western Woodruff County in the 1950s, my dad hunted it. His favorite — and mine, too — was mallard hunting on the Cache River at that place we called Broadwater, where he and his buddies had built a fine blind on floating logs. They had managed to tie onto four good logs that they found in the area and then drag those logs by boat to the choice spot on the east side of Broadwater where they knew the ducks would work.

“These seasoned duck hunters knew everything that there was to know about locating, building and camouflaging a duck blind. To an 8-year-old looking to bag his first greenhead, it was all a great mystery and a grand experience just being there with those men.

“Once I turned 8, my dad started getting me ready to go on my first duck hunt. He had a 20-gauge Remington Model 11 shotgun that he used primarily for quail hunting. That was to become my duck gun. I recall that it had a Cutts Compensator on the end of the barrel, and he had put the modified full choke on. My how I loved that gun. It was semiautomatic, but for the first year Dad would only let me put one shell in the barrel and none in the magazine, turning it into a single shot. And that was fine with me.

“The only problem I had back in those days was with boots. I never could keep my feet warm. This was before insulated boots. I hunted in some black leather lace-up boots that were just about the coldest things you can imagine. At about the age of 10, I wrote a letter to the editor of some sporting magazine and suggested that a company should invent electric socks, powered by flashlight batteries. I never heard back from that magazine editor, but about 10 or 15 years later, there they were — electric hunting socks. That was my first good marketing idea.

“Broadwater was a stretch of the Cache River in what we always called Black Swamp. It’s now a part of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Rex Hancock Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area. It was particularly good for duck hunting in that it was at least 50 yards wide and perhaps a quarter of a mile long, running north to south. Access to Broadwater from our home at Gregory was to the east on a road that the locals referred to as ‘the road to Fred Lee’s place.’ Fred Lee was an old hunter, trapper and fisherman who lived alone on a floating cabin on the Cache in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Usually, we would have to walk or boat the half mile from the edge of the bottoms to the river and then cross by boat to the blind. The blind was on the south end of Broadwater on the east side in an area that ducks really seemed to like.

“The blind had a snug warming shack and a front porch for shooting that would safely accommodate five shooters. They had done a great job of decorating it with freshly cut oak branches so that it looked just like a big brush pile to a duck. Inside the shack were a propane stove, a food locker and cookware. A week before the season, Dad somehow would manage to get a large cylinder of propane brought in by boat so we would be ‘cooking with gas’ for the entire duck season. One of my fondest memories of a meal was when Dad cooked me a fried egg and a spiced ham sandwich right there in the blind. I would give a lot of money for one of those sandwiches right about now.

“I also fondly recall Rule No. 1: Dip the coffee water from the north side (upstream) and take a leak on the south side (downstream). Pretty practical rule, huh?

“In the blind with us the day of my first duck kill were a couple of dad’s buddies, one of whom had a reputation as a quick shot. That’s someone who would take his first shot before the caller yelled ‘take ‘em.’ The plan that day was for the caller to work the ducks all the way to the water, right in front of the blind. I would then get the first shot of a greenhead sitting on the water. Mr. Quick Shot would never let the ducks get close to the water before he would start blasting. That’s when my dad told him that if he did that one more time before I could kill my duck, ‘I’m throwing you and that damn gun of yours in the Cache River.’

“I got my first duck about 10 minutes later.

“We also fished from our blind. Yes, we caught crappie right off the front porch. There wouldn’t be many ducks flying some days, and Dad would get out his crappie poles, bait a couple of hooks and we’d try to catch a mess of crappie between flights of mallards. Occasionally, we would take our crappie home to eat the next day. If we only caught three or four, we would clean them and cook them right there in the duck blind for a late lunch of fried fish and light bread.

“Another fond memory concerns the occasional ‘red wasp invasion.’ Dad had a buddy with whom he hunted often, and the two of them enjoyed taking a nip about midafternoon when the ducks had almost quit flying. But they didn’t just pull out the bottle and start drinking. They had a ritual.

“One of them would suddenly slap a leg and complain that he had been stung by ‘a big ol’ red wasp.’ Well, that pretty much mandated that some alcohol be applied to the sting — the bourbon type of alcohol. One of them would fetch a bottle, and they would begin to doctor each other, even the one who had not been stung. The one who had been stung would start it off by taking a long slug, chased with a Coke, in order to ‘ward off infection and swelling.’

“Then, the other one would take his slug to prevent the red wasps from swarming. This routine might go on for the rest of the afternoon, and I would have to drive the boat back over to the launch and get those two happy hunters out of the woods and back home safely (without any swelling or infections from red wasp stings). This routine was funny, and I loved it. Though I never saw a red wasp in that duck blind, I’ve been known to resort to the red wasp antidote a few times myself in the years since then.

“I enjoyed many a day in the Cache River bottoms and the beautiful Black Swamp. In the process, I observed both hunting and hunters at their best. Some of my fondest memories still emanate from that Broadwater duck blind on the Cache. I learned a lot about hunting: The building of a blind, the setting of a spread of decoys, the calling (my favorite part), the living by the rules, the actual hunts.

“And I learned a lot about life and being a sportsman and a good guy. Most of all, I still cherish the memories of my time there with my dad and his buddies, all great men and all gone now to that big duck blind in the sky, where I suspect the mallards are still working and the red wasps are still swarming on beautiful, mild winter afternoons on a stretch of water much like Broadwater.”

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Grapette: A legendary Arkansas brand

Friday, January 10th, 2014

A version of this story appears in the January edition of Celebrate Arkansas magazine.

The nondescript metal building is on Industrial Drive in Malvern, just a mile or so from busy Interstate 30. There’s a small sign out front, but most of those who drive by likely don’t know that it’s now the home of one of the country’s iconic soft drink brands, Grapette.

When older Arkansans think of Grapette, they likely think of Camden rather than Malvern. And for good reason.

It was at Camden in 1926 that a service station owner named Benjamin Tyndle Fooks learned that a local bottling plant was for sale and decided to purchase the business. A customer at the service station, Henry Furlow, had told Fooks that he wanted to sell his plant on Adams Street in Camden. Fooks was ready for a change and wasted no time borrowing $4,000 from a local businessman named Charles Saxon so he could buy the bottling plant from Furlow.

Fooks soon became the first bottler in south Arkansas to make regular truck deliveries in rural areas.

Business was steady initially, and Fooks bought another plant at Arkadelphia in 1927. He purchased an additional bottling operation at Hope a year later.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, however, Fooks’ fortunes took a hit. He sold the Arkadelphia and Hope operations. But he held onto his Camden plant and began driving through the piney woods of south Arkansas, north Louisiana and east Texas selling what were known as Fooks Flavors out of his car. He would take orders from local bottlers for the flavors and then return to Camden to mix the flavors. Fooks would work late into the night in the syrup room of his Camden plant.

Fooks continued to experiment with various flavors through the years. He drove trucks during the day and did his experiments at night. In the winter, when the demand for soft drinks fell off, Fooks made peanut patties and brittle.

Fooks developed a grape flavor in the late 1930s that he thought would be popular. He obtained a copyright for the name Grapette and began selling the drink at Camden in 1940. Grapette came in six-ounce clear bottles that showed off the drink’s beautiful color.

Lemonette, which contained a large amount of real citrus juice, came along in 1946. Fooks added an orange drink in 1947. Naturally, it was called Orangette.

“Realizing the potentialities of an outstanding grape drink, Mr. Fooks devoted a great deal of time and research to perfecting such a beverage,” Herbert C. Fooks wrote in a family history titled “Fooks Family.” “After thousands of experiments, he developed an unusually distinctive taste quality of the grape soft drink, which is known internationally today as Grapette. In May 1940, Grapette was first placed on the market at Camden. It was the beginning of a successful business. In 1950, after 10 short years, Grapette had become a most popular grape-flavored beverage. The Grapette Co. became the seventh-ranking beverage company in the industry.”

Fooks was an interesting character to say the least. He was born in 1901 on a farm near Paducah, Ky. His family moved to Camden in 1914, and Fooks finished high school there in 1918. He went back to Paducah to attend a business college and then returned to Camden to enter the lumber business with his father.

In 1920, Fooks decided to become a Methodist minister and headed to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. After three months, he changed his mind about becoming a minister. He instead became a prominent Methodist layman, later serving on the boards of Southern Methodist University and Hendrix College.

Fooks worked in the lumber industry for several years, operating sawmills in Louisiana and assisting his father with the family’s sawmill at Camden. He also operated a wholesale lumber business at Memphis before selling it in 1925 so he could return to Camden and buy a service station. Fooks later took an interest in cattle. His Fooks Farms near Camden covered almost 1,500 acres and had 300 head of Aberdeen-Angus cattle.

Fooks even introduced a challenger to Coca-Cola in 1962 with Mr. Cola, known for its distinctive 16-ounce bottles. He added a product known as Lymette in 1963. At its peak, Grapette had more than 600 bottlers in 38 states.

In 1972, Fooks sold the Grapette Co. to the Rheingold Corp., which brewed beer along with bottling regional soft drinks in California, New Mexico and Puerto Rico. Rheingold changed the company name to Flavette and moved the headquarters to Florida.

Pepsico began a hostile takeover of Rheingold in 1975, and the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Pepsico had to divest several soft drink lines. The Grapette brand was purchased in 1977 by Monarch, the bottler of NuGrape. The Grapette name was shelved, and industry observers believed Grapette had become a thing of the past in this country.

The Grapette brand lived on in other countries.

In 1942, an Arkansas oilman named R. Paul May persuaded Fooks to allow him to market Grapette in Latin America. Grapette, Orangette and Lemonette became highly popular in the region, especially in Guatemala. A separate company known as Grapette International was established in 1962. May retained the international ownership of Grapette after the brand was retired in the United States. Following May’s death, Grapette International was passed on to his son-in-law, Brooks Rice.

Rice had been an early Walmart stockholder and began considering ways to partner with the company. During a 1986 meeting with Rice, Walmart founder Sam Walton made it clear that he wanted Grapette in his stores. Rice couldn’t use the Grapette name, but he could provide the famous flavor.

In 1989, Grapette International began producing a line of drinks for Walmart under the Ozark Farms brand. The drinks were brought back on the market in 1993 under the Sam’s Choice brand, and Walmart was given the right to the flavors. Sam’s Choice grape was, in fact, Grapette.

In 2000, Monarch finally agreed to sell the Grapette name. Slowly, the Grapette and Orangette brands replaced the Sam’s Choice label. For the first time in more than two decades, Grapette was being sold in the United States.

___

Of the seven children of Brooks Rice, two were males — Paul and David Rice. They’re 11 years apart in age. The two brothers, along with their brother-in-law Ed King, now operate Grapette International.

The building that houses the company in Malvern covers 45,000 square feet and was built to house a plastic recycling firm that later closed. Grapette, needing more room, moved its operations from Hot Springs to Malvern in 1999.

“We had begun producing an isotonic sports drink for Walmart,” Paul says. “It really took off, and we needed a bigger facility almost overnight. This building fit the bill.”

There are no traffic lights around the building, and it’s easy for trucks to get in and out at all hours. Drinks aren’t actually bottled at the Malvern plant. The products coming out of Malvern are highly concentrated flavor compounds. A five-gallon drum of one of these compounds is enough for 20,000 12-ounce cans. The smells of the concentrates — which are quite pleasant — permeate the building.

“By concentrating the flavors so intensely, you reduce shipping costs,” Ed says.

The industry landscape has changed dramatically in recent decades with far fewer bottlers than there once were. The flavor compounds produced by Grapette International are used in everything from sports drinks to snow cone mixes to margarita mixes. For competitive reasons, the company is sensitive about revealing the private label flavors it produces. It’s not a large operation from an employee standpoint. There are only about 15 full-time employees, most of whom have been with the company for a number of years.

The company’s conference room is a bit of a Grapette museum. Visitors immediately are offered a cold Grapette. In a case, there’s a 1945 six-ounce Grapette bottle that has never been opened.

On the company’s website, there’s a “memory lane” section so people can write about their memories of drinking Grapette. A Grapette advertising campaign in Central America uses the tagline “the memories that make you smile.”

Nostalgia is important.

“There often are emotions associated with soft drinks,” Ed says. “It’s something fun, something different. Grapette is special to people because that name disappeared for almost a generation in this country. A lot of gratitude goes to Walmart. They are largely responsible for bringing it back.”

Sam Walton had said in the meeting with Brooks Rice: “I want Grapette in my stores.”

The name Grapette wasn’t in the stores until after Walton’s death in 1992. But company executives remembered the founder’s wishes.

The current flavor is a little less sweet and has a higher carbonation level than the original. The government has also restricted one of the ingredients that originally made the drink’s color so rich.

“The beauty of Grapette is that it affected so many of the senses,” David says. “It was bright. It was sweet. It had a great grape taste.”

Dozens and dozens of flavors now come out of the Malvern plant.

“We do everything from dill pickle to blueberry flavors,” Paul says. “We do flavors that are spicy and specific to the Latin-American market. We do flavors that are bitter with vinegar and specific to the Asian market. We ship worldwide.”

He notes that the company’s first shipment to the Netherlands occurred several days before my visit.

“There aren’t a bunch of moving parts here,” David says. “If somebody mentions the Grapette International headquarters, people probably expect a huge bottling operation. That’s just not what we do.”

Instead, there are labs where the company continually experiments with new flavors and colors.

“We work on new products and types of packaging for those products,” Ed says. “We’re even into frozen yogurt flavors and yogurt delivery systems. Our strength is our large flavor portfolio.”

An example of the innovation that goes on at Grapette International is a line of sugar-free frozen pops that can be used by athletes and industrial employees to hydrate rather than having to consume more traditional electrolyte drinks.

“Kids on youth sports teams like them, and their parents like them,” Paul says.

Another growth area is a line of frozen slush drinks that are sold in convenience stores. Convenience store owners like the drinks because they attract consumers into the store after they have paid for gas at the pump.

The three partners are astute businessmen. Ed and Paul once worked in the financial industry. Ed is a graduate of the University of Arkansas, Paul is a graduate of Hendrix College at Conway and David is a graduate of Rhodes College at Memphis.

Paul says: “We’re nimble, and we’re innovative. We don’t necessarily know what the next big thing is, but we’ll be ready to respond. We also have really smart people working here. They believe in what we’re doing. Several of them were chemistry majors in college.”

“In a good family company, you have a higher level of trust,” Ed says. “And this is a good family company. We have a very low employee turnover rate.”

It all goes back to Benjamin Tyndle Fooks, who decided decades ago that he had developed a grape soda that tasted the way a grape soda should taste.

Thanks to a helping hand from Walmart, consumers across the country are still enjoying the taste of Grapette.

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Curtis King: Arkansas’ legendary coach

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Sometimes you strike a chord with people.

I did that with my weekly newspaper column when I wrote about Coach Curtis King, who was the coach at Augusta High School from 1944-73, compiling a 182-105-12 record in football despite annually playing larger schools such as Batesville, Newport and Searcy. King also coached boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball and track while doing whatever else needed doing around the east Arkansas school.

He touched the lives of hundreds of former students, and I’ve heard from many of them this week.

I chose to write about Coach King this week because of the huge amount of national media coverage about the fact that Auburn University head football coach Gus Malzahn spent much of his career as a high school coach in Arkansas.

As I pointed out in the column, high school coaches are an important part of the fabric of this state. Start talking to Arkansans and you’ll find a lot of them who will tell you that outside of their parents, the people who had the most influence on them were high school coaches.

King died in October 1980 but is still remembered fondly.

I closed the column this way: “Gus Malzahn often tells interviewers that he comes from the high school coaching tree in Arkansas. For years, Augusta’s Curtis King was the base of that tree.”

I want to share a couple of things that I didn’t have room for in the newspaper column.

First, some quotes from a story Heber Taylor did on King for the Three Rivers Edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette back in April 1997.

Next, some memories from longtime Little Rock businessman and lobbyist Bill Brady, who played for King at Augusta.

This from the newspaper story of 17 years ago: “He was a natural as a teacher. Although small (5-7 and about 160 pounds), he had a booming voice and a presence that demanded respect. Former students say he would throw an eraser or a piece of chalk at a recalcitrant student.

“He might have the class sing the math principles he was teaching.

“He used the Bible to back up his quest for student achievement. A favorite statement was ‘woe be unto him that does not get his homework, for there shall be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.’

“To emphasize the mathematical formula for determining a circle’s circumference, he had his wife bake a special pie. He brought it to class covered and asked a student what shape the pie was. When the answer was ’round,’ he took a towel off his square-shaped pie as a reminder: ‘Pie are squared.’

“He was known to kneel beside the desk of an unprepared student and pray, ‘Lord, send your great angels and put some brains in this poor nincompoop’s head.’

“Billy Ray Smith remembers, ‘He would tear you up in class if you didn’t have your lesson.’ But he and other former Augusta athletes all say King was a great teacher.

“Bobby Pearrow, who played as a 135-pound guard in the early 1950s, said: ‘He went to great lengths to help. He gave me a good math background and that benefited me more than any other subject.’ King had such an influence on Pearrow, in fact, that he and his wife named their son Curtis after the coach.

“Smith and his cousin, Boots Simmons, who also played tackle for Augusta, told about King making them come to the front of the class for a spanking with a book. ‘He wouldn’t hurt you much, but he could sure scare you,’ Smith says.

“In 1978, Suzy Potter Lawler, who played basketball at Augusta in the late 1940s, wrote: ‘He not only taught us to work math problems and be good in sports, he taught us how to cope; how to get along in life; how to respect and be respected; how to live and, when necessary, to fight to live with dignity.’”

I’ll never forget how King described his offense during his induction speech at the 1980 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame banquet: “I ran a single wing with an unbalanced coach.”

One of the most famous games of the King years occurred at Pocahontas in 1949 when King learned that the home team was planning to use a white ball with no stripes to blend in with its uniforms. King had a colored ball and told the officials that if Pocahontas used a white ball during the first half, Augusta would use the colored ball that matched its uniforms during the second half. The Pocahontas coach would not agree to the arrangement, and the officials awarded a forfeit to Pocahontas. On appeal, the governing board of high school athletics in the state reversed the decision.

Brady played for what he describes as the worst team King ever coached. He writes: “By any measure, Coach King was one of the finest coaches ever to field a high school team in Arkansas. However, as good as he was, he was not a miracle worker. And thus the Red Devil football team of 1958 stands alone as perhaps the worst team Coach King ever had. I was a member of that team. The 1957 team was a talented one. Ten guys from that team got college scholarship offers. For the 1958 season, we had only three lettermen returning — Larry Wayne Matthews at fullback and linebacker, Robert ‘Roebuck’ Arthurs, who moved from end to quarterback, and me.

“I’ll never forget being in Little Rock with Matthews late in the summer of 1958. He had been in an accident and was either still on crutches or limping pretty badly from having had his leg messed up. We wandered into Spaulding Sporting Goods in downtown Little Rock, just looking around and killing time. There was Coach King, talking with some of his fellow coaches and buddies. When he saw us, he called us over and began to tell all of the other guys just how bad it was going to be for the Red Devils. He pointed out that we were exactly two-thirds of his total returning lettermen. Then, he pointed out that Matthews was a ‘cripple,’ having been in an accident a month or so earlier.

“He pulled me to the front of the group and said: ‘Right here is my right halfback. He may be small, but he sure is slow.’ I had never heard that before, and we all had a good laugh. It was true. I was small at 144 pounds, and I was anything but fast. Well, coach was prophetic. We were awful in 1958, winning only one game, the homecoming game against Cotton Plant. He coached his heart out, but he couldn’t work miracles with an undersized bunch of guys who had made up the B team the previous year. We couldn’t get it together, no matter how hard we tried or how many trick plays we ran. During halftime of one game, he didn’t even want to come into the dressing room with us to give a halftime talk. It must have been the absolute low point in his otherwise stellar career.

“I think that we all learned a lot that night. I know I did. Somehow we pulled it together for him. We went back out onto the field and played solid, error-free football against a superior Trumann team. We didn’t win the game, but we did OK that night. I think Coach King was proud of the effort.

“Coach King told me one day when we were fishing on the bayou south of Gregory that he felt he hadn’t done a good job of coaching that year. I reminded him that he didn’t have much to work with and that perhaps we should be proud of that lone victory over Cotton Plant. We discussed the fact that sometimes you can learn more and develop more in the way of character in defeat than you can in victory. I’ve never forgotten how bitter those defeats were that year, how sweet that one victory was and how much respect I had for Coach King during both the great season of 1957 and the sorry season of 1958. Next to my parents, he was the most influential man in my life. I will forever be grateful for having known him. And he taught me some pretty good math, too.”

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War Memorial Stadium memories

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

I look forward to the first two weekends of December.

It has become a tradition of mine to spend large parts of those weekends at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, watching the state high school championship games.

This year, Mother Nature did her best to ruin that tradition. The ice storm that hit just before the first weekend in December pushed the games back a week.

There were three state title games played the second weekend of the month and three played the weekend before Christmas. The first of those six games — the Class 7A title contest between Bentonville and Cabot on the evening of Friday, Dec. 13 — was played in a steady rain with temperatures in the 30s.

A week later, the Class 4A title game between Booneville and Warren finished at 11:45 p.m. after two lengthy lightning delays.

The next afternoon, the Class 2A title game between Junction City and Des Arc was played in a downpour with heavy winds throughout the contest.

I shouldn’t complain. I was in the press box for all six championship games. Hats off to those fans who survived the elements in the outdoor seats.

Between games this past Saturday, I hung out in the swank, multimillion-dollar press box that was added three years ago. The comfortable leather couches and flat-screen television sets on which we watched the season’s first college bowl games were reason enough to stay put.

The bad weather this month gives me more War Memorial Stadium memories. I have so many.

I have played on that field (Arkadelphia vs. Cabot in the state semifinals in 1976).

I have watched countless games from the stands.

I have covered numerous games from the press box as a newspaper reporter.

I have broadcast games on radio and television.

The old stadium is special to me.

War Memorial Stadium opened in 1948 — 11 years before I was born — with a natural grass surface, open end zones and about 31,000 seats. The changes of recent years have been drastic. In the past decade, we’ve seen new lights, a new artificial playing surface, renovated rest rooms and concession stands, the addition of large video screens in both end zones, the renovation of the outside of the stadium and the new press box.

War Memorial Stadium, which is owned by the state of Arkansas, still stands as a tribute to those Arkansans who have given their lives to defend our country. The Sturgis Plaza was added in 2008 to further honor those who served America. It was built as part of the celebration of the stadium’s 60th anniversary.

The first event at the stadium in 1948 was a University of Arkansas Razorback football game. Some of the most memorable games in program history have taken place in that stadium. I’m glad that I’ll always be able to say that I was there for the Miracle on Markham in 2002. We know Arkansas will continue to play games there the next five seasons. I hope that tradition will continue far into the future.

My memories go beyond Hog games, though. As I said, I played a game there back when the artificial turf was as hard as concrete. The Arkadelphia team for which I was the center recovered a fumbled punt and scored late to defeat an outstanding Cabot team. During this year’s Class 5A state championship game between Morrilton and Batesville, I sat in the press box with two close friends who just happened to be the quarterback and star receiver on that Cabot team 37 years ago. We didn’t know each other at the time. We became friends in college.

Arkansas is a small state, isn’t it?

I saw the first (and last) Bicentennial Bowl in the stadium in 1975 (the game did not survive until the actual bicentennial year) as Henderson took on East Central Oklahoma.

I’ve broadcast several Ouachita games from there.

I’ve seen Arkansas State play there and have enjoyed the UAPB and Grambling bands at halftime of games between those teams.

I go to most of the Little Rock Catholic home games and try to attend the annual Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant, which draws the biggest crowd of any high school game in the state each year.

The Rev. Billy Graham once attracted 270,000 people to War Memorial Stadium during the course of a week.

Elton John, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, George Strait and many others have played outdoor concerts there.

This past weekend, several people asked me what I thought would happen to the stadium if the Razorbacks cease playing games there after 2018. As a state facility dedicated to those who have served our country, I’m convinced the stadium will be just fine.

This is the final Southern Fried blog post of 2013. In the comments section below, I invite you to give us your favorite War Memorial Stadium memory. This is NOT a place for the Great Stadium Debate. There are other outlets for that. This is for memories. I hope to hear from many of you.

I’ve been writing a weekly newspaper column for almost five years. One of the most requested columns is the one I wrote about watching my son during Arkansas’ victory over LSU at War Memorial Stadium in 2010. As my Christmas gift to you (a needed gift after two bleak seasons for the Hogs), here again is that column.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Published Dec. 4, 2010:

Sugar fell from the sky in Little Rock shortly after 6 p.m. last Saturday.

You couldn’t see it, but you can bet it was there.

I glanced over at my 13-year-old son, who had yelled himself to the point of exhaustion during the previous four hours, and I hoped he would remember this moment.

I could feel my eyes misting up as the memories came flooding back — memories of the drive from Arkadelphia to Little Rock in my father’s big Oldsmobile to attend games at War Memorial Stadium, the anticipation building with each passing mile; memories of watching the crowd simply refuse to leave following Arkansas’ victory over Texas in 1979; memories of looking over at my older son (who was 9 at the time) following the Miracle on Markham in 2002 and hoping that he would cherish the moment.

Isn’t that one of the reasons for attending such events?

We’re there not only to enjoy the moment but hopefully to create memories along the way, perhaps even picking up a new story to tell around the dinner table 10 or 20 years from now.

Arkansas’ 31-23 win over LSU last Saturday afternoon was one of those memory-making games. I’ve been attending games at War Memorial Stadium for more than 40 years and can never remember when the fans stood for every play. We only sat during television timeouts, and goodness knows CBS requires plenty of those.

There can be magic in late November games – the ones that start in the sunlight and end under the lights.

As was the case after the wins over Texas in 1979 and LSU in 2002, no one wanted to leave. The stadium remained packed 10 minutes after the game had ended. I hope my son remembers that.

In the north end zone, motorcycle officers in their helmets from the Little Rock Police Department protected the goal post from being torn down. In the south end zone, the goal post was protected by troopers from the Arkansas State Police. I hope he remembers that.

Coach Bobby Petrino was surrounded by troopers (the more troopers around a Southern football coach, the bigger the game) and television cameramen as he exited the field, smiling more than I’ve ever seen him smile. I hope Evan remembers that, too.

The weather had cooperated fully on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a gorgeous November day for college football. We parked in Hillcrest and walked down Harrison, Lee and Van Buren streets. I knew immediately this wasn’t an average contest when I saw people who had charged $10 to park for the Louisiana-Monroe game now charging $30. There were dozens of fans at the intersection of Van Buren and Markham wanting tickets. No one was selling.

The policeman signaled for us to cross Markham Street. We walked into War Memorial Park for what would turn out to be an afternoon never to be forgotten.

I’ve never made a secret of my fondness for Little Rock games. I cherish those traditions that make our state unique, and having the state’s largest university play its home football games in two places sets us apart in an era when Alabama no longer plays at Birmingham and Ole Miss no longer plays at Jackson.

After entering the park, we made our way to stadium commissioner Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party in the lot directly behind the new press box. I can think of few things better than this: A beautiful November afternoon, good friends, what promises to be a great college football game, fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches.

An integral part of a Little Rock game day for me is the time spent watching the fans walk by. I greeted friends from all sections of our state. It was, in a sense, a large family reunion.

When it was over after almost four hours of pressure-packed action, I looked at Evan as he joined thousands of his fellow Arkansans in chanting, “BCS! BCS!”

I’ve never been in this stadium when it was louder. We returned to Brenda’s tailgate party after the game and listened to the Hog calls, yells and whoops that were coming from the now dark golf course.

It was a happy night in Arkansas.

Remember this sweet November day, Evan.

Remember that you sat between your mother and father.

Remember how you screamed at the top of your lungs each time LSU came to the line, feeling as if your effort were playing a role in the game.

Remember that touchdown as time expired in the first half.

Remember that fourth-down play that resulted in a touchdown right in front of you in the fourth quarter.

Remember the smile on the coach’s face and the fans who didn’t want to leave, staying in their seats to savor it all for a few more minutes.

Remember the day sugar fell from the sky.

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The 87th Battle of the Ravine

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

A longer version of this story can be found at SportingLifeArkansas.com.

They’ll play another Battle of the Ravine in Arkadelphia on Saturday afternoon.

As has been the case for almost every football game played between Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University since the early 1960s, I’ll be there.

The two Arkadelphia universities — one of which has Baptist roots and one of which has Methodist roots (the Baptists kept Ouachita, but the Methodists gave Henderson to the state) — first played each other in football in 1895. The series was suspended from 1951 until 1963 due to excessive vandalism. When they started playing again in 1963, I was 4 years old. You can bet I was there.

So it has been 50 years since my first Battle of the Ravine.

Half a century.

That’s hard for me to fathom. I always feel like a boy again during Battle of the Ravine week. I become giddy with excitement about the upcoming game and find it hard to concentrate on other tasks. Even though I’m in my 31st season of doing the play-by-play on radio of Ouachita games, I can assure you that the butterflies in my stomach will be such that I’ll be almost ill when we sign on Saturday afternoon.

I hope that never changes — that sense of anticipation, that realization of just how much this series has been a part of my life and the life of my family (my father played football at Ouachita and met my mother there).

That first game in 1895 was on Thanksgiving as Ouachita defeated what was then Arkadelphia Methodist College by a score of 8-0. For many years, the game was played on Thanksgiving.

Want to hear more?

How about 1949 when Ouachita trailed with seven minutes left in the game by a score of 14-0? Ike Sharp successfully executed three onside kicks for Ouachita in those final seven minutes and Otis Turner, who was known as the Magic Toe and later in life would be appointed as a judge on the Arkansas Supreme Court, kicked the field goal that gave the Tigers a 17-14 victory.

Ike Sharp’s son, David, just happens to be in his 15th year as Ouachita’s athletic director. And Otis Turner’s son, Tab, just happens to be one of the top trial lawyers in the country.

Ike Sharp’s other son, the late Paul Sharp, won an NAIA national football championship as the head coach at Southwestern Oklahoma.

Otis Turner’s other son, Neal, was once the chief of staff in the governor’s office. You guessed it. Both Sharp boys and both Turner boys played football at Ouachita.

Family ties run deep in this series.

I wasn’t around for that game, of course, but I was around in 1972 when Ouachita used a 47-yard touchdown run by hometown freshman sensation Luther Guinn with 2:23 remaining to pull within one point at 14-13. Legendary Ouachita Coach Buddy Benson decided to go for two in that era before overtime. Ouachita quarterback Mike Carroll connected with Danny Jack Winston, and the Tigers won, 15-14. Buddy Benson is no longer with us. But his grandson, Benson Jordan, will be the quarterback for Ouachita on Saturday.

Did I mention that family ties run deep in this series?

How about 1975, which remains the greatest football game I’ve ever seen at any level? I’ve had the chance in my career to cover the Super Bowl, Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl and a lot more. This game beat them all.

Henderson came in undefeated. Ouachita was 8-1.

Ouachita faced a fourth-and-25 on that cold, gray Saturday before Thanksgiving. The Tigers trailed 20-14, and time was running out. Ouachita’s quarterback was Bill Vining Jr. His father is Bill Vining Sr., the Ouachita head basketball coach and athletic director at the time. Bill Vining Sr. also had played in the series. Vining Jr.’s mother had been kidnapped by Henderson students back when she was the Ouachita homecoming queen.

By the way, have I told you that the family ties run deep in this series?

Bill Vining Jr. completed a 25-yard pass to Gary Reese. The chains came out.

If the Tigers were short, Henderson simply would need to kneel down a couple of times to have an undefeated regular season and a trip to the NAIA national playoffs. The chains were stretched, and it was still so close that the referee had to drop to his knees to examine the ball. When he stood up, he signaled that it was a Ouachita first down.

I was a high school student and standing on the Ouachita sideline that day. I can picture it as if it were yesterday.

Two plays later, Vining connected with Ken Stuckey for a touchdown, and Russell Daniel kicked the extra point to give the Tigers a 21-20 victory. Ouachita and Henderson tied for the AIC title. Ouachita was one of the four teams selected for the NAIA playoffs, and Henderson headed to the first (and final) Bicentennial Bowl at War Memorial Stadium.

How about two years ago?

Ouachita had already wrapped up the first Great American Conference championship and was hosting Henderson. The Reddies roared to a 41-17 lead late in the third quarter behind a freshman quarterback named Kevin Rodgers. Some of those in the stadium headed for the exits at that point.

An important lesson: Never leave a Battle of the Ravine early regardless of the margin.

Ouachita quarterback Casey Cooper hit wide receiver Brett Reece for a six-yard touchdown.

Next, Cooper found tight end Phillip Supernaw for an eight-yard touchdown.

Finally, sophomore tailback Chris Rycraw scored on a 12-yard run with 3:47 left to make it a one-possession game, 41-36.

On the kickoff, Henderson fumbled, and Ouachita’s Ryan Newsom recovered at the Reddie 29. Henderson held on downs, and the Reddies got the ball back with 2:15 remaining.

Henderson needed just one first down to be able to run out the clock. That first down never came. Christian Latoof’s punt carried 35 yards, and Ouachita took over at its 47 with 43 seconds on the A.U. Williams Field clock.

Cooper completed a 13-yard pass to Rycraw. Then, a 29-yard pass to Reece gave the Tigers the ball at the Henderson 11. On third-and-five from the Reddie six, Cooper completed a pass to Reece, who was pulled down a yard away from the end zone. A Cooper pass on first-and-goal was broken up by Chuck Obi.

The clock showed six-tenths of a second remaining.

Ouachita had time for one play.

Rycraw got the handoff on a dive up the middle. There was a huge pile at the goal line.

None of the officials signaled touchdown, though many on the home side thought Rycraw had scored.

Henderson had held on, 41-36.

That play will be debated, cussed and discussed in Arkadelphia as long as there are people alive who attended the game. Henderson fans will tell you it was the greatest game in the history of the series. Since I bleed purple, I’ll tell you that the 1975, 1982 and 2008 games were better. For a Ouachita man, the end of the 2011 game is just too painful to think about.

Kevin Rodgers, the quarterback who led his team to victory as a freshman that day, is a junior now. Last year, he helped guide Henderson to the first undefeated, untied regular season in school history. On Saturday, Rodgers will try to do it again. He’s a special athlete and a class individual to boot.

Chris Rycraw, the Ouachita tailback who got the call on that final play in 2011, will be playing his final game as a Tiger, the memories of the 2011 disappointment still fresh on his mind. Like Rodgers, he’s a special athlete and a class individual.

Henderson is 10-0 and ranked fourth nationally in NCAA Division II by the American Football Coaches Association.

Ouachita is 7-2 and only three or four plays away from being undefeated after close losses to Harding and Southern Arkansas.

Henderson is heavily favored but this is, after all, the Battle of the Ravine. Only U.S. Highway 67 separates A.U. Williams Field from Carpenter-Haygood Stadium. Early Saturday afternoon, state troopers will stop traffic on the highway, and the Reddies will walk across to play after having put on their uniforms in their own dressing room.

At about 5 p.m., the troopers will stop traffic again, and the Reddies will trudge back across the highway.

They’ve played 86 times through the years. Henderson has won 41 times. Ouachita has won 39 times. There have been six ties.

Of the 86 meetings between Henderson and Ouachita, the game has been decided by a touchdown or less 38 times with Ouachita holding a 19-13-6 advantage in those games.

I realize my hometown bias. But others from outside Arkansas who have experienced the Battle of the Ravine tell me it’s indeed among the great rivalries in all of college football. It might not receive the attention of Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Oklahoma or Michigan-Ohio State, but the passion and intensity are no less real.

Those who have played in these games, coached in them, covered them as journalists or simply watched from the stands understand.

They understand that there are few things in sports than can compare to a rivalry between four-year schools that are within walking distance of each other.

They understand that in Arkadelphia, this is a battle that divides families.

If you’re a Tiger, you call it the Ouachita-Henderson game.

If you’re a Reddie, you refer to it as the Henderson-Ouachita game.

By the way, it’s maddening that the statewide newspaper and others have decided to use “Ouachita Baptist” and “Henderson State” on all references to the schools. No one associated with the schools talks that way. It’s simply Ouachita or Henderson.

If your team wins, you crow about it for the next 364 days until it is time to play again.

If your team loses, you feel the pain for the next year.

It’s Arkansas’ own football Civil War, a contest that once was promoted as the Biggest Little Football Game in America.

The lights have been on at both stadiums this week to discourage pranks. The signs have been covered. Ouachita students guard the Tiger statue in the middle of the campus to keep it from being painted red. Henderson students guard the fountain at the entrance to the school to keep it from being filled with purple suds.

Just how close are these schools to each other?

Consider the 1999 incident known in Arkadelphia as “Trashcam.”

A Henderson graduate assistant coach took a video camera into Arkadelphia’s Central Park, which overlooks the Ouachita practice field. As he was taping the Tiger practice, the graduate assistant was spotted by a Ouachita player. The graduate assistant sped away in his car, leaving the camera in a nearby trash can. When the camera was found with a Henderson identification tag on it, Ouachita athletic director David Sharp removed the video and then returned the camera to Henderson.

It was the proper thing to do.

The rivalry might be intense, but these folks have to live with each other 52 weeks a year. They sit in the same pews at church and find themselves next to each other in the waiting room at the dentist’s office.

I look at the clock and count the hours until Saturday’s kickoff.

I love this rivalry; I do love it so.

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Happy birthday Brooks Robinson

Friday, May 17th, 2013

Brooks Robinson turns 76 Saturday.

Perhaps you can wish him a belated happy birthday when he returns home to Arkansas next month.

Robinson, the Little Rock native who was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1978 and the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983, will be at Lamar Porter Field on June 15 to draw attention to revitalization efforts at the historic complex.

The field is owned by the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas. Those associated with it want to make sure it doesn’t meet the same fate as nearby Ray Winder Field.

Do you get as sick as I do each time you travel down Interstate 630 and see the ghastly UAMS parking lot that occupies the site that was long the home of Ray Winder Field?

“The sadness of witnessing the demise of Ray Winder fills me with gratitude that Lamar Porter doesn’t suffer the same fate,” says Little Rock businessman Jay Rogers. “Lamar Porter is now the oldest usable field in the state of Arkansas.”

In late 2011, the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee was formed. In addition to renovating the baseball field, the committee hopes to fund improvements at the Billy Mitchell Boys and Girls Club, the Woodruff Gardens and adjoining recreational areas.

Lamar Porter Field was built between 1934 and 1937 by the Works Progress Administration as part of the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to put people to work during the Great Depression. It was an impressive concrete-and-steel facility that could seat 1,500 people. It was also the only baseball field in the state that had electric lights at the time.

The 10-acre site that includes the baseball field was given to what was then known as the Little Rock Boys Club in honor of Lamar Porter. The Little Rock native was a junior at Washington and Lee University in Virginia when he was killed in an automobile accident on May 12, 1934.

In addition to donating the land, the family contributed money for construction. The first anniversary of Porter’s death coincided with Mother’s Day. The donation was announced that day by his mother, Louise Skillern Porter.

Lamar Porter’s nephew, who shares his name, is among the trustees for the revitalization committee.

“A memorial serves no purpose if it ceases to exist,” says the younger Porter. “This complex needs revitalization soon or it will meet the same fate as Ray Winder Field.”

The June 15 event will begin at 5:30 p.m. and is scheduled to end by 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each and are available at The SportStop on Rodney Parham Road. The business is owned by Rogers. Each ticket will be good for admission to the event, a hot dog, a soft drink, popcorn and a chance to get Robinson’s autograph.

Robinson remains a legendary figure in Baltimore, where he spent his major league career. Following his retirement at the end of the 1977 season, Robinson began a 16-year career as a television announcer for the Orioles. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He’s one of only six former Orioles to have had a number retired by the team.

Was Brooks Robinson the best third baseman ever to play the game?

Many baseball historians think so. He began playing baseball almost as soon as he could walk. Robinson’s father, a fireman, had played semipro baseball and also was a member of the 1937 International Harvester softball team from Little Rock that played in the finals of the World Softball Championship in Chicago.

“Brooks Robinson began playing baseball at the grammar school level as a catcher for the Woodruff School,” Jeff Bailey wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He spent much of his time practicing at the facilities of the Arkansas School for the Deaf, which was across the street from his home. He also worked the scoreboard and sold cold drinks during games played at Lamar Porter Field. While a student at Pulaski Heights Junior High, Robinson played quarterback for the 1951 junior high state championship football team and was an honorable mention on the all-state team.”

Robinson played basketball and ran track at Little Rock High School. During the summer, he played American Legion baseball for the M.M. Eberts Post No. 1′s team, the Doughboys. The Doughboys won American Legion state championships in 1952 and 1953.

As soon as Robinson graduated from high school in 1955, he signed a contract with the Orioles. Having just turned 18, he first played for the Orioles’ farm team in York, Pa., in the Piedmont League. Late in the season, Robinson earned a promotion to the big leagues. By the 1958 season, he was the Orioles’ regular third baseman.

Known as the Human Vacuum Cleaner, Robinson won an amazing 16 consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1960-75). His best season offensively came in 1964 when he batted .317 with 28 home runs and 118 RBI. He was the Aemrican League MVP that year, receiving 18 of the 20 first-place votes. Mickey Mantle was second in the voting.

In 1966, Robinson was the MVP at the All-Star Game. He finished second that year behind teammate Frank Robinson in the American League MVP balloting as the Orioles defeated the Los Angeles Dogers in the World Series.

The Orioles would win two World Series while Brooks Robinson was playing for them. The second came in 1970 when he was the World Series MVP against the Cincinnati Reds.

The Orioles had lost the World Series to the New York Mets the previous season. In 1970, however, it was almost as if Robinson willed them to a championship.

Robinson had a .583 batting average in the 1970 American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins. In the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, Robinson had a .429 batting average with two home runs and some incredible defensive plays.

“I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep,” Reds Manager Sparky Anderson said. “If I dropped this paper plate, he would pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

As the World Series MVP, Robinson was awarded a new Toyota.

Reds catcher Johnny Bench said, “Gee, if we had known he wanted a new car that bad, we would have chipped in and bought him one.”

Robinson played in his last World Series in 1971 as the Orioles lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. Baltimore would win division titles in 1973 and 1974 but lose in the American League Championship Series.

Robinson was selected for the American League All-Star team for 15 consecutive years from 1960-74. His career batting average was .267 with 2,848 hits, 268 home runs and 1,357 RBI. He led the American League in fielding percentage 11 times. He retired with a .971 fielding average, the highest ever for a third baseman.

At the time of his retirement, Robinson also had the records for a third baseman for games played at third (2,870), putouts (2,697), assists (6,205) and double plays (618). Only Carl Yastrzemski, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial played more games during their careers for one franchise.

Yet another Robinson record came from hitting into four triple plays during his career.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing someone erase my record of hitting into triple plays,” he later said.

How popular was Brooks Robinson in Baltimore, even after he retired?

In 1982, WMAR-TV’s on-air announcers had been on strike for two months leading into the baseball season. When Robinson refused to cross the picket line as opening day approached, station executives began new negotiations. The strike ended the next day, and Robinson was on the air for the season opener.

Robinson and Baltimore Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas had plaques in their honor in Balimore’s venerable Memorial Stadium. The two men were saluted on the field when the Orioles played their last game there on Oct. 6, 1991.

In 1999, The Sporting News placed the native Arkansan on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players. He also was named to the All-Time Rawlings Gold Glove team.

Veteran Associated Press sportswriter Gordon Beard was the emcee for the ceremony that marked Robinson’s last game at Memorial Stadium in 1977. Beard reminded the crowd of Reggie Jackson’s remark: “If I played in New York, they would name a candy bar after me.”

“Around here,” Beard said, “nobody has named a candy bar after Brooks Robinson. We name our children after him.”

Now, Robinson is coming back to Little Rock to lend a hand to those who are saving Lamar Porter Field.

Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys and Episcopal Collegiate High School use Lamar Porter Field for home games. The field and an adjoining space also are the Arkansas home of a national program known as Reviving Baseball in the Inner City, which is sponsored by Major League Baseball.

Portions of the movie “A Soldier’s Story,” starring Denzel Washington, were filmed at the field in 1984. In December 1990, the facility was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

There are other positive things going on in the neighborhood.

The Woodruff Community Garden allows novice and experienced gardeners to have plots in the city. The renovation project will add lights, security updates, a more secure gardening shed, a gate and fencing to the community garden.

There also will be restoration work on historic stone walls and bridges.

Other improvements will take place at the Billy Mitchell Boys & Girls Club, which is named after the man who became associated with the club in 1922 and began heading the organization in 1928. Mitchell, who had played basketball at Texas A&M, was connected with the club for more than 50 years. Construction of the current facility was completed in 1982.

In December 2011, the revitalization committee announced that an anonymous donor had given a significant gift to begin the process of planning the renovation effort.

In January 2012, representatives of the Little Rock architectural firm Witsell Evans Rasco met with the committee. Last August, the firm’s initial renderings for renovating the complex were approved.

Robinson agreed in September to become the honorary chairman of the revitalization committee.

“Not only did I sharpen my baseball skills at Lamar Porter, I even once won a bubble-blowing contest there and proudly rode a new bicycle home,” he said. “The memories of playing there and the friendships that I made have lasted all my life.”

In October, the Boys & Girls Club of Central Arkansas and the Lamar Porter Complex Revitalization Committee announced a partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation of Baltimore. The foundation was founded in 2001 by Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother, Bill Ripken, who also played for the Orioles.

Cal Ripken Sr., who died in 1999, had a 37-year career working for the Orioles. The Ripken Foundation seeks to help kids from low-income families, using baseball as the hook to reach boys and softball to reach girls.

The revitalization committee’s website contains the words ”heading for home.”

With a master plan now in place, it’s a fitting motto as the great Brooks Robinson heads home to Little Rock, determined that the city won’t see another historic treasure turned into a parking lot.

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