Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

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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Pat Summerall: A legendary voice is silenced

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

For those of us who enjoy sports and are of a certain age, the voice was iconic.

That voice might have been silenced, but the man will always be remembered.

If you grew up loving professional football, you knew it was 6 p.m. on a fall Sunday and that the game was running late when you heard Pat Summerall say: “A reminder that ’60 Minutes’ will be seen in its entirety, followed by ‘Murder (dramatic pause) She Wrote.”’

Or the 18th green at Augusta: I can never watch the Masters without the voice of Summerall being a part of my memories of that event.

I can tell you this: Even though he didn’t grow up here or spend his career here, Summerall loved Arkansas. He cherished his Arkansas friends such as Jack Stephens, Buddy Sutton and Floyd Sagely.

It’s safe to say that few inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame did as much for the organization through the years as Pat Summerall did.

Summerall, a 1971 inductee, lent his name for 11 years to the Pat Summerall Celebrity Golf Classic, which raised money for the Hall of Fame.

The greatest broadcast voice of the NFL, the Masters and the U.S. Open in tennis died Tuesday in Dallas at age 82.

Summerall was a Florida native, but Arkansans long have considered him one of their own because he was a University of Arkansas Razorback football player in college.

He was born in May 1930 at Lake City, Fla., where he starred in basketball, football, baseball and tennis in high school. Summerall later would say that basketball was his favorite sport as a high school athlete (he was an all-state selection in both football and basketball), but he was recruited to play football at the University of Arkansas.

Summerall was a defensive end, tight end and placekicker for the Razorbacks from 1949-51.

The Detroit Lions drafted Summerall in the fourth round of the 1952 NFL draft. He started the first two games of the 1952 season at defensive end as a rookie. His arm was badly broken on the final play of the second game of the regular season while playing the Rams in Los Angeles. The break was so bad that Summerall had to stay in Los Angeles and have surgery. He missed the remainder of the season, and the scar from the surgery was still visible six decades later.

Summerall came back in 1953 and played as a defensive end for the Lions in preseason games. He also kicked off. He was traded to the Cardinals just before the regular season began. The Lions went on to capture the NFL title the next two years while the Cardinals struggled.

“I don’t think he ever forgave the Lions,” one of his friends told me.

Summerall was with the Cardinals from 1953-57.

Summerall ended his career with the New York Giants from 1958-61. During the 1959 season, he was 30 for 30 on extra point attempts and 20 of 29 on field goal attempts.

Collectors of Sports Illustrated are familiar with the classic photo from December 1958 of a Summerall field goal kick sailing through the snow at Yankee Stadium for a 13-10 Giants victory over the Cleveland Browns on the final day of the regular season.

The Giants had to win to force a tiebreaker playoff game. The Browns needed only a tie to clinch the Eastern championship. With the score tied 10-10 and time running out, Summerall was sent in to try a 49-yard field goal in the swirling wind. He had missed a 31-yard attempt several minutes earlier. The 49-yard kick was good.

Summerall scored five points — a field goal and two extra points — in what’s sometimes called The Greatest Game Ever Played, the Giants’ 23-17 loss to the Baltimore Colts on Dec. 28, 1958, at Yankee Stadium for the NFL championship. It was the first NFL playoff game to go into sudden death overtime.

The game marked the start of the NFL’s surge in popularity as a large audience watched while Chris Schenkel and Chuck Thompson called the contest on NBC.

The final game of Summerall’s professional playing career was the 1961 NFL championship game as the Giants were defeated by the Green Bay Packers.

After his playing career ended, Summerall began work as a broadcaster. He would go on to become one of the signature voices of sports broadcasting in America.

Summerall spent 32 years working for CBS Sports, serving as the voice not only for the network’s NFL telecasts but also for its coverage of the U.S. Open in tennis and the Masters in golf. He even called the play by play for professional basketball games and five heavyweight championship fights.

Summerall was an iron man in the early days of his broadcasting career, serving as the sports director for WCBS-AM in New York from 1964-71 while hosting the station’s four-hour morning news program. At the same time, he worked for the CBS Radio Network.

The 1994 Masters was Summerall’s final television event for CBS before moving to Fox. John Madden, who had begun working NFL games with Summerall in 1981, moved to Fox with him.

In 1999, Summerall was inducted into the American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame, joining broadcasters such as Mel Allen, Red Barber, Jack Brickhouse, Jack Buck, Harry Caray, Howard Cosell, Ernie Harwell and Chick Hearn.

During most of the 1970s, Summerall had teamed with Tom Brookshier on NFL broadcasts. They worked Super Bowls X, XII and XIV together. The pairing with Madden that began in 1981 would last 22 seasons. The pair worked eight Super Bowls.

Summerall and Madden’s last game as a team was Super Bowl XXXVI. Following the game, Summerall announced his retirement, and ABC signed Madden to work with Al Michaels on Monday night games.

Fox, however, talked Summerall into working on regional telecasts in 2002 and 2006.

The Dallas-area resident also broadcast the Cotton Bowl for Fox from 2007-10. His voice was still heard on the opening of Masters’ coverage for many years after he left CBS.

In April 1992, it was announced that Summerall had taken a leave from CBS to seek treatment for alcoholism at the Betty Ford Center in California. Summerall, who remained sober for many years, was outspoken about his battle and served as an inspiration for thousands of Americans in his final years of life.

Richard Sandomir wrote in a 1992 New York Times story: “In late 1990, Summerall was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer that was aggravated by a toxic combination of painkillers and alcohol. He vowed to give up the drinking that had become part of his life.

“‘I had not had a drink for seven months after the hospital,’ he said. ‘Then I said I’m fine.’ He resumed drinking, but it was no longer fun. From his days as a football player to his career in sportscasting, he loved being the last guy at the bar, telling the best stories, having the grandest time. Now, at the age of 62, he had to hide the drinking and deny the problem.”

In 1994, Summerall was instrumental in convincing Mickey Mantle to enter the Betty Ford Center.

“I was the friend who intervened,” Summerall said at the time. “We’ve had a number of long, tearful talks. There were a lot of similarities between us. If I hadn’t been there and hadn’t told him how familiar I was with the center, he wouldn’t have gone.”

In 1997, Summerall visited professional golfer John Daly during Daly’s stay at the Betty Ford Center.

“Originally, their bond was having been Razorbacks at the University of Arkansas, even though they were some 30 years apart,” Dave Anderson wrote in The New York Times. “Now they have developed another bond from going to another institution, five years apart.”

“I just happened to be in Palm Springs for the Betty Ford golf tournament,” Summerall told the newspaper. “I got a call from the center that John was there and would I come over to talk to him. I spent an hour with John. I told him I was encouraged he had done it on his own time and he agreed with me; when he went to a Tucson center in 1993, the PGA Tour had ordered him to go.”

In 2002, Summerall received the NFL’s coveted George Halas Award for lifetime achievement.

Summerall underwent a liver transplant in 2004. After recovering from that, he kept a busy speaking schedule and even released a book in 2006.

He told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “It’s entirely different waking up in the morning and praying. I read aloud six or seven different devotional books. … It’s a terrific difference, a tremendous difference.”

Pat Summerall will always be remembered as one of the great broadcasters in American history.

In this state, he also will be remembered as a former Razorback and as one of the best friends the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame ever had.

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A trip to The Tamale Factory

Monday, March 4th, 2013

It was, in so many ways, a trip back in time.

We exited Interstate 40 at Hazen on that Friday afternoon and headed north on Arkansas Highway 11 to Des Arc.

How many times had I made the trip on this section of highway through the years to visit my grandparents at Des Arc? It would be impossible to count them.

Dad, who died two years ago yesterday, would be at the wheel of the big Oldsmobile. Mom would be in the passenger seat up front. My sister and I would be in the back. Having been raised in the pine woods of south Arkansas, I was intrigued by the huge fields and the views that seemed to stretch for miles to the horizon.

Then, as now, the Delta and Grand Prairie were places apart.

We knew what awaited us in Des Arc — great cooking by my grandmother, Bess Rex Caskey, in the old family home on Erwin Street; a visit to the chicken yard to gather eggs each morning with my grandfather, W.J. Caskey; a walk across the street to check his post office box, a stop in the Farmers and Merchants Bank and then a stroll down Main Street, where the Caskey Funeral Home and the Caskey Hardware Store had once been located.

If it were summer, we might go down to Haley’s Fish Market to buy catfish that had been hauled that morning out of the White River, frying them for supper that evening. My grandfather would ask if they had any “fiddlers,” small catfish that he liked to fry whole.

If it were winter, Dad might take me along for a duck hunt.

I was in the company of three of Arkansas’ most noted storytellers on that recent Friday afternoon. Don Tilton, Paul Berry and Mary Berry had graciously invited me to tag along for dinner at The Tamale Family, the restaurant that Mary’s cousin George Eldridge has operated since November in a barn on the family farm at Gregory in Woodruff County.

As we headed up Highway 11 between Hazen and Des Arc, we passed the familiar landmarks — the Wattensaw Bayou, where we would sometimes hunt ducks; the Darrell Saul Farm, where I had attended political fundraising events in my earlier life as a politico; the headquarters for the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, which had once been a club called Riverwood where we would go to swim; the cemetery where we buried my grandfather on a hot summer day and my grandmother on a cold winter day; the Presbyterian Church, which is being turned into a library; the offices of the White River Journal, one of this state’s best weekly newspapers, which has been in the Walls family for decades; the building my grandfather built to house his hardware store, a structure that still stands and still is home to a hardware store.

My grandfather sold his businesses to Willis Eddins who, in turn, sold them to Billy Garth. They remain in the Garth family.

Just across the street from that building is the Prairie County Courthouse, where my grandfather served terms as county assessor, county clerk and county judge. Though the man I called Pam-Pa had last held elective office in 1941, I loved it when people would still refer to him as Judge Caskey. It made me feel like he was important.

With Don — who’s known by his friends as Tilco — at the wheel, we crossed the White River bridge, looking to our right at that always magnificent view of the courthouse and downtown Des Arc. The current bridge is far safer than its predecessor, but it doesn’t have the character of what was known by locals as the Swinging Bridge. The massive suspension bridge, which was in operation from 1928-70, indeed would sway when trucks crossed it.

Whenever horses crossed the bridge, owners had to put covers over their heads and lead them. They refused to cross otherwise.

Here are a few of the comments posted about the Swinging Bridge on a website about bridges:

– “I lived east of the river and grew up crossing the bridge every day. We called it rattletrap bridge because of the sounds the boards made as the car went across. … It was terrifying to cross on those few boards on a school bus. When I started driving, I drove to school across the bridge every day. One day it was raining, and I lost control on the way up to the center of the bridge. My car fishtailed and hit the rails on the side three times before coming to rest. I remember the feeling of knowing I wasn’t going to make it. I’m now almost 60 years old, and I still dream about it and wake up shivering.”

– “I had such a love-hate relationship with the wonderful Swinging Bridge. One time, my dad had to back down past the huge curve in the bridge to let another car pass. I was so scared I got in the floorboard. As I grew older, my friends and I would walk the bridge on Sunday afternoons. Boards were always missing, and I never got close to the sides.”

– “I grew up in this area and walked and rode across this bridge countless times. It never occurred to me to be scared. It was just the bridge we had to cross to get to Des Arc. I remember riding in trailers filled with cotton, being pulled by a tractor and feeling the swing of the bridge. I’m not sure I would do that today if I could.”

– “I rode in a school bus for 11 years across the bridge every day. Sometimes we had to wait for someone to back down to one of the wide sections, and then sometimes we had to back up in the school bus ourselves. I don’t remember being afraid, but after I married, my husband was terrified to cross it.”

East of the river, there are large fields and pecan orchards. As we head east on Arkansas Highway 38, we pass the road that my dad and I would turn down to fish on Spring Lake and Horn Lake, both White River oxbows.

On the Prairie County-Woodruff County line, we reach the community of Little Dixie and turn left onto Arkansas Highway 33, passing through Dixie on our way to Gregory (yes, there’s both a Dixie and a Little Dixie).

The Eldridge family home, built in 1910, has been beautifully restored.

Also cleaned up and restored is the Eldridge family cemetery, the final resting place of family patriarch Rolfe Eldridge, who was born in November 1807 and died in April 1859. Mary Eldridge Berry gave me a tour of the cemetery just as the sun was setting. Paul went inside the restaurant (the barn is between the family home and the cemetery) to secure a table from George.

Anyone who knows George, the owner of the Little Rock outpost of Doe’s Eat Place, understands that he has the golden touch when it comes to restaurants. It was George who first talked Charles and “Little Doe” Signa in Greenville, Miss., into letting him use the Doe’s name and menu in a location other than the original on Nelson Street in Greenville.

Doe’s Eat Place locations now can been found throughout the region, but George was the first to take the concept out of Greenville. Due to a politician named Bill Clinton, the Little Rock location soon became more famous than the Greenville original. That’s because presidential campaign staffers such as James Carville and George Stephanopoulos would hang out there on a nightly basis.

The national political media followed and began writing about the place. The back room at Doe’s was where P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson and William Greider conducted the interview of Clinton for a September 1992 edition of Rolling Stone.

Was it O’Rourke or Thompson who tried to eat a tamale with the shuck still on?

In November 1992, People published a story on George and his chief cook, Lucille Robinson. The following January, George escorted Robinson to one of the inaugural balls in Washington. An Annie Leibovitz portrait of the pair is among the photos that hang on the walls of the Little Rock restaurant.

If you like the food at Doe’s, you’ll like the food at The Tamale Factory. The menus are similar.

One thing about Delta residents is that they don’t mind driving a long distance for a good meal on a Friday or Saturday. Since it opened in November, The Tamale Factory has been pulling them in from as far away as Little Rock, Memphis and Jonesboro. Reservations are recommended.

On the other side of the barn that houses the restaurant, George keeps his quarter horses in a well-appointed stable. He introduced us to the horses and his three cats (cats are a tradition in horse barns). He also opened a pen that was filled with goats.

There’s also a show ring where George occasionally rolls the dirt, puts down a wooden dance floor and brings in a band from Memphis. Oh how I would love to be back in Gregory on one of those nights.

Roots run deep in this part of Arkansas. Like other east Arkansas counties, Prairie and Woodruff counties have bled population for decades.

Prairie County has only half the population it had in 1920, falling from 17,447 that year to 8,715 in the 2010 census.

Woodruff County has just a third of the population it had in 1920, dropping from 21,527 that year to 7,260 in 2010. Those who remain, though, are a proud people with a strong sense of history and place. They are also people who know how to have a good time, as we saw on this night at The Tamale Factory.

Prairie County has two county seats — Des Arc and DeValls Bluff — and a rich history.

“European exploration of the area began as early as the late 17th century,” Marilyn Hambrick Sickel writes in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “While the area became occupied by both the Spanish and French, the county remained vital to trade expeditions. … French traders traveled up and down the White River in the early 1700s. Bear oil and skins, abundant in this area at the time, were sought-after commodities in the New Orleans markets. The rivers were the highways of this early era. Early maps identify the White River as Eau Blanche and Riv Blanche. Des Arc was the earliest settlement. Creoles named Watts and East are credited as being Des Arc’s first residents, arriving around 1810.”

Sickel writes that Des Arc was “a flourishing river town prior to the Civil War. Timber for homes was plentiful. Fish and game were abundant, and the population grew rapidly. Selling wood to power the steamboats and rafting timber along the river were viable occupations. The Butterfield Overland Mail route in the late 1850s was key in the development of Des Arc. The city, depending on how wet the roads were or how low the river was, had the fortune of being on the direct route from Memphis to Fort Smith.”

Because it was so swampy, Woodruff County wasn’t settled as early as Prairie County.

Woodruff County was established during the Civil War in November 1862. When Arkansas was no longer part of the Confederacy, it was approved again as a county in 1865. It was named after William Woodruff, the founder of the Arkansas Gazette at Arkansas Post in 1819 (the newspaper moved to Little Rock along with the territorial capital in 1821).

“In the years after the Civil War, Woodruff County prospered with wood and agriculture industries,” Paula Harmon Barnett writes in the online encyclopedia. “Sawmills and woodworking factories thrived, making use of the many acres of timber in the county. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, railroads began to move into the county, and towns sprang up around them, increasing the county’s population each year and greatly improving the economy. Cotton, corn, oats and hay thrved in the fertile, well-watered soil, and the two rivers in the county by which to ship products (the White and Cache) added to the area’s prosperity.”

The county’s population grew each decade from the 1870 census to the 1930 census. It has fallen each decade since then.

There’s a haunting beauty to the Delta and the Grand Prairie in late winter and early spring. History hangs heavily here. Come early to Gregory, taking time to walk through the Eldridge family cemetery and maybe even going to the historic area of Augusta Memorial Park, where there also are Eldridges buried.

Yes, come early and stay late, letting your tamales and steak digest while convincing George to tell stories about the politicians, musicians and other colorful characters he has known.

Spring is beginning in Arkansas, and with it the desire for Friday and Saturday road trips. The drive to Gregory is a trip back in time with good food awaiting at your final destination.

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