Archive for January, 2010

“Bearing down” in Fordyce

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

My Democrat-Gazette column this Saturday will focus on Fordyce and the creative thinking that needs to go on there in the wake of Georgia-Pacific’s decision to close its plywood mill.

As a south Arkansas native, I’ve always liked Fordyce. It starts with the fact that you can’t help but like a place with a high school mascot of Redbugs.

As Fordyce native Larry Lacewell is fond of saying: “I’ve been an insect my entire life. I was a Chigger, a Baby Bug, a Redbug and then a Boll Weevil (when he played in college at the University of Arkansas at Monticello).”

And as someone who had Paul “Bear” Bryant as a childhood hero, I also have to like the place that produced the most famous coach in college football history.

Add in the other sports accomplishments and figures associated with that place — Jim Benton, a member of the All-NFL team for the decade of the ’40s, played high school football at Fordyce; Red Parker had that 38-game winning streak at Fordyce High School.

You also can’t forget that Fordyce is home to the Klappenbach Bakery, which has become nationally known.

I remember one afternoon when I was in high school watching our football coaches rush away in order to go see Johnny Cash perform at the Fordyce on the Cotton Belt Festival.

Fordyce just seemed to have a special vibe for such a small town.

But I’ve never thought Fordyce has done enough to capitalize on the Bear Bryant legacy. There are signs on the highway. There should be more — a modern, interactive Bryant museum, perhaps one that partners with the excellent Paul W. Bryant Museum on the University of Alabama campus at Tuscaloosa.

With all due respect to Razorback fans, there is no fan base quite like the Alabama fan base. Create a facility in Fordyce. Advertise it in publications that cater to Crimson Tide fans. I have no doubt that a number of them will then make the pilgrimage west.

As Alabama native Allen Barra points out in his outstanding 2005 Bryant biography, “The Last Coach”, college football in Alabama transcends sports: “There was the embarrassment of living in a state where there was so little to boast about to the rest of the country except Bear Bryant. Alabamians liked to joke, ‘Thank God for Mississippi,’ meaning that whatever Alabama ranked 49th in, such as public spending on education, Mississippi was bound to be 50th. Last or not, Mississippi could claim William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, Jimmie Rogers, the father of country music, and Robert Johnson, the king of the Delta blues singers. All Alabma had was a football coach.

“What so many college students like ourselves couldn’t see was not only how much football meant to so many people in Alabama — white and black, male and female, old and young — but how much it mattered to us. We had felt superior to football, seeing it through the Vietnam-era mist of skepticism and alienation that permeated even Alabama’s football-crazy colleges; it had served only to distract us from the important issues. Football was, we liked to say, Alabama’s version of grits and circuses. Years later, gathering with friends to watch Alabama on cable television at Manhattan bars or seeing some TV documentary on Bryant, we realized how important the game and all of its cultural baggage had been to us. And always, when we came to talk of such things, Bear Bryant dominated our conversations.”

Barra goes on to argue that Bryant left a larger footprint on our American culture than even Vince Lombardi.

He writes: “Lombardi was head coach for the Green Bay Packers and pro football’s dominant figure for nine seasons. Bryant, for nearly three decades, was the king of what Dan Jenkins called ‘Saturday’s America’ — the world of small towns and college communities that, from Labor Day through New Year’s, gives their unqualified devotion to college football, displaying the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that can only be faked or imitated in pro football stadiums. … Both men shared an abiding passion for the game of football and a fierce, unwavering conviction that it was the pathway to the Amreican dream.”

Bear Bryant became far more than a football coach. He became a Southern icon, right up there with Faulkner, Elvis and General Lee. And he was a native Arkansan. We should do more to celebrate that.

Again, I have no doubt that a proper facility in Fordyce with wise marketing would attract people from Alabama and all over the South. There also could be lessons learned in that facility for students from the many public schools that are scattered across those pine woods of south Arkansas. What a field trip opportunity.

Back to Barra: “Bear Bryant still intimdates me, not so much the memory of his overpowering demeanor when I saw him up close, as his intensity and will to win and his unshakable belief that these qualities, when applied to a higher purpose, can make you a better person. Not that I don’t believe that. I just don’t know whether or not, if I had to, I could commit to those principles as strongly as might be demanded of me by someone like Bear Bryant. In Bryant’s case, faith and determination were products born of a desperation that I have never known and that I hope my child will never know. The America I grew up in was, I’m aware, a much easier place to live, largely because of men and women with the strength and tenacity of Bear Bryant. … His character defects and good qualities are not even the point; in time, the memory of them will fade as those who knew him will pass on. What will matter, what will endure about Bryant, will be the legacy he left behind of the power of simple adherence to good principles, such as the ones on a devotional he carried in his wallet.”

So to the good folks in Fordyce, I say this: No Bear Bryant museum will ever replace those 340 jobs lost when G-P closed the mill. But it could be a beacon that conveys to young people what true discipline, dedication, determination and desire can bring.

Let’s close with that devotional that was in the coach’s wallet:

_____

This is the beginning of a new day.

God has given me this day to use as I will.

I can waste it or use it for good.

What I do today is very important because I am exchanging a day of my life for it.

When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever, leaving something it its place I have traded for it.

I want it to be a gain, not loss — good, not evil — success, not failure in order that I shall not forget the price I paid for it.

Post to Twitter

A bowl of red

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

When you think of chili in Texas, you think of Frank X. Tolbert.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Tolbert, who died of heart failure in January 1984 at age 71. But I had read his Dallas Morning News columns in the years prior to his death, and I have a special place in my heart for guys who start out writing about sports and move up to writing about food (sounds familiar).

Tolbert was born in Amarillo. He began his newspaper career as a student at Texas Tech when he was hired to write sports for the Avalanche-Journal in Lubbock. He went on to write sports for newspapers in Wichita Falls, Amarillo and Fort Worth.

When World War II began, Tolbert enlisted in the Marines at age 29 and became a combat correspondent for the official Marine publication, Leatherneck. He later would serve as that publication’s Washington-based managing editor.

Tolbert joined the Morning News staff in 1946 and began writing his “Tolbert’s Texas” column soon thereafter. He also would write two Western novels and a number of nonfiction books. His most popular book, “A Bowl of Red,” was published in 1962. The book was devoted to chili.

Tolbert established the Chili Appreciation Society International, which is based in the West Texas ghost town of Terlingua. In 1967, Tolbert and Wick Fowler began the World Chili Championship. The event is still held the first Saturday of November each year in Terlingua, which is just west of the Big Bend National Park and just north of the Mexican border.

In 1976, Tolbert opened a restaurant in Dallas that specialized in chili.

The late Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus department store fame had this to say about Tolbert: “Frank will be remembered as a journlist, as the chili aficionado who helped elevate this dish to its present position in Southwestern cuisine, as a writer of books, and above all, as a warm human being who probably never heard a good story he didn’t like.”

In my book, that’s a pretty good way to be remembered.

The recent bout of cold weather has me craving chili. And it leads me to ask for your help. In the Comments section please:

1. Tell me the restaurants in Arkansas where one can get a really good bowl of chili.

2. Share your favorite chili recipe.

3. Let me know when and where to find the best chili cooking contest in Arkansas.

4. Let me know if real chili should contain beans or not.

I need to become more educated on the Arkansas chili culture. Thanks to Frank X. Tolbert, I know more about Texas chili than Arkansas chili.

Tolbert’s son, Frank X. Tolbert II, is an artist. His daugher, Kathleen Tolbert Ryan, reopened Tolbert’s Restaurant in May 2006 in downtown Grapevine in a building constructed in 1911. I regret that my busy schedule of Cotton Bowl duties did not allow me to try out the restaurant even though I was just down the road for eight nights at the Omni Mandalay Hotel in Irving.

It’s your turn now. Send me those restaurant names. Send me those recipes (Kay, I know you are a great cook). Send me those chili cooking contest dates. Beans or no beans?

Post to Twitter

Roll Tide

Friday, January 8th, 2010

In “Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer,” his insightful 2004 book about Alabama football fans, Warren St. John writes this: “I always feel a mixture of misery and relief at the end of football season. Like a boozer thrown in the tank for a forced dry-out, I miss the elixir even as I know that it does me good to go without. There is, after all, the not insignificant matter of having a life, of earning enough money to buy food and shelter, of doing all the things necessary, in other words, to keep myself alive until the next season. Pro teams continue to play for a few weeks after the college season ends, which helps ease the craving; but to mix addiction metaphors, the NFL for me serves as a kind of methadone; it’s football even though I don’t exactly care who wins — the drug without the high.”

Written like a true son of Alabama.

It’s now methadone time.

For me, all seems right with our world on this cold Friday afternoon. The Southeastern Conference is home to a national football champion for a fourth consecutive year. And for the first time in 17 years, the championship trophy is headed to Tuscaloosa.

It’s important for college football as a whole that certain programs be good. College football needs Notre Dame to return to greatness. College football needs Texas to continue to be good. And college football needs Alabama to be good.

Though it had been 17 years since that last Bama title, they always knew there would be more.

They kept the faith when Alabama was placed on probation in 1995.

They kept the faith even as Mike DuBose went 24-23 as a head coach from 1997-2000.

They kept the faith even though Dennis Franchione left town after just two years, bound for Texas A&M.

They kept the faith as Alabama was placed on probation again from 2002-06.

They kept the faith in April 2003 when  media outlets reported that recently hired head coach Mike Price had spent several hundred dollars at a strip club in Pensacola on the same night a woman charged almost $1,000 worth of room service to his hotel room. Price was dismissed following the incident.

They kept the faith after Mike Shula had a mediocre 26-23 record from 2003-06 while committing the unpardonable sin of losing four consecutive years to Auburn.

They knew the right man would return at some point to lead them from the wilderness. And that man has proved to be Nick Saban, who became head coach on Jan. 3, 2007.

Outside the north end zone at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa is an area called the Walk of Champions. The plaza contains expensive statues of the coaches who have won national football championships at the school — Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings.

When the plaza was constructed several years ago, the base and lights were built for yet another statue. It sent the signal that Alabama was waiting.

The wait is over.

After Alabama defeated Texas on Thursday night, some fans put a banner bearing Saban’s name across the area set aside for the statue.

The school’s athletic director, a former Bear Bryant assistant named Mal Moore, was asked about the statue.

“It was put there for this, and I will recommend to the president that we go forth,” he said.

Immediately?

“Well, we’ll talk about it. But yeah. Hell yeah.”

Hell yeah, indeed. This is college football. This is the Southeastern Conference. This is Alabama.

Back to Warren St. John: “I grew up in Alabama — possibly the worst place on earth to acquire a healthy perspective on the importance of spectator sports. If you were a scientist hoping to isolate a fan gene, Alabama would make the perfect laboratory. People in Alabama have a general interest in almost all sports — the state is second only to Nevada in the amount of money that its citizens bet on sports, despite the fact that in Alabama, unlike Nevada, sports gambling is illegal. But the sport that inspires true fervor — the one that compels people there to name their children after a popular coach and to heave bricks through the windows of an unpopular one — is college football. A recent poll found that 90 percent of the state’s citizens describe themselves as college football fans. Eighth-six percent of them pull for one of the the two major football powers there, Alabama or Auburn, and 4 percent pull for other teams. … To understand what an absolute minority nonfans are in Alabama, consider this: They are outnumbered there by atheists.”

It was Gene Stallings who, even in the wake of winning a national championship, said this about the Alabama football faithful: “They still love Coach Bryant. They just tolerate the rest of us.”

After those 17 years in the wilderness, I suspect they are beginning to love Saban. He will never replace Coach Bryant in Alabama lore, but the Bear would have liked this Alabama team — a team that went 14-0 thanks to a relentless defense and a strong running game. In the days of the spread offense, this team was as much of a throwback as the Alabama helmets.

When I was growing up in Arkadelphia, the most important college football team in my life was Ouachita, and it played in the most important conference, the old Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference.

Arkansas, of course, was my team in the Southwest Conference.

But Alabama was my team in the Southeastern Conference. My father had played football at Ouachita in the 1940s with a south Arkansas native named Sam Bailey. Coach Bailey would go on to become Bear Bryant’s right-hand man, giving us a bit of a family connection to the Alabama program.

In 1981, I broadcast an Arkadelphia-Alma high school playoff game in Arkadelphia on a Friday night and then drove all night to Birmingham just to see Coach Bryant break Amos Alonzo Stagg’s record for the most wins ever for a major-college coach. He did it in the nation’s most heated rivalry, the Iron Bowl against Auburn. And it wasn’t easy.

Not having slept since Thursday night, I decided to drive as far as I could after the game before getting a motel room. I made it only as far as Tuscaloosa. But what a treat to have seen that game. My press pass had allowed me to go down on the field, walk off just behind Coach Bryant and join those who interviewed him in the dressing room afterward.

I still have the Sunday newspapers I bought the next morning.

A print of Daniel Moore’s painting of Coach Bryant on the sideline during that game hangs in my den. It’s signed by Coach Bryant. I took a long look at the painting last night before going to bed.

To put things in perspective, it’s important to realize that Alabama was good in football long before Bear Bryant became head coach. Wallace Wade won national championships in 1925, 1926 and 1930. Frank Thomas won national titles in 1934 and 1941. In those days, Alabama football represented the entire South come bowl time.

Alabama, which recruited a number of great players from Arkansas (including Bryant) from the 1920s through the 1940s, was invited to play Washington in the Jan. 1, 1926, Rose Bowl and won, 20-19. Alabama returned to the Rose Bowl a year later and tied Stanford.

Alabama would go on to beat Washington State in the Jan. 1, 1931, Rose Bowl and defeat Stanford in the Jan. 1, 1935, Rose Bowl.

Given that history, it was fitting that last night’s title was secured in Pasadena.

Even when I was a child, Alabama still was viewed as representing all of Dixie when the Tide would play a Notre Dame or a Penn State. I grieved when Notre Dame scored in the final minutes on New Year’s Eve of 1973 to beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. And I join those who believe the greatest goal-line stand in the history of college football occurred in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1979, when the Crimson Tide stopped Penn State to win a national championship.

Add my lifelong fascination with and love of Alabama football to the fact that native Arkansans of my age (I’m 50) were raised to hate the Longhorns. I love Texas as a state. I root against the Longhorns, though. To me, the hook ’em sign is an obscene gesture. Hearing “Texas Fight” makes my blood run cold.

My sons don’t understand that hate of all things burnt orange. To them, it’s irrational. To me, it’s natural.

For those reasons, Thursday night was a great night. Once more, the SEC rules.

Post to Twitter

The big screen and the Cotton Bowl

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

I attended my 19th Cotton Bowl last Saturday, but this time I never actually saw a play on the field as Ole Miss defeated Oklahoma State.

Yes, I was in Cowboys Stadium at Arlington. To be specific, I was in the darkened control room for the world’s largest video screen, facing a wall of color monitors that made the place feel like mission control at NASA.

For the past eight years, I have spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day in Texas, working on the media relations staff for the Cotton Bowl. This year, for the first Cotton Bowl to be played somewhere other than Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, I was assigned to the control room for that video board you’ve heard so much about.

Armed with media guides, record books and a statistics monitor, my job was to sit by the guy who would type in all kinds of facts and figures. I was to supply him with the proper information and then peer over his shoulder to ensure he typed it in correctly before it went up on the big board.

If we made a mistake, it would be a huge one. After all, this is the world’s largest high-definition video board, stretching nearly 60 yards in length. It’s 160 feet wide and 72 feet high — that’s more than seven stories high. The video board weighs 1.2 million  pounds.

The cost of the video board and the structure that holds it was $40 milion, more than the original cost to build Texas Stadium in 1971. There are also about 3,000 television monitors around the stadium, not to mention end zone video boards that are 50 feet wide and 28 feet tall.

So this was my most unusual Cotton Bowl. But, as noted, it was far from my first. I’ve been to four Sugar Bowls and one Orange Bowl for a total of 23 traditional Jan. 1 games (though the games sometimes are played on other dates). The Cotton Bowl is the bowl game I most relate to since I was just 6 years old when I attended my first one.

My Christmas stocking on the morning of Dec. 25, 1965, contained tickets to the Cotton Bowl game a week later between Arkansas and LSU. My mom, my dad, my older sister and I would join thousands of our fellow Arkansans for the pilgrimage to Dallas to see a Razorback team that had the nation’s longest winning streak at 22 games.

We took U.S. Highway 67 from our home in Arkadelphia to Dallas, passing southwest Arkansas landmarks such as the Penrod’s store at Prescott and Witt Stephens’ Arkla Village at Emmet. For me, it was the equivalent of a 6-year-old today making that first trip to Disney World.

At Mount Pleasant, Texas, we stopped at the venerable Alps Cafe since it had signs promising “free coffee for Razorback fans.” The Alps’ owners also had placed a pen in the parking lot that contained a giant hog. They knew how to pull those Arkies off the road.

We stayed in Dallas’ Baker Hotel on the northeast corner of Commerce and Akard. The prestigious Petroleum Club met there, and the Press Club of Dallas had been formed there. On the weekend of the Texas-Oklahoma football game, the Baker was the headquarters for the Texas alumni. The hotel, built in 1925, was imploded in June 1980 to make way for a Southwestern Bell building.

We ate dinner the night before the game at the Cattleman’s on Live Oak, my father’s favorite restaurant and a cousin to the restaurant of the same name that still exists in the Fort Worth Stockyards. On the morning of the game, we took a cab to Fair Park so we wouldn’t have to worry about parking.

Arkansas, a heavy favorite, hadn’t defeated LSU since 1929. And the Hogs wouldn’t do so on this day, either. Neither team scored in the second half. Arkansas, which had the ball on the LSU 24 as the game ended, fell by a score of 14-7.

I pulled off the Razorback button my father had bought for me from a vendor outside the stadium. I cried in the cab back to the Baker Hotel, thoroughly embarrassing my teenage sister. But I was hooked on Big D. Like many other Arkansans, the Cotton Bowl would become my bowl game of choice.

With the move to the new stadium in Arlington and a possible BCS expansion at some point, the game’s future appears brights. Certainly its past is glorious.

My sister and I would receive surprise Cotton Bowl tickets in our Christmas stockings a couple of more times during the next decade. We were given tickets to the Jan. 1, 1971, game between Notre Dame and Texas. The game was preceded by a trip to Austin to visit a favorite aunt, uncle and two cousins who were Longhorn fans. We made the drive up Interstate 35 from Austin to Dallas the morning of the game with two cousins who were convinced the Longhorns would repeat their Cotton Bowl victory of Jan. 1, 1970, over Notre Dame. That win had ensured the national championship for Texas after the Big Shootout victory over Arkansas less than a month earlier in Fayetteville.

In that game a year earlier, Notre Dame was making its first bowl appearance since the 1925 Rose Bowl. The Four Horsemen had led the Fighting Irish to a win over Stanford in Pasadena in 1925. At the 1970 Cotton Bowl, the three surviving members of the Four Horsemen showed up but Texas won, 21-17.

A year later, Texas was on the verge of another national championship with a 30-game winning streak on the line. Just as we had watched LSU end Arkansas’ winning streak five years earlier, we looked on that day as the Irish cost Texas the national championship.

My sister and I returned to the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1976, to see Arkansas defeat Georgia on a spring-like afternoon. The Razorbacks rolled to a 31-10 victory in Frank Broyles’ final Cotton Bowl as Arkansas’ coach. With my sister at the wheel, we made the happy four-hour drive back to Arkadelphia that night. Thousands of cars with Arkansas plates joined us in the migration east toward home.

A year later, I rode a school bus to Dallas with the other members of the Arkadelphia High School Badgers football team to see Maryland play Houston. I was the starting center on that team. The booster club had raised funds to send us to that game to celebrate the fact that we had made it to the state championship game (losing to Mena on a bad call). Across the aisle from me on the bus that day was our star running back, Trent Bryant, who would be in Arkansas’ starting backfield a year later for the upset Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma.

By the time I was in college, I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper and could obtain press passes to the Cotton Bowl. Alabama had no problem with Baylor in a game I attended on Jan. 1, 1981, as the Tide rolled, 30-2. In the dressing room afterward, a television reporter with a golden throat asked Bear Bryant: “Coach, just how good is this Alabama team?” The Bear took a sip from a canned Coke, stared at the reporter for a couple of seconds and then answered in his trademark south Arkansas growl: “Apparently, a helluva lot better than Baylor.”

On Jan. 1, 1983, I covered a boring 7-3 SMU victory over Pittsburgh on a day when there was sleet in Dallas with temperatures in the 30s. At least I was in the press box.

Two years later, unfortunately, I was in the stands. There was again sleet that day with temperatures in the 30s. I had driven down from Arkadelphia with David Sharp, now the Ouachita Baptist University athletic director, to see Doug Flutie quarterback Boston College against Houston. David and I took turns standing in the nearest restroom throughout the second half in a futile attempt to warm up. In a nod to personal tradition, we stopped for dinner that night in Mount Pleasant at the Alps Cafe, which by then had moved from downtown out to the Interstate 30 access road.

By the late 1980s, I was living in Washington, D.C., covering Congress for the Arkansas Democrat. Still, I made it a point to return to the Cotton Bowl to see Texas A&M beat Notre Dame on the first day of 1988, UCLA beat Arkansas on the first day of 1989 and Tennessee beat Arkansas on the first day of 1990. I attended the Tennessee-Arkansas game with my new wife. She’s a native Texan, but it was her first Cotton Bowl.

Covering Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, covering Clinton’s first term as president, raising kids and working for Gov. Mike Huckabee would lead to a long break in my Cotton Bowl tradition. I had wanted to attend the Jan. 1, 2000, Arkansas-Texas battle. But the Y2K scare — remember that bottled water and powdered milk you bought? — led to me being stationed instead in a command post at the state Capitol as we watched the new millennium dawn. When it became apparent that nothing out of the ordinary was going to happen, I drove home, caught a few hours of sleep and got up to watch the Razorbacks destroy the Longhorns, 27-6. What a great way to begin a new millennium. Let’s do it again in 1,000 years.

Two years later, we let our sons experience their first Cotton Bowl. The oldest was 8 at the time. His younger brother was 4. On the night before the game, we sat in a restaurant crowded with Arkansas fans, and the boys joined those fans in calling the Hogs. I had flashbacks to my own boyhood in December 1965. Once more, my family had invaded Dallas, and I could tell that my boys were excited to be a part of the Razorback expeditionary force.

Temperatures were in the low 30s the morning of the game with a chance of sleet or snow. Arkansas lost to Oklahoma, 10-3, as we tried to survive the cold winds that whipped through the upper deck

Beginning the next year, I worked with the media relations staff. And I haven’t missed a Cotton Bowl since. The new stadium is nice. Real nice. And the Cotton Bowl board did what was best for the game by moving there. Still, there are a lot of memories in that old stadium in Fair Park, memories that come flowing back each time I drive past it on Interstate 30.

Hopefully, I still have many years to make new memories at Jerry’s palace in Arlington. Fire up that big screen, Jerry. I’ll be back soon.

Post to Twitter

It’s over

Thursday, January 7th, 2010

I attended my final college football game of the season Saturday, sitting in Jerry Jones’ new Cowboys Stadium to watch the Ole Miss Rebels defeat the Cowboys of Oklahoma State in the first Cotton Bowl to be played anywhere but Dallas’ Fair Park.

I look forward to watching Texas play Alabama tonight on ABC to determine the national champion. Roll Tide.

Still, I’m a traditionalist. I wish the bowl games would end Jan. 1. Although the double-overtime finish was fun to watch last night, it just seemed wrong to be sitting at home watching Central Michigan play Troy in the GMAC Bowl on the evening of Jan. 6.

Like many people who grew up in the South, college football season is a special time of the year for me. I also like to attend high school football games whenever possible. For 16 consecutive Saturdays in 2009, I attended football games. It’s simply a part of the routine in our family.

On the hot afternoon of Aug. 29, I made the short drive to Little Rock’s Scott Field to watch the Arkansas Baptist College junior college program open its season with a win over Highland Community College. The day ended with baseball as my youngest son, one of his friends and I watched a Travelers’ doubleheader at Dickey-Stephens Park.

The next 10 Saturdays were consumed with Ouachita football games — five of them in Arkadelphia, one in Magnolia, one in Monticello, one in Texas, one in Georgia and one in Alabama.

The 12th Saturday of my streak of 16 football Saturdays consisted of a morning drive to Russellville, a hamburger at C.J.’s, an afternoon of watching Arkansas Tech defeat North Carolina-Pembroke in the NCAA Division II playoffs, a drive from Russellville to Fayetteville and a night spent watching the Razorbacks defeat Troy.

The 13th Saturdayconsisted of watching Arkansas defeat Mississippi State at War Memorial Stadium (and driving Dave Neal, the ESPN play-by-play man, to the airport afterward, complete with a police escort).

The 14th Saturday was a road trip to Jonesboro — I always try to catch at least one Arkansas State home game each season — to see the Red Wolves beat North Texas.

By then, we had reached December. The 15th Saturday was devoted to two high school state championship games at War Memorial Stadium — I watched El Dorado defeat Pine Bluff for the Class 6A title in the afternoon, and I watched Springdale Har-Ber defeat Fort Smith Southside for the Class 7A title that night.

The 16th Saturday on Dec. 12 was devoted to watching Junction City defeat Bearden for the Class AA title in the afternoon and Shiloh Christian defeat Lonoke for the Class AAAA title that night.

The Saturday streak came to an end Dec. 19 when there was not a football game played anywhere in Arkansas. But on Saturday, Dec. 26, I was at the airport bright and early for the short flight to Dallas, followed by eight days of working in media relations for the Cotton Bowl.

And on Saturday, Jan. 2, I was in Arlington to witness the first Cotton Bowl played in the new stadium.

Yes, I look forward to watching the game on television tonight.

And, yes, I will watch many of the NFL playoff games through the Super Bowl in early February. But football season for me is over in essence because football season at our house means attending games, not sitting on a couch and watching them on a screen.

I was in attendance at 16 college football games and 15 high school football games this season. I wish I could have attended even more than those 31 games.

Right or wrong, it’s an important part of life in our family.

George Will wrote in a column published today: “If boosters stop donating to football, they will not start donating to classics departments. The late Bear Bryant, Alabama’s coach, correctly said, ‘It’s kind of hard to rally ’round a math class.’ So a droll University of Oklahoma president was not quite kidding when he said, ‘We’re trying to build a university our football team can be proud of.’ The wit who said football has about as much to do with education as bullfighting has to do with agriculture was more amusing than accurate.”

I will make it through this colder-than-normal Arkansas winter by dreaming of August. One of my favorite writers has become Wright Thompson of ESPN.com. Wright is a native of Clarksdale, Miss., where I spent dozens of nights during the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority. I lived in Little Rock during that period, but my second office was in Clarksdale.

Wright and I have a lot in common, I believe. A couple of years ago, he wrote a lengthy ode to Southern football that began this way: “Two friends, both unhinged football fans, got married earlier this year. During the wedding reception, the bride’s father somehow got the Ole Miss band to march into the room, a blaring chorus of starched uniforms and shining brass. The groom conducted. The crowd stomped and cheered. You’d have thought folks were celebrating a 12-play scoring drive, not holy matrimony. Soon after the wedding, I watched the video of this event. Immediately, I recognized the feeling deep down in my gut. It’s something I’ve felt in so many cathedral-like stadiums. I closed my eyes, and the familar notes sent me rushing months into the future, longing for a tailgate that escalates from simmer to burn, for the chill bumps that always come in the moments before kickoff, for the evening breezes rustling the white oaks when the game is done. My body sat in front of a computer screen. My mind was in a stadium. It was only April, and I longed for September. I missed football season. As you might have guessed, I live in the South.”

I miss it, too, Wright. And it hasn’t even officially ended.

Post to Twitter