Archive for September, 2010

College football — Week 3

Monday, September 13th, 2010

The record was 5-3 last week, making the Southern Fried season record 14-3.

I’ve now seen four college games in two weeks. That’s a pace I won’t be able to keep up.

On Thursday night, I was in Omaha as Ouachita stunned the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a team that had been ranked No. 12 nationally in Division II coming into the season.

On Saturday night, I was in the sauna known as War Memorial Stadium as the Razorbacks took care of business against Louisiana-Monroe.

It’s a sign of just how far the Arkansas program has come under Bobby Petrino that people were complaining about a 31-7 victory. You might remember that two years ago against Louisiana-Monroe, the Hogs had to score late to take the lead and then hold their breath as the Warhawks missed a last-second field goal attempt. Still, there are questions about the Arkansas offensive line going into the game at Georgia. The line didn’t give Ryan Mallett much protection Saturday night. And you have to wonder about a ground game that only managed 99 yards against a Sun Belt Conference team.

One of the three games I predicted incorrectly last week was the Arkansas State game. I was sorely disappointed in the Red Wolves’ defense as Louisiana-Lafayette built a 31-7 lead. Arkansas State came roaring back in the fourth quarter to cut it to 31-24, but the hole was too big to dig out of for the Red Wolves. So the curse of Lafayette continues. ASU last won there in 1992. Steve Roberts is 0-5 when he takes teams there. Four of those five losses have been by seven or fewer points.

I do think ASU sophomore quarterback Ryan Aplin is the real deal. He was 25 of 45 passing for a school-record 438 yards and two touchdowns.

I failed to predict victories by UCA and UAM.

I badly overestimated the kind of team Eastern Illinois would have and likely underestimated the Bears. UCA rolled to a 37-7 road victory to go to 2-0 on the season. The Bears got two touchdowns each from sophomore quaterback Terence Bobo out of Atkins and redshirt freshman quarterback Wynrick Smothers out of Louisiana. When Jordan Jefferson left Destrehan High School for LSU, Smothers took his place at quarterback. My friends in Conway tell me he’s going to be a great field general.

Nathan Dick completed 22 of 30 passes for 167 yards. Smothers was seven of seven passing for 46 yards. UCA finished the game with 376 yards of offense and held Eastern Illinois to 120 yards.

UAM, meanwhile, showed yet again what a tough league the Gulf South Conference is. For a third consecutive year, the Boll Weevils stepped up to play a Division I-AA team from the SWAC. And for a third consecutive year, the Weevils won. The victim was UAPB in 2008 and 2009. This year’s SWAC victim was Southern University at Baton Rouge. And it wasn’t even close. UAM won 31-7 after leading 24-0 at the half. UAM gained 371 yards in that game and held Southern to just 117 yards. UAM senior quarterback Scott Buisson passed for 164 yards and rushed for 101 yards.

UAM’s game at Ouachita on Saturday night could be one of the best games in all of Division II this weekend. The kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at A.U. Williams Field.

Let’s get to the picks:

Arkansas 31, Georgia 28 — Georgia did not play well in a 17-6 loss on the road at South Carolina. The Bulldog defense gave up 182 rushing yards to a freshman back named Marcus Lattimore. Unfortunately, the very average Arkansas running game doesn’t have anyone like Lattimore. Georgia was outgained by more than 100 yards and held without a touchdown for the first time in three years. Still, expect the Bulldogs to score some points at home. If Mallett is on (he had 408 yards passing against Georgia last year), expect Arkansas to score a few more than the Dawgs between the hedges early Saturday afternoon.

Louisiana-Monroe 35, Arkansas State 32 — These Sun Belt Conference games often are hard to call. As we said, Arkansas State was a disappointment at Lafayette. Louisiana-Monroe, meanwhile, played relatively well against Arkansas in Little Rock. Look for a high-scoring, exciting game in Jonesboro. If Ryan Aplin has a big night, he could make us miss this prediction. We hope he does.

UCA 24, Murray State 14 — The Racers come into Conway with an 0-2 record after losses of 41-10 to Kent State and 30-17 to Southeast Missouri State. They will leave the state with an 0-3 record. The Bears are playing with a lot of confidence following the win over Eastern Illinois.

Ouachita 33, UAM 27 — This should be a marvelous game. Both teams have senior quarterbacks. We gave you Buisson’s stats for UAM. In Omaha, meanwhile, Ouachita’s Eli Cranor was 30 of 38 passing for 332 yards. Cranor, a senior from Russellville, is providing real leadership for the Tigers. Ouachita tailback Daniel McGee, a sophomore out of Fort Smith Southside, had 180 yards rushing. Nebraska-Omaha is a traditional Division II power, having posted 14 consecutive winning seasons while going to the playoffs in eight of those seasons. Ouachita raced out to a 38-10 lead before letting off the gas for a 38-23 victory. We told you what the Weevils did in Baton Rouge. UAM has defeated Ouachita in each of the past two seasons.

Henderson 21, Arkansas Tech 18 — Henderson was impressive in an opening victory against Southeastern Oklahoma and hung close for three quarters with No. 3 North Alabama before losing in Florence. The Reddies will have had two weeks to prepare for this game, and that will make the difference. Tech won at home against Lambuth to open the season and then lost a heartbreaker on the road last Thursday to Delta State, 27-25. Delta State hit a 48-yard field goal late for the win. This also should be an exciting game. You won’t go wrong by attending a game in either Arkadelphia (Ouachita-UAM) or Russellville (Henderson-Tech) on Saturday night.

North Alabama 42, Southern Arkansas 20 — The Muleriders looked horrible in a 20-0 loss at Harding to open the season. But they came back strong in a game against Texas State from Division I-AA, leading 17-3 over the Bobcats before losing 31-17 in San Marcos. We feel for SAU when looking at the schedule. After going to Florence this Saturday, the Muleriders must host No. 20 Valdosta State. SAU could easily start the season 0-4.

Harding 20, West Georgia 10 — Harding played pretty well in its 20-0 win over Southern Arkansas to open the season. The Bisons had last weekend off. This is the GSC Thursday night television game of the week. West Georgia, 1-9 a year ago, opened with a 10-7 loss to Wingate from the South Atlantic Conference and then defeated tiny Concordia from Selma, Ala., 24-20. A GSC school should defeat Concordia by far more than four points. Despite the long trip to Georgia, Harding wins.

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College football — Week 2

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

We went 9-0 on our college football picks last week.

That’s right.

9-0.

Now before you get all excited, remember that the first week of the college football season has become cannon fodder week. Many of the picks were easy. We weren’t real sure about Harding against Southern Arkansas or UAM against West Alabama going into the long Labor Day weekend.

The other seven picks were a bit easier.

It gets much harder this week. There are some good games on the schedule.

Here we go:

Arkansas 49, Louisiana-Monroe 17 — Louisiana-Monroe is a Division I-A school. Tennessee Tech is in Division I-AA. We still refuse to do that FBS/FCS stuff. What’s the NCAA going to do about it anyway? Put this blog on probation? So Louisiana-Monroe should provide the Hogs with a stiffer challenge than they faced last Saturday in Fayetteville. There just wasn’t much to complain about in the opener as Ryan Mallett went 21 of 24 through the air, Alex Tejada boomed kicks into the end zone and the defense came to play. Louisiana-Monroe opens its season this week. The players will wish they were somewhere other than War Memorial Stadium as Mallett passes for at least four touchdowns. At least one couch will be burned and one portable toilet will be turned over on the golf course before the game. One final prediction: Men who shouldn’t be seen in public without a shirt will do so anyway.

Arkansas State 32, Louisiana-Lafayette 30 — Both of these teams went into SEC stadiums to collect a check last weekend. Arkansas State hung around longer in a 52-26 loss to Auburn than Louisiana-Lafayette did in a 55-7 loss to Georgia. Steve Roberts’ squad gets it done in a close game in south Louisiana, providing the Red Wolves a big boost the week before they open conference play in Jonesboro against Louisiana-Monroe.

Alabama State 28, UAPB 24 — The Golden Lions hung around for a half in El Paso before falling to UTEP, 31-10. The home team scored 17 unanswered points in the second half. Josh Boudreaux threw for 202 yards and Raymond Webber caught 10 passes for 123 yards for UAPB. Alabama State, meanwhile, opened its season with an impressive 36-6 conference win over divisional rival Mississippi Valley State. It’s hard to go against the Hornets at home following that victory.

Eastern Illinois 31, UCA 28 — The Bears played relatively well Thursday night in a 47-20 victory in Conway against Division II foe Elizabeth City State. Nathan Dick, in his first start as the Bear quarterback, was 26 of 35 through the air for 351 yards and three touchdowns. Eastern Illinois, meanwhile, lost its opener, 37-7. But the Panthers were playing the highest ranked Division I-A opponent of any I-AA school last weekend, No. 9 Iowa. Eastern Illinois is No. 22 nationally in I-AA this week. Not only that, the Panthers will retire the No. 18 worn by former EIU quarterback and current New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton at halftime Saturday in Charleston, Ill.

Ouachita 25, Nebraska-Omaha 22 — Ouachita plays on a Thursday for a second consecutive week, but this isn’t Texas College. The Tigers never broke a sweat in winning their opener, 70-0, over the hapless Steers from Tyler. Nebraska-Omaha came into the season ranked No. 12 nationally in Division II but lost its opener 32-29 to Nebraska-Kearney. This should be one of the better games in Division II this week.

Delta State 21, Arkansas Tech 19 — The Wonder Boys also play for a second consecutive Thursday night. Tech won its opener, 34-19, in Russellville against Lambuth, a good NAIA club. Delta State, meanwhile, was losing to Division I-AA Jackson State from the SWAC, 32-17. This week’s game will be televised on the CBS College Sports Network and should be quite a battle. The slight edge goes to the home team.

Southern University 42, UAM 28 — The Boll Weevils lost an exciting game at home last Thursday to West Alabama, 27-20. West Alabama is ranked No. 7 nationally this week in Division II. The Boll Weevils step up in class to play Southern University from the SWAC on Saturday night in Baton Rouge. Southern opened its season on national television Monday with a 37-27 win over Delaware State in the annual MEAC/SWAC Challenge at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Scott Buisson racks up some passing yardage for UAM this week, but it’s not enough.

Texas State 31, Southern Arkansas 10 — The Mulerider offense was anemic at best Saturday night in a 20-0 loss at Harding. I was there. Now, Southern Arkansas must make the long trip to San Marcos, Texas, to play Division I-AA Texas State from the Southland Conference. Texas State collected a check in a 68-28 loss to Houston on Saturday night. Now, it’s the Muleriders’ turn to collect a check in a losing effort.

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Razorback football at the Hall of Fame

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

It’s a smart move for a coalition of business and civic leaders in Little Rock and North Little Rock to have a full week of activities leading up to the first of two University of Arkansas football games this season at War Memorial Stadium.

The days when people in central Arkansas could take for granted that Razorback games would always be played here are long gone.

Had the War Memorial Stadium Commission not made massive improvements to the stadium during the past decade, I would be the first to tell you that the games were taken for granted and the powers that be in central Arkansas had no one to blame but themselves as all home games headed for the hills.

Instead, there were millions of dollars invested in improvements, capped by the $7.3 million press box that was discussed in a previous post.

Now, for a second year, RazorRock activities will lead up to the September nonconference game. And rather than just one week during football season, the RazorRock team is positioning itself to spring into action each time a Razorback team — football, basketball or baseball — plays in central Arkansas.

Those of us associated with the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame figured we should be a part of these activities. So on Wednesday at noon, the Hall of Fame will host a panel discussion featuring former Razorback football players Anthony Lucas, Clint Stoerner and Kevin Scanlon.

I hope to see many of you there.

Ray Tucker, the executive director of the Hall of Fame, will moderate the discussion.

Admission is free, and there’s plenty of free parking. We’re billing it as a brown-bag luncheon, so bring your lunch with you. The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame is on the west side of Verizon Arena in North Little Rock. It’s a nice facility. If you haven’t toured the museum, you need to do so.

The discussion should be fun.

Kevin Scanlon, who has long been employed by Stephens Inc., followed Coach Lou Holtz from North Carolina State to Arkansas (Coach Holtz had a short stop in between with the New York Jets). Kevin started at quarterback his senior season in 1979, leading the Razorbacks to a 10-2 record, a No. 6 national ranking and a berth in the Sugar Bowl against Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide.

That was my first of several Sugar Bowls to cover as a sportswriter, and I watched Alabama win its second consecutive national championship with a victory over the Hogs on Jan. 1, 1980. Bringing in the new decade in the French Quarter the previous evening was quite fun.

Kevin set the Arkansas single-season pass accuracy record as a senior (66.2 percent), was named the most valuable player on the team and was selected to play in the Japan Bowl all-star game. At a postseason banquet, Holtz called Kevin “the best quarterback I ever coached.”

As a high school player at Beaver Falls, Pa., Kevin broke almost all of the records that had been set by Joe Namath. Kevin and Broadway Joe both are members of the Beaver County Sports Hall of Fame in a county that has as much sports tradition as any county in the country.

After freshman and sophomore seasons at Quigley Catholic High School, Kevin played two seasons under famed Beaver Falls Tigers Coach Larry Bruno, who had coached Namath. Bruno had a record of 134-52-9 in two decades as the head coach at Beaver Falls. Kevin was a high school All-American his senior season in 1974. He finished as the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (3,515) and touchdown passes (33). He completed 67 percent of his passes as a high school senior.

Meanwhile, Razorback fans will long remember Stoerner and Lucas for what happened on a November afternoon in Fayetteville in 1999. With 3:44 left in the game, Lucas split two defenders to bring in a 23-yard touchdown pass and lead Arkansas to a 28-24 victory over No. 3 Tennessee, the defending national champion. Arkansas fans rushed the field at the end of the game and carried the goal posts to Dickson Street.

Anthony, a 6-3 receiver from Tallulah, La., and one of the finest people I know, had enrolled at Arkansas in the fall of 1994 as a part-time student. His ACT score didn’t meet the requirements to be eligible that first season, but he worked hard and joined the football team in the spring of 1995. He posted what was then a freshman record of 27 catches for 526 yards and four touchdowns as Arkansas won the Southeastern Conference Western Division.

In the 1996 season opener, however, Anthony suffered a season-ending injury. After a medical hardship ruling, he returned as a sophomore in 1997 and finished the year with 27 catches for 495 yards and four touchdowns. In 1998, he had 43 receptions for a school record 1,004 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

Anthony was a preseason All-American coming into his senior season. He had 37 receptions for 822 yards and four touchdowns. That performance earned him first-team All-SEC recognition and third-team All-American recognition. Anthony finished his Razorback career with 2,879 receiving yards, 137 catches and 23 touchdowns.

Anthony has stayed involved in sports, directing Life CHAMPS youth sports in Little Rock and helping coordinate the D1 Little Rock sports training and therapy center.

Clint, a product of Baytown, Texas, set UA records for most pass attempts in a game (52 against Alabama in 1999), most pass attempts in a season (357 in 1997), most career pass attempts (1,023), most career pass completions (528), most passing yards in a game (387 against LSU in 1997), most passing yards in a season (2,629 in 1998), most touchdown passes in a season (26 in 1998), most career touchdown passes (57) and most consecutive passes without an interception (134).

Now, we’re watching Ryan Mallett break those records.

After his famous pass to beat Tennessee in 1999 (Clint was 18 of 28 passing that day for 228 yards and three touchdowns), he led the Hogs to a 27-6 Cotton Bowl victory over Texas on Jan. 1, 2000. Clint played for five years in the NFL, with four of those seasons spent at Dallas. He started two games for the Cowboys in 2001. He also played two seasons in NFL Europe and several seasons in the Arena Football League.

The event should be fun. I hope to see you at the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame at noon Wednesday. We’ll be finished by 1 p.m.

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Off to Washington — Arkansas, that is

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

In the previous post, I mentioned the lengthy story on Hope watermelons that ran in the Aug. 18 edition of The New York Times.

That story, written by Kim Severson, tells of Stephanie Buckley and the farmers’ market she started in Washington (the one near Hope, not the one in the District of Columbia).

Severson writes: “Buckley, who is not afraid to pair a sleeveless dress with cowboy boots, moved to Washington five years ago with her husband, Joe, the superintendent of the state park that envelops Washington. She is a transplanted Mississippi debutante turned farmer, an admirer of the agriculture guru Joel Salatin and a woman who says she loves the Lord and hates hypocrites.”

She also writes a wonderful bog called The Park Wife at www.theparkwife.blogspot.com. Buckley describes herself as “the adoring wife to a man of true integrity and stay-at-home mom to two great boys. I work harder now than when I was in the workforce. I live on a state park and wonder every day how in the world I got here. But I love it.”

Her twice-a-week market in the summer features only Arkansas-grown produce sold by farmers.

Reading her blog made me realize that I need to get back to Washington. It’s a special place.

Washington was founded on George Washington’s birthday in 1824 on the Southwest Trail, which ran all the way from St. Louis to the Fulton Landing on the Red River. It was one of the major trails used by the pioneers headed to Texas. Washington became the economic, political and cultural center for the whole region. Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were among those who passed through Washington on their way to Texas.

It was at Washington in 1831 that a blacksmith by the name of James Black made for Jim Bowie the weapon that would become the famous Bowie knife.

From 1831-33, more than 3,000 Choctaws from Mississippi passed through Washington as they were being forcibly removed into what’s now southeastern Oklahoma. In 1846, Washington was the town where 10 companies of men met to form the first regiment of the Arkansas Cavalry before heading out to fight in the Mexican War.

Washington also played a key role in the state’s Civil War history.

Bryan McDade explains it this way in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In the fall of 1863, the Confederate government of Arkansas fled from Little Rock to Washington. The 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse in Washington served as the state Capitol from 1863-65. Washington was threatened in the spring of 1864 when a Union army under the command of Maj. Gen. Frederick Steele moved south along the Military Road traveling to Shreveport, La. A Confederate force under the command of Maj. Gen. Sterling Price blocked the military.

“The two forces engaged in battle on April 10, 1864, about 14 miles north of Washington. Steele was forced to move east to Camden, and thus Washington was saved from invasion. This encounter was known as the Skirmish at Prairie D’Ane. Many wounded soldiers were brought to Washington for medical treatment. Several buildings, including the Washington Baptist Church, were turned into hospitals to treat the wounded. Seventy-four unknown Confederate soldiers from this battle were buried in a mass grave in the Washington Presbyterian Cemetery.”

Washington began to decline when the Cairo & Fulton Railroad line bypassed the town in the 1870s. The depot was established nine miles away at what’s now Hope. Another blow came on July 3, 1875, when a fire destroyed a large part of Washington’s business district. A fire on Jan. 21, 1883, also destroyed many businesses.

“The railroad had become the new economic artery, and rather than rebuilding in Washington, most businesses moved to Hope, thus precipitating the decline of Washington,” McDade writes. “In the late 1870s, Hope began to promote the idea that the county seat should be relocated from Washington to Hope. For 60 years, and several elections, Hope tried to gain the county seat. Unethical behavior abounded on both sides, consisting of lies, cheating, mudslinging and election fraud. Finally, the Arkansas Supreme Court intervened and, in a ruling in May 1939, declared that Hope was the county seat of Hempstead County.”

The people of Washington, however, were in the vanguard of the historic preservation movement in this state.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy worked to secure money to protect the 1836 courthouse. In 1958, the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation was established to protect other parts of the historic town. In 1973, as the state parks system expanded under the administration of Gov. Dale Bumpers, the foundation donated property to the state to form Old Washington Historic State Park. The park opened on July 1, 1973.

I joined the governor’s office in July 1996 and soon afterward began receiving telephone calls from the indomitable Parker Westbrook. Parker is a bit of a legend himself among those involved in historic preservation. He has long been one of the guiding lights of the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation, was chairman of the Arkansas Territorial Restoration Commission for many years and was also the chairman of the board that oversees the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. He was the founding president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas.

Parker hated the fact that people referred to the town as Old Washington.

“It’s not Old Washington,” he would say to me. “It’s just Washington.”

He wanted the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission to change the name of the park.

In September 2006, Parker got his wish when the commission changed the park’s name to Historic Washington State Park.

No matter what you call it, the park is a jewel. It doesn’t receive the attention of a Petit Jean or a DeGray, but I consider it one of the most valuable restoration projects in this region of the country. There are 54 buildings on 101 acres, 30 of which are considered historically significant. Some of those buildings are open for tours. When my mother still lived in Arkadelpia, I would take her to the Jonquil Festival there each March.

Buildings open for tours include the 1836 courthouse, the 1857 Crouch house, the 1915 printing museum, the 1850 Purdom house, the 1847 Trimble house, the 1860 Clardy kitchen, the 1855 Monroe house, the 1832 Block-Catts house, the 1849 Sanders farmstead, the 1925 bank building that now houses a weapons museum, the 1845 Royston house and the 1835 Royston log house. There also are 1960 reconstructions of a blacksmith shop and tavern. The 1874 Hempstead County Courthouse serves as the visitors’ center.

Some interesting notes:

— The Block-Catts House was the home of Abraham Block, believed to be the first Jewish settler in Arkansas. It’s also is the oldest two-story, wooden-framed building still standing in Arkansas.

— John Williamson established the Haygood Seminary in Washington in 1883 to educate black teachers, musicians and ministers. It once was considered one of the top institutions of higher learning for Southern blacks.

— Some of the oldest and largest magnolia, black walnut and loblolly pine trees in the state are on the park grounds.

— Examples of Greek Revival, Federal, Gothic Revival and Italianate architecture all can be found at Washington.

— The state park also houses the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, a resource center for historical and genealogical research. The collection features family histories, scrapbooks, photographs, court records, newspapers and a library of rare books.

— Washington is home to the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing. The school, which was established in 1987, is the only school in the world dedicated to the art of making knives and swords.

You can have lunch while at the park in the Williams’ Tavern Restaurant, which is open each day from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. I really need to get back soon. Despite its tiny size, Washington — not Old Washington, Parker — is an important piece of this state’s history.

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Those big Hope melons

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

September has arrived.

Football season has started.

Another Hope Watermelon Festival came and went last month.

But the big melons — the really big ones — often stay in the fields into September and even October.

The reason I know a little bit about big watermelons is because my high school biology teacher at Arkadelphia High School was Lloyd Bright of the famous Bright family of Hope. He would tell us stories of spending the night with giant watermelons in the field, making sure they stayed warm as the cooler fall temperatures kicked in.

On Aug. 18, The New York Times led its Dining section with a lengthy story from Hope by Kim Severson.

The story began this way: “In this dusty field filled with experimental watermelons off Highway 174, there is but one sound that matters. It’s a deep, soft pop, like a cork slipping free from a wine bottle. You hear it when a pocketknife cracks the green rind on a watermelon so full of wet fruit that the outside can barely contain the inside. Terry Kirkpatrick, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Arkansas, spends a lot of time here popping open watermelons. He’s searching for deeply colored flesh that is crisp but not crunchy and so juicy that pools fill the divots left by a spoon. The taste has to be exceptionally sweet but just slightly vegetal, so you know it came from the earth and not from the candy counter.”

Severson goes on to explain that for a watermelon producer to have a commercially viable operation, that farmer must grow melons with a thick rind and a uniform shape. That allows the melons to ship well.

“It has to be small enough so people pushing grocery carts in big-city stores will buy it,” Severson writes. “And it can’t have seeds.”

The Times story says that while small hybrid watermelons are the future of the industry they are “also heartbreakers for a lot of people around southwest Arkansas who miss the old-fashioned seeded melons that now grow in only a few fields. In many ways, Hope, a town known for both President Bill Clinton and the giant melons that were celebrated at its annual Watermelon Festival, is a microcosm of the watermelon world these days. Around Hope, people still talk with fondness about heavy, oblong watermelons with names like Jubilee, Black Diamond, Georgia Rattlesnake or even the Charleston Gray, a relative newcomer from the 1950s and the first watermelon bred to have a tougher rind for shipping.

“All of them can grow bigger than most kitchens can handle, some stretching over 2 feet long and weighing more than 50 pounds. They’re the ones just right for greasing up and throwing in a pool for the kids to chase. You eat them ice cold, spitting the big black seeds at your brother. And they are delicious, the kind of perfect watermelon an eater of grocery store melons can only fantasize about.”

Bright and a few others still go for the really big melons. The world record melon was, in fact, produced by my old teacher five years ago. Now 67 and retired from working in the public schools, Bright has a family farm that has grown six world champion melons through the years.

“When I was growing up, the guys were always talking big melons,” he told the reporter for the New York newspaper.

Carolina Cross melons can add three to four pounds a day. Bright sells big melons for $75 to $80, and you can buy seeds from him by going to www.giantwatermelons.com. Bright says he makes just enough “to pay for the gas and fertilizer.”

While market conditions have changed, there will always be a place for those really big melons around Hope. It is, quite simply, a part of the culture.

On Jan. 17, 2001, Bill Clinton made his final out-of-state trip as president. He came home to Arkansas aboard Air Force One to address a joint session of the Arkansas Legislature. Prior to that session, Clinton dropped by the office of Gov. Mike Huckabee for a visit.

Unlike Clinton, Huckabee actually finished grade school, junior high school and high school at Hope. Everybody in Arkansas considered Bill Clinton to be a Hot Springs product until Harry Thomason came out with his “man from Hope” film for the 1992 Democratic National Convention at New York. You have to admit that “I still believe in a place called Hot Springs” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

At any rate, no one can take away from Clinton the fact that he was born in Hope and spent his first few years there.

During his governorship, Huckabee kept a large Bowie knife in a glass case atop a table in his office. I had never seen anyone actually open the case until the president popped it open that day and picked up the knife (no doubt startling the Secret Service agents in the room).

I’ll never forget what he said: “It doesn’t matter what Huckabee and I accomplish in life, we’ll always rate third at best in Hope behind watermelons and Bowie knives.”

I can’t think of big Hope melons without thinking about the late C.M. “Pod” Rogers Jr., the circulation director at the Hope Star for many years. Pod, who later was one of the paper’s owners, was one of those unforgettable Arkansas characters. He would carry with him stacks of postcards featuring a photo of buxom girls in bathing suits sitting atop giant Hope watermelons.

“I wish you would take a look at those melons!” Pod would exclaim as he handed out the postcards.

Pod, who died in 1998, went all over the world to promote Hope watermelons, even appearing on national television shows hosted by fellow Arkansans Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash.

I was attending the Republican National Convention in Dallas late in the summer of 1984, staying at a dilapidated Holiday Inn just off Central Expressway where the Arkansas delegation was housed. I was sleeping soundly when my phone began to ring at 4 a.m.

I thrashed about trying to find the phone in the dark and finally answered.

“Nelson!” the voice on the other end of the line commanded. “This is Rogers. I’ve got one of those big Hope watermelons down here in the lobby. I need you to come down and help me load it so we can take it over to Willard Scott.”

NBC’s “Today Show” was broadcasting live the week of the convention from the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Dallas. No, Pod didn’t have an invitation to appear on the show. But he figured that if he showed up in the lobby with that watermelon and hollered at Willard Scott, they would put him on national television.

I had my doubts. But I got out of bed and accompanied Pod to the Hyatt Regency.

The parking attendant there was amazed when he saw the size of the watermelon.

“My goodness, what a watermelon,” he said.

Without missing a beat, Pod responded: “That’s no watermelon. We’re from Arkansas. Our melons are much bigger than that. That’s a cucumber.”

Charmed by Pod, the hotel staff helped us take the giant melon inside the hotel. You’ve no doubt figured out the rest of the story by now: Pod screamed at Willard Scott as the weatherman was walking to the set; Willard walked over and admired the melon; and in the final hour of the show, Pod Rogers of Hope found himself on nationwide television.

In the 1920s, the Hope Chamber of Commerce would hold a one-day festival each year to celebrate the local watermelon crop. Slices would be served to the passengers on the many trains that passed through town. The Watermelon Queen would be crowned, and a parade would be held. By 1931, however, the Great Depression had forced an end to the festival.

In 1975, Hope celebrated its centennial. Pod saw what a success it was and decided he would organize a new Watermelon Festival. He did just that in 1977. Hope hasn’t missed a festival since then. It’s now a four-day event that brings almost 50,000 people to town each August.

Pod’s son, Brad Rogers, told the Hope Star last year: “The first year I know we did absolutely everything from the pocket. We got posters and took our own personal vehicles and put up posters all over Arkansas. It was a lot of hard work. … Dad would be absolutely proud of the way things have turned out.”

I’ll be watching the news closely the next few weeks to see if Lloyd Bright, my old biology teacher, weighs in some huge melons.

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