Sugar fell from the sky in midtown Little Rock at about 6 p.m. 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 hoped he would remember this moment.
I could even feel my eyes misting up as the memories came flooding back — memories of the drive in the Oldsmobile with my father for games at War Memorial Stadium when I was a boy, the anticipation building with each passing mile; memories of sitting with my friend Jeff Root and 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 original Miracle on Markham in 2002 and hoping that Austin would cherish the moment until he was an old man.
Isn’t that one of the reasons for attending such events? We’re there not only to enjoy the moment but hopefully to create some memories, perhaps having a story to tell around the dinner table 10, 20 or 30 years from now.
Arkansas’ 31-23 win over LSU 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 one when the fans stood for every play. We only sat during the television timeouts. And, goodness knows, CBS requires plenty of those.
At today’s Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting, Lunsford Bridges told me that he has been going to games at the stadium for more than 50 years and can’t remember the crowd ever being that intense.
And then Jim Rasco confirmed it. Rasco, the man I consider to be the state’s foremost sports historian, has been to at least one game in War Memorial Stadium each year since it opened in 1948. He agreed that Saturday was something special.
There can be magic in those late November afternoon games — the ones that start in the sunlight and end under the lights.
As I looked at my son when the clock hit 0:00, I hoped he would soak it in.
As was the case after beating Texas in 1979 and LSU in 2002, no one wanted to leave. The stadium was still packed 10 minutes after the game had ended. I hope he 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.
Bobby Petrino was surrounded by troopers (the more troopers surrounding 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 this Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a gorgeous November day for college football, and (yes, I will reach for the following cliche) one could sense the electricity in the air while walking toward the stadium.
We parked in Hillcrest and made the trek down Harrison, Lee and Van Buren streets. Hillcrest residents sat in their yards talking about the game. You knew immediately it was not an average contest when you saw people who had charged $10 to park for the Louisiana-Monroe game now charging $30. There were fans wanting tickets — lots of them — at the intersection of Van Buren and Markham. 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 not soon to be forgotten.
I’ve never made a secret of my fondness for Little Rock games or the fact that I took the Little Rock side in the Great Stadium Debate.
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, Ole Miss no longer plays at Jackson, etc. When those who favored moving all home games to Fayetteville made the argument that this was no longer done in Alabama and Mississippi, it only strengthened my resolve.
“Good,” I would say. “That’s all the more reason not to change. This makes us even more special. And since when did we start using Mississippi and Alabama as examples of how to do things anyway?”
Parking in and walking through shaded residential neighborhoods is just better to me than parking down by Baum Stadium in Fayetteville and walking through parking lots to the stadium. I was fond of old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore when I would attend Orioles baseball games there in the 1980s while living in Washington, D.C. One of the things I liked was parking on residential streets and buying food from the people with grills set up in their front yards. Maybe I’m a slave to nostalgia, but Little Rock games are different in a good way.
As great as the Iron Bowl is (Alabama-Auburn is the best rivalry in major college football, and Ouachita-Henderson is the best rivalry in small college football), something was lost when that contest was moved out of Legion Field in Birmingham. I attended the Iron Bowl four times in Birmingham, and there was something to be said for having the same number of Auburn fans and the same number of Alabama fans packed into one place.
Shame on the city of Birmingham for letting Legion Field deteriorate to the point that an upper deck (which had proclaimed Birmingham as the Football Capital of the South across its front) had to be removed.
Congratulations again are in order to the War Memorial Stadium Commission members for the many improvements made during the past six or seven years. Now, make it priority No. 1 to fix those clocks! Why do there always seem to be clock problems when the Razorbacks play in Little Rock?
After entering the park, we made our way as always to Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party in the lot directly behind the new pressbox. 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. Thank God I love college football. Thank God I live in the South.
An integral part of the day is the time spent standing behind the vehicle while facing the stadium and watching the fans walk by. With a fried chicken breast in one hand, I greeted friends from all sections of the state. It is, in a sense, a big family reunion filled with people like me — people born in Arkansas who chose to stay here as adults, raise their families and do our best to improve this place we love.
A thought struck me: Mississippi has the Neshoba County Fair. People come and stay all week, walking from cabin to cabin and visiting with friends. Though it only lasts a few hours, this is my Arkansas version of the Neshoba County Fair: A chance to see friends and acquaintances from across Arkansas.
I turned around and gazed across the golf course at the tents. The tailgating scene there has exploded in the past decade. It’s not as fancy or as famous as Oxford’s Grove, but the War Memorial golf course is much bigger, much more accessible to the common man, less elitist, less of a clique. Knowing they only get two shots a year at doing it right, those who set up shop out on the golf course pour their energy into having a good time. I’ve had the pleasure of attending college football games in many states, and the War Memorial golf course is as good a pregame scene as one can find anywhere.
I won’t write about the game itself. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely already read tens of thousands of words about the game.
I looked at Evan as he joined thousands of his fellow Arkansans in chanting “BCS! BCS!”
No, I’ve never been in this stadium when it was louder.
We returned to Brenda’s party after the game and listened to the Hog calls, the yells and the 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 father and mother.
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 (in fact, it was).
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.
Remember the smile on the coach’s face and the fans who didn’t want to leave, staying in their seats to savor this for a few more minutes.
Remember the day sugar fell from the sky.