Archive for December, 2011

Coach Bill Keedy: Hall of Famer

Monday, December 12th, 2011

Bill Keedy once dreamed of being a college quarterback. That dream ended, ironically, in the process of living out another dream — playing quarterback in the Arkansas High School All-Star Game.

It was August 1963, and the all-star game was a big event on the summer sports calendar in Arkansas. Coaches from across the state would gather in Little Rock for their annual clinic. On Saturday afternoon of that week, the basketball game (there was only a boys’ game back then) was played at Barton Coliseum. On Saturday night, the football game was played at War Memorial Stadium.

Keedy, who had been raised at Newport, was a quarterback for the East squad. He had earned all-state honors as a senior at Newport High School. Another quarterback in that game was Ronny South, who would go on to play at the University of Arkansas.

“We faced a fourth-and-short and decided to go for a field goal,” Keedy says. “I was the holder. The kick was blocked. As I was going for the ball, I was hit from both the front and the back. My knee just exploded. You could hear it pop.”

Keedy had been offered a football scholarship to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. He practiced with the squad as a freshman, leading the scout team in practice. But his knee never healed.

“I was hurt the entire time and decided to have surgery at semester,” he says. “The surgical procedures weren’t nearly as advanced back in those days as they are now. I knew it was time to give up football. It was then that I started thinking about being a coach.”

The ASU football team’s loss eventually was coaching’s gain.

Keedy went on to become one of the most successful high school coaches in the state’s history, compiling a career record of 199-55-4. In recognition of his accomplishments, Keedy will be inducted in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 3. Tickets for the annual banquet are $100 each and may be obtained by calling Jennifer Smith at (501) 663-4328 or Catherine Johnson at (501) 821-1021.

Keedy is among the 11 individual inductees — six from the regular category, three from the senior category and two from the posthumous category — in the Class of 2012. The Hall of Fame also will induct the 1994 University of Arkansas national championship basketball team.

Keedy graduated from Arkansas State at the semester break and spent the spring of 1969 teaching school in the Bootheel of Missouri at Portageville. The teaching job was just to make some money until a coaching opportunity came along. That opportunity came from nearby Paragould when Keedy was hired as the junior high school football coach in 1969. After four seasons at the junior high level, Keedy spent the 1973 season as a Paragould High School assistant coach.

When the job of high school head football coach came open at Paragould, Keedy was not believed to be at the top of the list. Then, a remarkable thing happened. The boys who had played for him in junior high showed up at the school board meeting to urge that he be hired.

“If it hadn’t been for those young men, there’s no telling what I would have ended up doing,” Keedy now says.

Paragould hadn’t won a conference championship in football in a quarter of a century. Under Keedy’s leadership, the Bulldogs won back-to-back conference championships, going 10-0 in the regular season in 1974 and 1975. The 1975 Bulldogs shut out seven of their 10 regular-season opponents. They yielded only a field goal against Stuttgart in the playoffs, but the Ricebirds held on to win, 3-0.

“They wanted to win,” Keedy said of his players in an interview with the Paragould Daily Press. “They had been starved of a winning football program. All of a sudden they saw and felt what it was like to be successful. … They didn’t mind working hard. There never was a situation where you had to worry about them not being at school or practice.”

Following the 1975 season, Keedy was offered a significant raise to serve as head football coach at Sylvan Hills. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“Neither one of us wanted to leave,” Keedy told the Paragould newspaper when asked about the reaction he and his wife had to the job offer. “As we drove out of town, I’ll never forget my wife Jennifer cried. I thought, ‘Oh me, what have we gotten ourselves into?’ But we went on to have some great teams.”

Keedy began the rebuilding effort at Sylvan Hills and was 4-5-1 in 1976. It was one of only two losing seasons in his career. Following that season, he was offered the job of head football coach at Newport.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t want to be the coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks,” Keedy says. “I wanted to be the coach of the Newport Greyhounds.”

In his 19 years as head coach at Newport, Keedy compiled a 175-48-3 record. His teams won conference titles in 17 of those 19 seasons. Newport was 19-0 against longtime rival Batesville during his tenure.

In 1981, Newport won the school’s first state championship, defeating the defending state champions from Alma, 26-14.

Keedy had teams make it back to the state title game in 1988 and 1989, losing both times to Pine Bluff Dollarway. In 1991, Newport defeated Lake Hamilton, 7-0, in the state championship game.

During Keedy’s years as the Greyhound coach, his teams had seven one-loss seasons and won 10 or more games 10 times.

Why did he give it up?

“I had a heart attack,” Keedy says. “My cardiologist told me I could continue coaching if I would limit the stress. I tried it one more year and figured out there was no such thing as coaching without stress.”

This fall marked Keedy’s 12th season to be the color analyst on radio for Arkansas State.

“I just sit up there in the booth and try to explain football to the listeners in a way I think they can understand,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Broadcasting has given me the chance to be around football, a game that I love.”

In Newport, Bill Keedy is still known as Mr. Greyhound. In 1994, a new facility at Newport High School was named the Bill Keedy Jr. Athletic Training Facility. Five years later, Keedy was inducted into the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

He also became known as Mr. All-Star, serving on the Arkansas High School All-Star Game coaching staff nine times. He was the head coach for the East in 1984 and 1992.

“I have had a few things happen to me in my life that I consider to be like a dream come true,” Keedy told the Newport Independent. “One was to come to my hometown and be the head football coach of the Newport Greyhounds. Getting to coach my son was also a privilege. I also consider being inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame to be another highlight of my life. … I had the support of one of the best school boards in the state of Arkansas.

“I think my greatest accomplishment as a coach was earning the respect of most of my players.”

Keedy turned down numerous offers from other high schools and even some colleges during his long tenure at Newport.

“I never wanted to be anywhere else,” he says.

Having left the stress of high school coaching behind, he now pours his passion for the game into helping his college alma mater.

“His record as a high school coach was phenomenal, and he is a tremendous ambassador for Arkansas State,” says ASU athletic director Dean Lee. “He is recognized for the outstanding work he does as part of our football radio broadcast team. He takes a great amount of pride in his alma mater, and that is evident by the time sacrifices he has made.”

At age 66, Bill Keedy loves the game as much as he ever did.

 

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John Ed Anthony, Mr. Garland and lots of trees

Friday, December 9th, 2011

It’s chilly on this early December morning as John Ed Anthony carries another piece of wood to throw onto the fire.

I’m at Anthony’s Shortleaf Farm, a gorgeous spread between Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine on Arkansas Highway 290.

On Feb. 10, the University of Arkansas’ Sam Walton College of Business will induct Anthony into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.

Also being inducted are Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman Jr., CJRW chairman emeritus Wayne Cranford and former Wal-Mart president Jack Shewmaker.

John Ed long has been one of my favorite Arkansas business leaders, dating back to my days as a young sportswriter when his Loblolly Stable was among the top thoroughbred racing and breeding operations in America.

On this morning, though, we spend more time talking about the timber industry and his family’s long, colorful history in that business. Having grown up in the pine woods of south Arkansas, it’s an area that interests me.

“Most people only ask me about racing, and that’s just a small part of who I am,” John Ed says.

Any discussion of what’s now Anthony Timberlands Inc. must start at Bearden in Ouachita County, a town that had a population of only 966 people in the 2010 census (down from a high of 1,300 in the 1950 census).

Bearden was founded as a railroad stop along what would become the Cotton Belt Railway Line. The city limits were set in 1882 by the Southwest Improvement Association, an agency of the Railway Land Office. Bearden was named for Judge John T. Bearden, a lawyer for the association.

Surrounded by virgin forests, Bearden soon began to prosper. In 1885, the Cotton Belt Lumber Co. picked Bearden as the site of a large lumber mill.

“Lumber was the driving force of Bearden’s economy,” according to a history of the town posted on the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Four large lumber mills — the Cotton Belt mill, the Freeman-Smith Lumber Co., the Eagle Lumber Co. and the Stout Lumber Co. — operated within six miles of the town from 1885 to 1930. At one point, the mills employed and supported more than 2,000 area men and their families. Most of the mill workers were farmers or sons of farmers. They would work the mills by day and the fields before and after work.

“While the success was long lasting, Bearden, like many communities in the early 1900s, experienced the results of unsound lumber practices. Many acres were cut and not replanted correctly or at all, resulting in a shift in milling. Even so, the town continued to prosper, but with fewer mills. The first mill to leave was in 1923.”

Enter Garland Anthony, who would become a legendary figure in the forestry industry known simply as Mr. Garland.

Mr. Garland and an uncle built a sawmill in 1907. By 1910, the uncle had turned the operation over to Mr. Garland, declaring that he was heading back to the farm to raise cotton.

Mr. Garland was John Ed’s grandfather, by the way.

Mr. Garland’s grandfather, Addison Anthony, had come to south Arkansas in the 1840s from Virginia. Garland Anthony was born in 1884 and grew up near Bearden, where his family farmed and raised livestock.

Noting Mr. Garland’s sawmill, George Balogh goes on to write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Other members of the family, along with outside partners, started similar operations in southern Arkansas, eastern Texas and northern Louisiana. Between 1910 and 1930, Garland and his brothers Frank, William and Oliver formed Anthony Brothers Lumber and built their first permanent mill in Hopeville (Calhoun County), accumulating 2,000 acres of cut-over timberland in the process.

“The brothers built their mills in areas that large companies had harvested and left behind. They discovered that a cut-over pine forest in southern Arkansas could renew itself in 20 to 30 years and could become self-sustaining if properly managed. The company became a leader in the techniques of selective harvesting — giving smaller trees time to mature so the forest could be harvested repeatedly over the long term.”

The big companies that had cut the virgin forests moved to the West Coast once they had finished their work in Arkansas.

John Ed says of Mr. Garland’s efforts to capitalize on what they left behind: “He would cut the second-growth forests and say, ‘Leave those little trees.’ In a sense, it was the beginning of modern forestry.”

Through multiple partnerships, the Anthony family operated between 20 and 30 mills in the 1930s.

John Ed began the first grade in Bearden in 1945. By Christmas that year, he had moved with his parents to Woodville, a town deep in the piney woods of southeast Texas.

John Ed’s parents divorced in 1951. His father moved back to Arkansas. John Ed remained in Woodville through high school with his mother.

He had never set foot in Fayetteville until his first day at the University of Arkansas, where he majored in business. A month before he graduated from college in 1961, John Ed received word that his father had died at age 48 of a massive heart attack.

At age 22, John Ed leased a house in Bearden and took his wife and one-month-old son Steven there to join forces with 77-year-old Mr. Garland.

In 1966, John Ed oversaw the replacement of the family mill at Bearden with a concrete-and-steel facility. When he approached his partners in the early 1970s with expansion plans, they declined. John Ed moved forward by himself, forming Anthony Timberlands Inc. He quickly acquired the Hot Spring County Lumber Co. at Malvern and its holdings.

George Balogh picks it up from there: “Within two years, ATI acquired the Hollicer-Jones Lumber Co. in Benton along with its land holdings. In the 1980s, Frizzell Lumber Co. in Gurdon and International Paper’s mill in Beirne were acquired by ATI. Bearden Lumber Co. remained in family ownership under ATI management until fully acquired by ATI in 2006. The headquarters were always in Bearden, less than three miles from Garland Anthony’s original mill.

“John Ed Anthony focused on quality and modernization to build mills that provide a variety of products for both domestic and overseas customers. During these years, timberland acquisition continued, with acreage owned by ATI and other family partnerships growing from 70,000 acres in 1961 to 180,000 acres owned and 30,000 outside acres managed by 2006

“Sister companies Anthony Hardwood Composites in Sheridan, Anthony Wood Treating in Hope and Anthony-Higgs Lumber Co. in Gurdon were formed as private entities under ATI’s management umbrella. Anthony Hardwood Composites is a laminating facility that utilizes low-grade kiln-dried hardwood lumber to make engineered industrial matting for the support of heavy equipment where ground conditions are soft. … Anthony Wood Treating, built in 1987, produces treated wood for outdoor applications like decking, landscape timbers and fencing. …

“The Benton mill was consolidated into the Malvern plant in 1980 and production expanded. The Frizzell mill was consolidated into the modernized and expanded Beirne mill with Frizzell converted to Anthony-Higgs Lumber, a hardwood concentration facility.

“The Bearden and Malvern mills produce pine framing lumber, timbers and decking. The Beirne mill produces hardwood lumber products, primarily oak, with timber from the bottomlands of the Ouachita, Saline and Little rivers and area creeks. Associated with the Beirne mill are log-storage facilities in East Camden and Rockport as well as drying facilities at Fordyce.

“ATI’s timberland management team is headquartered in Bearden. Its staff of about 10 graduate foresters advises timberland owners, without cost, to promote multiple-use concepts to optimize land use. The company’s pine and treated wood sales office is in Arkadelphia. In normal operation, ATI has about 750 direct employees working in the mills and offices. Contractors who service the mills total about 400 — 250 in logging, 100 in trucking and 50 in security.”

John Ed’s son Steven has been the ATI president since 2004.

With significant declines in the housing market, the timber industry has suffered in recent years.

“I wish I could be optimistic about the future, but I can’t be,” John Ed says as he throws another log on the fire. “It has been a bloodbath the past five years or so.”

He notes the mills that have closed across south Arkansas — Georgia-Pacific mills at El Dorado and Fordyce, Weyerhaeuser operations at Mountain Pine, a Potlatch mill at Prescott, a Bean Lumber Co. mill at Glenwood, the Georgia-Pacific plywood operation at Crossett, the reduction of Potlatch operations at Warren from three shifts to just one.

“That’s hundreds of millions of board feet production we’ve lost,” he says. “We now have a huge inventory of uncut timber. Trees that were planted in the 1980s and the 1990s are cutting size, but there’s no demand for them. I don’t see it turning around anytime soon.”

Certainly John Ed has done his part to promote the industry and promote Arkansas through the decades. That’s why he’s being inducted into the Business Hall of Fame.

His grandson Addison makes the seventh generation of Anthony family members working in the forests of south Arkansas. The family tradition continues.

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The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

I’ve found a book for my December reading pleasure that fits my interests perfectly.

I love New Orleans.

I love Hot Springs.

I love food.

I love thoroughbred racing.

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service, was hanging out at Square Books in Oxford, Miss., when he came across a copy of “The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak” by Randy Fertel. The book was released earlier this year by the University Press of Mississippi.

Skip invited Randy to be a part of the Clinton School’s lecture series, and the author showed up on the final night of November to speak. I’ve been engrossed in his book ever since.

My friend John T. Edge, who heads the Southern Foodways Alliance over at Ole Miss, described the book this way: “His mother was the ‘first lady of American restaurants.’ His father was ‘odd, self-centered and nuts.’ Randy Fertel leverages a raucous New Orleans upbringing, in which Salvador Dali and Edwin Edwards play bit parts, to tell the story of an uncommon American family, defined, in equal measure, by bold swagger and humbling vulnerabilities.”

Randy’s mother is the Ruth in the Ruth’s Chris chain of upscale steak houses.

His father launched a quixotic campaign for mayor of New Orleans in 1969 on the promise that he would get a gorilla for the Audubon Zoo. He received only about 300 votes.

The photo on the book’s dust jacket shows Randy’s parents during a visit to Hot Springs. The year was 1948. My father graduated from college in Arkadelphia that year. My parents were frequent visitors to Hot Springs. For all I know, they unknowingly crossed paths with the Fertels on Central Avenue.

On a visit to Hershey, Pa., this summer, I learned that Milton Hershey honeymooned in Hot Springs. It was once quite the destination for young couples.

Here’s how the first chapter of the book begins: “If we could return to the moment captured in a 1948 photo, this couple, Mom and Dad, Ruth and Rodney, might catch our eye as they stride down Central Avenue in Hot Springs, Ark. In full sunlight, Ruth holds the crook of Rodney’s right arm and gazes at the camera with self-assurance and an easy smile. While women behind her clutch their bags tight, she carries a handbag by its strap. She wears heels with bows.

“That sunny day in Hot Springs, an unseen ornate gold barrette tooled in her initials — RUF — holds her hair swept back from her high brow. The barrette is a gift from her husband, whose family is in the trade — pawnshops.

“His face in shadow and wearing sunglasses, not unaware of the camera himself, her husband gazes at her with fondness and regard. Rodney sports a tie with bold ovals and in his right hand he carries a folded paper, probably the Daily Racing Form. He wears his shirtsleeves rolled. His left arm swings forward with a watch on his wrist, the first of many gold Rolexes, and a cigarette in the tips of his fingers — he has yet to give them up.”

Ruth was 21 when that photo was taken.

Rodney was 27.

A decade later, Ruth was speeding down Gentilly Boulevard in New Orleans on her way to the Fair Grounds (she was the first licensed female thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana) when she was pulled over by police officer Salvador J. “Joe” DeMatteo.

Soon, Ruth and Joe were an item.

By May 1958, Ruth and Rodney were separated.

Ruth married Joe in 1964.

“Joe was dark and wiry, a man’s man, a grunt who had survived the Italian campaign in World War II, a motorcycle cop, small plane pilot and gas station owner,” Randy writes. “Like him, Mom began to smoke filterless cigarettes, Pall Malls. In Joe’s presence, I heard curse words from my mother’s mouth for the first time. Surely not her first, they bothered me and I imagined Joe was their cause.”

Randy, who has a doctorate from Harvard, has taught English at Harvard, Tulane, LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., and the University of New Orleans. He’s a lover of food and fine wine who once was the marketing director for the Ruth’s Chris chain.

A March 2007 New York Times feature on his wedding to Bernadette Murray began this way: “The chatter among the 175 guests gathered under the live oaks of Audubon Park in New Orleans for the wedding of Bernadette Murray and Randy Fertel was upbeat but also circumspect. They gushed about the setting and marveled about the beauty of the bride. And barely a word about the tough times the couple had just been through.

“Less measured were the bride’s grade-school-age nephews: ‘Don’t tell,’ one said in a stage whisper. ‘Aunt Bernadette is wearing a wig!’

“Aunt Bernadette has been wearing a wig since shortly after she began treatment in May 2005 for acute myeloid leukemia, several months after Ms. Murray began dating Mr. Fertel.

“Early on, Ms. Murray tried to let Mr. Fertel off the hook, telling him that she didn’t expect him to endure what appeared to be a long illness. Mr. Fertel responded by returning to the hospital with a big diamond ring in a blue Tiffany box.”

Randy, who was 56 at the time of the wedding, met his wife in late 2004 when he was working at the New School in New York as an adjunct instructor who specialized in the literature of the Vietnam War. They met through a dating website. She’s eight years younger.

In an October story for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Judy Walker wrote: “The eccentric streak in Rodney Fertel ran deep. In the Rampart Street community of Orthodox Jews, where the Fertels owned a pawnshop and property, the Fertels were by any measure an unusual family. Rodney Fertel’s mother, Annie, shoplifted so regularly that store detectives in D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche were detailed to follow her around; later, her accountant would quietly pay her debts. Family members also sued each other repeatedly.”

Randy told the newspaper writer: “My dad enjoyed a grudge. My family left a trail. They were litigious people; that was very helpful” in researching the book.

Randy ends the foreward of his own book this way: “The Empress of Steak reserved all the glory for herself. Her appetite for winning excluded everyone, even her offspring. Nearly all the key players in the global empire of Ruth’s Chris Steak House ended up suing her, to get what they felt they deserved. I must confess that I was among them.”

When Ruth saw a for-sale ad for a steak house at 1100 Broad St. in New Orleans, she took it as a good sign that the restaurant had been established on her birthday — Feb. 5, 1927.

She bought Chris’ Steak House in 1965 after borrowing $22,000. Almost a dozen years later, fire destroyed the original restaurant. She reopened a few blocks away at the intersection of Broad and Orleans and called the place Ruth’s Chris. It became the top political hangout in New Orleans.

Ruth sold the chain in 1999. In 2002, she died of cancer. By then, there were more than 80 restaurants in the chain.

In her will, Ruth made Randy the president of the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation. Among its projects, the foundation is working to establish the Fertel Culinary Arts Center at Nicholls State University. Randy put his own money into the Fertel Foundation, which focuses on education and the arts.

As someone who has long been fascinated with the history of Hot Springs, I’m drawn back to the first of the book and Randy’s description of the Spa City: “In this year, 1948, Hot Springs is a wide-open town, dominated by the Southern Club, a gambling house in operation since 1893. In Las Vegas, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel is only two years old and ‘the Strip’ still but a dream. The mineral baths and the gambling tables draw Rodney and Ruth here from their home in New Orleans for long stays. Rodney enjoys independent means inherited from his pawnbroker grandparents: no job pulls him home.

“The horses bring them, too. In 1948, the Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrates its diamond jubilee, 75 years of continuous thoroughbred racing. Hot Springs’ Oaklawn Park is almost as old. This very summer, Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, Huey’s brother and inveterate gambler, comes to Hot Springs ‘for his arthritis.’ Gov. Long begins his day with the Daily Racing Form and the tout sheets. He helped the mob install slots throughout Louisiana; they let him know when the fix is in. Ruth and Rodney Fertel share Gov. Long’s taste for racehorses. In a few years, Ruth will earn her throughbred trainer’s license.”

In one photo from that 1948 visit, there’s a sign for a Hot Springs restaurant. Randy writes of the sign: “Hammons, no apostrophe. Sea Food, two words. Inside a sign promises One Day Out of the Ocean, meaning one day up from the Louisiana bayous where Ruth was born. Rodney prefers Hammons to the Arlington’s grand dining room with its organ and white-gloved black waiters and where, at age 13, I develop a taste for watercress salad and cornbread sticks slathered in butter and honey.”

Rodney would live for a time in Hot Springs at 359 Whittington Ave.

Randy said he once asked Ruth why she married Rodney.

She replied: “He had horses. I was a country girl and a tomboy. I was at LSU. Your dad owned a stable. When I first met him, I thought he was a stable boy. We ran off and got married, honeymooned in Hot Springs, then took a trip around the world.”

Randy writes: “Which means my first sibling rivals were racehorses. Later Dad would add two gorillas to the list and Mom a restaurant.”

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High school football and the boys of ’76

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

In “Friday Night Lights,” his classic account of high school football in west Texas, H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger writes about spending the 1988 football season in Odessa, Texas.

“I left my job as a newspaper editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer in July 1988 and moved to Odessa two weeks later,” he writes. “The following month I met with the members of the 1988 Permian Panther football team, and for the next four months I was with them through every practice, every meeting, every game, to chronicle the highs and lows of being a high school football player in a town such as this. I went to school with them, and home with them, and rattlesnake hunting with them, and to church with them, because I was interested in portraying them as more than just football players, and also because I liked them.

“I talked with hundreds of people to try to capture the other aspects of the town that I had come to explore, the values about race and education and politics and the economy. Much of what I learned about the town came from these interviews, but some of it naturally came from the personal experience of living there, with a wife and five-year-old twin boys. Odessa very much became home for a year, a place where our kids went to school and we worked and voted and forged lasting friendships.

“It was in Odessa that I found those Friday night lights, and they burned with more intensity than I had ever imagined. Like thousands of others, I got caught up in them. So did my wife. So did my children. As someone later described it, those lights become an addiction if you live in a place like Odessa, the Friday night fix.

“But I also found myself haunted by something else, the words of a father with a son who had gone to Permian and had later become a world-class sprinter in track.

“He saw the irresistible allure of high school sports, but he also saw an inevitable danger in adults’ living vicariously through their young. And he knew of no candle that burned out more quickly than those of the high school athlete.

“‘Athletics lasts for such a short period of time. It ends for people. But while it lasts, it creates this make-believe world where normal rules don’t apply. We build this false atmosphere. When it’s over and the harsh reality sets in, that’s the real joke we play on people. … Everybody wants to experience that superlative moment, and being an athlete can give you that. It’s Camelot for them. But there’s even life after it.’

“With the kind of glory and adulation these kids received for a season in their lives, I am not sure if they were ever encouraged to understand that. As I stood in that beautiful stadium on the plains week after week, it became obvious that these kids held the town on their shoulders.

“Odessa is the setting for this book, but it could be anyplace in this vast land where, on a Friday night, a set of spindly stadium lights rises to the heavens to so powerfully, and so briefly, ignite the darkness.”

This past weekend, I sat at War Memorial Stadium and watched two high school championship games come down to the final seconds.

On Friday night, a senior cornerback from El Dorado by the name of Deandre Williams intercepted a pass near the goal line in the closing seconds as El Dorado held on for a 24-20 victory over Lake Hamilton and the Class 6A championship.

It was the third consecutive state championship for El Dorado, a town that loves its high school football. Lake Hamilton had won the regular season game between the two teams by seven points.

On Saturday afternoon, there was an even more amazing finish. Bentonville entered the Class 7A championship game with a record of 12-0, having routed Fayetteville by a score of 41-6 on Sept. 23. Bentonville had a 25-game winning streak, an offense averaging 44 points per game and a defense allowing an average of only 8.9 point per game.

It looked as if the Tigers would take care of business with a 21-7 lead at the end of the third quarter. Fayetteville fought back, scoring touchdowns with 11:25 and 4:39 left in the game. With the score tied 21-21, Fayetteville had a chance to win the game with 27 seconds remaining. Max Coffin’s 40-yard field goal attempt was wide to the right.

The Class 7A championshp game was headed to overtime.

Bentonville got the ball first and scored in three plays. Fayetteville was down to its final play — fourth-and-goal from the three. Quarterback Austin Allen passed to Reid Holmes for the touchdown to bring the underdogs within a point, 28-27.

Then, something unexpected happened.

Rather than kicking the extra point to send the game into a second overtime, Fayetteville Coach Daryl Patton decided to win it or lose it on the next play. The Bulldogs would go for two.

Allen rolled to his right and then looked back to his left. He found a tight end named Tyler Tuck (what a great football name), who pulled in the football, setting off a wild celebration on the field and in the east stands.

Fayetteville, a 35-point loser to Bentonville just more than two months earlier, had won the state championship by one point in overtime.

My memories drifted back to the fall of 1976 and my own “Friday night fix,” as Bissinger describes it.

I was the starting center for the football team at Arkadelphia High School as a junior. The team had finished 5-5 my sophomore year, and few expected the Badgers to be a contender for a state championship.

As we won games early and gained confidence, a transformation occurred. We began to think of ourselves as champions. We had what they now call swagger.

A victory over a highly ranked Camden High School Panther team (hard to believe the once-proud south Arkansas football program no longer even exists) got us ranked in both the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette.

Our head coach, Vernon Hutchins, had been the head coach at Camden just two years before.

I have fond memories of that fall. My fellow offensive linemen were Tab Turner, Wayne Neel, Larry Copeland and David Rice. Turner, Neel and Rice were seniors. I was the only junior on the line. Copeland was just a sophomore.

We all weighed less than 200 pounds. High school linemen were a lot smaller in those days.

The best memories are of our line coach, Willie Tate, a man I’ll always consider a mentor. He had coached me since the seventh grade with the exception of my 10th-grade season (he moved up from the junior high to the senior high level for that 1976 season).

I remember the music that we played over and over in our dressing room and on the bus — the album “Mothership Connection” by Parliament. We would sing and sway to the music of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell.

I remember the restaurants that would feed us free meals (the Maverick Steak House and the Big T) and the hundreds of cars that sported bumper stickers handed out by Citizens Bank that proclaimed “Arkadelphia Is A Winner.”

 I remember the major college recruiters who would show up at our practices to watch our tailback, Trent Bryant. You likely remember that Roland Sales started in the backfield in the Orange Bowl for the University of Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1978. The other starting running back in that game for the Razorbacks was freshman Trent Bryant.

Trent later would be moved to the secondary at Arkansas and would play for a time for the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL.

I’ll never forget the day that Forrest City native Bill Shimek, the University of Oklahoma’s star recruiter (he signed Billy Sims out of nearby Hooks, Texas, for the Sooners), showed up at our practice.

He was wearing a full-length leather jacket and mirror shades. He looked cool — 1976 cool.

As we stared at him during offensive line drills, Coach Tate reminded us of something: “He’s only here to see the pretty boy. He has no interest in you sweat hogs. So get back to work.”

We tied Hot Springs Lakeside on a miserable homecoming night in a heavy rain, but that didn’t deter us as we finished the regular season 9-0-1.

The first-round playoff opponent was Star City. The sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald was a Warren native named Maylon Rice. He wrote a column about the fact that when he grew up in Warren, Star City “in dirt poor Lincoln County” was a place where the fans showed up to games late and left early.

We arrived in Star City more than two hours before kickoff, and the home side of the stadium was already full. Star City boosters had made thousands of copies of Maylon’s column and handed them out all over the county.

The early arriving home crowd didn’t help them. We scored touchdowns on our first three possessions and rolled to an easy victory.

Cabot proved to be more of a challenge in the semifinals. In a defensive struggle, the Panthers fumbled a punt, we recovered and made a short drive to score the winning touchdown at War Memorial Stadium in what many people called “the real state championship game.”

It wasn’t, though we were strong favorites going into the title game against a Mena team quarterbacked by Joe Bunch. I later would attend Ouachita Baptist University with Joe and become friends with the person who quarterbacked the Cabot team, David Lewis. Isn’t this a small state?

In those days, the championshp games were not all played at War Memorial Stadium. The decision was made to hold the title game on our home field, Henderson State University’s Haygood Stadium (Arkadelphia High School didn’t have its own stadium at the time).

In retrospect, it was a huge mistake not to head back to Little Rock and the artificial turf. It rained all week, and Haygood Stadium’s natural turf was a quagmire. I’ve never witnessed a football game played on a worse field. Not to make excuses, but the field conditions slowed our running game and led to uncharacteristic mistakes. The muddy field nullified our speed advantage and gave the underdog a chance.

Trailing late, our offense drove the length of the field, determined to secure that state championship despite the field conditions.

Twice in the final minute, we appeared to have scored a touchdown.

Each time, the officials marked us short of the goal line.

We turned the ball over on fourth down, with the ball marked inches from the winning score.

It hurt more than I can describe.

It wasn’t “only a game” to us as teenage boys. Call me silly, but I find it hard to talk about 35 years later.

My teammates rarely discussed that game. Though we had one of the finest teams in the school’s history, we’ve never had a reunion of any type.

Perhaps the boys of 1976, now men in their 50s, will get together one day and celebrate what we accomplished in that 11-1-1 season.

When I wrote about Ouachita coming up inches short against Henderson in this year’s Battle of the Ravine, the subject of the Mena game came up on my Facebook page.

Our quarterback that season was Darren O’Quinn. He would go on to play football at Henderson, graduate from pharmacy school at UAMS in 1984 and graduate from law school at UALR in 1987.

Darren weighed in on my Facebook page with these words: “Everyone was so deeply hurt by the game that we all just never talked about it again. It’s kind of like the 1969 Razorbacks who lost to Texas with Frank Broyles never wanting to watch the film or talk about it. It’s a shame because we had everything to be proud of. There were a lot of great competitors on that 1976 team. It was a magical and life-changing year for me.

“I remember we had basketball practice the day after the loss, and I was too sad to go. But Daddy made me. The thing I learned eventually is life is not always fair but you have to keep getting up, putting your feet on the floor and competing.”

Those are wise words, Darren.

I hope the heartbroken players from Lake Hamilton and Bentonville, who saw their state title hopes die in the final seconds last weekend, will learn the lesson in time.

And I hope the boys of 1976 will one day cast off the bitter taste of the final minute of the final game, finally allowing themselves to celebrate all that was good about that autumn 35 years ago. I love you guys.

 

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An Arkansan’s Cotton Bowl memories

Monday, December 5th, 2011

I chuckled Sunday night when I heard someone ask whether players at the University of Arkansas were disappointed by being invited to the Cotton Bowl.

Disappointed?

There was a time when making the Cotton Bowl was the goal for the Razorbacks and their fans.

I was 6 years old when I attended my first Cotton Bowl.

The Razorbacks had the nation’s longest winning streak at 22 games. They had defeated Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl a year earlier (a game my family watched together on our black-and-white television set at home) to win the Football Writers Association of America’s Grantland Rice Trophy as the national champion.

The Associated Press and United Press International awarded their national championships at the end of the regular season in those days, and the final wire service polls had Alabama No. 1 and Arkansas No. 2.

Arkansas’ 10-7 victory over Nebraska, combined with Alabama’s loss to Texas in the Orange Bowl later that day, gave Arkansas a claim to what’s still its only national title in football.

By late 1965, The Associated Press had changed the way it did business (UPI would not change until 1973). All the 10-0 and No. 2 Razorbacks needed was a win over a 7-3 LSU squad coached by Arkansas native Charles McClendon, along with a loss by No. 1 Michigan State to UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

Michigan State did lose to UCLA that day, but the Razorbacks couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Razorback fever was at an all-time high across our state, and I was caught up in the euphoria. My father, who was in the sporting goods business, knew Coach McClendon and wanted me to meet him. I had no interest. I just didn’t care at age 6 that the LSU head coach hailed from Lewisville in my native southwest Arkansas.

Home base in Dallas for my mother, my father, my older sister and I would be the Baker Hotel on the northeast corner of Commerce and Akard downtown. On the weekend of the Texas-Oklahoma football game, the Baker was headquarters for Texas alumni. Oklahoma alums would be at the Adolphus across the street.

In my old family home at Arkadelphia, there are still a couple of wooden hangers from the Baker. I’m not sure we were supposed to have taken those, but we did.

We ate dinner that first night in Dallas at one of the hotel’s restaurants, the Baker’s Dozen, surrounded by folks dressed in red. We attended the Cotton Bowl parade downtown.

Arkansas hadn’t defeated LSU since 1929. The two schools had battled to a scoreless tie in the 1947 Cotton Bowl. On this first day of 1966, though, Arkansas was a heavy favorite.

It appeared as if the game would play out according to form as the Razorbacks drove 87 yards in 11 plays on their second possession to score. Jon Brittenum threw 19 yards to Bobby Crockett for the touchdown. Harry Jones and Bobby Burnett were running well.

Who could have guessed that Arkansas would not score again?

Brittenum left the game with a shoulder injury and his replacement, Ronny South, fumbled on his first play at quarterback. LSU went 34 yards following the fumble recovery to take a 14-7 lead with 18 seconds left in the first half. Neither team would score in the second half. The game ended with Arkansas on the LSU 24.

It was a sad cab ride back to the Baker and a sad ride home to Arkadelphia the next day.

Still, I was hooked. I’ve been to 19 Cotton Bowls now.

For eight consecutive seasons (I “retired” after the game two years ago), I would leave on the day after Christmas and spend a week in Dallas assisting native Arkansan Charlie Fiss. Charlie is the Cotton Bowl’s vice president of communications. I had gone to lunch with him on March 23, 2002, when he was in Little Rock for the memorial service for sportswriting legend Orville Henry.

Following the service at Little Rock Central High School, Charlie asked, “Why don’t you be one of our media volunteers at the Cotton Bowl?”

I agreed on the spot.

For decades, reaching the Cotton Bowl was the goal of every Arkansas fan. A Cotton Bowl trip meant the Razorbacks had won the Southwest Conference championship. Dallas on New Year’s Day was Mecca, and all true Razorback followers wanted to be there. It was one of the Big Four on New Year’s Day along with the Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl. People across the country would watch Lindsey Nelson call the Cotton Bowl on CBS and then turn over to NBC for the Sugar, Rose and Orange bowls.

Having been left out of the BCS due in part to an aging stadium and uncertain weather in north Texas at the first of January, the Cotton Bowl no longer enjoys the status it once did, though the move to Cowboys Stadium has things looking up. For Arkansans my age and older, the Cotton Bowl remains special.

In our Christmas stockings, my sister and I were given tickets to the Jan. 1, 1971, game between Notre Dame and Texas. The Longhorns had a 30-game winning streak and were looking to win a second consecutive national championship. The Irish won, 24-11, as we sat in the upper deck with my two male cousins from Austin experiencing the same pain of watching a national title slip away that I had experienced five years earlier when LSU upset Arkansas. Ironically, the second half of the Notre Dame-Texas game was scorelesss, just as had been the case in the Arkansas-LSU game.

The next surprise Christmas stocking tickets were for Arkansas’ game against Georgia on Jan. 1, 1976. I was in high school by then, and my sister was a college graduate who could drive us to Dallas. We watched family friend Tommy Harris (the younger brother of then-Dallas Cowboy free safety Cliff Harris) break up a no-huddle, reverse pass to the Georgia quarterback. Harris caused a fumble on the so-called shoestring play, and Hal McAfee recovered at the Georgia 13 with 25 seconds left in the first half.

Scott Bull passed to Ike Forte for 12 of those yards on the first play after the fumble recovery. Forte covered the final yard, and Arkansas tied the game at the half, 10-10. The Razorbacks ended up winning easily, 31-10.

In college, I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper. Choosing New Orleans over Dallas, I saw Arkansas lose to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl following the 1979 season.

After having covered Arkansas in the Hall of Fame Bowl at Birmingham against Tulane on a cold, dreary night in December 1980 , I decided to spend another New Year’s Day with the Crimson Tide, this time at the Cotton Bowl.

The highlight of that trip came at a luncheon the day before the game when I found myself seated with Bill Whitmore, the veteran sports information director at Rice University, and the famed Texas journalist Mickey Herskowitz, the only sportwswriter to have actually covered Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Texas A&M preseason camp in Junction, Texas, in 1954.

At the end of the luncheon, Bryant came over to our table and began sharing stories with Herskowitz and Whitmore. As a 21-year-old, small-town sports editor who had grown up in awe of Bryant, all I could do was sit there and listen.

More memorable than the 30-2 Alabama victory over Baylor was when a reporter asked Bryant this question after the game: “Coach, in your wildest dreams did you ever think you would so competely shut down this Baylor offense?”

Bryant replied, “Son, at my age, I don’t have wild dreams.”

I made it to the Cotton Bowl four more times in the 1980s. As the editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper, I obtained passes to watch Pittsburgh beat SMU on Jan. 1, 1983. Two years later, I was in the stands on a cold day to see Boston College play Houston. Boston College’s Doug Flutie was the seventh Heisman Trophy winner to make a New Year’s Day appearance in the Cotton Bowl. Just weeks earlier, Flutie had made the play of the year in college football, his last-second pass to beat the defending national champion from Miami. Flutie led his team to a 45-28 win over Houston.

I was living in Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s but made it back to see Texas A&M beat Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 1988, and UCLA beat Arkansas a year later. On Jan. 1, 1990, I joined my wife of less than three months in watching Arkansas lose to Tennessee.

At the end of the 2001 season, we took our two sons (then ages 8 and 4) to their first Cotton Bowl. We stayed at a Fairfield Inn nestled between the warehouses on Regal Row, the place where Tom Landry used to house the Dallas Cowboys on the nights before home games in the 1970s. It was a Holiday Inn in those days.

My family would stay at that hotel with the team whenever we went down to watch Cliff Harris play during the 1970s. My father and Cliff’s father had been roommates at Ouachita in the 1940s.

As my boys joined their fellow Arkansans in calling the Hogs during dinner at Pappadeaux on the night before an Arkansas loss to Oklahoma, I thought back to that meal with my parents and sister at the Baker’s Dozen 36 years earlier.

Jan. 1, 2002, dawned cloudy. It was dark outside — the Fox Network-dictated 10:30 a.m. kickoff meant an early wake-up call — as we put on multiple layers of clothes. The temperature would not get out of the 30s that day.

The boys were disappointed with Arkansas’ 10-3 loss, just as I had been disappointed at the end of my first Cotton Bowl.

On the ride home the next day, though, they talked about how much fun they had. Like thousands of Arkansans before them, they had begun their own love affair with the Cotton Bowl.

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Garrett Uekman, Catholic High and ties that bind

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

When I wrote a newspaper column earlier this week on Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys, I knew I would receive feedback.

I don’t write columns with feedback in mind. But understanding how strongly Catholic High graduates feel about the place, I knew this particular column would generate calls, texts and e-mails.

As I noted in the column, I’m not a Catholic High graduate. Our oldest son graduated from there in May. The night he graduated as valedictorian (he is blessed to have his mother’s brains) was among the proudest moments of my life.

Austin is now at Hendrix College. His younger brother is a freshman at Catholic High. That means I’ll have the pleasure of being a Catholic High dad for another four years.

What I didn’t have in front of me when I wrote that column was the text of the amazing eulogy the school’s principal, Steve Straessle, gave at the funeral of Catholic High graduate and University of Arkansas tight end Garrett Uekman.

Here’s part of what he said: “Letting go of a good kid is hard to do. Letting go of an exceptional kid is almost unbearable. At Catholic High, we’re surrounded by boys who are striving to be exceptional young men. You should see them. They all enter our doors as scared, shaking little freshmen who are wondering if they can survive in a school with no girls and no air conditioning. Then, as seniors, they graduate as confident young men who know that they are armed with strong faith, a strong work ethic and the ability to endure life’s pitfalls.

“No easy roads are promised at Catholic High. Instead, Catholic High promises the strength to rise to challenges and to be more than just an average man. Oftentimes, we are fortunate to get a few freshmen who are not shaking and scared. We get a few of them who are quietly confident in their ability and revel in the challenges we present them. That was Garrett Uekman.”

Steve added this: “At Catholic High, we have one rule that encompasses all the others, one rule that transcends everything else and is at the heart of Christ’s message. That rule is: Never be a bystander. If your faith is tested, defend it. If someone is hungry, feed him. If one is downcast, encourage him. If your test is difficult, prepare for it. If your friends are troubled, step up. If the little guy needs you, be there. Bystanders watch life go by. People like Garrett Uekman get in the game. Bad things happen when bystanders are in the crowd. Good things pour forth when people like Garrett step up. You don’t live your dreams by twiddling your thumbs when action is called for. You live your dreams by getting into the game. It’s just that simple, and Garrett was the embodiment of that spirit.”

“That spirit.”

Spend some time around Catholic High, its alums and the boys who currently attend school there and you’ll know that spirit is real.

Michael Moran, who graduated from Catholic High in 1961 and later spent four decades teaching at the school, wrote a book titled “Proudly We Speak Your Name: Forty-Four Years At Little Rock Catholic High School.”

Through the stories he tells in his book, which was published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in 2009, he captures the essence of the school.

He sets the stage for the book this way: “Catholic High School for Boys was established in Little Rock in 1930 by Bishop John Morris at 25th and State streets, where Little Rock College and then St. John’s Seminary had formerly been located. In January 1961, CHS moved to 6300 Lee Ave. (now Father Tribou Street). The first graduating class of 1931 numbered five. Since then, more than 7,000 students have become alumni.

“Father George Tribou is the towering figure in Catholic High history. Coming to Little Rock from Jenkintown, Pa., George Tribou was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Little Rock and in the second year of his priesthood was assigned to CHS, where he served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years, until his death in 2001.

“Any recollection of Catholic High School would be incomplete without recognition of the centrality of Father Tribou’s role in defining its character. Even when elevated to the position of monsignor in his later years, he preferred to be called ‘father,’ a role he played in the lives of untold numbers of Catholic High boys.”

Ah, Father Tribou.

As a boy, he had worked as a film projectionist back home in Pennsylvania. He later would say that part of his inspiration for becoming a priest was seeing the movie “Boys Town” and Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of Father Flanagan.

His approaches were unique – and effective:

— Boys were sometimes allowed to settle disputes with boxing gloves. They would then spend the next day at school together and be allowed only to talk to each other.

— He once announced to the student body that he had seen a boy smoking a cigarette on the school grounds. He said that if that student did not show up in his office immediately, his penalty would increase. Within minutes, there were more than a dozen boys in Father Tribou’s office.

— He was known for getting to the point. When a number of urban schools began installing metal detectors, Father Tribou said of Catholic High: “That would not work here. These boys have too much lead in their asses.”

I know Father Tribou would be proud of the job Steve Straessle is doing in the role of principal.

At one time, Steve wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating from college in 1992, he decided he wasn’t quite ready for law school.

Steve, a Catholic High graduate and the son of a Catholic High graduate, called Father Tribou one night to say he was thinking about teaching history for a year before entering law school. As luck would have it, a history teacher at Catholic High had asked for a one-year sabbatical.

Steve’s grandfather had been a custodian when the school moved to its current location in 1961.

“My grandfather walked through these halls,” Steve told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette several years ago. “And while I’m walking through the school, I often can’t help but think of my grandfather sweeping the halls. I learned a couple of things from my grandfather — the importance of humility and hard work.”

He went on to tell the newspaper this about his experience as a Catholic High student: “It laid the groundwork perfectly for the next stone of education to be laid in college. It was also about Christian formation, and at Catholic High in particular, we still hammer home the idea that we want you to be successful. But success to us means that you are a good husband, a good father and a good citizen as well as a good member of your profession. My classmates were and still are my best friends. They were in my wedding. They are my closest confidants. They are the people who will carry me to my grave.”

At the end of that newspaper story, Steve had this to say about Father Tribou and about Catholic High: “He was a child of the ’40s. He was raised in the era of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and Humphrey Bogart. I was raised in the ’80s in the era of Van Halen and Charlie Sheen. Those are big differences, but there are some things that are timeless such as the adherence to the belief that rigorous academics and high expectations are the keys to success, the belief that self-discipline and work ethic are virtues and the idea that all ambition should be tempered by a doctrine of faith — and the absolute fact that a sense of humor is as important as an arm or a leg. This is our school. In succinct terms, this is what we do.”

As the father of a Catholic High graduate and the father of a current student, I’ve come to understand the Catholic High brotherhood.

Here’s how the school’s website describes it: “At CHS, boys experience a special kind of fraternity, often referred to by faculty, graduates and students alike as the Catholic High brotherhood. What forms this brotherhood? From time immemorial, challenges have bonded men, and the rigorous academics and strict discipline of CHS are certainly enough for that; but all-school masses, pep rallies with the skit cheerleaders, athletic events and intramurals serve to strengthen CHS boys’ brotherhood, rooted, as it is, in faith, laughter, competition and common goals.”

Faith.

Laughter.

Competition.

And common goals.

Sadly, it took a tragedy for many Arkansans to realize what a treasure resides in the middle of Little Rock.

God bless Garrett Uekman.

Long live Catholic High.

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