Archive for February, 2012

Sporty: When Lightning Struck The Outhouse

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

My timing was good.

I was just returning to my office Tuesday afternoon following a meeting on the other side of the Arkansas River when I ran into longtime family friend George Baker in the parking lot.

Coach Baker had been to my office to deliver me an autographed copy of his new book, “When Lightning Struck the Outhouse.”

The book is a tribute to the late Ralph “Sporty” Carpenter, one of the most colorful, quotable men to ever coach in this state.

You can order the book online by going to www.georgebakerauthor.com.

I’ve often written how fortunate I was to grow up when I did, where I did. My father was in the sporting goods business in Arkadelphia, and our closest family friends, hunting companions and fishing companions tended to be the coaches at Ouachita Baptist University and Henderson State University.

At Ouachita, there were giants such as Bill Vining, Buddy Benson, Bob Gravett and Jake Shambarger.

At Henderson, there were giants such as Duke Wells, Jim Mack Sawyer, Sporty Carpenter, Don Dyer, Clyde Berry, Billy Bock and Bobby Reese.

There were strong, talented women who were, in retrospect, true pioneers in the field of women’s sports — Carolyn Moffatt and Tona Wright at Ouachita and Delores Brumfield White, Betty Wallace and Jane Sevier at Henderson.

What a time, what a group of coaches.

Coach Carpenter had nicknames for almost everyone. I was Rexall.

To this day, I love it when an old friend knows to call me Rexall.

And, to this day, I find myself telling “Sporty stories” on an almost daily basis.

I’m so glad Coach Baker finished this book. It brings back a lot of memories.

“This book has been a labor of love that, in retrospect, came easy to me,” Coach Baker says. “I drew from 16 years of daily contact with Coach Carpenter. I also garnered the thoughts of his friends, players and opponents.

“We laughed long and hard almost every day. We passed along inside jokes that only he and I understood, most of which I cannot repeat in the interest of decorum. We traveled the world. We won and lost and suffered the outrageous slings and arrows of disgruntled fans. We tasted the sweet wine of victory, and we left an indelible mark in the annals of small college football that is remarkable.”

The preface to the book is written by Jim Bailey, the sportswriter I grew up wanting to be.

Living in Arkadelphia, I lived and breathed Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference sports, and Jim chronicled the AIC for the Arkansas Gazette, the newspaper that was in our driveway each morning.

Jim writes: “In a recent conversation, I asked George if he’d always planned to write about his favorite coach. He said no.

“‘Coach Carpenter died in 1990,’ he said. ‘Over the next few months, even the next few years, people would ask about the funny things he said and did, like jumping on the Southern Arkansas mule mascot after Henderson beat SAU. I guest that’s what started me to thinking seriously about a book. And the deeper I got into it, the more fascinating it became.

“‘And the more I learned about him, I realized how kind and considerate he was, how many people he helped without ever saying anything about it. For example, I knew he helped a lot of former players find jobs, either in coaching or something else. And especially how intelligent he was. He enjoyed being mistaken for a clown.'”

Jim adds: “I met Sporty Carpenter in 1967 after he had joined the coaching staff of Henderson, his alma mater, as an assistant to Clyde Berry. Sporty walked over to me, stuck out his hand and said: ‘Hey, Scoop, Ralph Carpenter.’ Five or 10 minutes later, he had everyone in the room laughing. He always used his formal name in introductions, although I don’t recall anyone addressing him as Ralph.

“He grew up in Hamburg (‘the Burg,’ he usually called it), served in the Navy and played center and guard for Henderson before starting a succession of high school coaching jobs. Duke Wells, athletic director and former Henderson coach, spotted potential in Carpenter. When a coaching vacancy occurred in 1970, Sporty was appointed head coach, obviously with Wells’ approval.

“‘Sporty always liked for peole to underestimate him,’ Wells said a few years later when the Reddies were pretty much dismantling the AIC. ‘But he never fooled me.’

“Carpenter was head coach for 19 seasons, 1971-89. His first two years were rebuilding chores. His teams went 119-76-5 with five conference titles.”

Jim writes that by the 1989 season, Coach Carpenter was “desperately ill, even to a layman’s eye. He coached the team that fall, though.”

Coach Baker calls it “the most courageous thing you could ever imagine. You know, Coach Carpenter always worked hard, daylight to dark, meetings, practices, but when the football staff was out eating dinner or something, Coach Carpenter would not allow anyone to mention football. Outside the office and the field, we weren’t supposed to talk shop. Coach Carpenter thought 23 hours of football a day was enough.”

I was worried when I became the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald as a college freshman. Anyone connected with the rivalry between Ouachita and Henderson knows how heated it is. It’s the small college version of Alabama-Auburn. People in Arkadelphia live it 365 days a year.

As sports editor, I covered both schools, and I was determined to do it well. In a small town where everyone knows each other, folks knew I had bled purple and gold since birth. I had grown up one block from Ouachita’s football field, running the sidelines at Tiger games since I was old enough to walk.

I was a student at Ouachita. I was part of the Ouachita broadcast team on radio. But I was also covering the Reddies.

How was Coach Carpenter going to treat me?

He was, of course, going to treat me like a professional, but not without plenty of good-natured ribbing in the process.

I had written a profile of Ouachita’s head coach, Buddy Benson, in which I pointed out that Benson had played at the University of Arkansas for Bowden Wyatt and that Wyatt had played at the University of Tennessee for the legendary Gen. Robert Neyland. That, I contended, made Benson a direct football descendant of Gen. Neyland.

Coach Carpenter began referring to Coach Benson as The General.

Each time I would show up at a Henderson practice, Coach Carpenter would say something along the lines of: “What is The General up to today?” Or “did The General send you over here to spy on us?”

My most memorable moments with Coach Carpenter came when gathering quotes after a game.

Once, after a Reddie tailback had fumbled late in a crucial game at home, Coach Carpenter described him to me as a “triple threat — a threat to the opposition, a threat to us and a threat to himself.”

I wasn’t there for the famous game in Monticello in 1977 when Coach Carpenter stated that “lightning struck the outhouse and we were in it.”

Charlie Boyd, a Lake Village native who’s now a Little Rock attorney, was on that team.

“We had just gotten beat by UAM at their place, and the dressing room for the opposing team was around an indoor pool,” Boyd says. “I recall being next to Coach Carpenter when the reporter asked him what happened and can attest, under oath, that his answer was just what the title of the book says it was.”

I was there four years later when the Boll Weevils again upset a nationally ranked Henderson team.

In fact, Henderson was 7-0 coming into the game and ranked No. 1 nationally in the NAIA.

UAM won, 27-16.

The Reddies would end up losing three games that fall.

Coach Carpenter told me after the loss to the Boll Weevils: “Rexall, it was a total waste of time. We would have been better off to stay home, parch peanuts and watch Barbara Mandrell on the TV.”

My close friend Mike Dugan of Hot Springs spent a decade as Henderson’s sports information director. He tells this story: “One of the wonderful moments I enjoyed with Sporty was a basketball trip to Monticello. A notice had just been sent out by the university that at no time should a state-owned vehicle be seen at a location other than what was listed as an authorized destination. As soon as I picked him up that afternoon, he told me to drive to Walmart.

“I protested, but he insisted. So I began a nervous wait while he went inside. When he came out, he threw his package into the back of the car and away we went.

“As we neared Monticello, he began to give me alternate directions and sent me down an isolated highway and through the gates of a cemetery. We left the car, and Sporty got down on one knee to clean the weeds from his parents’ graves. The package contained flowers.

“This was a wonderful, warm side to a man I already knew had a big heart.”

Coach Baker says, “My journey with R.L. ‘Sporty’ Carpenter began in July 1974 and ended with his death in February 1990. What a trip.”

I attended his funeral in 1990 at Arkansas Hall on the Henderson campus. Yes, I’m a Ouachita man to the core. Yet as they rolled his casket down the aisle and the organ played the slow version of “Old Reddie Spirit,” I cried like a baby.

He was quite a man. I miss him still.

Thanks, Coach Baker, for bringing him back to life with “When Lightning Struck the Outhouse.”

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Boxing’s Golden and Silver Gloves

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

A favorite moment each year comes when Jim Rasco, the historian of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, introduces past Hall of Fame inductees during the organization’s annual induction banquet.

That moment will occur Friday night at North Little Rock’s Verizon Arena.

One past inductee who won’t be in attendance Friday is the man I wrote about yesterday, boxing luminary Ray Rodgers.

Rodgers will be in Independence, Mo., helping run the Silver Gloves national championships. He’s the first man ever to head both the Silver Gloves and Golden Gloves organizations at the same time, and he’s a member of the halls of fame for both groups.

At age 75, Ray Rodgers is on the road, working as hard as ever.

Golden Gloves has a storied history.

In 1923, the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, Arch Ward, came up with the idea of an amateur boxing tournament to be sponsored by the newspaper. Each champion was awarded a miniature golden glove, which gave the tournament its name.

The list of past Golden Gloves medal winners is a who’s who of the sport.

Joe Louis was a Golden Gloves champion in 1934.

There was Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) in 1960, Sugar Ray Leonard in 1973, Marvin Hagler in 1973, Michael Spinks in 1974, Thomas Hearns in 1977, Mike Tyson in 1984, Evander Holyfield in 1984, Oscar De La Hoya in 1989 and Little Rock’s Jermain Taylor in 1998 and 1999.

Rodgers, who was born in Oklahoma but grew up in Conway, was inducted into the Silver Gloves Hall of Fame in 2001, the Golden Gloves Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.

The late Billy Bock, a 1996 Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame inductee who was a well-known amateur boxer and later was among the pioneers of high school baseball in the state, told the Arkansas Democrat in 1990: “If it weren’t for Ray Rodgers, there would not be boxing left in Little Rock.”

Silver Gloves is for amateur fighters ages 10-15.

Golden Gloves is for amateur fighters ages 16 and older.

Based in part on the Golden Gloves’ tie back to the Chicago Tribune, newspapers long have been among the main sponsors of amateur boxing events. The New York City Golden Gloves tournament, which has been around for 85 years, is sponsored by the Daily News.

Rodgers told an interviewer in 2008: “It has a natural attraction to kids who are basically adventuresome and want to do something no one else does. That’s a lot of it. The dynamics of it hooked me in the fifth grade, and I’ve never been out of it one day.

“In boxing, as in life and everything else, desire is half the deal. … I’m a great believer in amateur boxing. I think it’s one of the greatest sports ever devised. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. In boxing, you don’t have anybody to hand off to or to lateral or pass it off to. You’re on your own, brother.

“The only discipline that lasts is self-discipline. You can stand a kid in a corner and whip his butt with a paddle. But once he learns self-discipline and the desire to do better in the ring, that sticks with him all his life.”

Jermain Taylor is the most prominent example of the hundreds of boys (now men) Rodgers has helped through the years. Born in Little Rock in 1978, Taylor and his three younger sisters were abandoned by their father when the future champion was 5. Taylor began boxing at age 13 with Ozell Nelson as his trainer.

Taylor’s Olympic bronze medal came in 2000 and his professional boxing debut was on Jan. 27, 2001, at Madison Square Garden against Chris Walsh.

As noted in yesterday’s post, Rodgers has served as the cut man in Taylor’s corner throughout Taylor’s professional career.

Taylor once said of Rodgers: “He’s the type of guy who comes in the dressing room and makes you feel comfortable. I’ve never seen him mad, not one time, and I’ve known him since I was 12. I’ve never seen him with a mean face. He’s the type of guy who always wants to see you smiling.”

Rodgers’ father, who worked for 49 years for an oil company that eventually became part of Mobil, moved the family from Oklahoma to Conway so he could serve as a pump station engineer in Arkansas. Young Ray was already addicted to boxing at the time of the move.

Ray Rodgers’ office at the Golden Gloves Education Center, which is adjacent to the Junior Deputy baseball fields just off Cantrell Road in Little Rock, now serves as sort of a museum of this state’s boxing history.

There is, for example, a photo of Bock and Rodgers in 1959 at the state AAU boxing tournament with Miss Arkansas in between.

“We were her escorts,” Rodgers says.

Famous names in Arkansas business, sports and politics crop up as you look at the programs and bout sheets Rodgers has collected through the years. For instance, Buddy Coleman of Little Rock was the state AAU boxing chairman one year.

Rodgers delights in talking about his 14-year amateur boxing career, delivering pithy quotes such as this one: “My left jab was so good the judges thought the other guy was sucking my thumb.”

The Arkansas River Valley — from Fort Smith all the way down to Little Rock –was a boxing hotbed in those days. Rodgers tells of going across a low-water bridge to make it to a boxing tournament at Oark (not Ozark!) in the Ozark Mountains north of Clarksville.

Places like Clarksville and Coal Hill produced good amateur boxers. The Subiaco Abbey, built in 1878 and associated with the Benedictine Order, was the home of many talented boxers. Wherever amateur tournaments were held across the state, you knew the boys from Subiaco Academy would be there and compete hard.

Rodgers’ home ring was at the National Guard Armory in Conway, where he boxed for a coach known as “Slow John” Cole. Rodgers went by the nickname “Butterball.” He continued to box competitively through graduation from Conway High School and Arkansas State Teachers College, now the University of Central Arkansas.

“I had deceptive speed in those days,” Rodgers says. “I was slower than I looked.”

At age 16, Rodgers also began coaching younger boxers. In 1958, he sent his first boxer to the national Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago.

Rodgers graduated from college in August 1960, becoming the first member of his family to earn a degree. He got married two weeks after graduation and moved to Little Rock to take a job with Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Rodgers fought his last fight in 1961 at the Mid-Arkansas Golden Gloves Tournament, but a lifetime of being involved in boxing was just starting.

He has worked with young boxers at various locations through the years, even using a gym that Gary Hogan, who loves the sport as much as Rodgers, once operated in downtown Little Rock.

In 1988, Rodgers raised private funds so he could transform a metal building next to the Junior Deputy baseball complex into a gym. It has been the home of the Ray Rodgers Boxing Club ever since.

In 2009, he turned the adjacent building into the Golden Gloves Education Center so his boxers would have a quiet place to study.

Rodgers has brought a number of legendary boxers to Little Rock through the years to promote the sport and help him raise money. Ali visited in 1990. Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson also have visited the state’s capital city at Rodgers’ invitation.

Rodgers has had his share of tragedies.

In 1987, his wife Sally, a constant presence with him at boxing tournaments, died of breast cancer.

His current wife, Carole, whom he married in December 2005, now helps him run amateur tournaments.

Rodgers’ daughter Dawn battled brain cancer for 11 years before passing away in 2005.

Last year, Rodgers finally shut down his business, Mid-South Drywall.

“I’m not getting any younger,” he says.

On one wall of Rodgers’ office is a tribute to Stan Gallup, the longtime Golden Gloves executive director who died in February 2009 while accompanying the Kentucky Wesleyan basketball team (his son was the school’s athletic director) to an away game

It says “Stan Gallup, 1922-2009, Father of Modern Golden Gloves.”

Rodgers calls Gallup “a mentor.”

I happen to think Arkansas’ own Ray Rodgers has just as much a right as Gallup to that title of “Father of Modern Golden Gloves.”

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