Archive for December, 2013

War Memorial Stadium memories

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

I look forward to the first two weekends of December.

It has become a tradition of mine to spend large parts of those weekends at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, watching the state high school championship games.

This year, Mother Nature did her best to ruin that tradition. The ice storm that hit just before the first weekend in December pushed the games back a week.

There were three state title games played the second weekend of the month and three played the weekend before Christmas. The first of those six games — the Class 7A title contest between Bentonville and Cabot on the evening of Friday, Dec. 13 — was played in a steady rain with temperatures in the 30s.

A week later, the Class 4A title game between Booneville and Warren finished at 11:45 p.m. after two lengthy lightning delays.

The next afternoon, the Class 2A title game between Junction City and Des Arc was played in a downpour with heavy winds throughout the contest.

I shouldn’t complain. I was in the press box for all six championship games. Hats off to those fans who survived the elements in the outdoor seats.

Between games this past Saturday, I hung out in the swank, multimillion-dollar press box that was added three years ago. The comfortable leather couches and flat-screen television sets on which we watched the season’s first college bowl games were reason enough to stay put.

The bad weather this month gives me more War Memorial Stadium memories. I have so many.

I have played on that field (Arkadelphia vs. Cabot in the state semifinals in 1976).

I have watched countless games from the stands.

I have covered numerous games from the press box as a newspaper reporter.

I have broadcast games on radio and television.

The old stadium is special to me.

War Memorial Stadium opened in 1948 — 11 years before I was born — with a natural grass surface, open end zones and about 31,000 seats. The changes of recent years have been drastic. In the past decade, we’ve seen new lights, a new artificial playing surface, renovated rest rooms and concession stands, the addition of large video screens in both end zones, the renovation of the outside of the stadium and the new press box.

War Memorial Stadium, which is owned by the state of Arkansas, still stands as a tribute to those Arkansans who have given their lives to defend our country. The Sturgis Plaza was added in 2008 to further honor those who served America. It was built as part of the celebration of the stadium’s 60th anniversary.

The first event at the stadium in 1948 was a University of Arkansas Razorback football game. Some of the most memorable games in program history have taken place in that stadium. I’m glad that I’ll always be able to say that I was there for the Miracle on Markham in 2002. We know Arkansas will continue to play games there the next five seasons. I hope that tradition will continue far into the future.

My memories go beyond Hog games, though. As I said, I played a game there back when the artificial turf was as hard as concrete. The Arkadelphia team for which I was the center recovered a fumbled punt and scored late to defeat an outstanding Cabot team. During this year’s Class 5A state championship game between Morrilton and Batesville, I sat in the press box with two close friends who just happened to be the quarterback and star receiver on that Cabot team 37 years ago. We didn’t know each other at the time. We became friends in college.

Arkansas is a small state, isn’t it?

I saw the first (and last) Bicentennial Bowl in the stadium in 1975 (the game did not survive until the actual bicentennial year) as Henderson took on East Central Oklahoma.

I’ve broadcast several Ouachita games from there.

I’ve seen Arkansas State play there and have enjoyed the UAPB and Grambling bands at halftime of games between those teams.

I go to most of the Little Rock Catholic home games and try to attend the annual Salt Bowl between Benton and Bryant, which draws the biggest crowd of any high school game in the state each year.

The Rev. Billy Graham once attracted 270,000 people to War Memorial Stadium during the course of a week.

Elton John, the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, George Strait and many others have played outdoor concerts there.

This past weekend, several people asked me what I thought would happen to the stadium if the Razorbacks cease playing games there after 2018. As a state facility dedicated to those who have served our country, I’m convinced the stadium will be just fine.

This is the final Southern Fried blog post of 2013. In the comments section below, I invite you to give us your favorite War Memorial Stadium memory. This is NOT a place for the Great Stadium Debate. There are other outlets for that. This is for memories. I hope to hear from many of you.

I’ve been writing a weekly newspaper column for almost five years. One of the most requested columns is the one I wrote about watching my son during Arkansas’ victory over LSU at War Memorial Stadium in 2010. As my Christmas gift to you (a needed gift after two bleak seasons for the Hogs), here again is that column.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Published Dec. 4, 2010:

Sugar fell from the sky in Little Rock shortly after 6 p.m. last 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 I hoped he would remember this moment.

I could feel my eyes misting up as the memories came flooding back — memories of the drive from Arkadelphia to Little Rock in my father’s big Oldsmobile to attend games at War Memorial Stadium, the anticipation building with each passing mile; memories of 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 Miracle on Markham in 2002 and hoping that he would cherish the moment.

Isn’t that one of the reasons for attending such events?

We’re there not only to enjoy the moment but hopefully to create memories along the way, perhaps even picking up a new story to tell around the dinner table 10 or 20 years from now.

Arkansas’ 31-23 win over LSU last Saturday afternoon 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 when the fans stood for every play. We only sat during television timeouts, and goodness knows CBS requires plenty of those.

There can be magic in late November games – the ones that start in the sunlight and end under the lights.

As was the case after the wins over Texas in 1979 and LSU in 2002, no one wanted to leave. The stadium remained packed 10 minutes after the game had ended. I hope my son 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.

Coach Bobby Petrino was surrounded by troopers (the more troopers around 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 the Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a gorgeous November day for college football. We parked in Hillcrest and walked down Harrison, Lee and Van Buren streets. I knew immediately this wasn’t an average contest when I saw people who had charged $10 to park for the Louisiana-Monroe game now charging $30. There were dozens of fans at the intersection of Van Buren and Markham wanting tickets. 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 never to be forgotten.

I’ve never made a secret of my fondness for Little Rock games. 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 and Ole Miss no longer plays at Jackson.

After entering the park, we made our way to stadium commissioner Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party in the lot directly behind the new press box. 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.

An integral part of a Little Rock game day for me is the time spent watching the fans walk by. I greeted friends from all sections of our state. It was, in a sense, a large family reunion.

When it was over after almost four hours of pressure-packed action, I looked at Evan as he joined thousands of his fellow Arkansans in chanting, “BCS! BCS!”

I’ve never been in this stadium when it was louder. We returned to Brenda’s tailgate party after the game and listened to the Hog calls, yells and 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 mother and father.

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.

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 in the fourth quarter.

Remember the smile on the coach’s face and the fans who didn’t want to leave, staying in their seats to savor it all for a few more minutes.

Remember the day sugar fell from the sky.

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Cliff Harris Stadium: A family affair

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

This story originally ran at SportingLifeArkansas.com.

It has been quite a year for Cliff Harris, especially when you consider that he last played football during the 1979 season.

The old Des Arc Eagle, Ouachita Tiger and Dallas Cowboy has been back in the news in a big way, and you can thank Little Rock’s David Bazzel for much of that.

Bazzel — the idea man who came up with the Golden Boot for the Arkansas-LSU football game, the Frank Broyles Award and the Little Rock Touchdown Club — wanted a national football award to be presented at the Touchdown Club’s annual postseason banquet.

Since it was founded in 2004, the Little Rock Touchdown Club has presented player and coach of the year awards in each high school classification. It also has given a most valuable player award for each college program in the state.

David, who is always on the search for something new, was looking for an award that would garner the club some national attention. He spent dozens of hours bouncing from website to website, trying to find a category that didn’t already have an award.

Everything was covered at the NCAA Division I level.

Division II already had the Harlon Hill Trophy over in Florence, Ala., which since 1986 has been presented annually to the top player from that level.

However, there wasn’t a major award for the top small college defensive player in the country. While driving from Siloam Springs to Little Rock on a hot day this summer, I spent more than an hour discussing the idea with David. He wanted to include nominees not only from Division II but also from Division III and the NAIA. He wanted to name the award after Cliff. And he wanted me to help convince Cliff that the Little Rock Touchdown Club does things in a first-class manner.

Cliff’s father and my father played football together at Ouachita in the 1940s, and our parents became close friends. Cliff’s mother was a Henderson Reddie. A mixed marriage, in other words.

Growing up a block from Ouachita’s football stadium, I walked the sidelines as a water boy when Cliff played college football from 1966-69. Cliff’s sister and my sister later attended Ouachita together.

When Cliff played for the Cowboys from 1970-79, we spent many weekends in Dallas watching Cowboys games. Tom Landry would require the players to stay in a hotel the night before a home game. Once the team moved from the Cotton Bowl at the Texas State Fairgrounds to Texas Stadium in Irving, the team hotel was the Holiday Inn Regal Row, which was in a nondescript warehouse district in Irving. We would stay at the team hotel on Saturday nights and ride a bus to the games on Sundays.

George Bernard Shaw wrote that “youth is wasted on the young,” and indeed I didn’t fully appreciate all those Sundays in the 1970s as much then as I do looking back now. It was a rare opportunity for a boy like me from a small town in Arkansas to be around those players and coaches. That was a golden era for the Cowboys as the team went to five Super Bowls in a 10-year period. Not only were the players famous, but Landry was already an icon. Even the general manager (Tex Schramm), the director of player personnel (Gil Brandt), the guy who played the national anthem on the trumpet (Tommy Loy) and the public address announcers (Bill Melton and James Jennings) were celebrities in those days.

Of all the players who have worn the Cowboy uniform through the decades, only 18 have been inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor. Cliff is among those honorees. He has continued to live in the Dallas area but still considers himself an Arkansan and is in the state often.

Once the award was explained to him — and once he was comfortable that there would be a big-time effort to publicize it — Cliff was on board.

The creation of the Cliff Harris Award was announced during a Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting on Monday, Aug. 26. The club has had some famous speakers through the years, but never has there been so much talent on the stage at the same time. They had all come up from Texas to honor Cliff.

There was quarterback Roger Staubach, who played from 1969-79 and was a 1983 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was cornerback Mel Renfro, who played from 1964-77 and was a 1981 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was Charlie Waters, the other safety in the Cowboys secondary during the 1970s.

There was wide receiver Drew Pearson, who played from 1973-83 and was a 2011 Ring of Honor inductee.

There was Gil Brandt.

And there was Gene Stallings, Cliff’s position coach with the Cowboys who went on to win a national college football title as the head coach at the University of Alabama.

It was a special day.

Still, David didn’t have a feel for how popular the award would be since it had never been given before. He was pleasantly surprised several weeks ago when nominations began to roll in from across the country. He was even happier when, after the list of 100 finalists was unveiled, athletic websites at dozens of colleges and universities featured stories about the Cliff Harris Award.

David also was pleased with the trophy — anyone who has ever seen the Golden Boot and the Broyles Award knows that David goes for big and heavy — which was unveiled in Arkadelphia on Nov. 16 at halftime of the Battle of the Ravine. A record crowd packed every nook and cranny of Ouachita’s outdated A.U. Williams Field that day. With the University of Arkansas football team open, the rivalry received unprecedented statewide media attention. The game itself was one for the ages. Henderson completed a second consecutive undefeated regular season with a 60-52 victory in three overtimes.

Ouachita — which finished 7-3 and compiled its sixth consecutive winning season (the most consecutive winning seasons of any college program in the state) — received more positive exposure for its gallant effort against the heavily favored Reddies than it had received in any of its victories earlier in the season.

Cliff and David went home happy that night. But the huge crowd, the lengthy concession lines, the overcrowded press box and more had convinced Ouachita officials that the time had come for something to be done to A.U. Williams Field. Within a couple of weeks, a donor who has so far remained anonymous had made a substantial contribution to the school.

Last Thursday, the Ouachita Board of Trustees voted to launch a 120-day campaign to match that lead gift. The playing field, which is in good condition, will remain the same. There will be new stadium seating, a new press box (I’ve broadcast Ouachita games from the same booth since 1978), new parking lots and other improvements.

There also will be a new name: Cliff Harris Stadium.

To cap it all off, the day after the Ouachita board made its decision, the Des Arc Eagles beat Bearden (which ironically is the hometown of Cliff’s dad) in the Class AA semifinals and earned a spot in this weekend’s state championship game at War Memorial Stadium.

Like I said, it has been quite a year for Cliff Harris.

“Super Bowls and Pro Bowls say a great deal about his contributions to the game, but what many don’t know is the way he did it,” says Ouachita head coach Todd Knight. “Hard work and the values he learned in the Ouachita football program made him unique. Cliff is a great representative of the game of football.”

Cliff was born in Fayetteville, spent his formative years in Hot Springs and graduated from high school at Des Arc after his father was transferred there by Arkansas Power & Light Co. prior to Cliff’s senior year in high school. He played multiple sports growing up but received little interest from college recruiters. Some Harris family friends convinced second-year Ouachita head coach Buddy Benson that Cliff deserved a chance to play college football, and Cliff made a name for himself in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference in the late 1960s.

Cliff was overlooked in the 1970 NFL draft, but Brandt was well aware of the player at the small school in Arkadelphia. Cliff, in fact, won a starting position with the Cowboys as a rookie in 1970. His rookie season was interrupted by a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, but he wasted no time regaining his starting position following his military commitment.

During the next decade, Cliff Harris changed the way the position of free safety was played in the NFL. He rarely left the field, often leading the team not only in interceptions but also in yardage on kickoff and punt returns.

In his 10 years as a Cowboy, Cliff not only played in those five Super Bowls but also was named to the Pro Bowl six times and was named a first-team All-NFL player for four consecutive seasons by both The Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers Association. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, was named to the Dallas Cowboys Silver Season All-Time Team and was selected by Sports Illustrated as the free safety on the magazine’s All-Time Dream Team. He later was awarded the NFL Alumni Legends Award.

Through tenacity, perseverance and old-fashioned hard work, Cliff overcame numerous obstacles in his football career to become one of the best defensive players in the history of the game. Now, he has a major national award and a college football stadium named after him. I just wish his parents, both of whom are deceased, were around to enjoy the moment.

O.J. “Buddy” Harris often was described by my father, who saw a lot of football, as the toughest player he ever knew.

“Buddy” Harris, a pilot during World War II, was shot down and left floating in the ocean at one point. He was tenacious, just like his kids (Cliff’s younger brother Tommy played for the Razorbacks in the 1970s). By the time Cliff began playing for the Cowboys in 1970, “Buddy” Harris was having a difficult time finding him on the field due to complications from diabetes.

“Cliff Harris keeps several images of his father close to his heart,” Kevin Sherrington wrote in The Dallas Morning News. “Linebacker and center at Ouachita Baptist; P-38 Flying Cross; educated, disciplined, upbeat husband and father of three. And then there’s this, too: O.J. Harris, his face inches from a TV screen, making out fleeting shadows. O.J. had first learned he had diabetes through a routine physical. The diagnosis washed out his plans to be a test pilot. But he did as he was told, gave himself insulin shots daily and never complained. And diabetes took his sight at 50. … Cliff didn’t think much about it back then. He was too caught up making and keeping his position with the Cowboys. Cliff says he is who he is because of his father. He figures he still owes him.”

Cliff also is who he is because of his mother. Margaret Harris wasn’t famous like her oldest son, but the redheaded lady known around our house as Big Margaret (so as not to be confused with her daughter, Little Margaret) should have been famous.

Don’t let the term Big Margaret confuse you. She wasn’t a big woman in a physical sense. It was her personality that was big. Margaret Harris died in October 2009 at age 83. My dad always claimed that Little Margaret was a better athlete than either Cliff or Tommy. He enjoyed telling the story of how Cliff made his own high jump pit in the backyard when the family lived in Hot Springs. Cliff tried all afternoon but couldn’t clear the bar. Little Margaret cleared it on her first try. Big Margaret loved it when my dad would tell that story.

Big Margaret, a Glenwood native, would cross the ravine from Henderson and marry a Ouachita football player. When the Harris family moved to Des Arc, my mother’s hometown, they wound up living in the house next to my grandparents. Arkansas is a small place, isn’t it?

After “Buddy” Harris lost his sight, Big Margaret cared for him for years without a complaint. She was always upbeat. In the words of her obituary, “Her devotion to her husband was an inspiration to all those around her.” She had taken her marriage vows seriously — every word of them.

Big Margaret had given up a potential singing career to marry “Buddy” in February 1946, though her voice would continue to bless the churches she attended through the years. During her funeral service at the Piney Grove United Methodist Church near Hot Springs, there was much talk about her singing abilities. Her strong voice also was effective in questioning the calls of football officials from her spot in the stands. She wasn’t shy about questioning a coach, be it Buddy Benson, Frank Broyles or Tom Landry.

Being a redhead myself, I always admired her redheaded feistiness.

I most admired the way she cared for her husband and remained true to her friends. When my father was in the hospital, she would call our house each day for an update on his condition. She was one of those ladies who make living in Arkansas such a pleasure.

When they dedicate Cliff Harris Stadium next fall, I have no doubt that “Buddy” and Big Margaret will be there in spirit.

I also have no doubt that Cliff will be thinking about them that day.

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