The day sugar fell from the sky

Sugar fell from the sky in midtown Little Rock at about 6 p.m. Saturday.

You couldn’t see it, but you can bet it was there.

I glanced over at my 13-year-old son, who had yelled himself to the point of exhaustion during the previous four hours, and hoped he would remember this moment.

I could even feel my eyes misting up as the memories came flooding back — memories of the drive in the Oldsmobile with my father for games at War Memorial Stadium when I was a boy, the anticipation building with each passing mile; memories of sitting with my friend Jeff Root and watching the crowd simply refuse to leave following Arkansas’ victory over Texas in 1979; memories of looking over at my older son (who was 9 at the time) following the original Miracle on Markham in 2002 and hoping that Austin would cherish the moment until he was an old man.

Isn’t that one of the reasons for attending such events? We’re there not only to enjoy the moment but hopefully to create some memories, perhaps having a story to tell around the dinner table 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

Arkansas’ 31-23 win over LSU was one of those memory-making games.

I’ve been attending games at War Memorial Stadium for more than 40 years and can never remember one when the fans stood for every play. We only sat during the television timeouts. And, goodness knows, CBS requires plenty of those.

At today’s Little Rock Touchdown Club meeting, Lunsford Bridges told me that he has been going to games at the stadium for more than 50 years and can’t remember the crowd ever being that intense.

And then Jim Rasco confirmed it. Rasco, the man I consider to be the state’s foremost sports historian, has been to at least one game in War Memorial Stadium each year since it opened in 1948. He agreed that Saturday was something special.

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

As I looked at my son when the clock hit 0:00, I hoped he would soak it in.

As was the case after beating Texas in 1979 and LSU in 2002, no one wanted to leave. The stadium was still packed 10 minutes after the game had ended. I hope he remembers that.

In the north end zone, motorcycle officers in their helmets from the Little Rock Police Department protected the goal post from being torn down. In the south end zone, the goal post was protected by troopers from the Arkansas State Police. I hope he remembers that.

Bobby Petrino was surrounded by troopers (the more troopers surrounding a Southern football coach, the bigger the game) and television cameramen as he exited the field, smiling more than I’ve ever seen him smile. I hope Evan remembers that, too.

The weather had cooperated fully on this Saturday after Thanksgiving. It was a gorgeous November day for college football, and (yes, I will reach for the following cliche) one could sense the electricity in the air while walking toward the stadium.

We parked in Hillcrest and made the trek down Harrison, Lee and Van Buren streets. Hillcrest residents sat in their yards talking about the game. You knew immediately it was not an average contest when you saw people who had charged $10 to park for the Louisiana-Monroe game now charging $30. There were fans wanting tickets — lots of them — at the intersection of Van Buren and Markham. No one was selling.

The policeman signaled for us to cross Markham Street. We walked into War Memorial Park for what would turn out to be an afternoon not soon to be forgotten.

I’ve never made a secret of my fondness for Little Rock games or the fact that I took the Little Rock side in the Great Stadium Debate.

I cherish those traditions that make our state unique, and having the state’s largest university play its home football games in two places sets us apart in an era when Alabama no longer plays at Birmingham, Ole Miss no longer plays at Jackson, etc. When those who favored moving all home games to Fayetteville made the argument that this was no longer done in Alabama and Mississippi, it only strengthened my resolve.

“Good,” I would say. “That’s all the more reason not to change. This makes us even more special. And since when did we start using Mississippi and Alabama as examples of how to do things anyway?”

Parking in and walking through shaded residential neighborhoods is just better to me than parking down by Baum Stadium in Fayetteville and walking through parking lots to the stadium. I was fond of old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore when I would attend Orioles baseball games there in the 1980s while living in Washington, D.C. One of the things I liked was parking on residential streets and buying food from the people with grills set up in their front yards. Maybe I’m a slave to nostalgia, but Little Rock games are different in a good way.

As great as the Iron Bowl is (Alabama-Auburn is the best rivalry in major college football, and Ouachita-Henderson is the best rivalry in small college football), something was lost when that contest was moved out of Legion Field in Birmingham. I attended the Iron Bowl four times in Birmingham, and there was something to be said for having the same number of Auburn fans and the same number of Alabama fans packed into one place.

Shame on the city of Birmingham for letting Legion Field deteriorate to the point that an upper deck (which had proclaimed Birmingham as the Football Capital of the South across its front) had to be removed.

Congratulations again are in order to the War Memorial Stadium Commission members for the many improvements made during the past six or seven years. Now, make it priority No. 1 to fix those clocks! Why do there always seem to be clock problems when the Razorbacks play in Little Rock?

After entering the park, we made our way as always to Brenda Scisson’s tailgate party in the lot directly behind the new pressbox. I can think of few things better than this: A beautiful November afternoon, good friends, what promises to be a great college football game, fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches. Thank God I love college football. Thank God I live in the South.

An integral part of the day is the time spent standing behind the vehicle while facing the stadium and watching the fans walk by. With a fried chicken breast in one hand, I greeted friends from all sections of the state. It is, in a sense, a big family reunion filled with people like me — people born in Arkansas who chose to stay here as adults, raise their families and do our best to improve this place we love.

A thought struck me: Mississippi has the Neshoba County Fair. People come and stay all week, walking from cabin to cabin and visiting with friends. Though it only lasts a few hours, this is my Arkansas version of the Neshoba County Fair: A chance to see friends and acquaintances from across Arkansas.

I turned around and gazed across the golf course at the tents. The tailgating scene there has exploded in the past decade. It’s not as fancy or as famous as Oxford’s Grove, but the War Memorial golf course is much bigger, much more accessible to the common man, less elitist, less of a clique. Knowing they only get two shots a year at doing it right, those who set up shop out on the golf course pour their energy into having a good time. I’ve had the pleasure of attending college football games in many states, and the War Memorial golf course is as good a pregame scene as one can find anywhere.

I won’t write about the game itself. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely already read tens of thousands of words about the game.

I looked at Evan as he joined thousands of his fellow Arkansans in chanting “BCS! BCS!”

No, I’ve never been in this stadium when it was louder.

We returned to Brenda’s party after the game and listened to the Hog calls, the yells and the whoops that were coming from the now dark golf course.

It was a happy night in Arkansas.

Remember this sweet November day, Evan.

Remember that you sat between your father and mother.

Remember how you screamed at the top of your lungs each time LSU came to the line, feeling as if your effort were playing a role in the game (in fact, it was).

Remember that touchdown as time expired in the first half.

Remember that fourth-down play that resulted in a touchdown right in front of you.

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

Remember the day sugar fell from the sky.

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27 Responses to “The day sugar fell from the sky”

  1. Rocky says:

    Great post Rex! Those of us who love being from the south, football, football in the south and all that goes with it understand. All of us who have children and have sat through big games understand the memories that are made.

  2. Rick Overturf says:

    Great Great Article Rex. I too was in the stands in 1979 for that Texas game which I believe was the loudest I have ever heard that stadium and a few years later against Andre Ware and the Houston Cougars was a very loud atmosphere also. Saturday was a good one especially against the Tigers of LSU. I relate so much with this article because I was there along with many many fans across the Great State of Arkansas. Thanks for bringing back the memories. I love watching games at War Memorial and it does need an upgrade of sorts and I stand with you in keeping a few games there. The electricity and excitement at War Memorial simply can not be matched especially for a huge game like those against LSU. Thanks again.

  3. rexnelson says:

    Thanks, Rocky and Rick.

    One of my other memories of the 1979 win over Texas was driving west on Cantrell toward Interstate 430. People were in their yards banging the tops of metal trash cans as if they were drums. It was as if we had won the war.

    By 1994, I was living just off Cantrell in that same area. On the night Arkansas won the national basketball championship, I sat on my back deck until midnight just to hear the car horns up on Cantrell and the people setting off fireworks over in Reservoir Park.

    Great memories indeed — Rex

  4. Hogshead says:

    I’m reminded of Lou Holtz’s famous quote, when, in 1978, the Hogs were playing their last game of the season and fans began throwing oranges onto the field in anticipation of a trip to the Orange Bowl. Coach Lou Holtz’s reaction? “Thank God we’re not going to the Gator Bowl.”

  5. Doug Wilhite says:

    “When those who favored moving all home games to Fayetteville made the argument that this was no longer done in Alabama and Mississippi, it only strengthened my resolve.”

    This has always been my main argument in the GSD. Why do we want to follow the lead of Bama or Ole Miss? We are Arkansas! We do things a little different here!

  6. Mark Carter says:

    Great read, Rex. It was indeed a special day, and War Memorial is a special place. George Waldon and I were handing out and throwing packets of sugar after Knile’s first score (let’s just say we were confident, and Kroger does not sell sugar cubes…).

    Anyway, the whole Hogs-Little Rock-War Memorial dynamic is pretty amazing, and something outsiders just can’t fully appreciate.

    One day, perhaps in 2010, we’ll lure the GameDay crew for the LSU game. Can you imagine that scene…GameDay on the Course in the Rock?

  7. rexnelson says:

    Oh, how I wish we could get GameDay to Little Rock, Mark.

    They really would enjoy that scene on the golf course — Rex.

  8. Mark Carter says:

    The GameDay crew would be blown away, I think. I can picture ‘em set up on the greenspace where the Walker Tennis Center sat until earlier this year…or better yet over at the southwestern intersection of Markham and Fair Park, facing the Exxon across the street and with the course and flags and tents and tens of thousands behind them. What a backdrop that would be.

    And of course, earlier I meant 2012. Maybe when they’re forced to make a return trip to Fayetteville next fall because we just can’t be ignored, we can begin planting Little Rock seeds.

  9. Gordon Stephan says:

    Rex,
    Even though it’s been over 50 years, I well recall walking across the campus of the University of Minnesota with my parents to their “Memorial Stadium” to watch the Gophers play when they actually still had a chance of going to the Rose Bowl (and did, with Sandy Stephens, in 1960 or so).
    Our War Memorial is smaller, louder and way more fun.
    Thanks for the post, I now feel like I grew up here with great memories from a great story-teller.
    Gordon

  10. Jonathan says:

    Rex,

    Great article, as always. Speaking as an Auburn fan you know, I will tell you that the deterioration of Legion Field was only one of the reasons Auburn wanted to move the game from Birmingham. It was anything but a nuetral site. The police rode horses with Alabama vests and bama sweatbands on the legs…ticket takers were usually in a Bama hat and Auburn folk were treated as 2nd class citizens…and to top it off, Alabama usually played 2-3 games a year at Legion Field so it was largely regarded as thier home field. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the “Old Grey Lady” and when I travel back home I will detour to drive by…but it was time to move on.

    Great article…and glad we could play a role in the sugar falling from the sky! War Eagle my friend.

  11. rexnelson says:

    You are right, Jonathan, there was more to Auburn’s initial decision. Still, it is a shame that stadium was allowed to rot as much as it has.

    I am glad the state (you would be surprised how many people think War Memorial is a Little Rock city facility rather than a state facility) has worked to keep War Memorial viable. Were it a city facility, we would be selling it to UAMS to tear down for parking.

    Still, that old Iron Bowl atmosphere of having the fans evenly divided was neat, something that makes the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry still exciting.

    War Eagle! — Rex

  12. Burt says:

    Definitely one of the best posts I have read of yours Rex, and that is saying a lot! Thank you for this blog and thank you for everything you do for Arkansas.

    Saturday was my fondest Razorback memory in my quarter-century. Amazing atmosphere, great game, and big things will come as a result of the victory. That game was, perhaps, the best argument to keep the home game set-up as could have been made. I am certain Jeff Long took note.

    Would love to get together over the break to catch up. I hope you have a great holiday season with your family.

    P.S. Next year, you have a free spot to park at my house on A street. I expect you to take me up on that!

  13. Mike says:

    Great article, I felt nostalgic too. It just seemed different from other big wins because it seems our program has turned a corner.

    I loved the BCS chant. The hogcall in the last minutes, I think when LSU took a time out to rest, was the loudest I have heard in 20 years of games. I also loved WMS playing “Pour Some Sugar on Me” when the clock expired. Awesome!

  14. Rex,
    You have captured in print the emotions I have for that wonderful place where the state of Arkansas unites on a Saturday afternoon to show our pride and support our team. My son and I have many great memories of games at WMS. This past one is at the top of the list, along with another game with LSU several years ago.
    One of those late November cold fronts had blown through that morning, bringing rain and dropping the temperature to near freezing. I failed at talking my then 8 year old out of going…I’m glad I did. I didn’t mind the cold temps or the dirzzle freezing on the bill of my cap because the Hogs kicked LSU all over the field that day…we had the best time and formed a lifelong memory that we will one day share with our children/grandchildren.
    Thank you for capturing the essence of the spirit of War Memorial!

  15. Jeremy Hutchinson says:

    Rex, this needs to be a guest column in the Democrat Gazette or even Sports Illustrated. Your post sums up what Razorback Football means to our state and it’s people. I really enjoyed reading it.

  16. Jim Brewer says:

    Rex, I’ve always admired your mastery of the written word, but you’ve outdone yourself on this one. I took my son to his first Razorback game at War Memorial in 1990. He was three and has no memory of the day, but I do. I have been on both sides of the Great Stadium Debate. As a UA student in the 1970′s, I hated that we only got three on-campus football weekends a year and my daughter, now a UA sophomore, thinks I’m just being sentimental for not wanting all the games moved to Razorback Stadium. I’m afraid there is coming a day . . . and soon . . . when simple economics will dictate the outcome of the GSD and Razorback games at WMS will be cherished memory. But what memories!

  17. Scotty Adams says:

    Rex,

    I hate to say it but that kind of brought a tear to my eye. It made me think of all the great games and quality time I spent with my late PaPaw and of course my father. Our family doesn’t hunt, so going to these games is something we always shared together. My oldest son is almost 5 now and i can’t wait to continue the tradition starting with him next season. Fantastic article! GO HOGS!

  18. rexnelson says:

    Jim, Jeremy, John, Mike and Burt: Thanks so much for the kind comments.

    They really mean a lot to me.

    I also love the two high school football state championship weekends. I plan to be at all three games this weekend and all three games next weekend. Football at War Memorial is fun — Rex

  19. rexnelson says:

    Find tickets for you and your son, Scotty, for next year’s two Little Rock games.

    He will thank you when you are an old man! — Rex

  20. Terry DeWitt says:

    Rex,
    This is a great story. I have been able to see 4 of the Razorback games this year while making all 10 of the OBU Tiger games (and listening to you on the radio for most of them). I was able to take my son to the Auburn game this year. We ended up sitting on the 45 yard line, row 7 with their recruits. What a game and how exciting it was to see Cam Newton. I hope he remembers our time together (although he is now 20) and how special it was to see the Hogs. War Memorial Stadium is a special place for me too. We enjoyed the tailgating and the “Arkansas” homecoming. Cheers!

  21. Tim Lowry says:

    I loved it Rex. You really grasp what it is like to be a Razorback fan. I was lucky enough to be at the ’79 Texas game and the shootout between Andre Ware and Quinn Grovey. I remember the whole stadium yelling for the defense, “DIG IN BLACKSHIRTS”, everyone knowing that’s what Monte Kiffin called his starting defense.I remember him meeting his defense out on the field when Texas missed the field goal. I was at the LSU game with my daughter Saturday as well and my pride swelled nearly to the point of tears I was so proud of the hogs. She is a transplanted Mississippi St fan but has put the hogs on top of her list with State being second. Even she realized what a special moment this was.Keep up your great work.

  22. Robert Vaughan says:

    Rex, I feel the emotion,this is why War Memorial in Little Rock is so great, it brings the entire state together. If it is ever lost ,there wil be major divisions in recruiting ,fan base and pride. You expressed it so well. Go Hogs and darn it , go War Eagles.

  23. rexnelson says:

    Thanks Terry, Tim and Robert. Auburn came through in a big way! Nawlins bound — Rex

  24. Jim Rasco says:

    Rex – Sunday afternoon, I read your column that I had cut out of the Democrat to my 9-year-old grandson. He attended the LSU game with me and stood for every single play. I got choked up a little reading your column aloud to him and remembering both the LSU game and the 1948 Arkansas – Rice game that my father took me to (just days before my 7th birthday) — and all of the games in between. By the way, at the LSU game, Ryan Mallett’s parents and grandmother sat in the seats directly in front of us. When my daughter and granddaughter had to leave early, Ryan’s grandmother moved up and sat by my grandson for the remainder of the game. That made it extra exciting for my grandson.

  25. rexnelson says:

    I am so glad you had your grandson with you, Jim.

    I hope he remembers that game a LONG time.

    I know that Evan, Melissa and I will — Rex

  26. J.D. Woodard says:

    I have preserved this article from the paper along with the fall sat. & sun. sports sections. My plan is to have them read to me when senility sets in. Occasionally, someone puts in print what others feel at the soul level, but are unable to express. This article brought memories my Razorback (and Ouachita) experiences with my Father. Thank you Rex.

  27. rexnelson says:

    Thanks so much, J.D. I hope you are well — Rex

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