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.