Tears at 10-0

As the clock ticked down to 0:00 on a cold, gray Saturday afternoon, I tried to describe the scene at Carpenter-Haygood Stadium in Arkadelphia to those who were listening to the broadcast of the 88th Battle of the Ravine.

For the previous 30 minutes — since it had become likely that Ouachita Baptist University would beat Henderson State University to go to 10-0 for the first time in school history — the messages had been flooding my phone. They came from Ouachita graduates across the country who were listening online.

I attempted to paint a verbal picture as the packed Ouachita stands emptied, students and even some adults storming the field in the wake of one of the most historic victories in the rich annals of a football program that dates back to 1895. Henderson had become the giant among NCAA Division II football programs in the state, going undefeated during the regular season in 2012 and 2013 and winning the four previous Battles of the Ravine. The Reddies were 30-1 in regular-season games since the start of the 2012 season, having only lost to a talented Harding squad in the final minute earlier this season.

Ouachita was ranked No. 9, and Henderson was ranked No. 14 in Division II coming into Saturday’s game.  Despite Ouachita’s higher ranking, 100 percent of those who picked the game on the Great American Conference message board had gone with Henderson.

No doubt, the Reddies were Goliath.

As I drove from my home in Little Rock to Arkadelphia on Saturday morning, the clouds thickened. The day reminded me of the Saturday before Thanksgiving in 1975 when Ouachita and Henderson met in another classic at the same stadium. The two schools held a joint homecoming for a few years in the 1970s with the game played each season at Henderson’s newer and larger stadium. Even though the 1975 contest was at Henderson, it was technically Ouachita’s home game and Ouachita sports information director Mac Sisson was on the public address system that day.

Mac would always give the weather before the game, and I can still remember his words in that distinctive baritone: “Winds out of the north at 10 to 15 miles per hour with a temperature of 29 degrees.”

A bit of personal history: I grew up a block from Ouachita’s football stadium, the son of a former Ouachita quarterback and a former Ouachitonian beauty (I still have the yearbook in which my mother was featured as such). I’ve bled purple since birth.

The football series between Ouachita and Henderson was suspended following the 1951 game due to excessive vandalism and was not resumed until 1963. I would have been 4 years old in 1963, and I would have been at the Battle of the Ravine. I’ve been at every Battle of the Ravine since 1963, in fact, with the exception of the 1986-87 games when I was working for the Arkansas Democrat in Washington, D.C. It is, to put it simply, a part of who I am.

Like most boys who grew up in Arkansas, I rooted for the Razorbacks. Unlike most boys, Arkansas was not my main team. Ouachita was.

We didn’t often go to Hog games in Fayetteville or Little Rock. We were too busy following Ouachita. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of trips back from places like Searcy, Conway, Russellville, Magnolia and Monticello in the back of my father’s big Oldsmobile.

From about age 6 through high school, I walked the Ouachita sidelines during games. Legendary Coach Buddy Benson was like an uncle to me, and he welcomed a group of boys — Tab Turner, Neal Turner, Mike Balay, Richard Balay and others — to work as ball boys and water boys.

I was in the 10th grade when that 1975 game occurred. I played high school football on Friday nights but spent my Saturdays watching Ouachita. On the morning of the game, I accompanied the team’s head manager, Wesley Kluck, to my father’s downtown sporting goods store to borrow Coleman stoves, which we put along the sideline so the players could warm their hands on the frigid afternoon.

Henderson was 9-0. Ouachita was 8-1, having lost to Southern Arkansas in Magnolia three weeks earlier. Both teams were ranked nationally.

I love those November games that begin in the daylight and end under the lights. The lights were on and darkness had descended on Arkadelphia. Ouachita trailed 20-14 and faced a fourth-and-25 with time running out.

One last chance.

Quarterback Bill Vining Jr., who had grown up just down the street from me in the Ouachita Hills neighborhood, passed to Gary Reese across the middle. Out came the chains.

The stadium was packed but dead quiet as those chains were stretched. The referee went to a knee for a better look. Then, he came up and signaled that Ouachita had made a first down by inches.

New life.

Two plays later, Vining passed to Ken Stuckey for a touchdown. Russell Daniel kicked the extra point.

Ouachita 21, Henderson 20.

I’ve had the good fortune in my career of covering Super Bowls, Sugar Bowls, Cotton Bowls and more. That still rates as the greatest football game I ever attended.

I still have a photo of the players carrying Coach Benson off the field. It was among the most memorable days of my life.

I thought about that day as I pulled into the parking lot of Henderson’s Carpenter-Haygood at noon last Saturday.

Same stadium. Same weather. Same big stakes.

At age 55, I find myself becoming more nostalgic.

I sat in my car for several minutes before walking to the press box and thought about the past.

I thought about how I wish my dad, who died in March 2011, could be here. Oh, how he would have enjoyed the atmosphere that electrified Arkadelphia.

Dad had been raised poor during the Great Depression in Benton. Following his high school graduation in 1942, he took a job with the Chicago Bridge & Iron Co., which was building the aluminum plant in Saline County. The United States had entered World War II in December 1941, and there was a rush to get the plant finished so it could contribute to the war effort. Dad was paid union wages and found himself making more than his father had ever made. He told his parents that he would stay with the company rather than going to college.

He had been offered a football scholarship to Ouachita, and my grandmother was insistent that he go to college, something neither she nor my grandfather had done. She called the Ouachita head coach, Bill Walton, and ordered him not to let my father come home once he reached campus for a visit.

The 1942 Ouachita team went 9-1, losing only to Union University in Jackson, Tenn. Dad joined the Army Air Corps the following spring and served for two years. He returned to Ouachita after the war to obtain a degree and played on the 1945, 1946 and 1947 teams. He met a pretty young lady named Carolyn Caskey from Des Arc and married her prior to graduation in the spring of 1948.

My sister was recently cleaning out the house we grew up in and found the program from the Battle of the Ravine on Thanksgiving Day 1947. My father is listed as the starting quarterback. She gave me the program, which I now consider to be among my most cherished possessions.

As I sat in my car Saturday, I also thought of Coach Benson, who was my childhood hero along with my father and Coach Bill Vining Sr. This would have been his type of game. Buddy Benson had been among the nation’s most highly recruited high school players coming out of high school at De Queen. He signed with Oklahoma, a powerhouse in those days, but later transferred to Arkansas, where he threw the famous Powder River pass to beat nationally ranked Ole Miss at War Memorial Stadium in 1954.

Coach Benson was the head coach at Ouachita for an amazing 31 seasons, winning more than he lost while playing much larger state schools with bigger athletic budgets. He passed away on Good Friday in that terrible spring of 2011, just weeks after I had lost my dad.

I also thought of the aforementioned Mac Sisson, my college mentor who gave me the chance as an untested freshman in 1978 to begin broadcasting Ouachita games, something I’m still doing all these years later. Mac and I spent fall Saturdays for years traveling through Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas and other states for Ouachita games. I miss him every day.

I thought of family friends like Ike Sharp and his son Paul, also gone. They had both played at Ouachita and personified what my alma mater’s football program is all about.

To be fair, I thought of men who had been among my mentors who were on the Henderson side and are also gone, coaches with names like Wells, Sawyer and Reese. They were giants to me. They also would have enjoyed this big-game atmosphere.

Ouachita trailed 17-7 in the first quarter of Saturday’s game, and it appeared the Reddies were poised to blow the Tigers out.

I didn’t say it on the radio, but I thought at that point in the game about something Coach Benson would tell his team before every game: “If at first the game or breaks go against you, don’t get shook or rattled. Put on more steam.”

You see, it’s a 60-minute game.

Coach Benson had played for Bowden Wyatt at Arkansas. Wyatt had played for Gen. Robert Neyland at Tennessee. Wyatt would repeat Neyland’s pregame maxims before each game. Buddy Benson would continue that tradition at Ouachita.

Ouachita indeed put on more steam, outscoring the powerful Reddies 34-3 the rest of the way.

I counted down the final seconds on the radio and looked at the Ouachita fans pouring from the stands. That’s when the tears came.

Silly, you say, for a 55-year-old man to cry at the end of an athletic contest. It’s only a game, you say.

I’m sorry, but it’s more than a game to me. Ouachita football has been one of my passions since birth.

My wish for my sons and for you as we near Thanksgiving is that you have one or more great passions. It might be a passion for music. It might be a passion for acting. It might be a passion for writing. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with sports. It has to do with finding something you care about deeply throughout your life. It’s even more special if you’ve suffered defeats so you more fully appreciate the high points.

I know defeat.

So does Ouachita’s head coach, Todd Knight. I was on the committee that was appointed to search for a head coach following the resignation of Red Parker at Ouachita after the 1998 season. We ended up offering the job to Knight, a former Ouachita player, who had led the Delta State in Mississippi to its first Gulf South Conference title. Delta is bigger, richer and had things rolling.

Todd turned down our offer. He turned it down multiple times. The then-Ouachita president, Andy Westmoreland, wouldn’t take no for an answer. He kept telling Todd to pray about it. Shortly before Christmas, Todd decided to come to Ouachita despite having recruited players to Delta who would win the Division II national championship in 2000.

His 1999 team started 3-1 but, lacking depth, finished 3-7. When you’re a small school like Ouachita, you welcome anyone who wants to jump aboard the bandwagon. Yet I suspect this year’s undefeated season is even more special for those of us who were in Tahlequah, Okla., on the afternoon of Oct. 16, 1999, as Northeastern State beat Ouachita by a score of 57-0. Or those of us who were there for the last game that season as Harding beat Ouachita by a score of 41-7.

Seven of Todd Knight’s first nine seasons at Ouachita, one of the smallest schools in the country to play the sport at the Division II level, were losing campaigns. Most schools wouldn’t have stuck with a coach that long. Ouachita stuck with Todd Knight, and Todd Knight stuck with Ouachita.

Patience paid off.

Ouachita is now the only college football program in the state — at any level — with seven consecutive winning seasons.

So as the students stormed the field and the tears rolled down my cheeks at about 6 p.m. Saturday, my mind wandered.

I thought about Dad, Coach Benson, Ike Sharp, Paul Sharp, Mac Sisson and other men who bled purple who were watching from above.

I thought about Coach Knight and that day in Tahlequah when I had struggled to broadcast the end of a 57-0 blowout.

I thought about how happy I was for the students, the faculty, the staff, the alumni and the other good people associated with this school that has been so much a part of my life.

I thought about my wife and son sitting in the cold across the way, no doubt also enjoying the moment.

I thought of past Ouachita presidents like Dan Grant and Ben Elrod, Arkansas leaders who know how difficult it is for a little school like Ouachita to make it to 10-0.

And I thought about how happy I was to share it all with what I call my “Saturday family,” the men with whom I share the broadcast booth.

My childhood friend Jeff Root, who grew up a few houses down Carter Road from my house, has been in the broadcast booth with me for more than a quarter of a century. Jeff, who is now the dean of the School of Humanities at Ouachita, and I have a special bond. Jeff also was on the committee that hired Coach Knight. Saturday was the culmination of all we had hoped for 16 years ago.

I also was glad to have Richard Atkinson and Patrick Fleming, who have been in the booth for eight years, there. It’s hard to explain to those who aren’t broadcasters, but you really do become like family.

I continued to broadcast — after all, there was still work to do on the postgame show– as the tears ran down my cheeks. I’m not really sure what I said, though. On this cold November day, I had been transported back in time.

I was a kid again, marveling at my good fortune; the good fortune of one who grew up in a small town in the South and attended a small school where people call you by your name and care about you. A place where people give you opportunities. After all, who has ever heard of a 19-year-old college play-by-play man?

Once again, I was in the back seat of the Oldsmobile, fighting to keep my eyes open as Dad drove us through the autumn Arkansas night, home from a Ouachita victory.

Once again, Buddy Benson was on the sideline in his starched shirt and tie, and Mac Sisson was in the press box.

Once again, my beloved Tigers were on top and the future was limitless.

I’m blessed; blessed beyond description as we enter another Thanksgiving season.

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