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High school football and the boys of ’76

In “Friday Night Lights,” his classic account of high school football in west Texas, H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger writes about spending the 1988 football season in Odessa, Texas.

“I left my job as a newspaper editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer in July 1988 and moved to Odessa two weeks later,” he writes. “The following month I met with the members of the 1988 Permian Panther football team, and for the next four months I was with them through every practice, every meeting, every game, to chronicle the highs and lows of being a high school football player in a town such as this. I went to school with them, and home with them, and rattlesnake hunting with them, and to church with them, because I was interested in portraying them as more than just football players, and also because I liked them.

“I talked with hundreds of people to try to capture the other aspects of the town that I had come to explore, the values about race and education and politics and the economy. Much of what I learned about the town came from these interviews, but some of it naturally came from the personal experience of living there, with a wife and five-year-old twin boys. Odessa very much became home for a year, a place where our kids went to school and we worked and voted and forged lasting friendships.

“It was in Odessa that I found those Friday night lights, and they burned with more intensity than I had ever imagined. Like thousands of others, I got caught up in them. So did my wife. So did my children. As someone later described it, those lights become an addiction if you live in a place like Odessa, the Friday night fix.

“But I also found myself haunted by something else, the words of a father with a son who had gone to Permian and had later become a world-class sprinter in track.

“He saw the irresistible allure of high school sports, but he also saw an inevitable danger in adults’ living vicariously through their young. And he knew of no candle that burned out more quickly than those of the high school athlete.

“‘Athletics lasts for such a short period of time. It ends for people. But while it lasts, it creates this make-believe world where normal rules don’t apply. We build this false atmosphere. When it’s over and the harsh reality sets in, that’s the real joke we play on people. … Everybody wants to experience that superlative moment, and being an athlete can give you that. It’s Camelot for them. But there’s even life after it.’

“With the kind of glory and adulation these kids received for a season in their lives, I am not sure if they were ever encouraged to understand that. As I stood in that beautiful stadium on the plains week after week, it became obvious that these kids held the town on their shoulders.

“Odessa is the setting for this book, but it could be anyplace in this vast land where, on a Friday night, a set of spindly stadium lights rises to the heavens to so powerfully, and so briefly, ignite the darkness.”

This past weekend, I sat at War Memorial Stadium and watched two high school championship games come down to the final seconds.

On Friday night, a senior cornerback from El Dorado by the name of Deandre Williams intercepted a pass near the goal line in the closing seconds as El Dorado held on for a 24-20 victory over Lake Hamilton and the Class 6A championship.

It was the third consecutive state championship for El Dorado, a town that loves its high school football. Lake Hamilton had won the regular season game between the two teams by seven points.

On Saturday afternoon, there was an even more amazing finish. Bentonville entered the Class 7A championship game with a record of 12-0, having routed Fayetteville by a score of 41-6 on Sept. 23. Bentonville had a 25-game winning streak, an offense averaging 44 points per game and a defense allowing an average of only 8.9 point per game.

It looked as if the Tigers would take care of business with a 21-7 lead at the end of the third quarter. Fayetteville fought back, scoring touchdowns with 11:25 and 4:39 left in the game. With the score tied 21-21, Fayetteville had a chance to win the game with 27 seconds remaining. Max Coffin’s 40-yard field goal attempt was wide to the right.

The Class 7A championshp game was headed to overtime.

Bentonville got the ball first and scored in three plays. Fayetteville was down to its final play — fourth-and-goal from the three. Quarterback Austin Allen passed to Reid Holmes for the touchdown to bring the underdogs within a point, 28-27.

Then, something unexpected happened.

Rather than kicking the extra point to send the game into a second overtime, Fayetteville Coach Daryl Patton decided to win it or lose it on the next play. The Bulldogs would go for two.

Allen rolled to his right and then looked back to his left. He found a tight end named Tyler Tuck (what a great football name), who pulled in the football, setting off a wild celebration on the field and in the east stands.

Fayetteville, a 35-point loser to Bentonville just more than two months earlier, had won the state championship by one point in overtime.

My memories drifted back to the fall of 1976 and my own “Friday night fix,” as Bissinger describes it.

I was the starting center for the football team at Arkadelphia High School as a junior. The team had finished 5-5 my sophomore year, and few expected the Badgers to be a contender for a state championship.

As we won games early and gained confidence, a transformation occurred. We began to think of ourselves as champions. We had what they now call swagger.

A victory over a highly ranked Camden High School Panther team (hard to believe the once-proud south Arkansas football program no longer even exists) got us ranked in both the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette.

Our head coach, Vernon Hutchins, had been the head coach at Camden just two years before.

I have fond memories of that fall. My fellow offensive linemen were Tab Turner, Wayne Neel, Larry Copeland and David Rice. Turner, Neel and Rice were seniors. I was the only junior on the line. Copeland was just a sophomore.

We all weighed less than 200 pounds. High school linemen were a lot smaller in those days.

The best memories are of our line coach, Willie Tate, a man I’ll always consider a mentor. He had coached me since the seventh grade with the exception of my 10th-grade season (he moved up from the junior high to the senior high level for that 1976 season).

I remember the music that we played over and over in our dressing room and on the bus — the album “Mothership Connection” by Parliament. We would sing and sway to the music of George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell.

I remember the restaurants that would feed us free meals (the Maverick Steak House and the Big T) and the hundreds of cars that sported bumper stickers handed out by Citizens Bank that proclaimed “Arkadelphia Is A Winner.”

 I remember the major college recruiters who would show up at our practices to watch our tailback, Trent Bryant. You likely remember that Roland Sales started in the backfield in the Orange Bowl for the University of Arkansas on Jan. 1, 1978. The other starting running back in that game for the Razorbacks was freshman Trent Bryant.

Trent later would be moved to the secondary at Arkansas and would play for a time for the Washington Redskins and the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL.

I’ll never forget the day that Forrest City native Bill Shimek, the University of Oklahoma’s star recruiter (he signed Billy Sims out of nearby Hooks, Texas, for the Sooners), showed up at our practice.

He was wearing a full-length leather jacket and mirror shades. He looked cool — 1976 cool.

As we stared at him during offensive line drills, Coach Tate reminded us of something: “He’s only here to see the pretty boy. He has no interest in you sweat hogs. So get back to work.”

We tied Hot Springs Lakeside on a miserable homecoming night in a heavy rain, but that didn’t deter us as we finished the regular season 9-0-1.

The first-round playoff opponent was Star City. The sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald was a Warren native named Maylon Rice. He wrote a column about the fact that when he grew up in Warren, Star City “in dirt poor Lincoln County” was a place where the fans showed up to games late and left early.

We arrived in Star City more than two hours before kickoff, and the home side of the stadium was already full. Star City boosters had made thousands of copies of Maylon’s column and handed them out all over the county.

The early arriving home crowd didn’t help them. We scored touchdowns on our first three possessions and rolled to an easy victory.

Cabot proved to be more of a challenge in the semifinals. In a defensive struggle, the Panthers fumbled a punt, we recovered and made a short drive to score the winning touchdown at War Memorial Stadium in what many people called “the real state championship game.”

It wasn’t, though we were strong favorites going into the title game against a Mena team quarterbacked by Joe Bunch. I later would attend Ouachita Baptist University with Joe and become friends with the person who quarterbacked the Cabot team, David Lewis. Isn’t this a small state?

In those days, the championshp games were not all played at War Memorial Stadium. The decision was made to hold the title game on our home field, Henderson State University’s Haygood Stadium (Arkadelphia High School didn’t have its own stadium at the time).

In retrospect, it was a huge mistake not to head back to Little Rock and the artificial turf. It rained all week, and Haygood Stadium’s natural turf was a quagmire. I’ve never witnessed a football game played on a worse field. Not to make excuses, but the field conditions slowed our running game and led to uncharacteristic mistakes. The muddy field nullified our speed advantage and gave the underdog a chance.

Trailing late, our offense drove the length of the field, determined to secure that state championship despite the field conditions.

Twice in the final minute, we appeared to have scored a touchdown.

Each time, the officials marked us short of the goal line.

We turned the ball over on fourth down, with the ball marked inches from the winning score.

It hurt more than I can describe.

It wasn’t “only a game” to us as teenage boys. Call me silly, but I find it hard to talk about 35 years later.

My teammates rarely discussed that game. Though we had one of the finest teams in the school’s history, we’ve never had a reunion of any type.

Perhaps the boys of 1976, now men in their 50s, will get together one day and celebrate what we accomplished in that 11-1-1 season.

When I wrote about Ouachita coming up inches short against Henderson in this year’s Battle of the Ravine, the subject of the Mena game came up on my Facebook page.

Our quarterback that season was Darren O’Quinn. He would go on to play football at Henderson, graduate from pharmacy school at UAMS in 1984 and graduate from law school at UALR in 1987.

Darren weighed in on my Facebook page with these words: “Everyone was so deeply hurt by the game that we all just never talked about it again. It’s kind of like the 1969 Razorbacks who lost to Texas with Frank Broyles never wanting to watch the film or talk about it. It’s a shame because we had everything to be proud of. There were a lot of great competitors on that 1976 team. It was a magical and life-changing year for me.

“I remember we had basketball practice the day after the loss, and I was too sad to go. But Daddy made me. The thing I learned eventually is life is not always fair but you have to keep getting up, putting your feet on the floor and competing.”

Those are wise words, Darren.

I hope the heartbroken players from Lake Hamilton and Bentonville, who saw their state title hopes die in the final seconds last weekend, will learn the lesson in time.

And I hope the boys of 1976 will one day cast off the bitter taste of the final minute of the final game, finally allowing themselves to celebrate all that was good about that autumn 35 years ago. I love you guys.

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