Following his graduation from Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys in 1976, Jay Jennings decided to walk on for the football team at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“It was pretty illogical,” he tells me over breakfast at the Capital Hotel. “I had wanted to try playing football at the college level, but I ended up getting accepted at a Southeastern Conference school.”
Had he gone to an Ivy League school, he likely could have played.
But the SEC, the greatest college football conference of them all?
Jennings spent the summer working out with Little Rock Hall graduate Greg Martin, the Vanderbilt kicker. Upon entering college, it didn’t take Jennings long to figure out that he wouldn’t play much at the SEC level.
He vividly remembers the week he spent impersonating the Alabama tailback.
“I wanted to say to those tackling me in practice, ‘The guy you face Saturday is going to be a lot faster than me.’ It was fun to give it a try. But there was no future there for me.”
There was, however, a future as a writer. And Jennings is a fine one. After graduating from Vanderbilt, he earned a graduate degree in English literature from the University of Chicago and taught for a time before moving to New York in 1986 to pursue his writing career. He was later a reporter at Sports Illustrated.
His new book is titled “Carry The Rock: Race, Football and the Soul of an American City.”
Jennings moved back to Little Rock in May 2007 after convincing the then head football coach at Little Rock Central High School, Bernie Cox, to give him total access to the school’s football program. The book weaves the story of that team’s 6-4 campaign in the fall of 2007 into the complex history of race relations in this state and its largest city.
No one could have predicted in the autumn of 2007 that Central High would go 0-10 in football in both 2008 and 2009. Cox announced his retirement from Central High last year and is now an assistant at Arkansas Baptist High School, where he also teaches. He’s a central character in the book, albeit a reluctant one who has never sought to draw attention to himself.
“Bernie Cox has a voice that’s oddly soft for a coach,” Jennings writes. “Background noise of any kind — an air conditioner, an idling bus, a lawn mower, Central’s marching band at practice, even a cell phone’s ringtone — might eclipse it.
“As he started addressing the parents at a preseason meeting in Central’s auditorium, the same one Mary Lewis had christened with her arias 80 years before, the listeners scattered across the orchestra seats leaned forward to hear. His voice may have been soft, but he was delivering his own aria, one that differed in tone from year to year but in some ways was as unchanging as any by Verdi. He hit the same notes in 2007 that he’d been hitting since 1975, his first year as head coach.
“Standing in front of the stage rather than on it, he was sure some of the parents wouldn’t like what they heard from him, but then, some never did. The parents he didn’t care for were the ones who either didn’t participate in their sons’ football lives at all or participated too much. The former group saddened him.”
Eddie Dean wrote a glowing review of Jennings’ book for last Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. In summarizing the “Carry The Rock,” Dean writes: “As the Tigers struggle on the field, Little Rock faces its own problems. A school board divided along race lines bickers publicly, while appeals courts grapple with inequities wrought by decades of school redistricting and other failed attempts to emulate Central’s example. As the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine approaches, former Tiger star Ken Richardson, a member of the city board of directors, sums up Little Rock’s racial dilemma: ‘Are we really embracing each other or are we just tolerating each other?’
“By addressing that question, ‘Carry The Rock’ transcends the season-on-the-brink genre. Mr. Jennings recounts painful events from Little Rock’s past, including the 1927 lynching of a black man, whose body was paraded through town and burned in a pyre by a mob that foreshadows the throngs that 30 years later harangued the Little Rock Nine. Mr. Jennings reminds us that the murderers escaped trial and that, for years, the public memory of the lynching survived in the oral histories of local blacks, not in history books.
“As for the current moment, Mr. Jennings uses his home-field advantage to capture moments that an out-of-town writer might miss.”
Indeed, Jay Jennings has a home-field advantage. He comes from a well-known Little Rock family. His father, Walter, is now 89, retired from First Commercial Trust and attending many of the events being held to mark the release of the book. Walter Jennings graduated from Little Rock High School in 1939.
“The fact that Dad was alive when the 1927 events I wrote about occurred makes you realize how present the past is,” Jay Jennings says.
In the acknowledgments section of his book, Jennings writes: “My late uncles, Earp Jennings Jr. and Alston Jennings Sr., managers for the Little Rock High School football teams in 1932 and 1933, respectively, went on to become no less than one of the best chemical engineers and one of the best trial lawyers in the country and are a testament to the enduring quality of public education in Little Rock.”
In the book’s prologue, Jennings includes this quote from James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”: “In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”
Jennings then writes: “The living present soon becomes the past, and you never know when your own small history will become large, which coach’s words will ring in your ears dozens of years later, what personal fight might ascend to the highest court in the land. So the little battles of Little Rock matter. Now, the ordinary politics — the school board races and the local legal actions, the ones that matter most to the people who live here — consume the coummunity.”
Indeed, a full 53 years after the 1957 crisis, those little battles matter.
A review of “Carry The Rock” by Howard Bryant in Sunday’s New York Times wasn’t as positive as The Wall Street Journal review five days earlier had been.
“Jennings writes insightfully about the lack of interaction between white and black players on the Tigers; a theme throughout the football parts of the book is the lack of cohesiveness among these Tigers and the dire on-field consequences,” Bryant writes. “But he does not go further. He does not ask them why this is the case or provide their opinions about the world they live in — one where they listen to the same music and wear the same uniform but where, after many championships and a half-century of ‘progress’ in ostensibly post-racial America, they still do not spend time at each other’s homes.”
As a Little Rock resident, though, I believe the book strikes just the right tone.
In the acknowledgments section, Jennings quotes James Baldwin again: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”
Jennings is more than a good writer. He is a credit to the craft. And with “Carry The Rock,” he is, above all, honest in his assessment of 21st century Little Rock.