It’s Thanksgiving week, and I have high school football on the mind.
On the day after Thanksgiving in 1976, I played in a state championship game. My Arkadelphia Badgers were upset by Mena that night. We believed we had scored in the final minute, but the men who mattered — the officials — ruled that we were inches short of the end zone.
That game taught me a lot about coming back from adversity and the fact that life’s not always fair.
My father, who loved both football and duck hunting, had made plans to leave soon after the game so we could be in Stuttgart hunting the next morning. I was in my bed at home crying when he said: “Get up. We’re leaving in five minutes.”
It wasn’t a request. It was an order.
As always, I did what he said, and we made the long drive in the dark from Arkadelphia to Stuttgart. We arrived well after midnight, slept a couple of hours and were in a blind the next morning.
We listened to a Razorback game that Saturday afternoon on the radio, and I can remember how much it hurt to hear Dave Woodman list all of the state champions from the previous evening and not have Arkadelphia on that list.
Three years later in the fall of 1979, I was a college student at Ouachita while holding down two jobs — sports editor of the Daily Siftings Herald at Arkadelphia and sports director of radio stations KVRC-KDEL.
On Thanksgivng Day 1979, I went to Irving, Texas, to cover the Dallas Cowboys’ game against the Houston Oilers. Even though we were a small newspaper, Ouachita graduate Cliff Harris was playing for the Cowboys and the team’s public relations director, Doug Todd, had taken a liking to me. He would get me credentials for all home games.
For the Thanksgiving contest, I was in the auxiliary press box in the end zone, which meant you ate lunch with the radio and TV folks. Sitting at the table next to me that day were Cowboy broadcasters Verne Lundquist and Frank Glieber. I worked up my courage (I was all of 20 years old), walked over and said: “I’m the voice of the Ouachita Tigers, and I want to meet the voices of the Cowboys.”
They both smiled.
Lundquist, who is celebrating 50 years in broadcasting this season, looked at me and said: “So there’s really a Ouachita? We thought Harris was making that up. Why don’t you sit in the broadcast booth with us today?”
Talk about a dream come true. I spent the game on a stool between Glieber and Lundquist.
By the way, the Oilers won, 30-24, as Earl Campbell rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns, including a touchdown run of 61 yards in the first quarter.
The Cowboys went ahead in the fourth quarter on a 44-yard field goal by Rafael Septien, but the Oilers came back to win on a 32-yard pass late from Dan Pastorini to Ken Burrough. Toni Fritsch, a former Cowboy, kicked the winning extra point for Houston.
I drove to Fort Worth after the game, where my parents were attending a convention of sporting goods dealers at what had been the old Hotel Texas, the place where John F. Kennedy had begun the final day of his life in Room 850 exactly 16 years earlier (after all, it was Nov. 22, 1979). We had dinner, and I spent the night in my parents’ room. I had to return to Arkadelphia early the next morning. You see, the Arkadelphia Badgers, in their first season under Coach John Outlaw, were hosting the Alma Airedales at Henderson’s Haygood Stadium.
I was back in Arkadelphia in time to host a show on KVRC-AM, 1240, and KDEL-FM, 100.9, that we called the Badger Countdown To Kickoff. We played music interspersed with “good luck Badgers” ads.
After each song, I would tell how long there was until kickoff.
“We’re now just three hours and 52 minutes away from the kickoff.”
“We now just three hours and five minutes away.”
And so on.
I went directly from the radio station to Haygood Stadium, where I handled the play-by-play on the Arkadelphia stations. Three years earlier, I had played in a state title game at that stadium. Now, I was broadcasting one.
Arkadelphia led 7-0 at the half following a one-yard scoring run by Victor Bryant with 1:42 left in the second quarter.
In the third quarter, Rodney Allen returned a fumble 28 yards for a touchdown. The kick failed, but with the way the Badger defense was playing, a 13-0 lead looked safe.
It was. Arkadelphia made the final score 19-0 with a Bryant two-yard run with 4:54 left in the game.
While Randy Brackett, Big Sam Watson and Jeff Root handled the postgame show, I ran to my car and then drove quickly to the gym across town where the Badgers dressed in order to do a primitive version of a dressing room show over the telephone. I was interviewing one of the coaches when a group of players grabbed me and threw me in the shower. Fortunately, my friend Jeff Necessary was there to pick up the phone and carry on.
All in all, it was a memorable Thanksgiving week.
A number of great high school rivalries once were contested on Thanksgiving.
When my father was the head football coach at Newport in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Greyhounds would take on Batesville on Thanksgiving. As a boy, I liked to look at my parents’ copies of the Newport yearbook — named Lakeside — and see the photos of the huge crowds that would attend that game.
In Little Rock, there was Central-Hall and Catholic-North Little Rock Old Main on Thanksgiving morning.
The playoffs changed all of that.
Still, there’s good high school football played Thankgiving week. For me, it marks the chance to watch an entire game. For 12 consecutive Fridays — the regular season and the first two weeks of the playoffs — I host a statewide Friday night radio scoreboard show that requires me to be in the studio by 9 p.m. to prepare. That means I rarely see more than the first half of a game.
The Friday after Thanksgiving is different. I can stay until the end.
Last year, I ventured south to Warren to watch the Lumberjacks defeat Arkadelphia.
This Friday night I think I’ll head over to War Memorial Stadium to see North Little Rock tangle with Bentonville.
These are the final rankings of the fall. From here on, we’ll let the playoff games determine things.
Have a nice Thanksgiving:
1. North Little Rock
3. Pulaski Academy
5. Fort Smith Southside
10. Pine Bluff
1. North Little Rock
3. Fort Smith Southside
3. Pine Bluff
4. El Dorado
1. Pulaski Academy
3. Little Rock Episcopal
1. Junction City
5. Des Arc