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The big screen and the Cotton Bowl

I attended my 19th Cotton Bowl last Saturday, but this time I never actually saw a play on the field as Ole Miss defeated Oklahoma State.

Yes, I was in Cowboys Stadium at Arlington. To be specific, I was in the darkened control room for the world’s largest video screen, facing a wall of color monitors that made the place feel like mission control at NASA.

For the past eight years, I have spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day in Texas, working on the media relations staff for the Cotton Bowl. This year, for the first Cotton Bowl to be played somewhere other than Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, I was assigned to the control room for that video board you’ve heard so much about.

Armed with media guides, record books and a statistics monitor, my job was to sit by the guy who would type in all kinds of facts and figures. I was to supply him with the proper information and then peer over his shoulder to ensure he typed it in correctly before it went up on the big board.

If we made a mistake, it would be a huge one. After all, this is the world’s largest high-definition video board, stretching nearly 60 yards in length. It’s 160 feet wide and 72 feet high — that’s more than seven stories high. The video board weighs 1.2 million  pounds.

The cost of the video board and the structure that holds it was $40 milion, more than the original cost to build Texas Stadium in 1971. There are also about 3,000 television monitors around the stadium, not to mention end zone video boards that are 50 feet wide and 28 feet tall.

So this was my most unusual Cotton Bowl. But, as noted, it was far from my first. I’ve been to four Sugar Bowls and one Orange Bowl for a total of 23 traditional Jan. 1 games (though the games sometimes are played on other dates). The Cotton Bowl is the bowl game I most relate to since I was just 6 years old when I attended my first one.

My Christmas stocking on the morning of Dec. 25, 1965, contained tickets to the Cotton Bowl game a week later between Arkansas and LSU. My mom, my dad, my older sister and I would join thousands of our fellow Arkansans for the pilgrimage to Dallas to see a Razorback team that had the nation’s longest winning streak at 22 games.

We took U.S. Highway 67 from our home in Arkadelphia to Dallas, passing southwest Arkansas landmarks such as the Penrod’s store at Prescott and Witt Stephens’ Arkla Village at Emmet. For me, it was the equivalent of a 6-year-old today making that first trip to Disney World.

At Mount Pleasant, Texas, we stopped at the venerable Alps Cafe since it had signs promising “free coffee for Razorback fans.” The Alps’ owners also had placed a pen in the parking lot that contained a giant hog. They knew how to pull those Arkies off the road.

We stayed in Dallas’ Baker Hotel on the northeast corner of Commerce and Akard. The prestigious Petroleum Club met there, and the Press Club of Dallas had been formed there. On the weekend of the Texas-Oklahoma football game, the Baker was the headquarters for the Texas alumni. The hotel, built in 1925, was imploded in June 1980 to make way for a Southwestern Bell building.

We ate dinner the night before the game at the Cattleman’s on Live Oak, my father’s favorite restaurant and a cousin to the restaurant of the same name that still exists in the Fort Worth Stockyards. On the morning of the game, we took a cab to Fair Park so we wouldn’t have to worry about parking.

Arkansas, a heavy favorite, hadn’t defeated LSU since 1929. And the Hogs wouldn’t do so on this day, either. Neither team scored in the second half. Arkansas, which had the ball on the LSU 24 as the game ended, fell by a score of 14-7.

I pulled off the Razorback button my father had bought for me from a vendor outside the stadium. I cried in the cab back to the Baker Hotel, thoroughly embarrassing my teenage sister. But I was hooked on Big D. Like many other Arkansans, the Cotton Bowl would become my bowl game of choice.

With the move to the new stadium in Arlington and a possible BCS expansion at some point, the game’s future appears brights. Certainly its past is glorious.

My sister and I would receive surprise Cotton Bowl tickets in our Christmas stockings a couple of more times during the next decade. We were given tickets to the Jan. 1, 1971, game between Notre Dame and Texas. The game was preceded by a trip to Austin to visit a favorite aunt, uncle and two cousins who were Longhorn fans. We made the drive up Interstate 35 from Austin to Dallas the morning of the game with two cousins who were convinced the Longhorns would repeat their Cotton Bowl victory of Jan. 1, 1970, over Notre Dame. That win had ensured the national championship for Texas after the Big Shootout victory over Arkansas less than a month earlier in Fayetteville.

In that game a year earlier, Notre Dame was making its first bowl appearance since the 1925 Rose Bowl. The Four Horsemen had led the Fighting Irish to a win over Stanford in Pasadena in 1925. At the 1970 Cotton Bowl, the three surviving members of the Four Horsemen showed up but Texas won, 21-17.

A year later, Texas was on the verge of another national championship with a 30-game winning streak on the line. Just as we had watched LSU end Arkansas’ winning streak five years earlier, we looked on that day as the Irish cost Texas the national championship.

My sister and I returned to the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1976, to see Arkansas defeat Georgia on a spring-like afternoon. The Razorbacks rolled to a 31-10 victory in Frank Broyles’ final Cotton Bowl as Arkansas’ coach. With my sister at the wheel, we made the happy four-hour drive back to Arkadelphia that night. Thousands of cars with Arkansas plates joined us in the migration east toward home.

A year later, I rode a school bus to Dallas with the other members of the Arkadelphia High School Badgers football team to see Maryland play Houston. I was the starting center on that team. The booster club had raised funds to send us to that game to celebrate the fact that we had made it to the state championship game (losing to Mena on a bad call). Across the aisle from me on the bus that day was our star running back, Trent Bryant, who would be in Arkansas’ starting backfield a year later for the upset Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma.

By the time I was in college, I was the sports editor of the Arkadelphia newspaper and could obtain press passes to the Cotton Bowl. Alabama had no problem with Baylor in a game I attended on Jan. 1, 1981, as the Tide rolled, 30-2. In the dressing room afterward, a television reporter with a golden throat asked Bear Bryant: “Coach, just how good is this Alabama team?” The Bear took a sip from a canned Coke, stared at the reporter for a couple of seconds and then answered in his trademark south Arkansas growl: “Apparently, a helluva lot better than Baylor.”

On Jan. 1, 1983, I covered a boring 7-3 SMU victory over Pittsburgh on a day when there was sleet in Dallas with temperatures in the 30s. At least I was in the press box.

Two years later, unfortunately, I was in the stands. There was again sleet that day with temperatures in the 30s. I had driven down from Arkadelphia with David Sharp, now the Ouachita Baptist University athletic director, to see Doug Flutie quarterback Boston College against Houston. David and I took turns standing in the nearest restroom throughout the second half in a futile attempt to warm up. In a nod to personal tradition, we stopped for dinner that night in Mount Pleasant at the Alps Cafe, which by then had moved from downtown out to the Interstate 30 access road.

By the late 1980s, I was living in Washington, D.C., covering Congress for the Arkansas Democrat. Still, I made it a point to return to the Cotton Bowl to see Texas A&M beat Notre Dame on the first day of 1988, UCLA beat Arkansas on the first day of 1989 and Tennessee beat Arkansas on the first day of 1990. I attended the Tennessee-Arkansas game with my new wife. She’s a native Texan, but it was her first Cotton Bowl.

Covering Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, covering Clinton’s first term as president, raising kids and working for Gov. Mike Huckabee would lead to a long break in my Cotton Bowl tradition. I had wanted to attend the Jan. 1, 2000, Arkansas-Texas battle. But the Y2K scare — remember that bottled water and powdered milk you bought? — led to me being stationed instead in a command post at the state Capitol as we watched the new millennium dawn. When it became apparent that nothing out of the ordinary was going to happen, I drove home, caught a few hours of sleep and got up to watch the Razorbacks destroy the Longhorns, 27-6. What a great way to begin a new millennium. Let’s do it again in 1,000 years.

Two years later, we let our sons experience their first Cotton Bowl. The oldest was 8 at the time. His younger brother was 4. On the night before the game, we sat in a restaurant crowded with Arkansas fans, and the boys joined those fans in calling the Hogs. I had flashbacks to my own boyhood in December 1965. Once more, my family had invaded Dallas, and I could tell that my boys were excited to be a part of the Razorback expeditionary force.

Temperatures were in the low 30s the morning of the game with a chance of sleet or snow. Arkansas lost to Oklahoma, 10-3, as we tried to survive the cold winds that whipped through the upper deck

Beginning the next year, I worked with the media relations staff. And I haven’t missed a Cotton Bowl since. The new stadium is nice. Real nice. And the Cotton Bowl board did what was best for the game by moving there. Still, there are a lot of memories in that old stadium in Fair Park, memories that come flowing back each time I drive past it on Interstate 30.

Hopefully, I still have many years to make new memories at Jerry’s palace in Arlington. Fire up that big screen, Jerry. I’ll be back soon.

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