New season begins at old friend
September 11-17, 2023
By Jay Edwards
The Hogs returned to War Memorial for the season opener against the Western Carolina Catamounts. If the mascot sounded familiar to you, as it did me, it may be because Arkansas played the Vermont Catamounts in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2022. That was a victory too. Good trend.
Many people smiled when the University of Arkansas announced in February of 2019 that they had come to an agreement with the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism to bring two additional Razorback football games to Central Arkansas in future seasons and extend the overall agreement through the 2025 season. That would, they said, include games against UAPB and, in a stadium famous for miracles, a game with Arkansas State.
Who knows, maybe UCA can get in on this rotation, although Oklahoma State might tell me to be careful what I wish for.
The morning of the game against Western Carolina, I watched a short TV special on memories of the old stadium. My own recollections go back to the 60’s, when my father had season tickets for all the Little Rock games. We were on row 45 on the east side, on the 20-yard line. I remember my mom yelling louder than anyone around us. “GET HIM,” she hollered at Hog defensive linemen as they chased an opposing quarterback. Then, she and the rest of the rabid crowd would get quiet, as some medical guys carried another fan, who had gotten a bit too rabid, out on a stretcher. Then the screaming began again. Happened almost every game.
From the 70’s my memories move much closer to the field, where I stood as a third-string tight end, hoping my Catholic High Rocket teammates would run up the score so I could show my girlfriend what I had. Before one game my hopes really rose when one of the coaches asked me if I wanted to start. “Yes Sir!” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “Well,” the coach said, “why don’t you start by carrying this ice chest.” He obviously believed that my time of six seconds in the 40 wouldn’t be needed that day.
That TV special I watched the other day told that in 1947 the state of Arkansas paid $1.2 million to build the stadium, which had an original seating capacity of 31,075. The first event was September 18, 1948, a football game between Arkansas and Abilene Christian. From Arkansas Encyclopedia I learned that, before the game, the stadium was formally dedicated by former Razorback Maurice “Footsie” Britt, who had also won the Medal of Honor. It was dedicated to the memory of Arkansas veterans who had given their lives in the two world wars.
Over the years the venue became a secondary home for the Fayetteville-based Razorbacks, and by 2012 the Hogs had played there 200 times.
If you’re like me, most of your best Razorback memories are from War Memorial, and none better than in 1975, when we played Texas A&M, who came in as the number 2 team in the country. Scott Bull, in “Hogs! A History!” By George Schroeder, remembers “The Play” from that game as well as anyone - “I had people in my face. I saw Teddy somewhat break open. I felt like he would have a chance for the ball…I just put it up where he should be…I put it up the way the pros and college players do today, where they just depend on the wide receiver to fight for it. Back in my day, that would be called throwing into coverage. But anymore, it’s just what you do with great receivers.”
I was in the stands that day and I’m still partial to War Memorial, or prejudiced, or maybe just selfish, but forty-five years ago is still fresh in my mind, when as a U of A student, I would excitedly make the journey home to Little Rock to watch one of the four games that were played there each year. That’s right, in those days, and many years after, Little Rock nearly always had four games to Fayetteville’s three.
In 2000, UA athletic director Frank Broyles announced plans to move at least one additional home game from Little Rock to Fayetteville. Little Rock politicians and business leaders, many of them UA graduates, responded with outrage to Broyles’s announcement, and he relented, which meant through 2012, the Razorbacks remained under contract to play two games per year at War Memorial, despite ongoing arguments both for and against the arrangement. Then, in late 2013, it was announced that this would be reduced to one game per year, with the Razorbacks scheduled to play their last game at the stadium in 2018. But then the statement from 2019 from the U of A came and Pulaski County and the rest of Central Arkansas had new hope. The new agreement began with the game against Western Carolina, and I was happy to see another game at War Memorial kick off this season. It means new memories, to go along with some of those old ones. You know the ones I’m talking about:
1971, when Joe Ferguson served the happy, soggy Hog fans a 31-6 helping of Longhorn barbeque.
Or maybe 1974, when the season’s eventual National Champion Southern Cal Trojans had their teeth and perfect season rattled and ruined by a linebacker named “Dirt” from Forrest City, in the first game of the year.
And, as mentioned, 1975, when the #2 ranked Aggies thought they were just passing through to the land of cotton, but instead witnessed Teddy Barnes become immortal with his own version of the “Immaculate Reception.”
Or 1979, when Ish Ordonez made his field goal, and later watched as barefooted Texas kicker John Goodson missed his, on the game’s last play, causing delirious fans to stay and rock the bleachers a little longer than normal.
Or 1981, when All American kicker Bruce Lahay changed the scoreboard with seven seconds left from Baylor 39-38 to Arkansas 41-39, in a SWC classic.
The memories aren’t all of victory of course. In 1987, Randy Morley and I headed over from North Little Rock to watch the Hogs play Jimmy Johnson’s Miami Hurricane. When it was 28-0 in the second quarter we decided we’d seen enough. Walking through the parking lot we heard announcer Andy Hawkins say again over the loudspeaker, “Kicking off for Miami, Carlos Huerta.” And he said it once more before we got to the car.
But two years later I was back to witness the greatest game I’ve ever seen. Conference opponent Houston and their Heisman QB Andre Ware rolled in. They were ranked 12th, while the Hogs were 13th. The game plan Ken Hatfield and his coaches came up with was not to try and stop the most prolific offense college football had ever witnessed, but rather, outscore them, which is just what they did, 45-39. Hatfield said after the game, “If you went out for a hot dog you missed three scores.”
Then came 2002, and the miracle, which, until the Hunter Henry desperation heave-lateral, was the most shocked I’d ever been by a single play. Arkansas, down by six, got the ball on their own 19 with 35 seconds left against LSU. At stake was the Western Division Championship and a trip to Atlanta.
At that point Matt Jones, the cool master showman, had only two completions in 13 attempts. He added one more on the first play of that last series with a 50-yard throw to Richard Smith. The next pass to Carlos Ousley was incomplete, setting up War Memorial’s most unbelievable ending.
The ball was snapped and DeCori Birmingham, who stood a whopping two inches taller than Teddy Barnes at 5’9, ran to the west side of the south end zone, where he was met and sandwiched by two Tigers. Somehow he got behind them both to that perfect spot, just as Jones’ pass arrived. The wonderful result was described as only the late great homer Paul Eels could: “And it is…..COMPLETE!!…A TOUCHDOWN!!…OH MY!!”
The stadium erupted as crazily as ever, which resulted in an unsportsmanlike penalty, making kicker David Carlton’s PAT a 35-yarder. That made me nervous but probably made the old stadium smile. High drama is her lifeblood.
Carlton converted, a reward to the faithful that had stayed when all seemed hopeless, giving them cause to again celebrate their team, in that special place where they had so often before. Memories like these endure as long as we breathe. Let’s hope they keep coming.