Little Rock Look Back: In first day without 101st Airborne, LR Central plays final Thanksgiving game against NLR

Central dominating NLR in 1957

Central dominating NLR in 1957

The November 28, 1957, football game between Little Rock Central and North Little Rock had been poised to be memorable for a few years.

With the 1957 opening of Little Rock Hall High, the Tigers would switch their rivalry on Thanksgiving Day from a cross-river one to a cross-town one starting in 1958.  So the 1957 edition of Tigers vs. Wildcats was set to be historic as the end of a 24 year tradition.

(In its first year, Hall played smaller schools because its team was largely younger.  It would move up to top classification schools in the 1958 season.)

The events at Little Rock Central in September 1957 added a new layer of history to everything that school year.  The 101st Airborne was sent in by President Eisenhower in the evening of September 24 to ensure the Little Rock Nine were able to attend classes.  But President Eisenhower did not intend the Army to be there indefinitely.  On Wednesday, November 27, the soldiers left Little Rock. The National Guard was now charged with keeping the peace at Central.

The first day without the US Army was also Thanksgiving Day, and the final Bengals vs. Cats game.  The sports coverage of this game however belied all the drama off the field. News reports focused on Turkey Day as the final game between the longtime rivals and on the fact that it had a morning start time instead of the traditional afternoon start time.

In the end, the Tigers had the same result as they did in the first Turkey Day meeting: a win.  The Bengals scored 40 while the Cats only managed 7.

After 24 meetings on Thanksgiving Day, Little Rock had 19 wins, 4 losses, and one tie.  Seven times they shut out the Wildcats, and one time the northern team blanked them.  The fewest total points scored were 2 in the 1934 game, while the 1950 game produced a cumulative total of 71 points (LR 64, NLR 7).  The Tigers scored a total of 517 points over 24 games and gave up only 203.

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Little Rock Look Back: 60 years ago today – the inaugural Central vs. Hall Thanksgiving Football Game

A Central vs. Hall Thanksgiving Day game (though not from 1958)

On November 27, 1958, the Central High Tigers and Hall High Warriors faced off for the first time in a Thanksgiving Day football game.

Playing on Thanksgiving had been a Central High tradition since 1914. But for Hall High, in only its second year, this was a new occurrence.  The Tiger-Warrior faceoff on Thanksgiving would be a 25 year tradition.

The games were always played at Quigley Stadium, which was at the time the home stadium for all of the Little Rock School District’s high schools (the third high school Parkview opened in 1968).  Each year Central and Hall would alternate which was the “Home” team.

The week leading to the game would feature skits and pep rallies at both high schools.  Pranks, rumors of pranks, and threats of retribution would abound between the schools.  Cars wrapped in orange and white would circle the Central campus one day, while black and gold cars would encircle Hall’s campus another day.

On game day there would be special performances at the stadium by the drill teams, cheerleaders and bands of both schools.  The Tiger and Warrior mascots would taunt each other.  Friendships between students at the rival schools were put on hold.  It was all about the tradition and THE GAME.  Church services, family dinners and any other activities were scheduled around the festivities at Quigley.

Hall High opened its doors and started playing football in 1957. As a new school with a largely younger student body, it only played smaller schools that initial season.  The first Hall vs. Central game was set for Thanksgiving 1958.

During the 1958-1959 school year, Little Rock’s high schools were closed for the ill-conceived, ill-advised reason to keep them from being integrated schools.  Though classes were not in session, football teams practiced and played.  The Arkansas Gazette noted that most of those games that season drew only 1,000 spectators, which was down from the usual 5,000 to 8,000 a game.

With the future of Little Rock’s high schools in doubt, there was some hand wringing about whether the 1958 game would be not only the first meeting between Hall and Central, but perhaps also the last.  In only its second year of playing, Hall was undefeated and poised to win the state championship heading into the Thanksgiving game.

Central surprised the Warriors by winning 7-0 before a crowd of 5,000, which cost Hall the undefeated season and the championship (El Dorado became state champs).  This game set the tone for the high stakes of the rest of the series.

The next year classes were back in session at Hall and Central. The future of the series was not in doubt.

Thanksgiving Football 1969 in Little Rock: Hogs, Tigers, Warriors, Bearcats and Rockets

The Hogs stop Texas Tech at War Memorial Stadium

On Thanksgiving 1969 (November 27), four Little Rock high schools AND the University of Arkansas all played football games in Central Arkansas.  It was a day for football in the Rock!

It appears this was the only time this feat has happened.

It was a cool and misty day which seems to have made balls slippery and grass fields sloppy. But the precipitation seemed to be more an annoyance than a barrier for the players and fans.

The Arkansas Razorbacks, ranked Number 2 in the nation, played host to the Texas Tech Red Raiders at War Memorial Stadium.  The two teams played before a crowd of 35,287.  This was the smallest crowd in LR that season, likely due to it being Thanksgiving and the presence of the Central/Hall football game the same day.  It would have been hard to fit in two football games, Thanksgiving meals, and a possible church service all within one day.

The Hogs were 16 point favorites for the game with a 1:50 kickoff.  It was broadcast on ABC, and fans were encouraged to wear red to show up well on the color telecast.

The Hogs beat the Red Raiders by a score of 33 to 0 in their penultimate regular season game.  Turnovers were the key with the Hogs recovering a fumble and intercepting five passes.

This game set the stage for the final Hogs regular season game, which was the December 6, 1969, shootout against the Number 1 Texas Longhorns in Fayetteville.

Earlier in the day, Little Rock Catholic took on NLRHS north of the river with a 10am kick off. The Rockets, under head coach George Loss, were 9-2 heading into the game. The Wildcats (coached by Ken Stephens) were 5-4 and had won four in a row. At the end of the game, NLR was triumphant by a score of 21 to 12.

Later that day, Jones High hosted Horace Mann at the same stadium. This game, with a 2pm kickoff, would be the final game between Jones and Mann. Jones was being closed at the end of the year.

The teams had met earlier in the season with Mann triumphing 13 to 8. Mann had a record of 2-8, playing in the larger AAAA classification. Jones, with a record of 4-6, played in the AA classification. For years these all African American schools were not allowed to play in the Arkansas Activities Association. But by the late 1960s, they were now playing in AAA conferences.

Jones scored an upset victory over the Bearcats by a score of 19-8.

Quigley Stadium was less than three miles from War Memorial Stadium. With a 10am kickoff before a sold out crowd, people who had wanted to go to both the Hogs game and Hall/Central game also had the option of listening to the high school gridiron competition on KARK radio (now KARN).

Prior to the game, Hall had captured the AAAA State Championship by virtue of its record. (The top classification did not participate in playoffs until 1983.) C. W. Keopple was the Warriors’ coach, while Gene Hall was the Tigers’ mentor.  The damp field and high stakes of the game turned it into a defensive slugfest.  Hall had 2 fumbles while Central fumbled four times.

At the end of the fourth quarter the scoreboard showed a 0 to 0 tie. And that one went into the record books.  Hall’s season record was 9-0-1, while Central’s was 6-2-2.  It was the best season record Hall had amassed in its 13 years of football.

Four football games within a few miles of each other were a peek into Little Rock life:

  • The Hogs were riding the crest of their 1960s football superiority in the Southwest Conference.
  • The final Thanksgiving football game in Arkansas between two segregated public schools.
  • Continued alternating dominance by Hall and Central in the state’s largest school sports classification.  Soon, Parkview would be added to the mix. Throughout the 1970s, all three Little Rock public high schools would rotate winning state championships.

Little Rock Look Back: Final Thanksgiving Day High School football game in Arkansas

Since the early 1960s, the Arkansas Activities Association had been discouraging the playing of games on Thanksgiving Day.  With the advent of state playoffs, these Thanksgiving games were an interruption. By 1982, only one such rivalry still existed. The Little Rock Central vs. Little Rock Hall game.  Both schools were in the largest classification (5A) which did not have playoffs.

With the changes of state athletic conference classification, the 1982 game was announced as the final Thanksgiving Day game between Hall and Central. The top two classifications were being combined which would necessitate conferences and playoffs to determine the state champion. This would mean that Hall and Central would need to meet before Thanksgiving.  Going into the game Hall led the series with 13 wins to Central’s 8 wins.

The 1982 edition lived up to the hype.  Played on November 25, 1982, this was the 25th edition of the Hall and Central rivalry. While there was no doubt that Hall would end up with the most wins, Central wanted to make sure that they ended it in the way they started it in 1958 – with a win.

Central boasted a 4-1 record. Pine Bluff and LR Parkview were both 4-1-1. Hall was 3-0-2. As long as Central or Hall won outright, the winner would be state champ. A tie (and there had been three previous ones) would result in a four-way tie for first place.  Hall’s coach C. W. Keopple had led the team since 1964 and amassed a 10-6-1 record against Central.  The Tigers were mentored by Bernie Cox who was 4-3 against the Warriors since taking over in 1975.

Nearly 9,000 fans packed Quigley Stadium for a cold but dry day. As the buzzer sounded after four quarters, the Hall High Warriors were jubilant. They had won the game 14-3 after putting together a nearly flawless offensive effort. The win moved them into first place with a 4-0-2 record. Central, which had sat atop the conference most of the season, ended up in fourth place with a 4-2 record.  The defeat also ended the Tiger’s hopes for a third consecutive championship.  This game, like so many before it, provided high drama and excitement as it confounded some pundits yet also lived up to billing.

And with that, the series concluded.  In the end, Hall had fourteen wins while Central had eight.  There were also three hard-fought ties.  Central achieved four shutouts of Hall, while the Warriors blanked the Tigers three times.  In the twenty-five games, Central scored 228 points, and Hall scored 297 points.

From 1983 until 2005, Hall and Central continued to play each other in football. This time, they played for the ceremonial bell in what became known as “The Battle for the Bell.”  Today, the bell is proudly displayed at Quigley Stadium.  After 2005, Hall moved into a lower classification than Central. This put them on separate trajectories facing different sets of teams.

Little Rock Look Back: War Memorial Stadium opens on Sept 18, 1948

On September 18, 1948, the Arkansas Razorbacks took on Abilene Christian and won the game by a score of 40 to 6.  It was the first game of the season, and the Razorbacks went into the game ranked #13. They maintained that ranking for four weeks before falling out of national standings.  The team ended up with a season record of five wins and five losses. Playing four of their games at War Memorial that season, they were two and two in Little Rock. They were one and two in Fayetteville and amassed a 2-1 record on the road.

Dedication ceremony in 1948. Photo courtesy of the War Memorial Stadium Commission.

Dedication ceremony in 1948. Photo courtesy of the War Memorial Stadium Commission.

Prior to the game, the stadium was dedicated to the veterans of World War I and World War II in a ceremony led by former Razorback standout and Medal of Honor recipient Maurice “Footsie” Britt.

Though Britt would later be known for entering politics and becoming Arkansas’ first Republican Lieutenant Governor, in his college days he was known statewide as an outstanding Razorback football and baseball athlete.  During World War II, his bravery and courage allowed him to become first person in American history to earn all the army’s top awards, including the Medal of Honor, while fighting in a single war.

Also participating in the opening ceremony were a mass of high school marching bands from across the state. Reports indicate up to forty bands were on the field to play the National Anthem as part of the event.

The construction of the stadium had been the brainchild of Razorback coach John Barnhill and Arkansas Secretary of State C. G. “Crip” Hall.  The duo shepherded it through the 1947 Arkansas General Assembly.   As a student at the University, Hall had been a team manager for the Razorbacks and had remained a longtime, active supporter.

In August of 1947, Little Rock was chosen as the location over Hot Springs and North Little Rock. West Memphis had abandoned its bid when it was unable to secure the necessary financial pledges.  Construction started in 1947 and continued up until opening day.  On the day of the game, newspaper photos showed heavy equipment grading the parking lot prior to paving.

The park in which the stadium sat would be renamed War Memorial Park in June 1949 and dedicated by President Harry S. Truman in a nationally-broadcast ceremony from War Memorial Stadium.

RIP David McCollum

I was not blessed with athletic ability.  Or coordination.  But I am very competitive.

My lack of skill did not stop me from dragging my parents to four years of soccer and a concurrent six years of basketball.

McCollum_David_400x400Because of my lack of talents on the field, and my interest in competition, I have found myself drawn to sports journalism and sports history.  Which, being in Central Arkansas, lead me to the writing of David McCollum.

Disclosure, for several years I attended church with him and his family.  My parents and sister still do.  But he was such an unassuming gentleman, my interest in his writing sprung not from familiarity with him. It came from what and how he wrote.

With a career of over 50 years, David entered the newspaper business as it was starting the transition from hot lead and pecking out a story on typewriters into the world of computers and electronic filing.  Likewise the field of sports journalism was transitioning from the era of colorful, hyperbolic language (which might not always be 100% accurate) into a time of bare facts crammed into increasingly shrinking column inches.

David did not try to be a colorful sportswriter. He was not trying to have the spotlight shown on him through his writing.  In his stories, David sought to serve the sports. But he brought to his writing a sense of history and style that hearkened back to bygone days without sacrificing the facts that he knew his readers wanted.  In serving his sports, he also served his readers.

While often the smartest guy in the room, especially when it came to Conway sports, David never acted like it.  In his prose, he shows his expertise without lording it over the reader.  He used his knowledge to let his readers be more informed. He was like that favorite teacher we all had at least once in high school or college. He wanted to bring us along on the journey.

For a sportswriter, working in Conway must have been a dream job.  Both UCA and Hendrix have active athletic programs.  And the Wampus Cats of Conway have long been dominant. In addition, during his career, David was able to see towns like Vilonia, Mayflower, and Greenbrier grow and develop into powerhouses in their own high school sports classifications.

Over the years, as I’ve been seeking to learn more about a sports topic, I’ve often gone back to his writing on a player, an event, a game.  Whether it was a story or an interview, his trademark understated and engaging prose was on display.  Earlier this year, I was needing background on a Little Rock Touchdown Club scholarship because we were honoring a recipient at Little Rock City Hall.

There it was.

In a column David wrote a few years ago, there were not just the facts, but the emotions. In writing about how some Texas Longhorns had created a scholarship in Little Rock to pay tribute to the memory of one of their own, David touched on the sentiment without being maudlin.  He did not pile on the irony of Longhorns who beat the Hogs in the 1969 shootout creating a scholarship here. He let the story speak for itself.  The kinship the two teams feel for each other now came through in David’s prose.

As David’s son Gavin said in making the announcement his father had died, “there were more stories for him to write.”  Yes, there were.  I feel sorry for future athletes in Faulkner County that they won’t get to be interviewed by him.  I feel sorry for the readers who won’t get his take on a future game.

David had seen enough games to know that the outcome does not always go your way.  As much as he would probably be uncomfortable with the outpouring of emotions that are now going on, I think he would understand we need to do this.  We need to express our sadness.  It helps us to move on to the next challenge.  And part of that challenge is a world without him.  I know he would be very pleased to see, just as a team rallies together, people are rallying together to support his wife and son.

So thank you, David McCollum. For your life and your commitment to excellence.  Though it has fallen out of usage these days, I’m old school enough to pay tribute to your life and career with an old journalism and PR tool to indicate the end.

David McCollum -30-

Little Rock Look Back: War Memorial Stadium approved

WMS Hall BarnhillOn March 18, 1947, Governor Ben T. Laney signed the bill into law which authorized the construction of War Memorial Stadium.

The plans for the stadium were the brainchild of Arkansas Secretary of State C.G. “Crip” Hall and University of Arkansas Athletic Director John Barnhill.

Apparently the Southwest Conference was threatening to kick Arkansas out because of an inadequate football facility. Since the University did not have the funds to build a new one on its campus, Barnhill and Hall decided that the state should build one. Many other states were building War Memorial facilities of a variety of natures. The duo decided that the new football facility could be a War Memorial Stadium to pay tribute to the men who died in the recently concluded World War II.  While the stadium was touted as being of use to all colleges in the state and a variety of other types of activities, it was very much designed to be a home for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Getting the stadium through the Arkansas General Assembly was not easy.  The bill to create the stadium commission sailed through both houses. But even some who voted for it said they would oppose any funding bills.  When time came to vote for the funding, the bill fell far short of the three-quarters vote that was needed in the House for an appropriation bill.

WWII veterans were on both sides of the issue.  Some felt it was an appropriate way to honor those who died.  Others felt it was a gimmick to get the stadium approved.  Some of the opponents felt that a new state hospital for UAMS would be the more appropriate way to honor those who died during the war.  The debates were often heated and personal.

Overnight a new bill was created. It would pay for the stadium through the issuing of bonds. In addition to the state issuing bonds, any city which wished to bid for it would have to put up money for it as well as provide land.  This new bill would require only 51 votes to pass the House.  It was able to pass that threshold.  The Senate made a few amendments (mostly dealing with the composition of the stadium commission and the amount of dollars that the host city had to pledge).  Finally the House agreed to the Senate amendments and it went to Governor Laney.

The next hurdle for the stadium was choosing a location. That process would occupy stadium proponents throughout the spring and summer of 1947.