North Little Rock High School, Arkansas’ No. 2 ranked team, clashes this Friday night with No. 1 Fayetteville at War Memorial Stadium. It promises to be an epic showdown – ‘dogs vs. ‘cats, Central Arkansas vs Northwest Arkansas and a rematch of North Little Rock’s heart-breaking loss in the 2012 state semis.
Suffice to say, for the players, this warrants getting just a little hype.
Or a lot hype.
Or … this:
Because what Charging Wildcat worth his six pack doesn’t like to sneak a little King of Pop action into his NLR O’ Donovan School of Irish Dance homework?
Those seeking a glimpse into a possible future for youth football may not have to travel far. Just over an hour south of Texarkana, in the east Texas town of Marshall, a school board approved the cutting of seventh grade tackle football in February amid widespread and growing concern for the sport’s physical dangers — specifically, the potential for injuries from concussions.
“I’m surprised, in some ways, because you know how it is in a one-high-school town where football is everything,” Marc Smith, superintendent of the Marshall Independent School District, told The New York Times. “I anticipated a little more resistance and concern, but the safety factor really resonated with our parents.”
Certainly nobody in Arkansas is going to ban junior high tackle football any time soon. Don’t expect it to happen in east Texas, either, although flag football is a more popular alternative there. People in both areas are too passionate about the sport to seek such wholesale changes in the coming years.
Many Arkansans are also passionate parents, and they are every bit as concerned for their sons’ health as their Texan counterparts.
Enough damning evidence about brain injury has accumulated to begin rattling the most influential football-affiliated institutions and society at large. Concussions inevitably spring to the forefront of conversations involving player safety in sports. None other than President Obama himself convened a summit on youth concussions in late May, declaring: “We have got to change a society that says you suck it up.” In advance of the event, NCAA and NFL officials announced pledges totaling $55 million to go toward the study of youth sports and brain injury.
There has also been pushback from players. In 2011, Derek Owens, a former University of Central Arkansas player, was one of four student-athlete plaintiffs in a lawsuit claiming the NCAA had been negligent in addressing and treating its student-athletes’ brain injuries — the first such suit filed against the NCAA. Since then at least 61 ex-college athletes have sued the NCAA, encompassing nine other class-action concussion lawsuits, according to a February 2014 article in The Birmingham News. Owens’ suit w consolidated with others and in late July the NCAA reached a preliminary settlement that includes provisions for a $70 million medical monitoring fund and a new national protocol for players’ head injuries sustained during games and practices.
In addition, nearly 5,000 former pro players — including Dan Marino and Little Rock native Keith Jackson — have kept the issue a high profile one by joining (or withdrawing from the suit, as Marino did in early June) various concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL.
Photograph courtesy Arkansas Money & Politics
Former UofA Razorback Ronnie Hammers (70).
Former Razorback Ronnie Hammers, a Marshall native, was an all-conference football player for the University of Arkansas in the late 1960s. He isn’t suing anyone — he said he’s not experienced any neurological problems other than occasionally memory lapses, which may not be football related — but he said hardly anybody knew about the long-term dangers of concussions when he was a player.
“I played on the offensive line and back in my day, that’s all you did, fire off and hit somebody,” said Hammers. “Your head was getting hit every snap of the play, not just when somebody got tackled.”
Hammers runs a remodeling and roofing company in Marshall, and regularly makes it up to Fayetteville to hobnob with other former Razorbacks at reunions. He rarely discusses the concussion issue in that crowd, but he and the others may good-naturedly joke about it if someone shows signs of forgetfulness. They note how much attitudes have changed when it comes to violent hits on the field.
“The big saying back then was, ‘Well, you just got your bell rung. You’ll be all right here in a minute.’”
Hammers said if given the chance to choose all over again, he’d still play football. But he’d hope his grandson plays a safer sport, like golf.
The Defense is an Offense
No Arkansas authorities contacted for this story had heard discussion about eliminating tackle football for younger players, as the Marshall Independent School District has done, but all pointed to less-drastic changes that have made the sport safer. This upcoming season will be the third year in which high school coaches are required to take concussion training. Last year, the state’s first concussion protocol law passed. The law, whose primary sponsor was state Sen. David Sanders, requires all players suspected of having a concussion to be taken out of the game, to return only with a licensed professional’s approval.
Bigger school districts, like Little Rock School District (LRSD), are investing more money into athletes’ safety. Last season, for the first time, each LRSD junior high and high school game had a MEMS unit present. Most of the time, an athletic trainer or medical intern was also present. As of early June, the district was working toward making a licensed medical professional’s presence mandatory for all games.
At the same time, the state’s governing body for high school athletics — the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) — is mulling changes include limiting the number and frequency of collisions players endure on a weekly basis, said Joey Walters, deputy executive director of the AAA. On Wednesday, August 6, the AAA’s governing body was considering a proposal to limit full contact to three times a week (including games) at its annual meeting.
Money from the NFL is starting to trickle into local football, too. The nation’s richest league has donated millions of dollars to an instructional program taught through USA Football, its youth league umbrella group. The core idea is to spread the gospel of proper tackling, hydration and proper equipment fitting through a combination of online curricula and full-day, in-person training sessions. Coaches return from the Heads Up program clinics to teach other coaches, who in turn teach players. So far, about 2,800 youth teams nationwide — including five in Arkansas — have signed up.
There are so many Arkansans who play Division I football. You know this, on a gut level. What you don’t know – on any level – is the name of every single last one of those Arkansans. That ends now.
So come, brother, and let the waters below sate your parched mind:
The below stats are current as of fall 2013. I have listed the most recent 2014 signees at the bottom.
ARKANSASHereARKANSAS STATEHereCENTRAL ARKANSAS
Tyler Colquitt – LB 5-10 235 Pulaski Academy
Toney Hawkins – QB 6-1 185 Morrilton
Will Jones – OT 6-4 300 Parkers Chapel
Curtis Parker – OG 6-2 280 North Little Rock
Dalvin Simmons – DE 6-2 220 LR Central
Josiah Wymer – TE 6-4 262 Springdale
PLAYER POS. HT. WT. SCHOOL
Josh Frazier – DT 6-3 330 Springdale Har-Ber
Devohn Lindsey – WR 6-2 198 North Little Rock
Tyrone Carter – WR 6-2 175 Rayville, La./Arkansas Baptist JC
Isaac Jackson – QB 6-2 210 FS Southside
Jake Snyder – OT 6-3 270 Wynne
Ty Mullens# – DL 6-1 220 Smackover
Jarvis Cooper – DL/LB 6-2 245 West Memphis
Daryl Coburn – DT 6-1 325 LR Central
Deion Holliman – WR 5-9 165 Camden Fairview
Colby Isbell – DE 6-2 240 Rogers Heritage
Austin McGehee – PK/P 6-0 200 Pine Bluff
Jabe Burgess* – QB 6-2 200 Greenwood
Jordan Dennis – ATH 6-1 175 Fayetteville
Isaac Johnson – OT 6-6 275 Springdale Har-Ber
Tim Quickel – LB 6-1 200 North Little Rock
Zack Wary – LB 6-4 215 Rogers
#Walk on *Enrolled NOTE – Most players listed for Lyon are signees
Kavin Alexander DB 5’10 190 North Little Rock HS (North Little Rock, AR)
Lawrence Berry WR 5’11 170 Parkview HS (Little Rock, AR)
Kyron Lawson DL 6’6 230 Mills HS (Little Rock, AR)
Patrick Rowland WR 5’10 165 Parkview HS (Little Rock, AR)
I wrote the following for the November 2013 issue of Arkansas Life magazine:
While his friends celebrated around him, Javier Carbonell emerged from a pile of bodies, staggered to the sideline of Bentonville High’s football field and collapsed. The junior defensive end had just suffered a blow to the Adam’s apple and a stinger to his leg after throwing his 259 pounds into an offensive line as big as some Division I colleges’. The sacrifice, he reasoned, was worth it. The opponent, one of the best prep teams in the nation, had driven deep into Bentonville territory in the fourth quarter and was looking for the kill shot. It was only an early season, non-conference game, but as both sides approached for a pivotal fourth down-and-one play, far more was on the line than a single win or loss. With seven minutes left in a showdown with a Texas powerhouse, Carbonell and his teammates were carrying the hopes of a state on their shoulders.
Fifteen years ago, this would have been unimaginable.
In the 1990s, Benton County was booming economically but not yet on the football field. Northwest Arkansas-based Fortune 500 businesses like Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson were then already setting into motion forces that would turn the county into the state’s second most populous and boost Bentonville’s median household income from $40,000 (in 2000) to a projected $63,000 by 2015. Football, like other sports, benefited from a rapidly expanding talent pool, top-notch salaries and the construction of state-of-the-art facilities.
Bentonville High is Exhibit A here: In the early 1990s, it had about 750 students, the smallest enrollment of all schools in the state’s largest classification. It has since added ninth grade and this fall is the state’s largest school with more than 4,100 students. In the early 2000s, Bentonville had the worst athletic facilities in its conference. But the last decade has seen a new $9 million stadium and field house complex, as well as the 2005 hiring of one of the most accomplished head coaches around. To get Barry Lunney, Sr., Bentonville approved a salary of $89,000—$14,000 more than Lunney had made at his previous job at Fort Smith Southside—plus another $240,000 or so for four assistant coaches he planned to bring with him.
The investment paid off: Heading into this season, Bentonville had won two state championships since 2008, played in three straight title games and had a 35-game regular season winning streak. “I feel like our program is as good as any program out there,” Bentonville athletic director Scott Passmore said this summer.
“Out there” no longer means other parts of the state. In recent years, Bentonville’s football program has been so good it’s had trouble finding in-state opponents for early-season games. The program, like all other big schools, must stay in state during conference play and post-season but is free to choose its own opponents for the early-season, non-conference games. Scheduling willing in-state opponents has gotten progressively harder, so Bentonville has started looking across state borders at programs in a similar predicament. In recent seasons, the Tigers have played and knocked off elite teams from Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The wins bolstered their national cred and helped Bentonville make appearances in national top 100 prep football polls run by recruiting services.
But Bentonville isn’t yet considered a national prep power. It broadcasts its games on an ESPN-affiliated radio station but hasn’t yet brought ESPN cameras to town. To prove itself worthy of the limelight, it has needed one last accolade: a win over a top team from Texas, America’s football mecca. The best Texas teams are universally hailed as also being the best in America. This has also played out at the college level, where the best Arkansas teams have had some success in defeating Texan counterparts. The Arkansas Razorbacks beat their fierce rival, the Texas Longhorns, with regularity in the 1950s and 1960s and as recently as 2003.
Bentonville assistant coach Tony Cherico knows. He was an All-American noseguard for the Arkansas Razorbacks in the mid 1980s. “When I played, everyone circled Texas—that was it. Texas was a big game,” he says. “It was for all the marbles.”
But this rivalry has not gone nearly as well for top Arkansas teams versus top Texas teams at the prep ranks. Granted, Pine Bluff High handled business against any and all comers (including Texans) in the 1920s, as did Little Rock Central High in the 1950s, but no recent Arkansas prep program has achieved the national prestige of those schools. In 2010, Springdale’s Shiloh Christian—then ranked No. 22 nationally by MaxPreps—had a shot against Euless Trinity, then ranked No. 1, in Arlington, Texas. Shiloh lost 80-26. In 2012, North Little Rock High—one of the best three programs in the state that season—traveled to Texas to take on Longview High. It lost 30-14.
Not long afterward, Scott Passmore filled in an open date for the third game of the 2013 season by scheduling a home game with Trinity High School in Euless, Texas. The school of 2,300 midway between Dallas and Fort Worth has earned a reputation as one the most physically dominant programs in Texas’ highest classification. The Trinity Trojans used a ferocious ground game often employing 10-plus running backs to win three state titles in 2005-2009 and finish as runner-up in 2011.
“Certainly, when those guys get on a roll, they can beat anybody very badly,” Coach Lunney said in August.
Bentonville is a big, strong and well-coached team. Problem is, Euless is also well-coached, but bigger and stronger. Against Arkansas teams, Bentonville usually has the biggest linemen. Euless, which is stocked with 300 pound plus players, has linemen which outweigh their Bentonville counterparts by an average of 20-30 pounds. Moreover, Euless is loaded with future high Division I players. Bentonville doesn’t have the same firepower in terms of sheer future major college players. It has one major college commit in its senior class.
September 20, 2013
It’s a quarter to 7:00 p.m. in the middle of Tiger Fieldhouse, the high school band’s threatening to rock the metal siding off this place, and all those rankings and statistics mentioned above? Doesn’t matter here.
Bentonville football is ready to make its mark at a national level, and Tiger players who have gathered in a semi-circle on the edge of a half field of artificial turf are focused on the task at hand. The steady roar of 3,500 Bentonville fans outside conveys this game’s importance just as much as the words of Lunney and his nine assistant coaches.
“This is a chance to represent the state of Arkansas,” Bentonville defensive coordinator Jody Grant says, his voice rising with every syllable. “Let’s show these people what they came out here to see and let’s work these jokers over.”
Cheers erupt. The band pounds its drums.
Next to speak is Lunney. Nearly 100 players gather around him, drop to their knees and clasp hands. Lunney spends 42 seconds praying for the safety of all participants during the game and for the safety of their opponents who later that night will make a six-hour bus trip to Euless.
Then Lunney launches into a sermon on the game’s fundamentals: avoid penalties, take advantage of turnovers, play aggressive. It’s the same gospel this Fort Smith native has been preaching throughout his 27 years of head coaching that have brought six state titles and three runner-up finishes.
Lunney tells his players to hustle as hard as previous Bentonville teams. He reminds them of his first Bentonville team: “They fought for 48 minutes regardless, and we got down by some big scores that year,” he recalls. Then Lunney looks at senior Clay Wallace. “Your brother was a part of that, you know that.” Pause. “I don’t know if you know or not. You were so little,” he adds, smiling.
Lunney wraps by emphasizing the importance of the kicking game. One in every five plays is either part of kickoff, field goal or punt attempt, he says. These plays are not time for rest. “We must, we must, we must win the kicking game,” he says. “We’re gonna press it. We’re gonna press it. We’re gonna press it right from the start.”
On October 31 and November 1, Texans will honor and celebrate the legacy of their all black high school sports and activities league with an event at the University of Texas. Why shouldn’t Arkansas do the same?
Yes, Texas has more people than Arkansas. A lot more people. But that doesn’t make its history any more significant. Look at the promotional poster below. It notes the event will involve discussion of the role high school athletics had in the desegregation of Texas society. The exact same dynamic was playing out in the all-black Arkansas State Athletic Association during the same decades. You’ll also notice famous Texas high school alumni such as David Lattin and Joe Washington. Well, Arkansas black sports had the likes of Eddie Miles and civil rights leader Sonny Walker, who in the 1950s reported on black high school sports in Little Rock for Daisy Bates’ newspaper the Arkansas State Press.
We, as Arkansans, should organize such an event as an opportunity to gather surviving coaches and players from this era and learn about their experiences playing in a different era. Oliver Elders, who coached at the all-black Horace Mann High School before he coached Sidney Moncrief at LR Hall, is in his 80s but is still sharp. So is North Little Rock great Eddie Miles, who’s in his 70s. These guys won’t be around forever, though. We need to learn more from them now.
Who would have interest in sponsoring such an event? Possibilities include the UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, the UA’s Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History and maybe the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute (Walker was appointed by Governor Winthrop Rockefeller as the first African-American in the South to hold a cabinet level position)? I could see an event like this being hosted by the Butler Center, Clinton Center, Mosaic Templars or the UA Department of Journalism. I am sure the cause would get good publicity from the likes of the Arkansas Times, Sporting Life Arkansas, ArkansasFight.com, KUAR 89.1 FM and KUAF 91.3 FM.
What’s stopping us from making this happen?
It’s one thing to ignore the records of long-ago all-black prep sports leagues. Some of those numbers still live on microfilm, which will still be around for future generations to peruse. But it’s an entirely different matter to let stories of the leagues’ survivors – the stories that should matter to all Arkansans, white or black – keep going untold. Once we close that door, there’s no opening it again.
Over the years, Keith Jackson has made a lot of good memories with his friend Anthony Chambers.
When they were kids growing up in south Little Rock near Roosevelt street in the 1970s, they’d often walk a couple miles to LR Central’s stadium to sneak into Tiger football games. In little league football, Chambers was always one of the players who was quick to offer help to teammates and take leadership responsibilities,” said Jackson, former NFL player and head of Little Rock’s Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids organization.
The good times kept rolling when as teenagers Jackson and Chambers – a 5-11 fullback – teamed up on powerful Parkview Patriot football teams. Along with the likes of Rickey Williams (another childhood friend), Bill Ingram and James Rouse, they formed one of the talent-laden teams of the modern era in 1983.
Throughout the regular season and the first three games of the playoffs, those Patriots did not win a game by less than 12 points. They were upset by fourth-seed Fort Smith Southside 9-6 in the AAAA Finals.
Jackson attended the University of Oklahoma, where he became an All-American tight end. Chambers, like Ingram, Williams and Rouse, became Razorbacks. Chambers added depth at fullback on some of Ken Hatfield’s powerful flexbone/wishbone offenses. He practiced with and against the likes of Barry Foster, JuJu Harshaw and Joe Johnson (no, not that Joe Johnson) and graduated in spring 1989 with a degree in industrial education.
By 2003, Chambers had parlayed that degree into a job as head football coach at McClellan High School. Through the next nine years, he, like so many other LRSD head coaches – was on the front lines of trying to bring the glory back to football in the metro area.
From 2006 through 2011, Chambers averaged one win a season. On August 24, 2012, a week before the season opener, Chambers resigned, citing differences with school administration, according to Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Two days later this happened, as reported by this Fox16.com account:.
One person is dead and several others injured following an accident early Sunday morning…
The accident report identifies the fatality as 50 year old Timothy Hester of Little Rock, who was in the rear passenger-side seat of the vehicle. 45 year old Ricky Franklin, of Little Rock, who was also in the rear passenger seat, was seriously injured. Three other people were also injured in the one vehicle accident….
Pulaski County investigators say the driver of the 2005 Mustang convertible, 48 year old Anthony Chambers of Little Rock, apparently lost control and slammed into a power pole, just before 4:00 a.m. The accident report indicates that Chambers admitting to drinking prior to the accident and told the investigating officer his last drink was just before the accident happened.
“He’s a really good guy, one of my good friends – I will say that – and always has been, who made a horrible mistake,” Keith Jackson said. “It’s just one incident. It doesn’t define who you are. He’s helped a lot of kids and he loves being a coach. It’s his calling. “
For now, that calling is on ice. Chamber still teaches at McClellan, which was 3-7 last season, but has legal issues to deal with.
At last, the elusive legend has found a home.
Photo taken by Arshia Khan; courtesy of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.
Imagine you’re 12 years old.
Like most kids, you crave acceptance. Unlike most kids, the acceptance you want the most isn’t from classmates. It’s from your own parents.
You rarely see your father, but over time that kinda, sorta becomes O.K. Some of your friends are in the same boat and nobody’s drowned yet. What gets you – what at a certain level will never stop getting you – is your mother’s rejection. Your mom, a gambling addict, up and left you and your siblings in Pine Bluff and headed to her hometown San Diego with the excuse of finding work. Two Greyhound bus tickets and a few nights later, you and your older brother are knocking on her door.
It doesn’t work out. She isn’t any more ready to provide for her children now than she was in Arkansas. Soon enough, you’re on that bus again, heading to a home with no parents.
The pain is there, always will be. You can’t run from it. But soon enough, you find you can run from just about everything else.
Say the word in most states, an image of a genie, magic lamp, or young basketball pro with the last name ‘Muhammad’ springs to mind.
But here in Arkansas, the name conjures visions of our greatest all-around athlete. The guy who was the very definition of “natural” – who, instead of lifting weights in the off-season, annually lifted the fortunes of his football, then basketball, then track and baseball teams. The guy who to this day remains the only Arkansan to win the National Sports News Services’ USA High School Athlete of the Year award. And, to this day, remains one of the most tantalizing “What-if” stories in Razorback lore.
If you want to better understand how Basil Shabazz rose to the top of the prep athletic world, read Nate Olson’s article in SYNC this week. In it, we learn how Shabazz’s lack of parental guidance might have fueled early success but derailed his chances of sustaining it. For instance, young Shabazz developed a form of “cross training” most children wouldn’t be allowed to even attempt:
He chased and caught rabbits with his bare hands. His strategy was to steer the rabbit to the pavement, where it lost traction, then scoop it up. Shabazz also worked out on the railroad tracks, running from tie to tie without his feet hitting the gravel in between, and running on the rails.
Both of those exercises could have resulted in injury, but Shabazz claims he rarely fell. “When I ran on the rails, I tried to see how fast and far I could go. I made a game out of it and tried to beat my record each time,” Shabazz says.
His other favorite pastime was swimming in the Safeway loading dock. After a heavy rain, water collected in the dock, and Shabazz swam laps.
“I think all of those things helped,” he says. “It helped me get quick feet and gave me lateral quickness and kept me in shape.”
Seriously: what kind of kid spends hours and hours alone on train tracks, tempting fate with every bound? Who runs to a nearby grocery store during thunderstorms, only to jump into its overflowing loading dock?
It’s clear Shabazz was a kid seriously in need of distractions, no matter how ill-conceived or dangerous, and didn’t have parents to steer him elsewhere.
He found a home in sports, and in the love of the families of his best friends/teammates Torii Hunter and Carlos James. But it cannot be forgotten that our state’s most gifted athlete was playing with a severe handicap – no strong parental guidance to push him in academics, or help him navigate the series of critical decisions he faced as high school graduation drew near.
For the rest of this story, visit Sporting Life Arkansas.