On the college level, Cowboys Stadium events have been a resounding success for Arkansas. The Razorbacks have won all four of its games – three regular season matchups and a Cotton Bowl – in Arlington, Texas.
It’s been more of a mixed bag for high schools.
In 2010, Shiloh Christian School, during the 2000s one of the state’s premier programs at any level, traveled to Texas for an early season matchup with Euless Trinity, which entered the season at the top of the state’s highest classification. Although Shiloh was doubtless the underdog, their performance was seen a barometer of how far Arkansas high school football had come relative to the nation’s best.
It wasn’t a contest. The Saints hung with Euless for a quarter, but couldn’t match the Texans’ overall size, speed and depth as the game wore on. Trinity triumphed 80-26, and for many Texan apologists this was validation Arkansas had been put in its place.
The last two summers, North Little Rock sent some of its players to Cowboys Stadium for the Nike Football SPARQ Combine, a variety of contests measuring speed, agility and power. Of the roughly 1500 participants, North Little Rock produced two top place finishers (Altee Tenpenny and Kavin Alexander) and this year had 10 of the top 20 finishers, says North Little Rock head coach Brad Bolding.
The Texans didn’t take kindly to this, and made sure to inject some interstate trash talk.
“There was a lot of chirping going on from some of those Texas players after we had won it” in 2011, Bolding says. “They were talking about ‘Shiloh this,’ ‘Trinity that.’ I didn’t get caught up in all that. The players were telling me that.”
Rarely are massive central Arkansas public schools and private northwest Arkansas schools in the same boat, but when it comes to toppling Texas, Friday will prove an exception.
They share more than Little Rock as a birthplace and Fayetteville as a college destination. They share more than playing for pro teams that use primarily black uniforms. Darren McFadden and Joe Johnson have both staked out turf on top of their respective leagues, not yet in the way they want to – with champagne, commemorative T-shirts and glittering gold – but by leading their leagues in key statistical categories.
To wit, ya’ll:
1) Over the NFL’s last three years, no running back churns out more butter per pass route than D-Mac. That is, McFadden has averaged the league’s most receiving yards per route he runs – whether the ball is thrown to him or not. Here’s the breakdown, per Pro Football Focus:
This surprising stat is partially explained by Levi Damien, writer for the Raiders blog Silver and Black Pride:
McFadden’s numbers depended on “having a quarterback who is more likely to throw to a running back running a route. The Raiders had Jason Campbell behind center for a season and a half and he was well known for his penchant for check downs. That is a strong reason why both McFadden and Bush were on the list for best YPRR. Over 500 of McFadden’s 906 receiving yards came in 2010 alone when Campbell was the starter.” The blog’s author, however, believes while new Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer is more of a drop-back threat the Raiders will still employ plenty of running back routes to keep these players’ YPRR high.
If you’ve played adult-league kickball or visited the state fair, you likely know this downtown Little Rock neighborhood. Picture the busy intersection of W. Roosevelt Road and Martin Luther King Drive. If you venture a few blocks south, you’ll find the home of Daisy Bates, which in the late ’50s was a headquarters for Arkansas’ African-American civil rights movement. There, Bates etched her name into world history by mentoring the nine African-American students who integrated Central High School in 1957. That is but one of many reasons her home at 1207 W. 28th Street became a National Historic Landmark in 2001.
Just north of Gates’ home is a 3-block radius which may have the most connections to great athletes per capita than anywhere else in the state. Gates helped pave the way for blacks to have the same access to state resources as whites, and the following student-athletes used integrated Little Rock high schools to launch careers that took them to top Division I college programs and beyond.
Less than a block from Gates’ home is the home of Leslie O’Neal’s mother, I was told by a childhood friend of O’Neal. O’Neal is a former Little Rock Hall football star who would become the best NFL defensive end from Arkansas until Kevin Williams. My neighborhood guide, Chris Porter, said as children he and O’Neal (also known as “Big Red”) worked during the summer for local businessman Robert “Say” McIntosh.
Across MLK (formerly called High Street), Porter pointed out an early childhood home of Keith Jackson, the former Parkview High star-turned-NFL All-Pro tight end. Just a block to the west lives the father of former All-SEC Razorback Joe Adams, who’s now starting his rookie season with the Carolina Panthers. His father Joseph Adams, a Little Rock fireman, told me that he grew up playing neighborhood football with Keith Jackson.
Finally, caddy-corner to Adams’ home, is the home of Darren McFadden’s mother Mini Muhammad. McFadden owns a few homes on that block, which helps when the fam throws block parties during his off-season.
If there is an Arkansas neighborhood with more star sports power in terms of family connections, I want to see it. Bates’ home may already be designated as a national landmark, but I think the surrounding area also deserves some recognition. Maybe a mention in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame or the black Arkansas sports hall of fame that former Razorback football player Muskie Harris is trying to start.
The questions aren’t hard-hitting in the least, nothing like the vicious hits he’s expected to endure come fall: “Do you still play for the Razorbacks?” “Where did you go to high school?”
“How many years have you been in the NFL?”
And this curveball: “Why is the baseball field so muddy?”
Darren McFadden takes each child’s question in stride. It’s the end of the first day of a football camp he’s headlining at Maumelle High School and there is no reason to hurry. He hasn’t rushed through the passing, receiving and running skills work he’s done with 300 kids this Tuesday morning, and again takes his time with each soft ball thrown his way, smile on his face the whole time.
Finally, an older child throws something that could raise a pulse or two hundred thousand: “Do you like Houston Nutt?” McFadden doesn’t hesitate to praise his college coach of three seasons, a fellow Little Rock native who helped him become Arkansas’ all-time leading rusher in a single game, season and career: “Houston Nutt was a great coach. I loved playing for him, and I even keep in contact with him today.” Cheers erupt from the parents sitting in the Hornet Stadium bleachers.
McFadden, arguably Arkansas’ most popular athlete this century, has this way with people. On the field, the Oakland Raider running back is a nearly sure bet to elicit applause, whether by talking or doing what he does best – blasting through and around very large men using a mix of power and acceleration that, if trained for another sport, could be showcased in London in this summer’s Olympics.
Besides usual suspects such as speed, power and quickness, NFL running backs need two other things to excel: youth and durability. No question, Razorback demigod Darren McFadden has enough of the tangibles, and proved it by running at a pace that would have racked up 1,400 yards each of the last two seasons with the Oakland Raiders. But injury kept him from suiting up nearly 40% of his games in 2010 and 2011. In order to achieve the same level of success in Oakland as he had in Arkansas, he must play nearly all 16 regular-season games.
He’ll have plenty more seasons to prove his durability, but if he wants to start setting single-season NFL records, now is the time. McFadden, who turns 25 in August, is entering what is historically the most productive age for pro running backs. The best rushing seasons in NFL history have been churned out by men with an average age of 25.8 years:
|Player (Age)||Yards||Year||Games Played||Team|
|1||Eric Dickerson (24)||2,105||1984||16||RAM|
|2||Jamal Lewis (24)||2,066||2003||16||BAL|
|3||Barry Sanders (29)||2,053||1997||16||DET|
|4||Terrell Davis (26)||2,008||1998||16||DEN|
|5||Chris Johnson (24)||2,006||2009||16||TEN|
|6||O.J. Simpson (26)||2,003||1973||14||BUF|
|7||Earl Campbell (25)||1,934||1980||15||HOU|
|8||Barry Sanders (26)||1,883||1994||16||DET|
|Ahman Green (26)||1,883||2003||16||GNB|
|10||Shaun Alexander (28)||1,880||2005||16||SEA|
There are a few names that bestow greatness simply by affiliation. In non-profit work, it’s “Nobel.” In acting, we have “Brando,” and in boxing, “Ali.” For running backs, though, no name quite conjures images of glory like Jim Brown, the iconic Cleveland Brown who after eight seasons retired in 1965 as the NFL record holder for both single-season rushing and career rushing (12,312 yards), as well as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126), and all-purpose yards (15,549).
Brown was real good, so good that no running back has yet eclipsed his production on a per-game basis. One Arkansan is getting close, though.
Little Rock native DeAngelo Williams is four carries away from joining Brown as the only running backs in history to average five yards a carry on at least 1,000 rushing attempts. This is impressive, especially given the fact that Williams has leapfrogged other likely candidates – guys like Emmett Smith, Barry Sanders and Bo Jackson (had he stayed healthy) – to achieve it.
Plenty fans around the nation will scoff at the idea of Williams achieving all-timer status at this point in his career, but if he can continue this level of production it will be difficult to discount his career body of work (although Carolina winning a Super Bowl would help more than anything).
It is not too early, however, to figure out where Williams ranks among the best Arkansas-born running backs to play in the NFL. Here is a list of Arkansas natives who have run for at least 1,500 yards. (n.b. after the player name below, I list a) city of birth b) pro team on which he had best years c) years in NFL d) career yards e) career rushing average per attempt f) career TDs
Priest Holmes (Fort Smith)* Kansas City; 1997-07; 8,172; 4.6; 86
DeAngelo Williams (L.R.)** Carolina; 2006-present; 5,047; 5.1; 38
Robert Mitchell (Hot Springs)*** Cleveland, 1958-68; 2,735; 5.3; 18
Darren McFadden (L.R.) Oakland; 2008-present; 2,627; 4.8; 16
Cleophus Miller (Gould) Cleveland; 1974-82; 2,492; 4.2; 16
Peyton Hillis (Conway) Cleveland; 2008-present; 2,161; 4.2; 20
Jerry Eckwood (Brinkley) Tampa Bay; 1979-81; 1,845; 3.6; 6
Tommy Watkins (W. Memphis) Detroit; 1961-68; 1,791; 3.8; 10
Elijah Pitts (Mayflower) Green Bay; 1961-71; 1,788; 3.5; 28
Jesse Clark (Thebes) Green Bay; 1983-90; 1,736; 4.2; 9
* Holmes moved to San Antonio, Texas, as a child
** Before middle school, Williams moved to Wynne
*** Mitchell had great years, but primarily as a receiver, in Washington
[all stats from nfl.com and databasefootball.com]
I admit: this is a pretty cursory way to rank the state’s best NFL RBs. Still, I chose the statistical categories I feel matter the most to most people.
So, what do you think? Should Holmes be knocked off because of his Texas upbringing? Do you think McFadden or Hillis will one day eclipse Williams as the state’s best?
(PS – It took nearly all my powers of self-control to not use the phrase “Ultimate Wynne-r” in the title of this post about DeAngelo)
Little Rock Central hasn’t had an All-America caliber football player in decades, but that sure doesn’t mean the neighborhood cupboard’s bare. Two speedsters who have recently grown up in an area a few blocks southwest of the downtown high school both merited Parade All-America honors as seniors: Darren McFadden (who attended what is now Maumelle High School) and Fredi Knighten of Pulaski Academy. No, they didn’t know each other – not like McFadden befriended another high profile private school star soon to be Knighten’s teammate.
But Fredi was certainly aware of the McFaddens, who lived three blocks away from the home into which his mother moved when he started middle school. On many evenings, he recalls hearing stereos booming from McFadden’s car as it rumbled down his street. Of course, McFadden was also making all kinds of noise in Fayetteville, where he solidified his place as the best Razorback running back of all time with consecutive Heisman runner-up finishes.
It’s yet to be seen whether Knighten, a quarterback, can translate his own outstanding prep success to the college level. But if he does, it will likely be to the Razorbacks’ recruiting detriment in central Arkansas. Arkansas State now has three new inroads into central Arkansas it didn’t have during its record-setting 2010 season – Gus Malzahn, a longtime Arkansas high school coach, along with Michael Dyer and Knighten, the area’s last two Parade All-Americans. If ASU continues to build on its recent success, Jonesboro can’t help but become a hotter destination for central Arkansas high school players. A Little Rock native like Knighten, or Dyer, throwing up All-American-type numbers while at ASU would likely lavish unprecedented amounts of media attention on the Red Wolves program.
At the same time, it’s important to note as a Top 5 team the Razorbacks are also becoming a hotter name, not just at home but everywhere around the nation. Arkansas no longer needs to rely on nabbing every 5-star recruit that comes out of central Arkansas (or Springfield, Mo., for that matter). Sure, Altee Tenpenny, North Little Rock’s star running back, recently said “aye” to Alabama. But with the wide net Petrino and his coaches are casting over the nation – especially Western states – that loss doesn’t hurt the program like it would have in the Houston Nutt years.