For decades the best players in central Arkansas came from the area’s biggest public schools. What’s now known as Little Rock Central High, for instance, has produced at least eight NFL players, which is the most of any school in Pulaski, Lonoke, Faulkner or Saline counties. Next in line is Little Rock Hall High, which has produced four NFL alumni. Three other schools have produced three alumni each: Lonoke High, what’s now called North Little Rock High School and Little Rock Parkview High.
Jefferson Prep, a new-defunct college preparatory school won a Class A state title in 1981. That’s the year that signaled private high schools in Arkansas had arrived as a collective power. Generally, though, such domination has been relegated to the 5A classification and below levels. Plenty college-level players have come from these schools but it seemed public schools still had cornered the market on NFL-caliber players.
That is changing – and fast. As far as I can tell, after poring through this, the first NFL player from an Arkansas private school was Jeb Huckeba, a 2001 graduate of Searcy’s Harding Academy. In 2009, Johnathan Luigs of Pulaski Academy became the second, and last year D.J. Williams of Central Arkansas Christian became the third.
That number could double soon if all three of the following Razorbacks are taken in the NFL Draft this Thursday through Saturday: Jake Bequette (Catholic), Joe Adams (CAC) and Broderick Green (Pulaski Academy). Looking ahead, other potential pro players who have attended Arkansas private schools include Michael Dyer (Little Rock Christian), Kiehl Frazier (Shiloh Christian) and Hunter Henry (Pulaski Academy). This trend seems to be a logical outgrowth of the multiple state football titles private schools have racked up in the last 15 years. Success breeds success, and the more a program develops a reputation for developing elite players, the more young high school players want to go there.
In 2008, Robert Yates of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette explored some of the tension developing between the state’s public and private schools. The longtime prep football writer wrote some private schools are accused of “advantages – perceived or real – that include no attendance boundaries, screening potential students, offering financial aid, higher participation and flat-out recruiting.”
It seems every time one of these games comes around, visions of Thanksgiving Day, 1971 are conjured.
In this particular rendition, Oklahoma played the irresistible force, Nebraska the immovable object.
No. 1 Nebraska entered the heavily hyped fray with a defense – filled with with seven first-team All-Big Eight selections and four players who would earn consensus All-America honors – that to this day many still consider the best in college football history.
The No. 2 Sooners countered on their home field with the nation’s most productive offense, a Wishbone attack averaging 45 points and 563 total yards per game (481 on the ground).
When the dust cleared in Norman, Okla., that superlative defense was left standing. Nebraska won 35-31.
Fourteen years later, the programs switched roles entering another late November showdown in Oklahoma.
This time around, No. 2 Nebraska boasted the nation’s highest scoring offense, with a ground attack racking up 395 yards a game. No. 5 Oklahoma countered with a highly potent running game all its own. But the Sooners’ defense, led by nose guard Tony Casillas, linebacker Brian Bosworth and defensive end Kevin Murphy, was even more impressive.
Oklahoma won 27-7 after holding Nebraska to 161 yards.
It is yet to be seen if No. 1 LSU’s defense will enter the pantheon of the game’s great defenses, as Nebraska ’71 and Oklahoma ’85 have. But in leading LSU through an undefeated first 11 games, a gauntlet including Oregon, West Virginia and Alabama, it so far certainly seems likely. As the Tigers look down the scope at their Nov. 25 game with No. 3 Arkansas, a team to which they have lost three of the last four seasons, they take solace in a defense superior to any of its predecessors.
The legacy of Arkansas’ recently vaunted offense, which has routed its last three SEC opponents, is harder to divine. It suffered mid-season hiccups in lackluster wins against Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, on the heels of failing a test against Alabama, the only team with a defense comparable to LSU’s.
The venues, helmets and results stay the same.All that changes, it seems, are the stitches on the back of their opponents’ jerseys.By falling to Alabama 38-14, Arkansas lost its bid to join college football’s VIP club for the fifth time in three years. Forget Arkansas-LSU: that annual late-season showdown is always close, and the Hogs will win their fair share.
But the SEC money games which could catapult the Razorbacks into national title contention occur in the season’s first few weeks, and the Hogs have whiffed on Alabama the last three seasons, Florida in 2009 and Auburn in 2010.Each time, there’s a recurring theme: Arkansas’ opponents unleash game changers with talent the Razorbacks simply can’t match.
Last season, Cleveland Brown back Peyton Hillis emerged as a national star by bulldozing his way through legions of NFL defenders. Along the way, he also smashed racial typecasts. For decades, the best NFL running backs have been black. Not that it mattered to the former Razorback:
“I don’t put race into the equation,” Hillis told ESPN in October. “I’m a human being just like everybody else.”
This season, Razorback defensive lineman Jake Bequette, like Hillis, enters his senior season as one of the premier players in the SEC. He credits Hillis, along with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, with inspiring him as a redshirt freshman:
“Those guys were great teammates and great role models. Every one of them were supremely talented, but they worked their butts off and they showed me as a young freshman what it takes to get to that point.”
But Bequette shares more with Hillis than a strong work ethic. He is a rarity in his own right, an All-SEC white defensive end who attended private school in central Arkansas. He is the only white defensive line starter in the SEC West division, taking into account projected starters listed in the 2011 Hooten’s Arkansas Football issue. The SEC East is a different story. Tennessee and Kentucky each have starting white defensive tackles, while all four of Vandy’s d-linemen are white.
Like Hillis, Bequette says race within the framework of the team doesn’t matter to him:
“I’m one of the only white guys on the defensive line, but I don’t look at it like that. We’re always just competing to see who’s the best regardless of race, gender, whatever.”
I asked him whether, in the larger picture, his race could matter. For instance, it could inspire central Arkansas private school kids (most of whom are white) to believe they can star as defensive ends in SEC football. Bequette replied:
“Yeah, hopefully I have that effect. I’d say that’s kind of a factor in why I like Jared Allen so much. He’s one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL and happens to be a white guy. And, hey, I’m white. I hope that’s not the only reason why I’m inspiring kids, but if I am, then that’s a good thing.”
Race is a potentially dicey issue, but should be discussed in an open-minded way. Sure, most race discussions should have a much more serious objective than worrying about the prevalence of a certain skin color at various sports positions. Nobody, after all, is suffering an immediate injustice if almost all NFL running backs and defensive ends are black. The presumption is those jobs were earned on merit, which is how just societies operate. (although some argue socioeconomic conditions dictate why most applicants for those jobs are black to begin with)
As a journalist, I am drawn to exceptions, not the norm. Bequette’s ability already qualifies him as a rare player; his race, only more so.