Monday, October 12, 2009

A Memorable Afternoon

Part of the college experience for most people is Saturday afternoon football games.

This Saturday will be the anniversary of one of the most memorable games of my college days — and I hope it turns out to be every bit as memorable for those who are students now on the campus of my alma mater.

It isn't the kind of thing that can be duplicated for succeeding generations. But my college experience would have been completely different without it.

I graduated from the University of Arkansas. And it was on October 17 in 1981 that the Razorbacks defeated their arch rivals, the Texas Longhorns, who were ranked #1 in the nation, by the lopsided score of 42–11. I went to many Razorback games when I was in college, and I don't think I ever heard the home fans cheer as loudly as they did on that day.

Maybe that's because the whole thing was such an astonishingly unexpected event.

Arkansas wasn't ranked. Two weeks earlier, the Razorbacks lost to perennial Southwest Conference doormat TCU for the first time in my lifetime. To lifelong Razorback fans, it was embarrassing. Things are different now, but back then, it was a disgrace for a team that was usually a contender for the conference title, as Arkansas was, to lose to a team in the lower tier of the SWC. And TCU definitely occupied the lower tier.

The Hogs bounced back with a 26–14 victory over Texas Tech the next week, but the unbeaten — and seemingly unbeatable — Texas Longhorns were next on the schedule.

I was living off campus in those days, and the girl who was going to the game with me was living in one of the dorms. I remember calling her and telling her that I didn't think I would go to the game that day. Like most Arkansas fans, I thought the Hogs were going to lose to the powerful Longhorns.

But she told me to come on over to the dorm and we would see how we felt when the 2:30 kickoff drew near. So I agreed to come over, although I still didn't think I would go to the game. But we talked about it and, in the end, we decided to go.

If it turned into a blowout, we agreed, we would leave. Her dorm, after all, wasn't too far from the stadium. And I admit that I was far from certain that we would stay past halftime. It turned out our seats were just across the aisle from where the huge University of Texas marching band was seated. I made a mental resolution: If the score was as out of hand as I expected and I wasn't deaf from hearing repeated playings of "The Eyes of Texas" in the first half, I should leave and count my blessings.

Well, we didn't leave the stadium at halftime. The score was out of hand, but not in Texas' favor. The Razorbacks had taken a commanding lead, and the fans were raucous. The band had been mostly quiet in the first half, and my hearing was still intact.

So we stayed. And I am glad we did. It was an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.

I found the attached clip of game highlights, and it brought back some memories of that afternoon. It's interesting, though, that whoever compiled that YouTube clip chose Michael Jackson's "Beat It" as the background music. Fact is, that song wasn't recorded until the following year so, even though it may be an energetic theme, it really isn't an appropriate one. The jubilant Razorback fans in Fayetteville that day couldn't possibly have listened to it at their victory parties that night since it didn't exist yet.

Perhaps a better tune would have been Christopher Cross' "Arthur's Theme," which was the top–selling song on Billboard's charts at the time. It might be a more subdued melody, but it is more representative of what people were listening to.

A few memories stand out from that day:
  • Through most of the time I was growing up, Southwest Conference schools ran the ball. Throwing the ball was something you did if you were way behind. And some coaches apparently had too much pride to throw the ball even if they were far behind. Frank Broyles, for example, was coach of the Razorbacks until I was in high school, and I have few memories of the Razorbacks throwing the ball — even when they trailed by huge margins.

    I vividly recall listening to radio coverage of Arkansas' season opener when Lou Holtz took over for Broyles. On the first offensive play, Holtz called a deep pass. The sharp intake of breath from the capacity crowd was clearly audible.

    On that afternoon in 1981, Holtz was able to run a more conservative offense, but, because of the score, Texas was forced to abandon its running game, eventually setting a school record for pass attempts in a game. Many of those passes were incomplete, which stopped the clock and prolonged the game.

  • It was starting to get dark by the time the game ended. Visibility was restricted for everyone, including the TV audience. In those days, Razorback Stadium had lights that were adequate only for practice sessions, not for illuminating a field for TV cameras.

    Here in the 21st century, it may be hard to imagine a stadium that isn't equipped with lights that make it possible to play there at night. But they were still around in 1981, and Razorback Stadium was one of them.

  • I don't think I have ever been to a game that had as many shifts in the weather conditions. If you watch the clips, you'll see that, at some points, the field was bathed in sunlight. At other times, when clouds — and even some rain — went through, it got a little dark.

    There were even times when the area was under a tornado watch.

    It was never announced over the P.A. system, and the fans who didn't have radios with them didn't know that at the time. But the ones with radios weren't exactly making their way to the exits.

    This was Razorback football. The opponent was the hated Texas Longhorns, who were the top–ranked team in the nation that day. TV cameras were broadcasting the game to the outside world.

    And the Hogs were winning.

    For Razorback fans, no better conditions could be imagined for one's last moments. I can only assume that those who did know we were under a tornado watch decided it was worth the risk.

  • When I was growing up, Texas was the source of a lot of frustration for Razorback fans. Nearly every year, the Longhorns beat the Razorbacks, often decisively — and that win over Arkansas usually gave Texas the conference title.

    In the years leading up to that memorable afternoon in 1981, Texas had run off a streak of seven straight wins over Arkansas. The Razorbacks ended that skid with a three–point win over Texas in Little Rock two years earlier, but then they seemed to resume their old ways when the series returned to Austin in 1980, giving Texas eight wins over Arkansas in the 10 years prior to that memorable afternoon in Razorback Stadium.

    So, on that afternoon, Arkansas fans were ready to celebrate. They tried to tear down one of the goal posts, but they couldn't quite manage it. The goal post apparently was made of metal, and the fans only managed to distort it into a bizarre dangling wishbone shape that I could see for several days as I walked past the dorms that stood at the top of the hill looking down on the stadium.
This Saturday, there will be a few clear differences between the game Arkansas will play against #1 Florida and the game the Razorbacks played against Texas in 1981.

For one, the Florida game is a road game for Arkansas. The Texas game was played at home.

For another, the top ranking in the nation hasn't been the revolving door in 2009 that it was in 1981. By mid–October of that year, Texas was the fourth team to be ranked #1. Unless I have missed something, the Gators have been ranked #1 all along.

Yet another difference is that, while Arkansas lost to a lightly regarded foe two weeks before the Razorbacks played Texas in 1981, Arkansas' two losses this year have been against teams that were ranked — Georgia and Alabama.

One more noteworthy difference: In 1981 — and this could be the most important factor for Razorback fans — Texas brought a healthy squad to Fayetteville. The Gators are led by a quarterback who has won a Heisman Trophy and two national titles in his collegiate career — but he suffered a concussion against Kentucky weekend before last and played in spite of it against LSU this past weekend.

That flew in the face of what modern authorities on sports injuries tend to recommend for concussion victims. They usually recommend that football players who have had concussions sit out the next game.

Will that affect Tim Tebow's performance against the Razorbacks? That remains to be seen. Arkansas' defense hasn't been particularly impressive this season, but I don't think it has been panned as much as it was after the TCU loss in 1981.

And, if Arkansas' explosive offense isn't held in check by Florida's defense, that may put more pressure on Florida to be productive.

Florida certainly has shown that its offense can put points on the board. And, if Tebow is 100%, beating Florida may prove to be too great a challenge for the Razorbacks.

But a lifetime of watching the Razorbacks has taught me never to count them out — even if the foe is the top–ranked team in the nation.

Common sense says Florida probably will win. But I'll be watching, anyway.

Just in case.

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