Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Painful Memory

Today, during the first half of the Alabama-Florida game, they mentioned that this was the first time in 39 years that the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the Associated Press poll faced each other in December.

I remember that game. It occurred exactly 39 years ago today, December 6, in 1969. It was the Arkansas-Texas game.

Some folks called it "The Game of the Century." And some folks called it "The Great Shootout."

I grew up in Conway, Ark., which is in the central part of the state, and the Arkansas campus, where the game was played, is in the northwest corner of the state, about 120 miles away.

But geography doesn't matter in Arkansas. Whether you live in Texarkana to the southwest, Blytheville to the northeast or Monticello to the southeast or anywhere in between, just about everyone pulls for the Razorbacks.

And, in 1969, there was no cable. There were only the three major networks — and some restrictive regulations that limited the number of TV appearances a program could make during the regular season.

ABC's Roone Arledge made a deal with Arkansas coach/athletic director Frank Broyles to move the game to the end of the season, meaning an exclusive national viewing audience — and Arledge threw in a pledge that the president, Richard Nixon, would attend the game in person.

Arledge also promised to televise Arkansas' season opener the next year, which was against Jim Plunkett and Stanford.

In return, Broyles had to assure Arledge the footing would be good, so he installed AstroTurf at Razorback Stadium.

It was a gamble that Arkansas and Texas would win the rest of their games and play in a showdown of unbeaten teams as the regular-season finale for college football's 100th season.

The gamble paid off. Both teams were unbeaten. Nixon arrived after the kickoff, but in time to see most of the game. He was accompanied by politicians from both states, including a young representative from Texas named George H.W. Bush.

It's hard to imagine, these days, how incredible the hype was for the game. In their book "The Razorbacks," veteran Arkansas sportswriters Jim Bailey and Orville Henry called it "The Day The Nation Watched," and it truly was.

The day was raw and damp, as I recall. We lived in a hilly area and depended on the old-fashioned TV antenna to pick up signals from the Little Rock stations. The weather interfered with the TV signals and, at one point during the game, the wind and the rain knocked it loose. The picture suddenly went haywire.

My father decided to climb up on the roof to re-attach the antenna. I remember watching him climb up the ladder and make his way to the apex of the roof while the wind swirled around him and a cold rain stung him from time to time. From below, my mother called up instructions to him, advising my father not to electrocute himself.

Somehow, he fixed the antenna and we watched the rest of the game from the comfort of our living room. In the cold and the rain in Fayetteville, Texas rallied from a 14-0 deficit with 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and won the game, 15-14.

Nixon came down to Texas' locker room and proclaimed the Longhorns the national champions — even though they still had a Cotton Bowl date with Notre Dame on New Year's Day.

The pain in Arkansas the following week was almost too great to describe.

Actually, a much better memory of a December 6 — for Arkansas fans — came six years later. In Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium, Arkansas upset previously unbeaten and second-ranked Texas A&M, 31-6, to win the Southwest Conference and advance to the Cotton Bowl, where the Razorbacks beat the Georgia Bulldogs, 31-10.

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