REX NELSON: The ties that bind

Posted: November 11, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

My sister retired as a public school administrator several years ago and began what was in essence a new full-time job, cleaning out our family home at Arkadelphia. I wouldn't have been good doing what she did. I would have wanted to read every newspaper clipping. I would have wanted to save those things that really aren't worth saving.

She later brought me what has turned out to be one of my most valuable possessions. It's a game program from the Battle of the Ravine that was played at Haygood Field in Arkadelphia on Thanksgiving Day 1947. It's in mint condition. It was hidden in a closet for decades, away from the sunlight, so the colors on the cover remain vivid. The ad in the center of the program, where the starting lineups are listed, is for Chesterfield cigarettes. That ad, featuring a drawing of entertainers Perry Como and Jo Stafford smoking at a football game., proclaims that Chesterfield has been "voted tops in the colleges from coast to coast. Always milder. Better tasting. Cooler smoking."

The local ads are fascinating. There's Sloan's Drug Store, which said it had the leading soda fountain in town while also selling Old Spice along with Whitman's and Jacobs candies. There's Carter's Men's Store, which had McGregor sportswear, Varman shoes and Wilson Brothers shirts. Robbs and Duke Men's Store, on the other hand, featured Wing shirts, Puritan sportswear, Knox hats and Crosby Square Shoes. Caddo Cleaners, owned by W.R. Crowley, advertised "tailoring and hats cleaned and blocked." Radio station KVRC-AM, where I would work years later, featured its programs from the Mutual Broadcasting System.

My father, a senior from Benton, was listed as the starting quarterback for Ouachita. Clint Fuller, a senior from Malvern, was listed as the starting quarterback for Henderson. The referee that day was Cliff Shaw, who would go on to be among the country's top football officials. What struck me most was how many of the men who played in that game would go on to become lifelong family friends. On the Henderson roster were players such as Charles Payne, Jim Mac Sawyer and Dick Hays. On the Ouachita roster were the likes of Jiggs Ramsey, Bobby Newman, Bernie Hargis and Ike Sharp. All were men I grew up knowing and looking up to.

It has been 70 years since that game. This afternoon at Cliff Harris Stadium in Arkadelphia (Cliff's father, O.J. "Buddy" Harris, was among my father's teammates at Ouachita), they'll play another Battle of the Ravine. For me, the thing that makes this rivalry so special is that it's about family and friends. Today's game is being contested on the same day that tens of thousands of Arkansans participate in the first day of modern gun deer season, which also is about family and friends in so many hunting camps across our state. No doubt there will be fans at this afternoon's game still in their hunting clothes after having spent the morning in the pine woods of south Arkansas.

The things that mean the most to us so often are about family, friends and traditions. I think a lot about tradition in November since it marks the Battle of the Ravine, the start of hunting seasons and Thanksgiving.

Some of our closest friends when I was growing up were members of the Vining family. It just so happens that the most famous prank in the history of the Battle of the Ravine, which first was played in 1895, involved Ann Vining. She had yet to marry Bill Vining. She was Ann Strickland when the prank occurred in the late 1940s, and she was Ouachita's homecoming queen. She was taken by Henderson cheerleaders the week before the game to a house on Lake Hamilton in what can only be described as a friendly kidnapping.

If it happened today, it would be national news. The FBI would be involved. Ann's boyfriend, Bill Vining (who would go on to become the legendary head basketball coach at Ouachita, winning more than 500 games), led search parties through the Caddo Hotel in downtown Arkadelphia. Ike Sharp (whose son David has been the Ouachita athletic director since 1999) accompanied Vining to the hotel. Ike Sharp was wearing overalls and hid a shotgun under his clothes. Ann Strickland was released after two days when it was learned that Ouachita officials finally had reported the incident to police as an actual kidnapping.

In 1949, Ike Sharp performed one of the most talked-about feats in Battle of the Ravine lore. Henderson led 14-0 with seven minutes remaining. Ouachita scored to make it 14-7, and then Sharp executed an onside kick. Ouachita scored to tie the game. Sharp executed a second onside kick. Otis Turner, known by Ouachita fans as the Magic Toe, kicked a field goal to give the Tigers a 17-14 lead. Sharp then executed a third onside kick, allowing the Ouachita offense to run out the clock.

Bill Vining's son, Bill Jr., would lead Ouachita to a 21-20 victory over Henderson in 1975 in what remains the most exciting college football game I've ever watched. Otis Turner's son, Neal, was the Ouachita quarterback three years later. Ike Sharp's sons, Paul and David, both played in the Battle of the Ravine. Paul went on to win an NAIA national championship as the head football coach at Southwestern Oklahoma.

This afternoon, David Sharp and I will be in the press box together to watch the continuation of a rivalry that my dad starred in 70 years ago, and his dad starred in two years later. They're the ties that bind.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 11/11/2017