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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporters who covered memorable Arkansas sports events of the past share their insights from today.

As our high school football reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I get to cover some of the best games and players throughout the state every Friday night.

Or, in this case, the last Saturday night of August 2018.

It was the first year that the Arkansas Activities Association had implemented a "zero week" into its football schedule, which added an extra week. Teams would have 11 weeks to play 10 games, essentially.

With that in mind, the Salt Bowl, a rivalry game between Saline County schools Bryant and Benton, was to be played in zero week. However, the game would be played on Saturday, Aug. 25.

[FROM THE FILES: Salt Bowl cut short » arkansasonline.com/news/2020/mar/27/salt-bowl-cut-short-20200327/]

A state-record 38,215 fans witnessed the Salt Bowl at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

Bryant and Benton were tied at 14-14 at halftime in what was looking to be one of the best games in series history.

In the third quarter, Bryant scored two touchdowns to take a 28-14 lead.

After Benton punted with 9:22 left in the third quarter, that's when the game was no longer a game.

As I looked at Bryant's sideline from the press box on the west side of the stadium, I noticed a mass scramble of fans running in the bleachers.

There were reports of gunshots going off in the north end of the stadium, which led some people to panic and run from their seats into the concourse. I had received a text message from a friend who was at the game saying he thought he had heard gunshots. I also got updates from several friends who were at the game asking me for any updates.

I had considered going down to the field at halftime, which I don't normally do. Typically for some of us in the sports journalism field, we watch the game from the press box, then go down to the field in the fourth quarter to meet with the coaches and players after the game for interviews.

So, I was still in the press box and was told that I couldn't take the elevator or stairs down to the stadium concourse.

I called our assistant sports editor Jason Yates to let him know of the situation. Our news department put Rachel Herzog, one of our many outstanding reporters, on the story from a news point of view.

At 9:40 p.m., the game was called and Bryant was declared the winner since the contest was a nonconference event and had gone past halftime.

I was able to get down to the locker rooms -- Bryant in the north end and Benton in the south end. I was not able to talk with Benton Coach Brad Harris per Athletic Director Scott Neathery.

I did meet with Bryant Coach Buck James, one of the state's top coaches.

Before I interviewed James, he met with several Bryant parents. He told one parent, "I'll love your kids as much as you love them."

My interviews with James, Bill Hefley (the father of Bryant quarterback Ren Hefley) and head official Landon Trusty were some of the most intense interviews I've ever had because of the situation. I'm a sports reporter. I'm fortunate to get to talk about the fun stuff of life, such as a football game.

But in my talks with all three men, I knew that football was secondary on this night.

James gave me one of the all-time great lines I've ever received in my career.

"It's a shame that some jack wagons do something like that to give high school sports a bad name," he said.

At the time, no one knew how the Bryant and Benton seasons would unfold.

But the two Saline County schools went on to play in their respective state championship games.

Bryant won the Class 7A state championship for the first time in school history by defeating its longtime nemesis North Little Rock. Benton fell to Greenwood in the Class 6A title game.

It's a testament to both James and Harris how they were able to get their teams back on track after what was a chaotic evening to open the 2018 season. But they both had talented teams and young men who were focused on the task at hand.

Later in 2018, an investigation by the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department, which runs War Memorial Stadium, said there was no evidence of gunfire at the stadium that night. Metal barriers were knocked down as people tried to leave from the stadium, which some mistook as gunshots.

Soon after the Salt Bowl, new safety and security measures were put in place at the stadium. Only clear bags are allowed, and there are metal detectors in place at each gate.

To this day, let's be thankful that the Salt Bowl panic was just that, panic. It could have been a lot worse and would have changed the way we attend high school football games forever in this state and in some respects, the country.

From The Files

As the coronavirus pandemic keeps sports sidelined, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette takes a look at some of the memorable events of the past.

TODAY: 2018 Salt Bowl

Sports on 03/27/2020

Print Headline: Football became an afterthought this night

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