The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is serializing the new book from Blant Hurt, who has been been thrilled, tantalized and tormented by his favorite college football team, the Arkansas Razorbacks, over the past 50 years. Selections from his book will be published weekly through Nov. 15.
About the author
Blant Hurt is a graduate of the University of Arkansas and lives in Jonesboro. “Not the Seasons I Expected” is his third book. He is also the author of “The Awkward Ozarker,” a memoir, and “Healer’s Twilight,” a novel. Visit www.blanthurt.com to purchase his works.
Magic at Midlife
After losing the 2006 season opener to USC by the score of 50-14, the Hogs improbably reeled off eight straight wins. Darren McFadden, another homegrown freak of nature like Matt Jones, was emerging as a once-in-a-generation superstar, never mind that he’d missed the USC game due to a toe injury suffered in a fight outside a Little Rock nightclub. Game-by-game, win-by-win, my excitement built.
But as the season headed into its ninth week, I passed on going to Fayetteville for the game against 13th-ranked Tennessee, a matchup with such buzz that the “ESPN Game Day” crew was to be on hand. It was going to be crazy, with all the sign-waving Razorback fans clustered around the Game Day podium and that wacko Lee Corso predicting his winner just before kickoff when he’d don one of those striking plastic Hog hats.
But no worries. As the new millennium had unfolded, digital technology was on the march and the game-watching experience on TV had markedly improved. Like many Americans, I had purchased a large flat-screen TV with picture quality that was impressive. All the ESPN Game Day buzz aside, why did I need to travel all the way to Fayetteville for this game, when I could watch it all in bold living color from my own home?
But on the Monday before the game, Susanne informed me of our plans to attend a party on Saturday night. I was reluctant to go — the game on ESPN was slated to kick off at 6:30. But surely the party hosts, a couple neither of us knew well, would have the Razorback game on a TV at their house, right? As late as Saturday afternoon, Susanne once again assured me I’d be able to watch it at our friends’ party that night, and I didn’t doubt it.
When I walked in the front door of the hosts’ opulent home, I immediately scoured the place for a television. Fortunately, there was a giant flat screen in the living room — but it wasn’t turned on. Uh-oh. It seemed the hosts, Harry and Leana, weren’t at all into Razorback football. As it turned out, Harry was more interested in entertaining small groups of his guests by performing magic tricks, and I’ll concede that when he bent a handful of spoons right in front of my disbelieving eyes, I was impressed. The second time he performed this trick, I examined his spoons before he bent them and examined them after he bent them: They looked like ordinary spoons to me. But, really, I didn’t care to spend much more time trying to figure how Harry bent his darned spoons. I was willing to accept that he was an illusionist on the order of David Copperfield. Whatever. Just get the freakin’ Razorback game on the giant flat screen!
After Harry bent his spoons yet one more time, I finally persuaded him to turn on his TV. No doubt he sensed the urgency in my voice. It was awkward to basically take over his living room, but it was either this, or I had to pull Susanne aside and tell her I had to run an urgent errand, which would mean I was leaving to go watch the first half of the game at my house. And ditto for the second half.
All this made me wonder just how many social outings like this one have been redirected by die-hard fans like me? Similarly, how many men have agreed to the game-night demands of their girlfriends or wives, and wound up attending parties and social gatherings against their will (and, I daresay, against their better football-obsessed judgment)? And, in advance of these outings, how many women, to placate their man, have said, “Oh, sure, they’ll have the football game on TV,” while having no idea whether or not the party hosts will be able to back up her claim?
Here’s the thing, though: With my running commentary and real-time reactions (this game was turning into a Razorback romp!), I managed to get the other guests at Harry’s party interested in what was happening on his giant flat-screen TV. They fed off my excitement, like the scene in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when Nurse Ratchet won’t let R.P. McMurphy (as played by Jack Nicholson) watch the Dodgers’ World Series game on television, he intrigues his fellow patients by summoning an imaginary version of the game on the blank TV screen. “Koufax’s curveball is snapping off like an effing firecracker!”
Few of us gathered in Harry the Magician’s living room realized that we were watching a new innovation in college football. Any changes to the game typically came gradually and owed to better coaching, new training techniques, and bigger, faster, stronger athletes. There was so much film analysis, and every team was so coached up that it was difficult to do something truly different.
But in recent weeks, the Razorback brain trust had introduced a new wrinkle that was taking college football by storm. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the Hogs needed to get the football as often as possible to their two best players, running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. So, the idea was hatched to set Felix Jones in motion, running laterally at full speed, and then shotgun snap the ball directly to McFadden, thereby eliminating the quarterback. The Wildcat it was called, and the Hogs were shredding opposing defenses with it like a cheese grater. McFadden was even tossing touchdown passes.
Sure, Tennessee had film of the Hogs running the Wildcat in several previous games. They knew it was coming. The Wildcat was a throwback to the winged T, so it had been unveiled in about 1937. My fourth-grade peewee league team had even run a variation of it, when, as quarterback, I’d lateralled the ball to the tailback, our best player, who, in turn, either ran or passed. Regardless, on this night, the Vols lacked the will to stop it. McFadden ran for 183 yards and two touchdowns and passed for one TD. Felix Jones rushed for 164.
In the wake of this victory, it dawned on me just how thoroughly this ongoing Razorback win streak, now at nine straight, had infiltrated my psyche. Over the past two months, commencing with the September 9 win over Utah State, I’d come to feel a deepening sense of personal potency.
Because the scale and breadth of football is wider than in any other sport — a Division I college football team had 85 scholarship players, nine coaches, a throng of support staff, etc. — the range of virtues required for a team to be successful is commensurately broad. These Winning Virtues included, but are not limited to, discipline, smarts, strength, passion, mental toughness, resilience, desire, focus, good decision-making, and crisp execution. Translation: This 2006 Razorback team was among the most virtuous in all of college football.
Unfortunately, most fans, myself included, struggle mightily to practice these Winning Virtues in our daily lives. It’s not so easy. Yet week after week, this ongoing run of wins had allowed me to affirm these Winning Virtues, and even fancy that they’d somehow been transferred onto me. Almost nothing compared to the aura of competence I felt with the Hogs piling up consecutive victories. My life was just better all around.
Notwithstanding this nine-game roll, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, now in his eighth year, had endured bouts of withering criticism. He was accused of being a glorified used car salesman, a waster of talent, a coddler of mediocre assistant coaches (which included his youngest brother), an unimaginative offensive mind who literally chewed his fingernails whenever a pass play was called, a lazy recruiter, a man too eager to take credit for successes and too willing to throw others under the bus when things went wrong. He was derisively called The Dale, a mean-spirited invocation of his middle name meant to put him in his place. But gosh darn it, this was Houston Nutt’s second win streak of serious consequence, the first being his eight-game streak when he’d joined the Razorbacks back in 1998. Obviously, in light of my Theory of Winning Virtues, he was doing something right. The incessant criticism of Houston Nutt hit me wrong.
And so we come to yet another irony of college football — the rabid fan who, though he practiced precious few of the Winning Virtues in his own life, nevertheless expected the coach of his team to be a paragon of the Winning Virtues and perhaps even the most virtuous man on the planet. And any weakness — any failure to produce win after win as far as the eye can see — was met with harsh one-sided criticism twinned with a total lack of self-reflection.
Regardless, as win after win mounted, I too came to expect Houston Nutt and his Arkansas Razorbacks to chalk up a victory every game, at least through the end of the season and inevitable big-time bowl game. Anything less and I was going to feel personally cheated.
The Perils of Passion
Aweek after the Tennessee game, I was lured onto the road by the Hogs’ ongoing win streak. My eventual destination was Starkville, Mississippi. Yet my overriding goal was to spend as little time there as possible. All I wanted to do was drive straight to Davis Wade Stadium, watch the Hogs put it on the Mississippi State Bulldogs, and then leave. I was determined not to give Starkville, aka Starkvegas, any chance to counter its repute.
Susanne and I spent the day before the game in Oxford, our base for the weekend (the Rebels were playing at LSU). We hung out at Square Books, dined at City Grocery, and visited Rowan Oak, the Greek Revival home of novelist William Faulkner. I’m particularly susceptible to the influence of anything dusted over with literary tradition, so I swooned over Rowan Oak with its tall white front columns straining for shambolic glory, the vaguely-bookish Victorian furniture, gauze-thin white curtains that looked as if they’d been hung by wife Estelle Faulkner herself. When I asked the docent for directions to the facilities, she pointed towards the bathroom next to Faulkner’s bedroom. It felt honorific.
In the study, the white plaster walls bore the master’s handwriting — his day-by-day outline of “The Fable”, the novel that had won the Pulitzer Prize. I stared at the life-sized outline, witness to the obsession of a writer, and wondered if Faulkner was much of an Ole Miss fan. Surely in his last days, he had some inkling that the Rebels were in their Dynasty Years. According to some pollsters (Sagarin, the Dunkel System, and the Football Writers of America), Ole Miss had won the national championship in 1959, 1960, and 1962. With his deep connection to the history of his home state, didn’t Faulkner get some sort of charge out of this? I searched the white walls of his study for any subtle declaration of his enthusiasm: a scribbling of the words Hotty Toddy? Maybe a doodle of Colonel Reb clutching a football? But, alas, no dice. So, I went out to the back porch and stared into the surrounding forest and pondered Faulkner’s hunting stories called Big Wood, especially the one about the obsessive stalking of that poor bear named Old Ben.
The next morning, it was on to Starkville to watch the electrifying Darren McFadden, who had a serious shot at the Heisman Trophy. It was cool and sunny, and with my usual sense of game-day nervous anticipation I made my way to the visitor’s section at Davis Wade Stadium. It’s well established that the cowbells in Starkville are a problem. Despite restrictions imposed by the SEC, the fans wouldn’t quit shaking them. Certainly, I’d known this before I came to Starkville, just as I’d known on my first visit to London that it often rained. Nonetheless, this incessant ringing quickly got on my nerves and in due course I suffered an out-of-body experience when I found myself yelling my head off at Hog cornerback Matteral Richardson.
For reasons I could not fathom, this young man had decided his mission on this fine autumn afternoon was to single-handedly keep Mississippi State in this football game. By the second of his silly penalties, I rose from my seat. “Come on, number nine!” I screamed, invoking Richardson’s number because his last name wasn’t specific enough to suit me, and his first name sounded like a drunken slurring of the word “material.” The air was filling with my own sulfurous exhaust: “What the heck is number nine doing?” “Get him out of there! Come on! Come on!”
A few fans turned around to see who was doing all this fussing, and at least one patron expressed his displeasure by pelting me in the back of the head with a wadded paper cup. Embarrassed, Susanne got up and went to the bathroom.
Matteral Richardson aside, Mississippi State never really threatened in this game. With eight minutes left and the Hogs’ victory in hand, Susanne and I headed out for our car in a distant parking lot. Though she’d been to several Razorback games with me over the last five years, this was the worst I’d behaved, by far. As we trod along in silence, I considered blaming my eruption on the damned cowbells. Surely, I wasn’t the only visiting fan ever to be unnerved by the ringing. After all, wasn’t the point of it to push the opposing team and their fans to the brink of a nervous breakdown? That’s right, the real culprit in all this was the Mississippi State fans and their damned cowbells. I was merely a victim.
But by the time Susanne and I finally got to our car, remorse had set in. In my ongoing struggle to mature as a fan, I had clearly regressed. Obviously, winning wasn’t enough. The Hogs’ streak, now at 10 games, had only raised the stakes even higher and made me more demanding, more cantankerous, more intolerant of sloppy play, more obsessed and crazed.
We battled the traffic around Davis Wade Stadium. Our goal — my goal — was to get back to Oxford as soon as possible. Then, just before the game ended, as if to rescue me, over our car’s radio, we heard the play-by-play announcer say number nine, Matteral Richardson, had committed yet another penalty. I cut my eyes at Susanne as if to say, “See there!” But she wasn’t having it. And she was right: There was no justification for my behavior.
A week later, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Hogs’ 10-game win streak ended against LSU, whereupon commenced a three-game losing streak. The Hogs finished 10-4 and, not surprisingly, the critics lashed out at The Dale.