Red Sox fans, historically the dark narcissists of baseball, have Fenway Park to bitch and boo in. North Shore types in Chicagoland will continue to hoist Old Styles in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field even when the Cubs are 10 games back in September. Which happens with some frequency. Packer fans like my late friend Hugh will take the pilgrimage to Green Bay during the off-season just to see Lambeau Field with their own eyes. Because there sure ain’t no way in hell to get tickets to a Packers game. And some wag once memorably described Saturday night at Clemson (pronounced, of course, “Clempson”) as “the world’s largest open air Klan rally.” Sacred venues of jockdom all.
Me? I have Little Rock’s own War Memorial Stadium to sustain me. To paraphrase Daniel Webster upon Dartmouth College, it is a small place but there are those of us that love it. Let me count the ways.
War Memorial is a tiny bandbox of a stadium situated next to hallowed and historic War Memorial Golf Course, a municipal track upon which many have said goats would look on with approval. I actually kind of like playing out there. But still. What can you say about a golf course they let you park RVs on before the game?
A couple of days prior to a Razorback game the golfers are banned only to be replaced by folks cooking barbeque next to the Winnebago, young men taking beer bong hits and drunken college girls in stiletto heels, adorned in less fabric than you could wad a shotgun with who have stumbled down Van Buren Street in their stiletto heels. The old golf course is a lot of fun during a Razorback football weekend—but Augusta National it is not.
War Memorial Stadium was big stuff back in the day when the Arkansas Razorbacks played in the old Southwest Conference. This was before Frank Broyles, who at that time still reigned supreme over all things Pig Sooey, renovated Razorback Stadium up in Fayetteville, thereby washing his hands of War Memorial Stadium and, well, Little Rock. Now the Hogs deign to appear only twice a year on Markham Street and generally never when they play anybody good. Yes, I know they are playing Ole Miss down there this year, and I stand by my earlier remarks.
The first college football game I ever saw was at War Memorial with my dad and my brother Dave. Arkansas was playing the Aggies of Texas A&M. I’m guessing 1965. I had purchased a set of binoculars from the TG&Y store on Base Line Road for the occasion. When I gazed upon the chiseled visage of Gene Stallings it was like peering at the face of Jehovah God who had to be all of 32 at the time. Little did I know that years later I would also see Satan Incarnate made manifest on the same field in the bodies of Mick Jagger and Lou Holtz.
On that night, we sat in the North bleachers with our backs to the Hillcrest neighborhood where I would eventually reside. I could have hardly suspected, given my tender age, that in 20 years I would be roughly in that same spot in the North bleachers nursing a coke that had been heavily fortified by amber liquid while the Hogs annihilated Vanderbilt.
Memories? Boy do I have memories. I remember the lights on the West side CATCHING ON FIRE during the Kentucky game, which didn’t exactly serve to diminish the opinion held by some that War Memorial Stadium was a dump. I remember a pre-game flyover by a stealth bomber that set off home security systems and car alarms across a two-mile perimeter of the joint.
I took a friend’s 8 year-old to his first Razorback game at War Memorial. If I live to be a hundred I will never forget little Spencer’s amazement when the Hogs came out to run through the Big “A” formed by the band.
“There they are!” Spencer yelled. “Just like you said!” Just like I said.
I generally have no problem getting tickets for Little Rock Razorback games. I usually just stand in Van Buren Street as the game day traffic heads down to the stadium with 2 fingers aloft. Somebody always has tickets to get rid of. On one particular game day a car stopped. The window went down. A lady gave me 2 dollars and drove off. I decided after that experience that I needed to check my look if I was being confused for a panhandler.
I remember freezing out there with my friend Richard back when it got cold in October. I remember watching Razorback games with my friends when I was at Tulane. The telecasts invariably started with a shot of the tower at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church as the announcer said “Welcome to War Memorial Stadium in beautiful Little Rock, Arkansas.” The aesthetes that I hung with in those days were in general agreement that Little Rock, indeed, looked like a nice place—at least from the Goodyear blimp.
Speaking of Louisiana, I have witnessed with my own grateful eyes the LSU Tigers losing 4 times in War Memorial Stadium. The most improbable of these victories was in 2002 when rag armed Hog quarterback Matt Jones inexplicably drove them 80 something yards through the air with 34 seconds to play culminating with a 31 yard TD strike to Decori Birmingham with 9 seconds left. There is no truth to the rumor that Nick Saban had his defensive backs shot in the locker room afterwards.
Another of those LSU beatdowns at War Memorial coincided with the Tulane Green Wave somehow going undefeated that particular season, which probably changed the gravitational constant of the universe. Naturally, I was wearing my Tulane stuff out there on that fine autumn day in an apparent attempt on my part at suicide by Tiger fan. A drunken gentleman that had modestly dyed his hair purple and gold offered me his hand as we were leaving.
“I give credit where credit is due, Greenie,” he said. “Undefeated is undefeated. Congratulations, mah bah.”
This, I believe, is the only expression of sportsmanship ever displayed by an LSU fan in the long and bumptious history of Tiger football. And it happened at War Memorial.
No, things aren’t the same down at the old ballyard. War Memorial is more the home of the Catholic High School for Boys than it is the home of the Razorbacks. They have spruced up the old gal now. They have improved the press box and locker rooms. Women no longer fear staph infections in the ladies’ rooms. Hell, the lights haven’t ignited in years.
But some things haven’t changed. Kids still learn to drive cars and ride bikes on the East parking lot as they have done since 1946. The Razorbacks still condescend to visit their old stomping grounds occasionally despite the fact that most of the evidence of their existence has been scrubbed away except the generic “ARKANSAS” in both end zones. Golfers continue to finish up their rounds in the shadow of the old stadium.
And on certain Friday nights the Catholic High Rockets take on their larger and more secularized foes down there. My friend’s kid now rocks the Purple and Gold. Spencer will burst through the cheerleaders’ “run through” from the same entrance where he, as a delighted little boy, once saw the Arkansas Razorbacks hit the field years ago. Only now I will be there to take pictures of him and his teammates.
Down on the field at War Memorial Stadium. Not too far from my little house in Hillcrest. On a Friday night in good old Little Rock.
And it will feel like home to me.
Arthur Paul Bowen is a lawyer and writer who lives in what he calls the “People’s Republic of Hillcrest” in Little Rock. He may also be found on his blog, The Moving Finger Writes.