DAVIS: It's Just a Game...or Is It?

The build-up came to full strength this week, culminating at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. The annual Salt Bowl seemed like more of an event than a game, just as it had in years past. The rivalry between these two teams has always been strong even if the games were not. These two teams have played in oppressive heat and the remnants of a hurricane.

As the game approached, predictions of final score and ultimate victor began to sneak out into the light of day. “Benton doesn’t stand a chance.”, or “Bryant isn’t as good as last year. This may be Benton’s best chance in a long time.” were common themes in conversations around the water cooler. But regardless of opinion, one thing remained certain: in the words of Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over!” If you were at the game, you know how true this pearl of wisdom became.

Bryant played well. Benton’s defense rose to the occasion. The Panther offense got stronger as the night progressed and the old ‘Maroon & Grey” almost pulled it off. In the end, Bryant emerged victorious. However, there was a greater victory last night. All you had to do was look for it.

Tailgating began right on schedule at 5 p.m. Many of the people who came to the game may not have been aware of this little fact because they were stuck in traffic trying to get to the stadium. Some may have spent more time waiting in traffic than they had actually traveling to the game. I happened to be one of them. My assignment last night was to cover the game from any angle I found to be interesting. The Saline Courier sports editor, Sam Pierce, had the game covered with reporters and a photographer so it became my mission to find people and stories often overshadowed by the event. And I did.

I found rows of tents set up in the parking lot with groups from real estate to car dealers to hospitals to food vendors. I found a sea of people, some wearing blue t-shirts and others in maroon, walking along showing pride for their town. Kids ran around having the time of their life. What I saw was ‘community.’

An hour before the game, I flashed my “Field Pass” at the security guard and with a nod of his head I walked down the ramp onto the field. The stadium sure looks different from down there looking up at all the seats. I made my way around both sides of the field as the crowds grew and the excitement built. I talked to a group of four girls sitting on the bench on the Panther side of the field. “What do you do during the game?” I asked. “We are the managers. We make sure the players have water.” they said. Girls on the sideline were not a generally accepted practice back in my high school days. The managers were always boys. I’m not really sure why. I asked, “When the players come off the field for water, do they make all those teenage boy noises?” With a roll of their eyes and slight grins, they said, “Yes!” They posed for pictures and smiled.

Next, I approached the Bryant side of the field. I took pictures of the players, cheerleaders and fans. One group of young people in particular seemed to have unbridled Bryant spirit. They were all dressed in white t-shirts with letters on them spelling out “HORNETS” as they stood at the rail next to the team bench. I waved at them and they happily posed for a picture.

Making my way back to the Benton side prior to kick-off, I came across the high school pep steppers preparing to take the field. They stood in two straight lines facing toward the field from the sideline. As I approached, Justin Bieber’s face appeared on the “Jumbo-tron” at the south end of the stadium. He was singing “Happy Birthday” as part of a public service announcement for the American Cancer Society. Several pep-stepper heads pivoted smartly to the right as they gazed upon the face of Justin on the screen. Their eyes brightened. Their teeth flashed. You could almost hear a collective “Ahhh.” I asked the first girl in line, “Do you like Justin Bieber?” to which she responded, eyes even wider, head slightly tilted “YES!” Looking back at the moment, it was probably a silly question to ask.

 I saw kids from the youth football leagues from each town looking like they had just found their parent's secret stash of Easter candy as they ran onto the field before the game. You could almost see the secret game they were playing in their head as they ran from one end of the field to the other, hearing a private roar in their head as they imagined breaking a long run for a touchdown.

I saw community leaders with their grandchildren. I saw little girls staring intently at every move the cheerleaders made. I saw people in the stands so passionately involved in the game that they never sat down. I saw a side of the game that I hadn’t seen before but this night I had, because I looked for it. I saw two bands that played their hearts out after weeks of practice in the heat. It is amazing what they do.

The time came for me to join my wife. I sent her a text. “Where r u?” Her response, “I’m at the 53 yard line about six rows up from the blue chairs.” Bless her heart.

While some may complain that the venue for this game should be in Saline County and while some may say the game has lost its luster, to all of them I say “Not on this night.” On display was a tradition, not of one town or another, but of a people. Good people. Good leaders. Good teachers. And especially, good kids. Look for them all. You will see them.

So in the end, Bryant won 21-14. But in a much larger sense, it was Saline County who won. But how could they? After all, it’s just a game…or is it?