Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs:
Lettermen feel sense of pride at Pittman practice
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman claps during practice Wednesday, March 16, 2022, in Fayetteville.
Sometimes it’s fun to just hang out at practice instead of take notes on every play or the specifics of a throw or pass route.
I did that Saturday while enjoying the company of some Arkansas football legends, often my heroes and of late my friends.
For more than two hours Saturday, I rubbed shoulders and shared stories — in order — with Harold Horton, Chuck Dicus, Bobby Field, Louis Campbell, Robert Dew, Curt Davis, Charles Washington, Cliff and Judy Henry, and Jimmy Walker. There were many other handshakes and hellos as we all filed into a celebration for Dean Weber and Bill “Groundhog” Ferrell as a training room facility was named in their honor.
We talked ball or fishing. Campbell, my best friend, is coming off rotator surgery and we planned his first trip back to the Norfork River, where I live, in two weeks.
Horton and I talked crappie fishing, his passion. He was shocked when I showed him a picture of two 14-inch slabs from a recent trip.
Dicus, along with Pat Morrison, recently fly fished with my son-in-law, Kristopher Bouldin.
“He’s the best I’ve been with,” Dicus said. “He really loves talking about you and your fishing. You and I need to fish, but let's go wade fishing, not in a boat.”
But mainly we all talked football, old and new.
It is always interesting to hear what the old guys think of the new guys. They are no different than fans. In fact, they are diehard Razorbacks.
They all love and respect Sam Pittman and enjoy watching his practices. They nod their head of approval with the way practices are run and how players are coached. They are happy the program is back.
The old linebackers like Bumper Pool and the young studs being assembled around him. They applaud the precision of a Kendal Briles practice and love KJ Jefferson, Rocket Sanders, Ricky Stromberg and many others.
Old defensive backs give a thumbs up when they see Jalen Catalon read a play and head toward the ball like a heat-seeking missile — never mind that he can’t hit wearing a green jersey.
Now and then they might bemoan the fact that scrimmages aren’t really scrimmages anymore. No one is tackled, but linemen do hit and will finish the spring battle tested and tough. They know that’s how you win, not by tearing up a running back’s knee. They all have those bad knees.
Horton told me quickly that Sanders is the best back on the field. He’s naturally bigger, runs with the right pad lean and has developed a north-south skill that is essential in Power 5 football.
But the fun thing to discuss with these guys is what they remember from their days. Dew, a starter against Stanford in 1970 but quickly out with concussion issues, delighted in turning me around to point to the top of the lower deck of the East stands.
“Do you see how the inclination changes about 30 rows from the top?” Dew said. “It gets markedly steeper. I know how hard those last 30 steps are and what it feels like to have Wilson Matthews watching you run them. Those last 30 rows are exhausting. You can prove a point with those last 30 steps.”
Dew then told the story about scoring a touchdown in a Shoats game against Tulsa at Skelly Stadium. The Shoats were the name for the freshman team.
He tossed the ball deep into the stands. When the bus returned at the dorm, Matthews was waiting.
“Meet me in the stadium at 6 a.m. tomorrow,” Matthews said.
When they walked to the midpoint of the stands there was a barrel full of footballs.
Matthews pointed to another barrel placed on the top row of the stands.
“These footballs are all supposed to be in that barrel, not this one,” Matthews said.
Dew said he grabbed three of them and took off.
“No,” Matthews hollered. “Take them one at a time.”
Matthews sat on the first row of the stands as Dew ran them one at a time.
“He never looked up,” Dew said. “He was reading your dad’s column in the Arkansas Gazette.”
When Dew came down after the last of what was probably 50 footballs were placed in the proper barrel, Matthews said, “Don’t ever throw a football in the stands again.”
Not only did Dew not make that mistake, no one else did either. Word spreads quickly.
It’s the kind of story that makes a practice go away for a few minutes. I love them. It’s the stuff that excites me about my work. It ceases to be work.
I know I’m lucky. I’m one of the few who hears that stuff. Nate Allen does, too.
In fact, Nate and I were in the middle of a visit with Horton when Walker rolled over to join the conversation. He told about a nephew from Texas coming on a visit soon.
“He’s a 3-star, but he can play,” Walker said. “I hope we offer. His name is Bruce Mitchell and he looks like Bruce. There are a lot of good players in Texas and he’s good but we are on a lot of good players. It’s harder to get a scholarship here now with what Sam has got rolling in to see campus. It’s good.”
Walker then began the joking with Horton about the way they worked in the mid-1970s.
“You were the toughest coach I ever had,” Walker said. “I got hollered at a lot. It was hard work. You seem a lot happier right now than you were when we were practicing on this field. Why, you are even smiling.”
“Oh, I smiled, but I was usually standing right behind you guys,” Horton said. “There was a lot to smile about watching you guys from that angle.”
Walker teamed with the likes of Dan Hampton, Dale White and Reggie Freeman to torment a great Arkansas offensive line in practice. They did that to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, too.
Washington liked what he saw of the corners and safeties. He pointed out good plays and said, “Yes,” as defensive backs broke properly and took the right angles. He talked more about the proper technique he saw. Henry joined that discussion. Washington played both safety and corner. Henry played safety.
The discussion was about how difficult it was to find corners, maybe the key to playing good defense these days.
“I liked safety best and I made a lot more plays there,” Washington said. “But the coaches would always move me back to corner. I never got to make any plays.”
Eventually, the three of us determined the root of the problem. Washington was such a good cover corner that the ball went to the opposite side of the field.
As the practice broke up, the lettermen — some with wives — headed into the game-day locker room where the celebration for Weber and Ferrell took place. Some 300 chairs were positioned in the middle of the beautiful locker room. All were filled. There was not a seat open at a locker and people stood 10 deep in the back.
It was a fun time. Quinn Grovey opened the celebration by asking anyone in the room to raise their hand if they had been cussed by Weber. Many raised both hands. I may have been wrong but I thought a female hand in the air. It was hilarious.
Weber and Ferrell were roasted but mainly toasted in grand style. Love poured out and everyone felt good. Weber’s health is not good, but he surely felt good Saturday. Players told about the way he pieced them back together with tape or harsh words or a kind pat on the back. A trainer’s job is as much psychology as medical knowledge.
There is a lot of good and fun on the Arkansas campus right now. If you are a former player in about any sport, you like what you see. Your legacy is being honored by the efforts of the current coaches and players.
But it’s important that football is good enough that lettermen are returning in pride. It doesn’t take a celebration of a trainer to get a player back in the stadium. They will be there when the games are played this fall and beaming with pride.
They will point to where they threw up working crazy hard for Wilson Matthews and think the current Razorbacks are doing the same for Sam Pittman.
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