For my Teammates
“We are stronger in the broken places.” -Ernest Hemingway
I still have the helmet from 1989–90. For reasons I’ve written about before, I’ve wanted to get rid of it many times. But I hold onto it because its scars, gouges, and cracks remind me that we are stronger in the broken places.
It ended for me two days after Thanksgiving, on a bright, crisp, late November afternoon on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. And that was fitting; I kicked the last football I ever kicked in official competition under the same bright, blue sky I had kicked my first football at age 3 — a Texas sky.
Between that first football and that last one, across the 20 years that had somehow passed without me really noticing, I must’ve kicked a football ten-thousand times, maybe more.
I kicked footballs in my backyard and my front yard of the house I grew up in on High Star Street in Houston’s Sharpstown neighborhood; on dozens of playgrounds scattered across the Houston area; on unused soccer fields when my brother or sister were playing a game on a nearby field; on the side lot of my paternal grandparents’ family home where their carport served as the goalposts; on school fields when I had to jump the fence or squeeze through the chained space between the gates and run if the groundskeeper showed up.
Later, I kicked footballs in real games in little league, middle school, and high school at Houston Alief Hastings; and then in front of 70,000 people in some of the biggest college football stadiums in America, like Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Memorial Stadium in Austin, Kyle Field in College Station, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, and Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
In 1987, on a random road trip into the heartland of America, on a brilliantly sunlit mid-September day in the state of Indiana, I nailed a 51-yarder against the Indiana Hoosiers in front of a hostile, sellout crowd and against an Indiana team that was in the midst of being a solid program for a while and a team that would later send two great kickers — placekicker Pete Stoyanovich and punter Dan Strizynski — into the NFL. It was my career-long, and we lost 35–13. Such is the randomness of being an athlete and especially, a kicker. Your big moments as an individual player can come at some otherwise pedestrian times, such as when your team is getting blown out on the road.
But by that late-November Saturday in 1990 — three fast years after that big day in Bloomington, Indiana — those two decades since I had first kicked a ball in my parents’ front yard seemed to have shot by like a bullet train. It was suddenly over. Like a snap of the fingers.
The realization of this fact and the hard truth that it was all over would not set in fully for several months. So as I walked slowly across the turf at SMU after the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock, I shook a few opponents’ hands, said hello and goodbye to the guys I knew on the other team, and made my way into the tunnel to the locker room.
Although we had just beaten SMU 42–29, we were a subdued group; there was no shouting or backslapping. The room actually sounded and looked like we had lost.
There were really two reasons for this; beating an SMU team that was only one year removed from the NCAA Death Penalty — in which SMU had not even fielded a football team during the 1987 and 1988 seasons — was really not something to celebrate; it was like beating a really good high school team; they were all sophomores and freshmen.
This is not an insult to SMU; they literally had not played in the 1987 or 1988 seasons, and most of the players who had been there before left the school and transferred elsewhere. We had just defeated a team made up of kids who graduated high school barely two years prior, and they had just put up almost 30 points on us — the vaunted Southwest Conference champions from the year before.
But the stark truth is the real reason my teammates and I didn’t celebrate is because we were glad the season was over, and it was only our third win out of eleven games that season. There was nothing at all for us to be happy about.
On top of the pall that all of the foregoing cast over our locker room, we seniors had the added realization that for us, there would be no “We’ll get ’em next year;” there would be no next season to correct what had just happened. Although we went out on a winning note in our final game, we would not go out as winners. This was it. It was over for us.
These truths went unspoken as several of us made our way around the room to shake another teammate’s hand or give him as close to a hug as young men playing Division One college football could bring themselves to give; showing too much emotion was a sign of weakness. Somehow, we were all inculcated regarding this truth.
Men generally are terrible at expressing love for other men; they engage in ham-handed and contorted rituals to do what comes so naturally for women. And this affliction is especially true for young men. And so we did what we did to try and tell our brothers what they meant to us, but it was never enough. And to this day, I confess to all my teammates that it was never enough.
We rode the buses from the SMU campus back out to the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, walked up the ramp into our chartered plane, and took off for Fayetteville. When we landed at Drake Field ninety minutes later, I gathered my bags, walked to my car, and drove alone back to the Fayetteville campus. I parked at Wilson Sharp House — the athletic dorm that no longer exists — walked up to my dorm room, and dropped everything. I flipped on my small television and found a late game to watch.
I sat down, looked around, and for the first time, wondered what life would be like without football; no practices, no mandatory weight training sessions, no road trips, no games on Saturday. I’d be done with fall semester finals in two weeks, and the December holidays loomed. I would graduate after the spring semester, which would be my first college semester not playing intercollegiate athletics. What was I going to do with all that free time I would suddenly have on my hands?
My outlook was as cold as it was outside on that late November night in the Arkansas Ozarks. I don’t think I had ever felt so isolated. Football and sports in general had provided me with structure, a built-in set of friends, and purpose. It had done so since the age of about 6. The structure and purpose were now suddenly gone. Although I had already begun making plans for life after sports, the prevailing question on the night of November 24, 1990, was “What am I going to do now?”
I felt numb. And adrift.
Something happens to even good teams in the midst of a losing season. You begin to play each game as though you think you’re going to lose. You don’t say it out loud, but you think it. Even if you start a game off leading and playing well, losing becomes a habit; when you become accustomed to it, you always seem to find a way to lose. Even teams who were champions the season before can catch this viral affliction.
It had been that way with the teams I had played on at Rice in 1986 and 1987; even when we outplayed an opponent and kept the game close, we would almost always find a way to lose the game in the end. I got so tired of being on losing teams with this habit and expectation of losing that it was one of the reasons I transferred to Arkansas. And that, in turn, became one of the cruel ironies in my star-crossed college football career. Never in my remotest dreams did I ever think this disorder would infect a team at Arkansas.
But in 1990, I learned I was wrong. By mid-November, our season had turned into a disaster of historic proportions. The previous season’s Southwest Conference champion team that won ten games and only lost two — including our bowl game against Tennessee — had only won two games and lost six in 1990. We now had only three games left, at Baylor in Waco, against Texas A&M at home, and the final game against SMU in Dallas. Pretty much everyone just wanted to get the season over with. I think we were all basically in shock at what had transpired over the last several weeks.
The season had started off well enough with a win over Tulsa in Fayetteville, the school we almost always opened the season against. But week two had derailed everything.
Ole Miss came into Little Rock, where we usually played even better than we did on campus in Fayetteville. Mississippi was a much better team than they had been in years, and from the opening kickoff it was a very tight game. Still we had this mindset that there was no way we were going to lose.
These were the days before Arkansas joined the SEC, so the game against Ole Miss was a non-conference game. Indeed, Arkansas had played Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, and it had been a great rivalry between Southwest Conference and Southeast Conference border opponents. In that era, Ole Miss was usually highly-ranked and the better team, winning most of the games. The series was dropped for a while in the 1970s, but Ole Miss was put back on the schedule in 1981. This time, Arkansas was the better program, and in the nine games played between the teams from 1981 to 1989, Arkansas won every game except for an Ole Miss win in 1983 and a tie in 1984. So in 1990, we had no reason to think the outcome would be any different; we were the better team. Or so we thought.
But we were wrong, at least on September 22, 1990. Ranked 13th in the nation and playing in front of the usual sell-out crowd of 55,000 in War Memorial Stadium, we couldn’t seem to get our usually explosive offense going, and it was a close game. With 3:40 left in the first half, Ole Miss was up 7–6, and then the wheels came off. Vincent Brownlee gathered in a punt at the Ole Miss 11-yard line and proceeded to thread his way straight up the middle of the field. He was essentially untouched by any of our coverage, and went all the way for an 89-yard touchdown return. It sucked the air out of the stadium, and after our placekicker Todd Wright’s third field goal, Ole Miss was up 14–9 at the half. This was not something we were used to — being down at halftime.
We were in a fight and came back in the second half to pull ahead 17–14 with three minutes left in the third quarter. But Ole Miss scored with a little over a minute left in the game to go up again 21–17.
We made one last ditch effort and drove down to their 6-yard line with about ten seconds left. We were out of time outs. On the last play of the game, our quarterback Quinn Grovey took the snap and ran left on an option play and pitched to Ron Dickerson. Ron sprinted straight at the pylon and was met by three Ole Miss defenders. Just as it looked like he might still score on second effort, he was hit by Ole Miss safety Chris Mitchell and literally stopped a foot short of the goal line. The clock ran out. Ole Miss went crazy. They had beaten us 21-17.
War Memorial stadium went quiet. It’s an eerie thing to witness 55,000 people shocked into silence. The only sound heard was the cacophony of Ole Miss players rushing down into that corner of the stadium to pile onto their teammates and their section of fans who were all going crazy.
“The Hit,” as it would become known in Mississippi football lore, launched Ole Miss on to one of its best seasons in years (they would go on to finish 9 and 3) and simultaneously delivered a direct blow and wound to our season from which we would never recover. It was the first time Ole Miss had won in Little Rock since 1960, thirty years before. And although we initially believed this would be an isolated loss, it would turn out to be just the first of many such inglorious records our team would set in the 1990 season.
We beat Colorado State the following Saturday, but the season ran off the road completely in week four against TCU. In a quirk of scheduling, it was our third game in a row in Little Rock. TCU came in better than usual, at 3 and 1, but we were still ranked 23rd in the nation, even after the loss to Ole Miss, and again we thought we were the better team. This feeling lasted about two minutes into our first offensive series after we committed a clipping penalty on the opening kickoff return and started deep in our own territory from our 6-yard line.
From there, we went a quick three and out, and I went out and lined up a few yards in front of my own goal line to punt. The snap came back normally and I went into my kicking steps and hit the ball solidly … and then heard that sickening and almost simultaneous double-thump of the ball hitting something after my foot. What the ball hit were the outstretched arms of TCU safety Tony Rand., who not only blocked the punt, but quickly scooped up the fortuitous bounce the ball took into his hands and ran into the end zone. With not even two minutes gone, we were already down 7-0. Once again, the silence in War Memorial was deafening.
And things never got any better. TCU blew us out in front of our home crowd 54-26, and put up 514 yards of total offense on our once-vaunted defense, a defense that through the first four games had now given up an average of 320 yards and 25 points per game. In comparison, through the first four games of the 1989 season when we were the Southwest Conference champions, our defense had allowed only 10 points per game.
After getting blown out in Little Rock by TCU, we entered into an unfamiliar territory. We found ourselves with a record of 2 and 2. Ours was a program that had not had a losing season since 1967 — 23 years before and the year I was born. Prior to that the last losing season was 1958. This was not a program accustomed to losing; on the contrary.
Going back to 1959, Frank Broyles’ second season as head coach and 31 years prior, Arkansas had 27 winning seasons, won 10 outright or shared Southwest Conference championships, and had gone to 22 bowl games.
But now a very strange feeling began to creep in: Doubt. Doubt is a destructive force in sports, especially team sports. And we were not going to get any breaks; the powers that be had given us not a single bye-week in the 1990 schedule. From opening day against Tulsa on September 15, we would play every Saturday thereafter until the final game at SMU the Saturday after Thanksgiving on November 24th. There would be no off week to rest up, heal, or prepare.
And so the following Saturday, we played host to a 1 and 4 Texas Tech team. Their only win had come against a non-conference opponent, New Mexico. They were 0 and 3 in conference play, having lost to Houston, Baylor, and Texas A&M. We had crushed them the preceding season in Lubbock, 45–13. We figured this would be the week we would get our next win and right the listing ship that was our young 1990 season.
But we just couldn’t stop their offense. This was beginning to be a trend. Tech passers threw for 428 yards and 4 touchdowns, a record against any Arkansas team to that point in the program’s history. In what was becoming an all-too-familiar theme, we let Texas Tech sprint out to a 49–20 lead that looked insurmountable. But we clawed back into the game, scoring 24 straight points in four offensive drives, cutting the margin to 49–44 with 8:45 left in the game. There was plenty of time — we thought — and we had all the momentum.
But as so often happened that year, when we got within striking distance of taking the lead and winning, we suddenly fizzled. On the game’s final drive, needing a touchdown to win, our offense converted and had a first down at the Tech 20 with 46 seconds left. Again, plenty of time. A draw play on first down got us to the 15, but ate up 11 seconds. The next two plays gained nothing, and on fourth down from the 15 on the final play, a pass into the end zone fell incomplete as time ran out. We lost 49–44.
We were now 2 and 3, and 0 and 2 in conference play — the program’s worst SWC start since 1956. It was only Tech’s second win of the season, and to measure how far we had actually fallen from the year before, Tech would go on to win only two more games, finishing their season at 4 and 7.
And it continued. We flew to Austin the next Friday and did our usual afternoon walk-through at the cavernous Memorial Stadium on campus. It was a typical, brilliantly sunny late October day in central Texas. But we had a hard time enjoying it. Texas, a program that had recently gone through a short period of mediocrity compared with their past glory, was experiencing a resurgence in 1990. They were 3 and 1, having beaten 21st-ranked Penn State and 4th-ranked Oklahoma, and having only lost to 20th-ranked Colorado. We knew we were in for trouble. It was just one of those feelings.
Texas had always been the proverbial thorn in the side of the Arkansas football team. They held the long-time series lead to a lopsided margin. And although Arkansas had won its fair share of big games against Texas over the years, winning in Austin had proven to be especially difficult. For instance, after winning 12–7 in Austin in 1966, Arkansas wouldn’t win again in Austin until a 21–14 victory in 1986, two decades later. And we had a penchant for losing to Texas even in seasons where we were the better team, at least when you compared records going into the game.
For instance, in 1985, Texas came into Fayetteville 3 and 1 and unranked. Arkansas was 5 and 0 and ranked 4th in the nation. After Texas placekicker Jeff Ward nailed five field goals in blustery conditions — one from 55 yards, Texas walked out of Razorback Stadium with a 15–13 win. In 1987 Texas came into War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock with a losing record through the first five games at 2 and 3. Arkansas was ranked 15th in the country with a 4 and 1 record, the only loss coming to a 5th-ranked Miami team that would go on to win the national championship with an undefeated 12–0 record. Texas would score on the final play of the 1987 game to shock Arkansas 16–14. And in 1989, the season just prior to the current one, Texas had come into Fayetteville unranked at 3 and 2. We were ranked 7th in the nation with a 5 and 0 record. We played flat against a team we were superior to that year, and Texas beat us 24–20. It had almost derailed our 1989 season.
But a year later, things had decidedly changed. They were 3 and 1 and on an upswing; we were 2 and 3 and slowly sinking. In front of 73,000 rabid Texas fans, who were having a field day taunting us about the recent announcement that Arkansas was leaving the Southwest Conference after the 1991 season for the SEC (“S…E…See ya!!!!”), it was a disaster. Still, we somehow put up a fight and trailed by only three points, 20–17, going into the fourth quarter. And then Texas finally woke up.
They ran off 29-straight points in the final quarter to blow us out, 49–17. They gained 498 yards and held us to 283. They scored four times on the ground. We only converted on third down three out of fourteen times. About the only positive thing I took from the game individually was that I kicked off four times, all out of the end zone; Texas never touched one of my kickoffs that day, and they gained zero yards on returns. But it was little solace.
This is what the season was starting to devolve to; the season was headed south quickly, and so as a player, you start to focus on what you can control: Your own personal performance. I told myself I would do my job for the rest of the season, regardless of how bad our record was.
We were now 2 and 4, and 0 and 3 in the SWC. And things weren’t going to get any easier; we had to travel to play Houston the following week. I was not looking forward to going back to my hometown to play in the Astrodome, a unique stadium where as a kid, I had watched the Astros and Oilers play. As a player, I had played there once, in 1986, and my extra point after a last-minute touchdown had been the deciding point when Rice — where I had played my first two seasons in 1986–87 before transferring to Arkansas — beat Houston 14–13.
The 1990 Arkansas-Houston game would most likely be the last time I played there. I harbored no thoughts of trying out for an NFL team after graduation; I had long ago abandoned what had been a childhood dream of playing professional sports, and I had several reasons for it, many of which I’ve written about before. And anyway, the life of a professional punter or placekicker is a vagabond one; there are many more people out there who can do the job than there are roster spots, and at the time, punters and kickers were the lowest paid players on the team, although their performance actually had a lot to do with whether a team won or not.
Although this story contains things from the world in which we live, it should be read as a work of fiction. All…
There was zero job security as a kicker or punter in the NFL. Indeed, your livelihood hung on the outcome of the next kick. This, of course, was not the case with any other position on the team. No quarterback was released after throwing an interception. No running back was released after a fumble. No lineman was released after missing one block. No defensive player was released after missing a tackle or getting burned deep in the secondary for a touchdown.
But miss a field goal or mishit a punt, and you could be fired the next day. It was a strange situation. At that point I wanted nothing to do with it. And I already had plans to do something else after the season was done.
The Houston Cougars were still in the midst of running up ridiculous numbers with their vaunted “run and shoot” offense. Indeed, their quarterback the year before, Andre Ware, won the Heisman Trophy in 1989 after throwing for 4,699 yards and 46 touchdowns as Houston averaged 53.5 points per game. The list of accomplishments included a 95–21 drubbing of SMU, the most points ever scored by a team with a Heisman Trophy winner. We had somehow defeated that 1989 Houston team in 1989, 45–39 the week after the disappointing loss to Texas. But 1990 would be a woefully different story.
Houston hadn’t missed a beat from 1989, and although Ware had gone to the NFL, they had replaced him with another gunslinger, David Klingler. They came into the game in the Astrodome with an undefeated 6 and 0 record, ranked 6th in the nation. We never really had a chance.
Klingler threw for seven touchdowns and connected on 34 of 51 passes for 457 yards. Houston crushed us 62–28. We fell to 2 and 5, the worst Arkansas start since the 1958 Hogs opened 0 and 6. Through four conference games, we had given up 214 points, an average of 53 points per game.
The season now took on a surreal bent. The following Saturday, a 3 and 5 Rice team with many of my former teammates on the roster and smelling blood in the water came into Little Rock unafraid under new head coach Fred Goldsmith — a former Arkansas assistant — and beat us 19–11.
The game is mostly unmemorable to me now. The best overall offense in the SWC in 1989 could only muster a field goal and one touchdown against Rice. The game wasn’t actually as close as the score indicated; Rice had us down 19–3 before we scored a late touchdown and made the 2-point conversion to pull within eight points. We weren’t able to recover an onside kick and Rice ran out the clock. It was the first time Arkansas had lost to Rice at home in a decade, and only the second home loss to Rice in nineteen years. Our record was now 2 and 6. We were 0 and 5 in the SWC and had lost five in a row. We seemed to be setting new records for futility every week.
It was now Baylor week. The only memory that stands out from that week of forgettable practices preparing for an unmemorable road trip to Waco — the stadium with the worst visitor locker room in the Southwest Conference — occurred during one of our team meetings.
Among the other unnecessary, unfruitful, and at times counterproductive things the new staff had instituted that were changes from the way our previous coach Ken Hatfield had conducted business were the full team meetings held during the week.
In addition to the new curfew rules that had not existed under Coach Hatfield, these new team meetings were perhaps the most hated invention of the new regime. The staff decided to have one of these mandatory team meetings at the beginning of practice each week, and a different assistant coach was appointed each week to lead them. For the Baylor week, one of our defensive coaches would lead the big team prep meeting.
Like many assistant coaches on the defensive side of the ball, he didn’t acknowledge the existence of kickers unless he wanted to blame them for his and the defense’s problems; that was a convenient and often invoked excuse from some of the defensive coaches for all the points we were giving up each week. They liked to blame punters for “putting the defense in a bad situation” on the field, or our placekicker for missing a field goal and “costing us momentum,” whatever the hell that meant. (I never knew how you could cost the defense momentum.)
These guys ignored the fact that most of the time we had kicked off and tackled the returner inside the 20 or punted the opponent down to the three-yard line deep in their own territory, only to see the opponent go on a 97-yard touchdown drive. That had happened more than once. In fact, it seemed to happen more often than not to a defense that gave up an average of 33 points and 402 yards per game in 1990. (In comparison, the 1989 team had allowed just 18 points per game and 335 yards of total offense.)
But back to those team meetings. The coaches running the meeting each week would pick out the best players on the opposing team that they thought we needed to focus on in order to have the best chance to win. In those days before PowerPoint became a thing, coaches still used blackboards and white, dry-erase boards. We watched as the assistant coach wrote out the names of Baylor’s best players. When he came to one of their best defensive players, linebacker Brian Hand, he wrote in all-caps in huge letters, “BRAIN HAND.”
Another kicker who was sitting next to me on the front row, turned and looked at me with a grin beginning to form on his face. I gave him a warning look, but the coach was so intense talking about “BRAIN HAND” that we couldn’t suppress our smiles. Luckily, nobody appeared to catch us laughing at our coach’s spelling abilities, or lack thereof. But everyone in the room had to also know what had just happened. To their ever-lasting credit, however, nobody in the room said a word, and we just let him continue with his intense briefing about how tough the Baylor Bears were.
Nobody raised their hand and said, “Uh…coach. Uh… you spelled Brian wrong…” He never noticed his mistake. And he just kept rolling. This made everything funnier than it would’ve been had someone corrected him. The more worked up he got, the more we started laughing. He thought we were getting fired up over his pep talk, so he fed off it and got louder and crazier. And so we laughed even louder, which made him turn it up another notch. And so on and so forth.
Little did he know it wasn’t his pep talk; we were laughing, shaking our heads, and high-fiving now about “BRAIN HAND.”
Like so many other things that season, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
The whole scene was a perfect metaphor for a season that was rapidly going down the toilet.
We made the flight down to Waco and set up in the woefully pitiful visitors’ locker room. It would be a noon start on Saturday. Baylor was again a very solid team as they usually were in those years under legendary coach Grant Teaff. They came into our game with a record of 4–3–1. We still actually believed we could win. But the feeling did not last long into the game.
Third-string Baylor quarterback Steve Needham led Baylor to six-straight scores on six straight possessions and they crushed us 34–3. Our 1989 team surrendered 168 points in our eight conference games, an average of just 21 points per game. After the Baylor game, the 1990 team had given up 267 points in six league games, an average of 44 points per game. We now stood at 2 and 7, with only two games left in the season. Our 0 and 6 start in conference play was the worst since 1942.
We now moved into the last week before Thanksgiving. The semester and the season were both coming to a close. Luckily, we didn’t have to travel. It was Senior Day in Razorback Stadium as Texas A&M came into town. As usual, although they were unranked, they were a strong team with a 6–2–1 record, having tied Baylor.
For once, we played very well and fought hard. The Aggies scored first, but we got a field goal to cut it to 7–3. A&M got a field goal to lead 10–3 at the half. After another Aggie field goal, we scored to cut it to 13–10 in the third quarter. But A&M scored again to go up 20–10. We scored again to cut the lead to 20–16, but failed to convert the 2-point play. We ran out of time. Our record now stood at 2 and 8. We were 0 and 7 in SWC play.
About the only play I really recall in this game was a tackle I had to make on a kickoff return. I kicked the ball into the left hash near the goal line as directed, and the A&M returner — running back Randy Simmons — took off up that sideline and found an opening. The next thing I knew, I was the only person between him and our end zone.
The play was eerily reminiscent of a play the previous season, when against Baylor I had to make a touchdown-saving tackle which had resulted in a serious concussion. The reason that happened is the Baylor returner had a full head of steam and I was flat-footed, and realizing how vulnerable a position I was in, I had dropped low at the last second to sort of body block him. The technique worked, but as he went over me his knee struck the back right side of my head and knocked me out for a few seconds.
After seeing that highlight on film, I vowed that if I ever found myself in that position again — having to make a tackle in the open field on a kickoff return— I was not going to body block anyone. I would take them on high and wrap up, as coached to do.
But as Simmons came sprinting hard up the boundary in front of our bench, I noticed he was bigger than the Baylor returner from the game in 1989. In fact, he was 6' 1", 228 pounds and coming at me at full speed. I was 6' 2" 208. He outweighed me by 20 pounds. Oh well, I thought. I’m not going to shy away from hitting him.
We both lowered our shoulders and made contact. I felt a jolt of pain shoot through my body in every direction. Simmons and I both went down. He got up, but I didn’t. I laid there on my back for a few seconds, waiting for the pain to subside. Finally, I drug myself to my feet and walked off the field.
This was another reminder that Division 1 college football was light years different than high school football, even high school football on the 5A level in Texas (the top level in Texas at the time) where I had played at Houston Alief Hastings. Every player on a team at this level had been the best player on his team in high school. And everyone was bigger, stronger, and faster at this level. The collisions were a lot more powerful, and if you weren’t used to making tackles — and many offensive players, kickers and punters weren’t — it could be a dangerous situation.
I dropped my helmet and sat down on the bench. Our placekicker, Todd Wright, came over and sat down next to me. “Great tackle man. Holy shit. Are you okay?” “Yeah, I think so,” I told him. “Just give me a minute.”
The trainers came over and asked me the same thing. “Yeah, I’m good.”
I don’t know how many tackles — assisted or unassisted — I had to make in my college football career covering my own punts or kickoffs, although I would estimate it was about a dozen. But I can safely say that whatever the number was, it was too many.
Finally, the last game arrived. It was not a road trip anyone wanted to take. We all would’ve rather been spending Thanksgiving with our families, not playing SMU in Dallas in a meaningless game.
We flew down to Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and watched the much-improved Dallas Cowboys — who would go 7 and 9 in their second season under new head coach Jimmy Johnson — beat Washington 27–17 in the old Texas Stadium. We went back to our hotel and ate Thanksgiving dinner provided by the hotel kitchen. It was definitely not Mom’s cooking.
We spent a listless Friday afternoon doing an unimportant walkthrough at the SMU campus. SMU was only in their second season after the death penalty, and their record was even worse than ours at 1 and 9. Like us they were 0 and 7 in SWC play. Their roster essentially was made up of sophomores and freshmen. Maybe, just maybe, we could beat them. It might have been the only thing standing between us and the complete and outright humiliation we would suffer if we lost and finished 2 and 9 and 0 and 8 in the SWC.
Thankfully, it was an early afternoon kickoff. We rode the buses over to Ownby Stadium, the old, small on-campus stadium SMU had played in from 1926 to 1948. After the 1948 season, SMU moved to the Cotton Bowl, and then in 1979, to Texas Stadium. Now, coming off missing the 1986 and 1987 seasons entirely, the newly-started program was back on campus, taking its first few baby steps.
Capacity at Ownby Stadium was just 24,000. It was like playing in a big high school stadium. And it was a fitting and deserving place to end our disastrous season.
Again, the game was unmemorable. We won going away, 42–29. It was never close. As the final seconds ticked down, I looked up at the scoreboard. At least we would finish with a win.
We went 3 and 8 overall, and 1 and 7 in the SWC. It was the worst Arkansas season since 1952, thirty-eight years before. There would not be another season as bad until 2013, twenty-three years later, when Arkansas went 3 and 9. That meant that my 1990 season at Arkansas, my final season in college football, was the worst Arkansas season in a span of 61 years.
It was not what I had envisioned as a kid growing up as the son of an Arkansas player, a kid who dreamed of someday perhaps following my father to play at Arkansas. It was certainly not what I imagined would happen in my senior season after realizing that childhood dream and being on the last conference championship football team Arkansas has had that had gone 10 and 2 in 1989; I figured at worst we would win at least seven games and go to another bowl game.
Indeed, if you had peered into a crystal ball and told me that in my final season playing football my team would go 3 and 8, I would’ve told you the prospect of that happening was impossible. The reason I would’ve told you it was impossible is because the odds of that Razorback team having the worst season the program would witness in 61 years were astronomical.
But as they say, so much for the odds.
In life, winning is obviously preferable to losing. I’ve been on winning teams. My high school baseball team at Alief Hastings won district championships in Texas. I was a member of the 1989 Arkansas SWC champion baseball team that went to the College World Series. And as stated, I was a member of the last Arkansas football team to ever win a conference championship. That was in 1989, thirty-three years ago now. I have the championship rings. Indeed, everything about winning is wonderful.
But I have found that the darker experience of loss echoes deeper and is actually more formative. In writing this story, I have been forced to revisit all the games of that distant, forgotten season that played a part in constructing who and what I would eventually become, and I remember the losses more and with better detail than the wins, because thinking about them still has the capacity to sting.
As author Pat Conroy observed,
“Winning makes you think you’ll always get the girl, land the job, deposit the million‑dollar check, win the promotion, and you grow accustomed to a life of answered prayers. Winning shapes the soul of bad movies and novels and lives. It is the subject of thousands of insufferably bad books and is often a sworn enemy of art. Loss is a fiercer, more uncompromising teacher, coldhearted but clear‑eyed in its understanding that life is more dilemma than game, and more trial than free pass.”
Indeed, in the final analysis, we learn much more about life from loss than we do from victory. Life is filled with adversity. And overcoming adversity is a part of life. Overcoming adversity is itself a form of victory. As Hemingway noted, “We are stronger in the broken places.”
And over the many years that have passed since, I have eventually come to be thankful for all the things I learned from that long-ago forgotten season.
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing on military service, sports, current events, the outdoors, and the bright and dark sides of American culture has been published in various outlets, such as Sports Illustrated, Task and Purpose, the Human Development Project, Amazon, and Audible.