The nationwide debate about the safety of football collides with reality in a small Arkansas town.
Head football coach Randy Phillips slept in the office his first week at Lafayette County High School. Spring 2012 practice was underway, and Phillips had driven down from Lonoke High near Little Rock, where he was finishing out the year as an assistant coach. A mattress in the field house wasn’t exactly four-star accommodations, but you couldn’t beat the commute.
A fit and athletic thirty-four-year-old, Phillips was able to adapt to the sleeping conditions easily enough. And Lake June, known locally as The Pond, was not much more than a Hail Mary’s toss from the stadium. Fishing gave Phillips a diversion in the mornings. Nights he might make a late supper of a burrito from the nearby filling station. After that he would talk to his wife by cell phone until The Pond’s mosquitoes chased him inside the cinder-block walls of the field house, where cell service dropped like a wet ball.
No one said it was a glamorous gig. Lafayette County was not a Friday Night Lights powerhouse, with ranks of hulking Division-1 prospects to direct like soldiers into opposing teams’ formations as thousands screamed from the stands. It was a school in the small town of Stamps, whose Cougars played in Arkansas’s smallest classification for high school football.
Little towns with shrinking tax bases and declining school enrollments are an old story in the southwest corner of the state, where the Red River swirls quietly through rolling woodlands and spongy bogs. In Stamps, a furniture factory that once employed many sits empty along the highway. The downtown district hasn’t bustled in decades; today, many of the storefronts stand vacant. In 2003, Stamps schools consolidated—a common word in these parts—with the nearby town of Lewisville to create the new Lafayette County schools. Nearby, the original Stamps High School holds session with ghosts as the facilities go slowly to seed.
Lafayette County High displays its athletic DNA behind glass near the main entrance. In a short ten-year span, it has already filled a sizable trophy case. Tiny basketball, baseball and track athletes, cast in silver and gold, pose atop the hardware. But in football, Lafayette County’s record has been unremarkable. The last team before Coach Phillips arrived went 3-7.
“When I got here we were really [physically] weak,” Phillips says. His expression is perpetually earnest and intense, like his mind is a screening room in which he forever sizes up talent, plays and strategies. At Lafayette County, he immediately emphasized strength training in order to add size and catch up to other programs.
Unfortunately, it is one thing to put muscles on boys’ bodies and another to find more bodies willing to endure the rigor of high school football. A healthy program takes significant resources, financial and human. Lafayette County had only twenty-six players in preseason practice. And when academic eligibility struck, Phillips lost seven of them. The roster was suddenly nineteen, with the season not even begun.
When the games did start, the results were predictable. With so many boys having to play both offense and defense, as well as special teams, and so little bench depth to counter injury or just plain exhaustion, the Cougars lost the home opener to Horatio High, 40-2. A 40-8 loss to Genoa Central followed. The first road game, against Fouke, was a 47-0 shellacking. With the start of conference play looming, Lafayette County’s record was 0-3. And then things really turned south.
* * *
In the tense handful of seconds that elapse between the snap of a football and the shriek of a whistle ending the play, the physical well-being of twenty-two healthy, vigorous humans hangs by slender threads. In Lafayette County, the debate between football’s safety and its value, a discussion being had nationwide, took on a sense of urgency. Three games had already resulted in a few injuries. Center Freddie Buster broke his leg against Fouke. Safety Jaylon Darden’s bum knee kept flaring up. Each injury further reduced depth and made the next injury even more likely. With six games left, the trend line was frightening. Principal Opal Anderson discussed the situation privately with Coach Phillips.
“We were living on a prayer,” she recalls, “that we could make it through the season.”
By then, the subject of the team’s shrinking roster had become something of an elephant on the practice field. When players brought it up, Coach Phillips deflected the players back to the task at hand with the statistical truth that it takes only eleven to play the game (if each plays every single play). The Cougars could still cover that, with a few to spare. They would play on.
* * *
It was overcast and not too hot as the Cougars scrimmaged on Monday, September 17. Senior quarterback Raymond Sims, compact at 5´10˝ but muscular and athletic, ran the offense. A natural leader who was also president of the senior class, he rolled out on an option play, then kept the ball and ran for about five yards when he felt a tackler on him from behind, then another from the side. He felt his body twist oddly, the upper and lower parts moving in opposing directions. Fibers of Sims’s medial collateral ligament, a belt’s width of tissue spanning the bones of the thigh and lower leg, stretched and tore.
That Friday evening, as the team trotted onto the field to play the Murfreesboro Rattlers, Sims watched on crutches from the sidelines. The Cougars were now one deep at quarterback, the most critical and vulnerable position on the field. Lafayette County’s athletic director Tony Hartsfield couldn’t help but entertain a bad thought: Sims’s injury might be the one that would end the season.
Yet the game against the Rattlers started well enough, with backup quarterback Chad Walker taking snaps. The two teams traded touchdowns on their opening drives. Lafayette County trailed 7-6 by virtue of a missed extra point. As Sims watched from the sidelines, helping out however he could, Walker dropped back to throw as two receivers ran go routes straight downfield. Before Walker could get a pass off, he was hit hard, a helmet smashing into the muscles of his quadriceps. He ended up hobbling off the field.
With no quarterbacks left, fullback Jacoby Mixon rotated under center. Knowing that meant the end of the passing game, Murfreesboro defenders sold out on stopping the run. With players who had started the season at wide receiver now on Lafayette County’s offensive line, defenders were swarming into the backfield almost as quickly as the ball was snapped. Mixon and the runners encountered their first tackler almost as soon as they touched the ball. The one-dimensional offense kept the game clock ticking, at least. It ended a 41-6 Cougar loss.
With five games left, the team was now 0-4. The roster had fourteen active players.
* * *
The Monday following the Murfreesboro game, injured quarterback Raymond Sims was sitting in third-period college algebra when an announcement came over the school’s public address system: All football players were to report to the office immediately.
Sims was directed into the conference room along with the other players. The superintendent, principal, athletic director and coach were all there waiting. But they weren’t saying anything. From the looks on their faces, they didn’t really need to.
“You could tell right then what they were gonna do,” Sims says. The season was over.
The players would wait an excruciating ten minutes to hear it officially, so that teammates out at the Ag barn could get to the office. Superintendent Mark Keith made the announcement. The decision was his, but everyone was in agreement. It came down to a matter of safety, he said.
The team didn’t take the news easily. It is one thing to lose a football game but another to lose football itself. Some of the players had been teammates since third grade. Now the seniors wouldn’t get to finish their last season. Frustration and anger boiled over.
“It was bad,” Sims recalls.
“Kids cried, players cried,” says Principal Anderson.
“It didn’t seem real,” adds Noah Higdon, a junior lineman.
Junior safety Jaylon Darden sums it up best: “Devastated.”
* * *
Lafayette County’s home stadium, Keith Field, sits between Highway 82, where the neon sign of Jimmy’s drive-in has pulled in hungry motorists for decades, and the old Cotton Belt railroad tracks that were stitched through southwest Arkansas in 1882. The stadium is relatively small and much older than the high school; it was once home to the Stamps High Yellow Jackets. The field is grass, with old-fashioned goalposts that look like off-kilter H’s stuck in the ground.
The first forfeited game, against Spring Hill, would have been played here on the evening of Friday, September 28. But instead of a crowded, noisy stadium, it was quiet, and as the game time of seven o’clock approached, the lights didn’t come on. Yet the stadium was not empty. A good part of the senior class had come just to hang out. It was a warm night, and as the sun fell to the horizon they walked the track and sat in the bleachers and talked about old times, about what had happened and what might have been.
That night, and the rest of the Friday nights in the fall, it was not easy to find things to do without football. Some players sat at home bored. Some worked out. Some went to watch other school’s games. Eventually the season turned to basketball and then baseball. Graduation came and then summer and a new group of seniors appeared at Lafayette County High.
* * *
There was considerable local media coverage of the aborted 2012 season. With enrollment figures in the lower grades and the junior high roster both looking healthy, the administration planned to bring varsity football back in 2013. Media interest resumed as the new season neared. In a front-page story in the sports section of the Texarkana Gazette, Coach Phillips boldly stated that the team was not just trying to make it through the season, but intended to compete for a playoff spot. The temporary loss of football, and its impact on the seniors, had opened the younger players’ eyes. They had worked hard in both the weight room and classroom. Academic eligibility was not going to be a problem, and the preseason roster numbered a healthy thirty-one.
But reasons for pessimism remained. Many of Lafayette County’s players would be sophomores straight from junior high ball. And there remained little depth and size on the line, where games are often won or lost.
When the Cougars took the field to play their first game of 2013, against Horatio High on September 6, it was a moral victory for the program. But it was also a 20-0 loss on the scoreboard. The next game, against Genoa Central, went better, with the 35-21 victory being the Cougars’s first since 2011. Coach Phillips describes the win as one of the best feelings he’s ever had as a coach.
“There was a lot of huggin’,” he says of the postgame celebration.
Three straight losses brought the team to the homecoming game against Foreman, which they won 35-31. Two more losses followed, but despite a 2-6 record, two huge positives had emerged. A compact, powerfully built sophomore running back named TreDarius Burks was piling up yardage faster than anyone could believe. He was among the leaders in rushing yardage in the entire tristate area. And since both of the Cougars’ wins had come against conference foes, a win in the final game of the season against Mineral Springs would put Lafayette County, incredibly, into the state playoffs.
* * *
The stadium at Mineral Springs High is not much bigger than Lafayette County’s, though the artificial field appears new. White yardage markers almost glow, and a vivid thirty-foot-long color illustration of a hornet straddles the fifty-yard line.
On the evening of the Lafayette County game, Mineral Springs’s players practiced at one end of the field. Rap music blared as the young women of the homecoming court, resplendent in long, bright dresses that called to mind southern belles, looked on from the track.
On the other side of the school, across from the main entrance, the Cougars practiced on an empty field surrounded by a quiet neighborhood. Wisps of clouds drifted across a darkening sky and there was a slight chill in the air. Players drilled in separate groups under the direction of the coaches, until Coach Phillips yelled for everyone to huddle up. After speaking to them, everyone walked across the street, through the Mineral Springs gym, and into a locker room.
“We have a chance tonight to do something special,” Phillips told them in the locker room, noting that as far as he could determine, no team in Arkansas had ever gone from a forfeited season to making the playoffs the following year. “All I ask is that you go out there and play every play as well as you possibly can.”
The coaches gave the players a few minutes alone as the “Star-Spangled Banner” drifted through the open doors and into the locker room. Soon, cleats crunched against cement as the team filed out to the stadium, getting amped up.
“Gonna do what I live for!”
Near one end zone, a giant inflatable hornet arose. These tunnels have become virtually required equipment among larger schools. The players run through them and onto the field when the team is introduced.
At the other end of the field, Lafayette County had an old-fashioned paper banner and a line of cheerleaders to run through.
The game got underway. There was not much of a passing game on either side, and word of TreDarius Burks had gotten around. The Hornet defense focused tightly on him. They were also winning the battle at the line of scrimmage, and when Burks got the ball he would plunge into multiple defenders like a rugby scrum. At some point, forward progress would stop and the referee’s whistle would sound. Other times, defenders gained leverage and slammed him viciously to the ground.
By the second quarter, Mineral Springs had built a workmanlike 14-0 lead on the strength of its own rushing attack, and a big quarterback who didn’t throw much but was hard to pull to the ground.
The Cougars’ play calling continued to be one-dimensional. Burks right. Burks left. Burks up the middle. People in the visitors’ stands began to squawk. As yet another Lafayette County call went Burks’s way, the fans let out a collective groan. As Burks swept out to the right, Hornet defenders rolled in front of him like a wall on wheels. Then groans turned to gasps as Burks pulled up, cocked his arm, and fired off a deep spiral. The coaches had been setting this up all night. Downfield, the ball dropped softly into the hands of a streaking receiver who had gotten behind the Hornet defense. The visiting stands erupted as he sprinted for the end zone. But a defender closed on him as he reached the goal line, and somehow the ball came out and bounced through the end zone. Referees ruled it a fumble, making the play a touchback.
The Hornets took over at the twenty. Their first play was a pass that a Lafayette County defender intercepted and then almost returned for a touchdown. Lafayette County fans, so drained from the loss of what looked like a sure touchdown just one play earlier, went wild. But once again, disappointment followed. A personal foul pushed the ball back from the end zone, and the half ended before the Cougars could put any points on the board.
After the halftime show from the marching bands, the third quarter started and Lafayette County scored a quick touchdown on a forty-two-yard run by Burks. A two-point conversion cut the lead to 14-8. It felt like the momentum had shifted Lafayette County’s way. But Mineral Springs responded with its own touchdown drive, for a 22-8 lead. Before long, they tacked on a long punt return for another touchdown. With the score now 30-8, hope drained from the visitors’ stands like water from a sink.
There was some confusion when, with six seconds left in the game, both sidelines emptied onto the field, thinking the game was over. The referees scurried around in a futile attempt to clear the field, insisting the game had not ended. Mineral Springs, which was on offense, had to run one more play. With a number of players and coaches from both sides still on the field, the Hornet offense went into a V formation, where the quarterback receives the snap and takes a knee. Since this was only a formality, there was no need for the defense to bother lining up. Whether it signified how far the team had come in its march to the brink of the playoffs, or foreshadowed more problems in the future, it was an ironic ending. On the last snap of the season, there was no Lafayette County team lined up to play.
The wind blew dried leaves across the asphalt lanes of the track as the players shook hands and mingled on the field. Outside the stadium, car headlights illuminated people making their way to and fro in the dark.
The team filtered into the locker room, disappointed at the season’s sudden end. But at least it had come on the field, not in the office. Coach Phillips told the players how proud he was of their efforts, how they had laid a foundation that season for football to continue and thrive at Lafayette County in the future.
A bright yellow school bus took the team home, like so many other buses in so many other places around the country that Friday night in autumn. Settling in for the hour-plus ride, smartphones lit up the darkness. Headphones were placed over ears. Some players slept. The bus rolled through quiet pastures and tiny sleeping towns with vacant storefronts and the occasional gleam of television sets visible in house windows.
What does football mean to communities like these that have lost so much of the glue that once held them together?
Early the following week, each of the players came by the field house to turn in their pads and equipment. As they did, their names were checked off a list. Coaches and managers stacked the equipment away in a storage room. It would sit quietly as the days and nights of the offseason passed, waiting for that eternal symbol of hope to athletes and fans everywhere. Next year.
* * *
Paul McDonnold is a freelance writer who lives in southwest Arkansas. He has written for The Christian Science Monitor, Texas Monthly and Arkansas Life.
Dan Zettwoch is a cartoonist and diagrammer from St. Louis.