LITTLE ROCK — The abbreviated Senior Day float trip down the Little Missouri will be rehashed. So, too, Jerry Burnett’s on-the-fly bye bye to the Malvern safety and the contrast in coaches John Pierce and Ben F. Burton.
Open to embellishment, stories will be recalled in the name of a camaraderie that began in first grade. Grown men will tear up. Some of the principals will offer a different take; others are deceased. After all, it’s been 50 years since Burnett, Joe Purvis, Mack McLarty, and others were on Hope High School’s only state championship football team.
Many of them will be on the field at halftime of the Hope-Magnolia game Friday night, but I’d prefer to be a fly on the wall that afternoon at Hope Country Club.
The Class AA Bobcats lost the ‘63 season opener to Class AAA Texarkana and did not lose again. After home games, they celebrated at the youth center. There was always live music, a version of “Sugar Shack” for sure, and sometimes even a legitimate band from South Arkansas. The Dairy Queen and Bobcat Drive-In were hot spots.
Some members of the senior class organized the float trip and provided the liquid refreshment, stuffing the cans into a pillowcase, away from prying eyes.Two hours into what was supposed to be an overnight trip, a water moccasin joined the party.
The outstanding lineman in the district, right guard Ricky Butler, killed the critter with his .22 — the boat was collateral damage. In the water and hollering for help, 245-pound Jimmy Walker held tight to the pillowcase.
Although McLarty was a good passer and Hope had some good receivers, Burton preferred the run and usually opened with fullback Richard McDowell up the gut. For Malvern, he told halfback Burnett to go in motion and McLarty would throw to him — a wheel route in today’s parlance.
“I want you to look over at the Malvern safety and yell, ‘Pick up your jock,’” Burton told Burnett.
He did, early in the 75-yard play.
Old school, Pierce was in charge through the ‘62 season. He smoked unfiltered Camels, wore the same game-night uniform of white short-sleeved shirt and blue clip-on tie no matter the weather, and expletives carried on his voice.
He was succeeded by Burton, a large, soft-spoken man with a Masters in English from LSU who handed out demerits for unkempt lockers. He cursed once, in the dressing room after the Texarkana loss. The next morning, the Bobcats practiced four hours and no one was exempt from a tackling drill.
Burton gave McLarty the freedom to change the play, a rarity at the time, and some teammates might chide the former White House chief of staff about his choices near the goal. To hear them tell it, McDowell and Burnett did the dirty work until McLarty called the belly play, faked a handoff to McDowell, and walked into the end zone knowing who would get the headlines.
There is also a theory that McLarty, about 5-foot-5 at the time, was well prepped for running the White House for Bill Clinton after a confrontation with Smackover linebacker Joe Black, an All-Southwest Conference player at Arkansas. The first time McLarty came to the line of scrimmage, Black laughed. McLarty made 12 yards on a sneak. Next time, Black greeted the quarterback with “Run that … again, gradeschool.”
McLarty made a yard or less and reportedly conversed with his teammates through the ear hole of his helmet.
Twenty years ago, one of the participants and his son, about 15 at the time, were in Hope for Thanksgiving and the local public access channel re-ran the ‘62 game against hated Nashville. The youngster hooted at the uniforms, the helmets with the double bars, and the shoes. Once the contact began, he was wowed.
Those blocks and tackles will be even more devastating when re-lived on Friday.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.