When I was a young boy growing up in Little Rock, I always tried to do whatever Mama told me. Most of the time I succeeded—that is, until Mama started to mess with my love life. � It was 1969, I was 12 years old, and I had a boyhood crush on the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Mama, and everyone else in my neighborhood of colored people (that's what we called ourselves then), didn't like the Razorbacks because they were lily-white; in 76 years of fielding a team, they had had but one black player, a walk-on in '66. My neighbors pulled instead for the all-black mighty Bearcats of Horace Mann High and the Golden Lions of Arkansas AM&N, a historically black college in nearby Pine Bluff. �
But even though Mama tried her best to steer me away from the Razorbacks—she wouldn't even let me listen to their games on the big radio in the kitchen—they were my passion. I would read legendary sportswriter Orville Henry's columns in the Arkansas Gazette as if they were love letters from Miss America contestants. Nothing was better than Saturday nights in the fall, when I would sneak my tiny transistor radio into bed with me and listen as the voice of the Razorbacks, Bud Campbell, relayed every move my heroes made. Before I got into bed, I prayed that my Hogs would win, and that my mother wouldn't hear Mr. Campbell's muffled voice.
To me every Razorbacks win was a victory for my small, misunderstood state. I was tired of my cousins in Michigan (where I was born) calling Arkansas a hick place. Wins brought us respectability and did something more important: They doused the images of white students yelling and spitting at the nine colored students trying to enter Little Rock's Central High in 1957. I was an infant back then, but as I got older, I saw the pictures, and people in my neighborhood talked of the ugly incidents as if they had happened yesterday. I was embarrassed that my city was known for hate when I felt there was so much love there.
So much love, that is, for everything except the University of Texas and its burnt-orange-clad football team. The Longhorns are so despised in Arkansas that true Hogs fans don't even wear orange on Halloween. When my Razorbacks lost 15-14 to the (also all-white) Horns in December 1969 in a showdown between the nation's two top-ranked teams, I was mad—not at the Hogs but at God and at everybody, black and white, in the enormous state of Texas. Didn't they already have enough, being the home of the Dallas Cowboys and big hair? With that one victory, our state could have been known for something other than Central High and the Little Rock Nine. I think even Mama felt sorry for me, as she chastised my younger sisters, who teased me for crying over a stupid football game.
In 1969 my Razorbacks finally gave a scholarship to Jon Richardson, a black running back from Horace Mann. The next year, the first that Jon was eligible for the varsity, I knew I had to be there when he made his first appearance in the cardinal-and-white uniform, so I took some of the money I had saved for school clothes and purchased a ticket to see Arkansas play Stanford at War Memorial Stadium in west Little Rock.
I was frozen with fear as I walked into the vast stadium and found myself surrounded by white people of all shapes and sizes decked out in Razorbacks attire that included red plastic hats in the shape of Hogs' heads. I had never seen so many white folks—or so many people of any color—in one place, and my eyes searched without success to spot somebody who looked like me. Even the boys and girls selling popcorn and peanuts were white. Where were Jon's family and friends who had watched him score touchdown after touchdown for the Bearcats? Didn't they know he would do the same thing for the Razorbacks?
I located my seat at the top of the south end zone and squeezed in between two large men who looked startled to see me. One of them asked me if the Hogs were going to win, and I said, "Yes, sir." He smiled and the knots of tension relaxed in my stomach. I guess it didn't matter that I was black (as we were now being called) and they were white. We were Razorbacks fans.
Something happened to me that evening that had never occurred before: A white man hugged me. It happened after Arkansas had scored a touchdown and everyone in the south corner of the end zone was jumping for joy. His action certainly surprised me, and from the I-can't-believe-I-just-did-that look on his face, I'd say it surprised him, too. He quickly offered me an uncertain half-smile and moved his eyes back toward the field. Unfortunately, although Richardson caught a 37-yard touchdown pass—and I was over the moon that he had brought the stadium to a collective roar—the Hogs lost 34-28.
My love for the Razorbacks only grew stronger as I got older. I turned down scholarships from several other schools to enroll at Arkansas, and in my four years there I had perfect attendance at home football games—something I never achieved in my classes. I was proud that my freshman class included black football players from Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Of course, the first time I took a class with a real live Razorback, I had to tell myself to breathe normally and not make a fool out of myself by doing something silly like asking for an autograph.
While a student in Fayetteville, I enjoyed the experience of seeing the Hogs beat such teams as Southern Cal, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Georgia. During my senior year, 1977, I became the first black male Razorbacks cheerleader. The first time I helped lead the team onto the field out of the huge block A formed by the band, I felt lifted by the roar of the crowd—I think my feet never touched the ground.
Today I make my living as an author of urban love stories, which allows me to set my own schedule. When the Razorbacks play, I am either in the stands, on the Internet checking the updates or listening to the radio broadcasts by phone. I feel as though I'm letting the team down when I'm not giving it my undivided attention. I make sure my novels come out in the summer so that my book tours will be completed before the first football is kicked off.