Arkansas’ First NFL Player

In a couple months, Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, Jake Bequette and Joe Adams will join a long, prestigious list of former Razorbacks to play in the NFL. Indeed, more than 140 Hogs have logged time in the nation’s top football league.

When did this list begin?

Ninety years ago, with 23-year-old Ben Winkelman, a Fayetteville native who ended up playing for the now-defunct Milwaukee Badgers for three seasons. There’s not much readily accessible online about this team, but thanks to the good folks at ProFootballReasearcher.org, we know 1) Milwaukee was one of three NFL teams of the era (along with Green Bay & Racine) and 2) Winkelman, at 6’1” and 190 pounds, apparently was a crackerjack end. He earned third-team All-Pro honors in 1923. Granted, the newspaper responsible for dispensing these honors was based in Wisconsin, but still…

So, what happened to the Big Wink?

Again, online details are sketchy, but according to fanbase.com decades later Winky wound up coaching at Oregon and San Jose State, where he was by helped the famed youth football patriarch Pop Warner, then an SJSU athletics consultant. Apparently, Winkelman found a home in central California. He died near Sacramento in 1981, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

It’s doubtful many Arkansans are still around to recall Winkelman in his athletic heyday. Still, this Razorback’s place in the state’s athletic history shouldn’t be forgotten.

Six Highlights of Scottie Pippen in the “The Dream Team” documentary

To this day, memories of Monte Carlo bring a smile to many a Dream Teamer’s face.

Twenty years ago, on July 22, the Dream Team began its training camp in La Jolla, California. By the time this edition of the U.S. national basketball team secured a gold medal a month and a half later, it had set a standard many people think will never be broken. Yes, the 44-points-a-game winning margin was impressive. Even more impressive, though, was the talent: 11 of the team’s twelve players have been individually inducted into the Hall of Fame. Had the team chosen Shaquille O’Neal instead of Christian Laettner for its requisite rookie representative, an unbreakable mark would have been set.

By 1992, it was clear Arkansas native Scottie Pippen was on a path toward a Hall of Fame career. As a key member of the two-time defending Chicago Bulls, he had already established himself as one of the league’s best all-time defenders. Since his 1987 rookie season, Pippen had sharpened his skills by playing plenty one-on-one against teammate Michael Jordan and the payoff soon became apparent: In 1990, he joined Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as one only three NBA players to record 200 steals and 100 blocks in the same season; a year later, he helped slow down Magic Johnson enough to help the Bulls win Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the first of four consecutive wins ending in the Chicago’s’ first title.

Despite that loss, Magic Johnson still believed he was the league’s alpha dog by the time summer 1992 rolled around. Jordan, again with the help of Pippen, rather vigorously disabused Johnson of this notion during a series of game in one Dream Team practice. Video footage of these scrimmages are one of the most interesting parts of NBA TV’s new “The Dream Team” documentary, which next airs on July 4.

Other interesting excerpts, with a focus on UCA’s Pippen, follow:

1. On his invitation to join the Dream Team – “I didn’t feel like I truly deserved to be called, but I truly wasn’t gonna tell them that.”

2. On Isiah Thomas, leader of the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” and top nemesis of the Bulls: “Isiah was the general. He was the guy who’d yap at his teammates and say ‘Knock ‘em on their ass. Do what you gotta do.’ I despised the way he played the game.”

Continue reading Six Highlights of Scottie Pippen in the “The Dream Team” documentary

The thread tying Darren McFadden to Daisy Bates, Leslie O’Neal, Joe Adams and Keith Jackson

Civil rights pioneer Daisy Bates lived in a neighborhood with outstanding connections to the athletic world.

If you’ve played adult-league kickball or visited the state fair, you likely know this downtown Little Rock neighborhood. Picture the busy intersection of W. Roosevelt Road and  Martin Luther King Drive. If you venture a few blocks south, you’ll find the home of Daisy Bates, which in the late ’50s was a headquarters for Arkansas’ African-American civil rights movement. There, Bates etched her name into world history by mentoring the nine African-American students who integrated Central High School  in 1957. That is but one of many reasons her home at 1207 W. 28th Street became a National Historic Landmark in 2001.

Just north of Gates’ home is a 3-block radius which may have the most connections to great athletes per capita than anywhere else in the state. Gates helped pave the way for blacks to have the same access to state resources as whites, and the following student-athletes used integrated Little Rock high schools to launch careers that took them to top Division I college programs and beyond.

Less than a block from Gates’ home is the home of Leslie O’Neal’s mother, I was told by a childhood friend of O’Neal. O’Neal is  a former Little Rock Hall football star who would become the best NFL defensive end from Arkansas until Kevin Williams. My neighborhood guide, Chris Porter, said as children he and O’Neal (also known as “Big Red”) worked during the summer for local businessman Robert “Say” McIntosh.

Across MLK (formerly called High Street), Porter pointed out an early childhood home of Keith Jackson, the former Parkview High star-turned-NFL All-Pro tight end. Just a block to the west lives the father of former All-SEC Razorback Joe Adams, who’s now starting his rookie season with the Carolina Panthers. His father Joseph Adams, a Little Rock fireman, told me that he grew up playing neighborhood football with Keith Jackson.

Finally, caddy-corner to Adams’ home, is the home of Darren McFadden’s mother Mini Muhammad. McFadden owns a few homes on that block, which helps when the fam throws block parties during his off-season.

If there is an Arkansas neighborhood with more star sports power in terms of family connections, I want to see it. Bates’  home may already be designated as a national landmark, but I think the surrounding area also deserves some recognition. Maybe a mention in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame or the black Arkansas sports hall of fame that former Razorback football player Muskie Harris is trying to start.

Ready to Roll: After Injury, D-Mac is (once again) Back

Darren McFadden has visited Maumelle High School at least twice this offseason. Courtesy: SYNC magazine/Credit: Arshia Khan

The questions aren’t hard-hitting in the least, nothing like the vicious hits he’s expected to endure come fall: “Do you still play for the Razorbacks?” “Where did you go to high school?”
“How many years have you been in the NFL?”
And this curveball: “Why is the baseball field so muddy?”
Darren McFadden takes each child’s question in stride. It’s the end of the first day of a football camp he’s headlining at Maumelle High School and there is no reason to hurry. He hasn’t rushed through the passing, receiving and running skills work he’s done with 300 kids this Tuesday morning, and again takes his time with each soft ball thrown his way, smile on his face the whole time.

Finally, an older child throws something that could raise a pulse or two hundred thousand: “Do you like Houston Nutt?” McFadden doesn’t hesitate to praise his college coach of three seasons, a fellow Little Rock native who helped him become Arkansas’ all-time leading rusher in a single game, season and career: “Houston Nutt was a great coach. I loved playing for him, and I even keep in contact with him today.” Cheers erupt from the parents sitting in the Hornet Stadium bleachers.

McFadden, arguably Arkansas’ most popular athlete this century, has this way with people. On the field, the Oakland Raider running back is a nearly sure bet to elicit applause, whether by talking or doing what he does best – blasting through and around very large men using a mix of power and acceleration that, if trained for another sport, could be showcased in London in this summer’s Olympics.

Continue reading Ready to Roll: After Injury, D-Mac is (once again) Back

Vanishing Act: What happened to black baseball in Arkansas?

Across Arkansas, like the rest of the nation, this is becoming more and more the exception. (courtesy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

I’ve seen baseball change—I hate to say it like this—to a middle-class white-man’s sport over the years that I don’t think is fair across the board.” – Norm DeBriyn

Arkansas eked out a 5-4 win against Baylor on Sunday to set up a decisive Game 3 on Monday at 6:05 PM on ESPNU (or ESPN2, depending on the cable gods’ whims). If Arkansas wins, it heads out to Omaha for its second College World Series in four years. Despite a recent stretch of weak hitting, despite UA’s horrendous showing at the SEC Tournament and in Game 1 vs. Baylor, the Razorbacks’ season would gain instant salvation. With the increased media attention paid to Arkansas since its last CWS appearance (2009), it would be safe to say “Arkansas baseball has never been hotter than it is right now.”

Lost in the glare, though, would be some startling statistics: Five African-Americans started on the Hogs’ 1985 CWS team, but the numbers have dropped precipitously since then. In the last 14 years, there have been at most four black Hog baseball players. Moreover, in the SEC West in 2010, 2.3% of baseball players were black; that number was 72% in football, 80% in baseball.

Why has African-American participation in baseball nosedived in recent decades? I spent a few months exploring this question by talking with the likes of long-time UA baseball coach Norm DeBriyn, pitcher D.J. Baxendale, Democrat-Gazette writer Rick Fires, former Razorback Arvis Harper and Fitz Hill, a former UA football coach, and D’Vone McClure, one the first African-American Hog baseball signees in years.

My result is an article, which can be accessed in three ways:

1) Grab a Sunday copy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (June 10th) and flip to the Perspective section (Section H)

2) The original version published in Arkansas Life magazine a few weeks ago. In the lower left corner, click on “Vanishing Point: The [changing] face of baseball in our urban centers and colleges.”

3) For those with Democrat-Gazette subscriptions, here’s an updated version.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEw_MpK0bS4&w=420&h=315]

 

Is Time Running Out for D-Mac?

  Besides usual suspects such as speed, power and quickness, NFL running backs need two other things to excel: youth and durability. No question, Razorback demigod Darren McFadden has enough of the tangibles, and proved it by running at a pace that would have racked up 1,400 yards each of the last two seasons with the Oakland Raiders. But injury kept him from suiting up nearly 40% of his games in 2010 and 2011. In order to achieve the same level of success in Oakland as he had in Arkansas, he must play nearly all 16 regular-season games.

He’ll have plenty more seasons to prove his durability, but if he wants to start setting single-season NFL records, now is the time. McFadden, who turns 25 in August, is entering what is historically the most productive age for pro running backs. The best rushing seasons in NFL history have been churned out by men with an average age of 25.8 years:

Player (Age) Yards Year Games Played Team
1 Eric Dickerson (24) 2,105 1984 16 RAM
2 Jamal Lewis (24) 2,066 2003 16 BAL
3 Barry Sanders (29) 2,053 1997 16 DET
4 Terrell Davis (26) 2,008 1998 16 DEN
5 Chris Johnson (24) 2,006 2009 16 TEN
6 O.J. Simpson (26) 2,003 1973 14 BUF
7 Earl Campbell (25) 1,934 1980 15 HOU
8 Barry Sanders (26) 1,883 1994 16 DET
Ahman Green (26) 1,883 2003 16 GNB
10 Shaun Alexander (28) 1,880 2005 16 SEA

http://www.pro-football-reference.com

Derek Fisher’s spring more than a Little Rocky

In Oklahoma City, greybeard Derek Fisher helped the Thunder wrest two games away from the favored Spurs.

For an NBA player, dry patches don’t come much more Saharan than this.

Twenty-two times over the course of the three biggest games of his season, Derek Fisher tried to put the ball into the basket. Eighteen times he failed. You’d get better percentages from Shaq picking up wood and trying to hit against Cliff Lee.

Even before last week, the Little Rock native was having a tough go of it. Indeed, this has been one of his most difficult seasons since coming out of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock nearly 16 years ago. He spent half of 2011 jetting around the nation, carrying out duties as the president of the National Basketball Players Association in the midst of a lockout. He spent hundreds of hours thumbing through papers and negotiating in boardrooms while younger players stayed sharp playing pickup games. In this way, Fisher sacrificed on-court maintenance for off-court progress, and it showed by the time the season finally started in December: the 6-1 point guard stumbled out of the blocks, shooting well below his career 40% field goal average while having trouble staying in front of younger, quicker opponents.

The man who had helped the Lakers win five NBA championships, who for 13 seasons served as a calming liaison between the likes of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson, was suddenly expendable.

Continue reading Derek Fisher’s spring more than a Little Rocky