Saturday, October 30, 2010

SPORTS>>Throwing the book at history

By todd traub
Leader sports editor

I just finished reading a great sports book.

It is also a history book, an analysis of race relations in Arkansas and a political primer, all in one.

It is titled “Carry the Rock” by Little Rock native Jay Jennings and subtitled “Race, Football and the Soul of an American City.” After finishing it, I don’t think I’ll ever need to read another history of Little Rock again in my life.

The book tells the story of Little Rock Central’s 2007 football season but, like all the best sports books (think “Seabiscuit” or “King of the World”), it places the game in a greater context.

Set against the backdrop of ceremonies honoring the “Little Rock Nine” during the anniversary of the 1957 desegregation crisis at Central, Jennings makes football the focal point but concentrically broadens his perspective.

Jennings examines the racial undertones that still cause rifts between black and white communities, and the divides are readily seen in a heated Little Rock School Board election as well as the seating choices of players and coaches at a pre-game meal.

The author traces Little Rock’s current, racial-social landscape to Arkansas’ exploration and founding — including a brief history of the rock that gave the city its name — while paralleling its development with the growth of Central football.

Jennings points out Little Rock in the early 1900s had at times taken a remarkably liberal attitude toward race — a thriving black community co-existed with the white — but he makes it clear the city was not safe from the hatreds that plagued the rest of the nation and the post Civil War South.

In a chapter focusing on 1927, Jennings recounts the murder of a white girl and the subsequent confession and conviction of a black man, which created the charged environment that led to the lynching of escaped criminal John Carter after Carter assaulted two white women.

The crimes and violence are chillingly juxtaposed with the debut of Central’s grand new building, which was more or less christened in a Halloween appearance by Metropolitan Opera singer Mary Lewis, a Little Rock native who had made good.

Jennings describes the all-white crowd of tuxedo-ed and gowned opera patrons leaving the magical performance, dispersing in cabs and trolleys safely into the city where more Halloween revelry awaited.

But it is football that is the backbone of the story, and while Jennings consistently returns to the 2007 team, having an up-and-down year under legendary former coach Bernie Cox, all the notable figures of the program and Arkansas sports in general are here: Earl Quigley, Wilson Matthews, Frank Broyles and Bill Dickey along with modern figures like Houston Nutt and Darren McFadden.

Arkansas politicians from John L. McClellan to William Fulbright to Wilbur Mills to Bill Clinton show up, as do historical figures like Charles Lindbergh, Joe McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower. And of course, the Little Rock Nine themselves literally take center stage.

In tracing the exodus of white families from the heart of Little Rock, Jennings examines the rise of private schools — and their football teams — like Pulaski Academy in the western part of the city as well as the growth of public schools in the outlying communities of Bryant and Cabot.

In fact Cabot, which beat Bryant just over a week ago, and coach Mike Malham make a nice, extended cameo in Jennings’ book.

The 2007 Panthers beat Central during the regular season, then returned to bump the Tigers from playoff contention with a victory at Russellville.

Panthers fans will remember that standout running back Michael James, then a sophomore, bulled into the end zone with 4 seconds left to give Cabot the tiebreaker points needed to advance to the postseason and keep Central at home.

Jennings doesn’t make the mistake of falling back on terminology and lingo. His football play by play is clear and descriptive and he explains in simple terms the nuts and bolts of a specific play, offense or defense when necessary.

And his portrayal of the players is a fair and mostly affectionate account of young men as typically flawed and willing as any group of teenagers you will find.

Ultimately, “Carrying the Rock” is less a football book and more a rich history with football at its center.

As a transplanted, Yankee carpetbagger left here by the Air Force in 1990, I came away from my read with a better sense of my beloved, adopted state’s rich history, both good and bad.

I have a clearer idea now where Arkansas and Little Rock came from … and how far we still have to go.

Happy reading.