Salt Bowl Tailgate Party attracts thousands

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published October 3, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated October 2, 2013 at 4:04 p.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Volunteers match up hot dogs and buns by the thousands during the annual Salt Bowl Tailgate Party at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock before the game between the Benton High School Panthers and the Bryant High School Hornets. The hot dogs, cooked on large mobile grills operated by bankers from the two cities, were for the many spectators who came to the party before the football game Friday night.

LITTLE ROCK — Hours before four lost fumbles and two interceptions deflated Panther fans and gave the Hornets their eighth consecutive Salt Bowl win, residents of Benton and Bryant came together Friday on parking lots and lawns around War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock to share some fun.

“The game is great, but regardless of who wins, I’m excited to see all these people come together like this,” said Gary James, executive director of the Benton Area Chamber of Commerce. “Look at the mix of blue and burgundy out there. Near game time, there will be so many people here you will hardly be able to move. The biggest event of the year in Saline County is in Little Rock tonight.”

James said he thought this would be the largest tailgating event ever held for the Salt Bowl, a guess also shared by Shane Broadway of Bryant, interim director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and one of the team of organizers for the event, which was made up of residents of both cities.

“We have never sold out of Salt Bowl T-shirts, but we did this year,” Broadway said. “The Benton shirts were all gone yesterday, and the last Bryant shirt was sold last night. There had to be a special print run of them tonight, and I don’t think that has ever happened before.”

Bryant and Benton high schools’ shirts were identical, except for the colors — blue for Bryant and burgundy for Benton. Each carried the slogan “Show Up for the Show Down” on the front. On the back were names of several event sponsors and depictions of the helmets worn by the Hornets and the Panthers, with Salt Bowl at the top and 2013 at the bottom of the design.

Broadway said he had no idea how many shirts were printed after the last-minute production run.

The official attendance of 24,108 was 2,208 short of the 26,316 who came to the 2009 Salt Bowl — the record for the largest crowd to ever attend a high school football game in Arkansas. Friday’s fans could not have fit in Bryant’s and Benton’s stadiums combined.

The Salt Bowl Tailgate Party was organized by the Benton Chamber and area banks in cooperation with the Bryant Area Chamber of Commerce. Booths, most under tents, lined a long driveway on the stadium grounds off West Markham Street in Little Rock. A third line of booths in the middle created two lanes where Saline County residents strolled, greeting friends and stopping at the booths set up by local businesses, political candidates and area service committees.

Members of the Benton and Bryant bands joined the crowds, collecting giveaway items like drink koozies, water bottles and towels that would identify the holder as either a Hornet or Panther fan.

In the middle aisle, under a black-and-red tent cover, recruiters from Arkansas State University-Jonesboro were at the event to talk with students. Sara Bradberry, recruit adviser, said ASU is a popular next step for Saline County students.

“This year, 48 members of the class of 2013 are now attending ASU,” she said. Bradberry said she has been told that more students in that class are going to ASU than any other single college.

Behind the tailgate booths under the trees, mobile grills from several Benton and Bryant banks were fired up and free hot dogs were being cooked for the crowd.

Next to the grills sat a pickup truck with a bed filled with canned beans and franks. The pile of cans were the result of a tradition performed by the banks each year as part of the Salt Bowl festivities.

Dianne Jester, vice president of business development at the Bank of the Ozarks in Benton and Bryant, said the local banks have been collecting food as part of the Salt Bowl for several years, adding that this year’s drive was different.

“We have been working with the Arkansas Rice Depot for a while but never really sparked the kind of enthusiasm we had hoped for,” she said. “So we took a tour of the Rice Depot, and we saw stacks and stacks of Beanee Weenees,” Jester said.

Rice Depot employees told them that particular canned food went to kids, so Jester said they decided to have “Beanee Weenees Battle of the Banks.”

Brandi Johnston, a program director of the Arkansas Rice Depot, said the food bank goes though a lot of beans and franks.

“The cans are a staple of our backpack program. They have plenty of protein and are ready to eat,” Johnston said. “We provide new backpacks every year, and we place kid-friendly food at around 650 schools around the state.

“I am elated that the drive has done so well,” Jester said.

She had said 4,018 cans of the beans and franks had been collected and placed in the truck when a last-minute donation left by a customer at a Metropolitan National Bank Friday afternoon moved the number to 4,065 cans.

“Bank employees and our customers brought in so many cans this year,” Jester said. “The customers really came though for us. We will be doing this again.”

Johnston said the cans were a “huge blessing” for the 35,000 children in Arkansas who are enrolled in the backpack program.

In the weeks heading up to the big game, an annual Salt Bowl blood drive gave students and other residents a chance to donate blood to the Red Cross, and other events celebrated how the two cities are alike.

While the game is a great rivalry, even minutes before the game, the communities come together to do good and have some fun.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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