Fitz Hill is preaching again. I've always accused him of being two-thirds preacher. I can get away with kidding him because I've known him all his life.
Hill's older brother and I were in the same grade in the public schools at Arkadelphia. By the time Hill was starring as a wide receiver for the Arkadelphia High School football team, I was a student at Ouachita Baptist University and serving as the play-by-play announcer on radio for those powerful squads coached by the late John Outlaw. When Hill played college football at Ouachita, I broadcast those games on the radio.
I watched Hill's career unfold as he became one of the few black head football coaches in the country (at San Jose State University) before returning home to Arkansas. When Hill was the president of Arkansas Baptist College in Little Rock, he was among the 11 college presidents I reported to in my role as president of Arkansas' Independent Colleges & Universities. I even helped edit a book he wrote.
As you can see, we go back a long way. But I've never seen Hill as passionate as he is on this day as I eat a sandwich for lunch in the board room at the Little Rock School District headquarters. In the room with me are some of the state's top business leaders, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott and LRSD Superintendent Mike Poore.
During his years at Arkansas Baptist, founded in 1884 to serve former slaves and the children of former slaves, Hill became obsessed with addressing the crisis facing young black males in this country. He would quote the disturbing statistics in speeches back in those days--almost a fourth of black youth don't graduate from high school, almost 70 percent of black babies are born into single-parent households, etc. Hill also would note that ABC was in one of the most violent neighborhoods of one of the most violent cities in the nation.
"You don't have to travel to a Third World country to serve," Hill would tell white business leaders. "Our neighborhood is available."
He described his approach as "putting the neighbor back in the hood."
In August 2017, Hill launched the LRSD Athletic Foundation with the goal of starting sixth-grade football programs in the district's middle schools. It's the LRSD Athletic Foundation that has brought us together for lunch on this day.
"Almost 10 years ago, the school district eliminated sixth-grade football as a cost-saving measure," Hill said when the foundation was launched. "Although money might have been saved, the question I would post is this: Does eliminating extracurricular activities impact student retention and eliminate potential male role models? Most football coaches are men and, in many instances, they can take on the role of a father figure and assist in the development of young men."
The first two seasons of sixth-grade football were a success. Now Hill has bigger goals. He would like to see the foundation raise money for facility improvements across the district and have high school teams serve as a point of pride and as a unifying force in the state's largest city. Scott, the city's first popularly elected black mayor, ran on a platform of uniting Little Rock. He shares Hill's vision. So does Poore, the state-appointed superintendent.
"Academics, athletics and performing arts are all important to us achieving our goals," says Poore. "There will have to be good, solid work day after day, year after year, in all of these areas to turn things around."
In keeping with his holistic approach, Poore interviews candidates for head football and basketball coaching positions at the high school level. He considers those jobs too important to be left to school principals and an athletic director.
"Those teams are a part of your culture," he says. "This is bigger than the Little Rock School District. It plays into crime prevention and uniting Little Rock."
Poore is excited about the fact that the new Little Rock Southwest High School will have an arena, field house, football stadium, track, baseball and softball fields that are as nice as what can be found at any high school in this part of the country. The school is scheduled to open in 2020. Massive improvements already have been made to the district's Scott Field.
The district has a proud tradition in athletics. The aging men who once played football at Little Rock Central for the late Wilson Matthews still gather regularly to remember their glory days. Matthews, an Atkins native, left Rogers High School in 1945 to come to what was then Little Rock High School as an assistant coach under Raymond Burnett. When Burnett left to become head coach at what's now Arkansas Tech University, Matthews took over. His teams went 12-0-1 in 1947, 9-1-1 in 1948, 10-1 in 1949 and 10-2 in 1950. His 1951 team finished with a 9-3 record. It was the final year a Matthews-coached team would lose to Arkansas competition.
His next six teams were undefeated against Arkansas schools. The Tigers had a 33-game winning streak at one point, and Matthews' 1957 team was listed by several publications as the best high school team in the nation.
With the proliferation of private schools in Little Rock and the white flight to surrounding counties in recent decades, there likely will never be a team from the LRSD that unites Little Rock residents like those football Tigers did. Still, improved programs can help bridge the divide in Little Rock, something Scott readily acknowledges. Successful programs also will get young people off the streets, reducing the city's crime rate while increasing its graduation rate.
Want more statistics? Hill is your man. He tells me that a study of almost 25,000 high school students in Arkansas found a combined grade point average of 2.5 for non-athletes and a GPA of 2.9 for athletes; that the percentage of non-athletes with disciplinary referrals was 49 percent, compared with 19 percent for athletes; that the graduation rate was 99 percent for athletes and 91 percent for non-athletes; that athletes averaged missing seven days per school year, compared with 11 days for non-athletes; that about 7 percent of non-athletes dropped out of school, compared with less than 1 percent of athletes.
You get the point. Now that Hill has outlined the vision, he's beating the bushes to raise the money needed to accomplish his goals. He says: "Money follows vision. Nobody wants to give to a sinking ship."
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 03/31/2019
Print Headline: REX NELSON: Preach on, Brother Hill