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OPINION | REX NELSON: The Wonder Boys

by Rex Nelson | October 31, 2020 at 9:23 a.m.

Next month will mark 100 years since one of the most unusual team names in college sports--the Wonder Boys--first appeared as a proper noun in print. It happened in the Arkansas Gazette.

What's now Arkansas Tech University at Russellville conducted its first day of class as the Second District Agricultural School on Oct. 26, 1910. The school fielded its first football team the following year. In those early years, teams were known as the Aggies in recognition of the institution's primary academic mission of training farmers. Hugh Critz was elected the fifth president of the Second District Agricultural School in 1918. He was skilled at both farming and public relations.

According to the Gazette: "Up at Russellville, the folks are absolutely certain that in Hugh Critz, they have positively the greatest man on Earth. Some day they are going to build a fence round their town and turn it over in its entirety to him."

Critz, a graduate of what's now Mississippi State University, recognized the value of a successful athletic program. It could help him build relationships across the state. His efforts received a boost in 1919 when a 17-year-old student named John Tucker enrolled. By the final game of the 1919 season against what's now Arkansas State University, Tucker was the starting quarterback.

"If the Russellville Aggies lose to the Jonesboro Aggies here Friday afternoon, it will not result from lack of support ... for the entire town of Russellville is backing the team to win," the Gazette noted. "This fact was manifested last night at a rousing get-together meeting in the city hall under the auspices of the Russellville Chamber of Commerce. Pep was the slogan, and businessmen and professional men made talks pledging their attendance and support to the home team."

Tucker scored two touchdowns and kicked both extra points in a 14-0 victory. The Gazette described the celebration after the game as "the most enthusiastic occasion in the history of Russellville." A parade downtown ended in a bonfire, speeches by members of the team and a reception at a local Elks lodge. By 1920, interest in the football program was at a fever pitch.

Two days before a November game against what's now Henderson State University, the Gazette had a story that stated that "the Aggies have had a good season and are hailed as the wonder team of the 1920 football drama in Arkansas." An article the next day also referred to the Second District squad as the "wonder team of the year."

The team took trains from Russellville to Arkadelphia for the game, spending the night in Little Rock along the way. The morning of the game, the Gazette reported: "The Russellville Aggies, the wonder boys of Arkansas football, who will defend their reputation and their record against Henderson-Brown this afternoon, spent last night in Little Rock. The ferocious Farmers arrived here too late to make train connections for Arkadelphia last night."

Tucker led his team to a 13-0 victory. The contest was covered by Henry Loesch, the Gazette sports editor. Loesch began his story this way: "Football, unique in the annals of the game in Arkansas, was the Henderson-Brown vs. Russellville Aggie contest won here this afternoon by the Wonder Boys of Russellville."

The headline read: "Russellville Winner in Tight Game with Reddies; Wonder Boys' Victory Delayed Until Second Half by Wonderful Defensive Work of Henderson-Brown Players--Score 13-0."

Historian Tom DeBlack writes in his history of Arkansas Tech titled "A Century Forward" that it was the first time the term Wonder Boys had been used "as a proper noun to describe the Second District team. Loesch apparently attached no particular importance to the term, and in subsequent columns he and most other reporters continued to refer to the team as the Aggies or Farmers.

"The term Wonder Boys struck a chord with students and fans and gave the Second District School a chance to distinguish itself from the state's three other Aggie schools. Though unofficial for some time to come, the nickname eventually supplanted Aggies as the team's official name and, in later years, John Tucker would become known as the original Wonder Boy."

Loesch realized the public relations bonanza that a winning football team provided, writing that "three or four years ago most of us didn't know that there was an agricultural school at Russellville. All Arkansas knows it now."

I consider myself a connoisseur of team names and love the fact that of the six Arkansas members of the Great American Conference, four have names that are unique. In addition to the Wonder Boys of Arkansas Tech and the Reddies of Henderson, there are the Boll Weevils of the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the Muleriders of Southern Arkansas University. There have been efforts through the years to get rid of Wonder Boys. Such efforts fortunately have been unsuccessful.

"Twice in the 1980s students expressed unhappiness with the name Wonder Boys as the official name for the men's athletic teams," DeBlack writes. "The issue had flared periodically on campus over the years since its adoption, most notably in the early 1950s and again in 1971, when Tech's football team went all the way to the NAIA national championship game. In 1980, Student Senate president Tom Jones led an effort to 'improve,' though not necessarily to change, the mascot. Jones noted that there was a great deal of opposition from alumni to doing away with the name Wonder Boys."

"I got some pretty nasty phone calls," Jones said.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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