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In May of 1979, I graduated from high school, seemingly destined to matriculate to the University of Arkansas. Everything pointed in that direction. After all, it was, in a sense, my birthright. Instead, I choose to spend my freshman year at the University of Colorado, where, as it turned out, few people at all took college football seriously. The Colorado Buffaloes went 3-8 that season. But, starting with my sophomore year, I transferred to Fayetteville.

So, did I eventually wind up at the University of Arkansas based upon my lifelong allegiance to Razorback football? The inescapable conclusion is that, yes, I most certainly did. I wanted to get in on all of the football-related fun: the Friday night pep rallies at the Greek Theater, the buzzy atmosphere of home-game Saturdays, the feeling that I was finally at the center of it all, or at least as near to the heartbeat of Hog football as I could get.

But soon into my first season in Fayetteville unforeseen challenges arose.

At any Football School, having a date for the upcoming game was a major deal. Though I had only been on campus for a month, I had no intention of once again joining the small but all-too-visible group of losers at the Sigma Chi house, my new fraternity, who were dateless. For the first home game against Tulsa, I’d given myself a pass. No need to rush such things. But into the first week of October, the leaves on the majestic maple tree on the front lawn of the Sigma Chi house had begun to yield their green. I had to get with it.

For upcoming game against TCU, sympathetic friends set me up with a sorority girl named Darla Lacey, who hailed from central Arkansas. She was blond and cute and had a good reputation. That’s about all I knew, but I figured I’d learn more about her when we sat together at the Razorback game, not to mention the parties at the Sigma Chi house on Friday and Saturday night.

All week, I made plans for our date: I had gotten seats next to the couple who’d set us up, so at least she would have somebody to talk to during lulls in the game, or when the conversation between us dragged. I was mindful that during the game I wasn’t going to evince so much insider knowledge of Razorback football that I came across as a stunted young man with limited career prospects. I wouldn’t gush about how that stud Billy Ray Smith, Jr., whose daddy had also played for the Hogs, was on his way to becoming one of the greatest defensive players in the history of college football. I would keep to myself the backstory on Razorback cornerback Kim Dameron, number 44, who’d played quarterback on the Rogers team that Jonesboro destroyed two years before in the state high school playoffs. But most of all, I was going to control myself when something aggravating inevitably happened down on the football field and I got the irresistible urge to yell my head off about it.

On Friday night, before the party cranked up at the fraternity house, I purchased from a friend a six-pack of Budweiser, just to make sure I had my bases covered, assuming my date was a beer drinker. But I wasn’t going to be drinking any beer. The mere thought of it gave me cold sweats, because the night before, I, along with a gaggle of mostly-underage fraternity brothers, had played nickel beer — that’s right, free-flowing beer for mere nickels — at a bar off the Square. I was a lightweight drinker and, generally speaking, I knew my limits. But this Dionysian frenzy went on into the wee hours. I hadn’t risen from bed that day until well after lunch.

By 11 o’clock that night, the party at the Sigma Chi house was in full roar. I walked past a room with music blaring so loudly — “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang, over and over—that it seemed the walls might crumble. Finally, I reached my two-man room, which overlooked the interior courtyard, where a band played.

My relationship with my two-man room at the Sigma Chi house was unique. Technically, I lived here, but in reality I only slept here occasionally, treating it like a hotel room. I could do this because I had been taken under the wing of a tall, sallow frat brother affectionately known as Bone Man. He lived next door in a yellow Victorian, and I had lapsed into the habit of sneaking over to his air-conditioned house to sleep, a godsend, particularly since the Sigma Chi house was both noisy and lacked air conditioning.

My putative roommate came into our room and informed me that he’d seen Darla Lacey down on the dance floor, so I went to the window and peered down into the courtyard but couldn’t make her out among the throng of coeds. My putative roommate grabbed two beers from his cooler and left, and I turned off the light and lay down on the lower bunk bed. I was still sick to my stomach; all I’d eaten that day were a few saltine crackers and a bite of a Snickers bar. I shut my eyes, and through the Babel-like cacophony of noises coming from all directions, I overheard several upperclassmen laughing in the hallway right outside the closed door. All I could do was hope they didn’t come into my room and find me lying on the bunk as sober as a preacher.

I never saw Darla Lacey that night, and I had zero contact with her on the day of the game — because she didn’t show. So instead of a cute coed sitting at my side at Razorback Stadium, there was nobody to serve as a proxy for my mother, who, in the past, had a way of tempering my in-game outbursts whether she knew it or not. Just the thought of her perched in miniature on my shoulder, glaring at me, was sometimes enough to make me pull back. Other times, even that imagery wasn’t enough.

Early in the first half, I bolted up and yowled at the Hogs’ quarterback, Tom Jones. “My gosh, Derek Holloway was wide open! Come on! Let’s go!”

When I finally sat back down, I felt the stern gaze of the young lady who’d set me up with Darla Lacey in the first place, and that’s when I wondered if rumors of my antic passion for the Hogs had scared off my date. Then, I thought, nah. There were thousands of students in Fayetteville just as nutso about Razorback football as I was. Well, dozens anyway. More likely it was Darla’s dread of breaking the ice, her preference for the company of her sorority sisters, her desire to claim she had a date to the game and just leave it at that.

The Hogs had not lost to TCU since two years before my birth, an astonishing run of dominance. The game was a blowout, so, lacking female attention, I sat in the stands and watched the Razorback pompom girls with their short red skirts that flared when they made their high kicks. Upon transferring to Fayetteville, when it came to dating, I had counted on upping my game. But siting alone in the stands at Razorback Stadium and gawking at pompom girls down on the sideline was hardly the way to go about it.

Print Headline: GROUND ZERO

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