To cap Hendrix College’s first football game in 53 years last September, the Warriors drove 65 yards in 15 plays to Stephen Crenshaw’s field goal with 1.7 seconds left for a wild, 46-44 victory over Westminster.
As the game ended, the Hendrix football players sprinted to the opposite end zone to slap hands, hug and celebrate with a large and boisterous student section.
“That’s most memorable moment since I’ve been on campus,” said Ellis Arnold, Hendrix’s acting president who still beamed as he reflected on the scene more than five months later. “You could not have made a movie that would have had a better storybook ending. It was the perfect ending to a new beginning.”
That first game was played in scorching heat with the temperature near 100.
During a February cold spell, those primarily involved with the revival of football exuded warmth — and pride.
“I think we made the execution of a first-year program look easy, seamless is a good word,” said Arnold. “Everything we did was ‘Hendrix-esque’ all the way.”
“Everything I heard has been positive,” said Amy Weaver, Hendrix’s director of athletics. “I’ve had no negative feedback in any way come my way. For some people, this was seeing is believing because I think there was a fear of the unknown.”
“The Old Warriors (members of Hendrix teams of 50 years ago and more) considered football being back a gift from heaven,” said Vance Strange, a former Hendrix player and coach who was a leader in the group.
When Hendrix dropped football after the 1960 because of financial difficulties in competing with state institutions that awarded more scholarships, it was a member of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. When football returned last season, Hendrix had been a member for more than two decades of NCAA Division III, which doesn’t allow athletic scholarships.
Members of that first team, almost all freshmen, all had ACT score of 27 or more. The almost 50-player group compiled a cumulative grade-point average of greater than 3.0.
“This is the first year in 20 years of coaching I haven’t got a call from the dean of students,” said Buck Buchanan, the enthusiastic and colorful coach was starting up his second college football program (earlier at Louisiana College). “The guys did a great job in the classroom and on the field. We recruited the right people. We told them they were recruited not to leave average. We recruited them to be good. And one of the greatest compliments I received came from a professor told me, ‘your guys are really polite.’”
A scene at the beginning of school convinced Weaver something special was being created. After a grueling afternoon of practice, she watched many members of the football team push a stranded motorist’s car out of danger in a roundabout near campus.
“I think there was an educational process that these players were also regular students, taking the same classes with the same academic goals,” said Arnold. “We knew were under the microscope. Everything we did had to be first class and reflect the Hendrix brand of doing things.”
Two of the leaders of that first team were Seth Peters of Greenbrier, who is pre-med as a biochemistry major, and Gray Stanton of Fort Smith Northside, who is pre-pharmacy.
“We wanted to show people that freshmen could play football and be competitive,” said Peters, who led NCAA Division III in touchdown passes before sustaining a season-ending knee injury the fifth game. We wanted to do things people didn’t think we could do.”
The Warriors were 3-7 last season, very modest until you consider that of 31 Division III start-up programs since 1991, only four won more games.
“There were some doubts and questions among the student body but they really came out that first game and their support was awesome,” Stanton said. “They showed us the love all season and we tried to show love to them by being good students.”
Weaver said, “A lot of students questioned this in the beginning but the student body was unbelievable. Football blended nicely into the culture. Hendrix has a way of making people feel part of something special.”
The Hendrix team didn’t come together on until Aug. 14 and won a game three weeks later.
“As soon as this team was assembled, I knew these guys were special,” said Peters. “Football was important to us but it was not the most important thing in life. It was something we did because it was playing a game we love.”
“After we were together about 12 hours a day for two weeks, we bonded really well,” said Stanton. “You could tell the coaches had recruited really bright guys and we had a lot in common. We all wanted to win games but also get a good education.”
“What we did was try to recruit kids who were just good people to be around,” said Buchanan.
THE TEAM EFFORT
Starting a football program and managing game day has many moving parts, many of which people don’t notice until something goes wrong.
“This touched every part of campus,” Weaver said. “The entire athletic staff was unbelievable in their help but so were so many people outside the staff. My biggest surprise was how everyone rallied around football and helped in any way they could. There was pride in our building. It happened the way we hoped it would happen.”
“Hendrix people get it done the right way,” said Buchanan. “This has been a great place to start a program because the people are great and are so supportive. Even the tough things that happened, we were able to overcome.”
“I saw one great collaborative effort,” Arnold said. “There was years of planning in this but before each home game we had meetings involving the athletic staff, alumni, student officials, physical plant people. We had a lot of help from staff who would ordinarily not be working on a Saturday. But it was a matter of doing things the Hendrix way.”
THE ALUMNI AND BEYOND
Members of some of the earlier Hendrix teams and other alumni were tearful from the first practice.
“The alumni and Old Warriors I know were so proud of how this team played and represented the college,” Strange said. “The alumni were tickled to death. This was a tie that binded so many people. I’ve talked to alumni and friends who are willing to help the college and the program any way they can. I saw renewed vigor.”
“One of the things I was most excited about was how this enabled alumni to connect with other and friends,” said Weaver. “People seemed to enjoy themselves just being on campus. It developed a greater community. Old Warriors met new Warriors.”
“I saw people on campus who had not been on this campus in years,” Arnold said. “And I talked to people who were initially ambivalent about football come to campus and enjoy themselves. It opened up another element of our community. And we had special recognitions every game whether it was special alumni or donors or athletes or trustees.
“But it went beyond Hendrix. For example, I had breakfast and a good visit with the Sewanee president, who came here to our game. And there are alumni of teams in our conference (Rhodes, Millsaps, Centre, Berry, Oglethorpe, Sewanee, Birmingham-Southern) who live in the central Arkansas area who got to see their team play. The great part of this was seeing so many different people come to campus.”
Strange added, “I talked to Ron Pyle, a former player who came to our first game and he asked Tom Siebenmogen (Hendrix Chief Financial Officer) how football had affected the institution.
“We are amazed, totally pleased and beyond that,” Strange said Pyle told him.
And the tie didn’t just come from home games.
Wayne Kinder, a former Hendrix quarterback who is retired and living in Kentucky, attended Hendrix’s game against Centre in Danville, Ky.
“He called me and told me just watching that game gave him a taste of home,” Strange said. “He’s now looking to move here to the Village and becoming part of the community here and it was all because of that game and watching Hendrix play football again.”