If ever there were such a thing as a hollow victory, Bryant Coach Buck James experienced it on that hot, sticky, late-August Saturday night at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium.
Just moments before, he had been frantically trying to locate his wife and young son in the stands as thousands of panicked fans ran for the gates or jumped recklessly over the eight-foot tall sideline wall. His team huddled against the wall, worried that there might be a gunman in the stands.
After it was determined there was no threat, but only a false alarm triggered by a chain of events that had occurred in the stadium and the concourse, a decision on the game’s outcome remained unmade.
Bryant led the Salt Bowl game 28-14 over county rival Benton early in the third quarter when the game came to a startling halt. When school and game officials decided the scene was too tense for play to continue, Bryant received the win as per Arkansas Activities Association rules.
“My biggest worry was accounting for our kids,” James said. “We had kids scattered everywhere, and there was so much uncertainty. Getting everyone together was on my mind more than anything else. I didn’t give the game a lot of thought.”
Bryant coaches and players reluctantly accepted the Salt Bowl trophy – a moment that traditionally includes a large group photo filled with sweaty, smiling faces. No one felt like celebrating. For many of the more than 38,000 in attendance, the anxiety of the night lingered on through the weekend.
Fourteen weeks later, there was an entirely different scene on a Saturday night on the turf under the same lights. Hornets players dumped a Gatorade bucket on James, and there were hugs and smiles aplenty. And this time, there was a group photo taken with the trophy. It was the Class 7A State Championship trophy – the first state football title in school history. It was the end of a historic day that also had seen Benton play for a Class 6A state title at the stadium nine hours earlier.
“From a personal standpoint, I really struggled for a long time after the Salt Bowl because I really was upset for the seniors and did not want their last memory in War Memorial Stadium to be what happened at the Salt Bowl,” said Shane Broadway, Salt Bowl organizer and Bryant High School alum. “So, for their last memory of a stadium that has meant the world to me since my mom used to take what little money she had saved up and buy tickets every year on the 50th row of the south end zone, to be one that they can tell their kids and grandkids they played in a state championship game in their final game is simply priceless.
“It could not have scripted it any better. Great coaches and great young men on both teams that I watched put in the work beginning way back after last season and they never stopped grinding and believing. I knew going into the Salt Bowl (and I said it on several occasions) that they both could begin and end at War Memorial Stadium this year based on what they had. Coming back and watching them practice, you knew they had the potential to accomplish that goal.”
Benton hadn’t beaten Bryant since 2005 when they beat them in the Salt Bowl 14-7 and 35-28 in the playoffs that same season for the sweep. Beating the Hornets was almost as important to Panthers’ Coach Brad Harris as winning a state title.
In late July, he beamed while surveying his depth chart and believed 2018 was the year his team could pull off both of those feats.
But at the 2018 Salt Bowl, Benton players looked on in horror as panicked Bryant fans tried to escape the perceived danger. The Panthers headed for the West tunnel, but when they arrived at the dressing room, the door was locked in a routine security measure to keep belongings secure. Many of the players flooded into the parking lot and others nearby, including those of the University of Medical Sciences Hospital, and even nearly a mile down Van Buren Street, past the Little Rock Zoo.
Emotions festered over the weekend, as the Panthers tried to regroup for their game the following Friday at defending Class 4A champion Arkadelphia.
“The Monday after [the Salt Bowl] was kind of like a counseling day,” Harris said. “Our coaches talked, and we had some players talk, and we just kind of discussed the experience because a lot of guys didn’t know what happened. We talked about some of the positive things that came out of it. Usually, we get on the field and get ready for the next opponent, but that Monday we just talked and watched the Bryant game film, and that was about it. And after that, it was behind us.”
Benton went on to steamroll the Badgers and didn’t lose a game until Week 8 at defending Class 6A Champion Greenwood.
“I’m really proud of where we went after that Salt Bowl game,” Harris said. “We handled Arkadelphia, the Class 4A champion, easily and then beat Class 7A Cabot. We played really good football in that stretch, and knew we needed to be undefeated in the conference going into that Greenwood game if we wanted to win the conference.”
Benton entered the Class 6A playoffs as a No. 2 seed and was awarded a first-round bye. Jonesboro nearly ended the Panthers’ state title dreams in Benton. However, the Panthers held on to win 38-37.
Their reward was a trip to West Memphis on Thanksgiving weekend to play the undefeated Blue Devils. Despite being considerable underdogs, Benton pulled off a 30-17 win and prepared for its second state title game in five years.
“I was proud of our kids,” Harris said. “That may have been the highlight of the season, winning that game at West Memphis. They have a very talented football team, and we played very well.”
Standing in their way of a title was an undefeated Greenwood team looking for back-to-back crowns. Greenwood played even better than it had in the first game on its home field. Try as they might with a solid first quarter, Benton didn’t have an answer in a 45-14 loss.
Two weeks after the Salt Bowl, Bryant lost a heartbreaker at home to Fayetteville. In Week 9, the Hornets were playing at North Little Rock for the 7A-Central Conference championship and shocked the Charging Wildcats with a 21-0 first-quarter lead, but NLR stormed back and stole a 38-31 win.
Bryant made its way back to War Memorial Stadium for a title-game rematch with North Little Rock after disposing of Fort Smith Northside on its home field after the Grizzlies upset Bentonville.
The defending champion Wildcats were playing in their third state title game in as many years, and had won 32 of their past 34 games in a 25-game streak.
Nevertheless, Bryant controlled the game with a stifling defense and won 27-7. The Hornets held NLR to its fewest points since it lost 34-4 in Coach Jamie Mitchell’s first season in 2015.
The title marked the first in Bryant history and capped off an historic first three years for James. He has led the Hornets to their best finishes in school history, qualifying for the semifinals the first two seasons.
“It was a great feeling,” James said. “I was so happy for our kids with all of the work they have put in. I knew it was going to be difficult to get to [the title game], but I thought if we could get to War Memorial Stadium we could win it. We are 10-1-1 at that stadium the past 11 games, so we felt like we had a chance there.”
More than 30,000 fans combined (The Class 7A game was the second-largest title game crowd in history) attended the two title games. The figure would have been even bigger had the games been a true doubleheader without the lag time in between. Some Benton fans headed home after the first game. Still, it was an example of the support Saline County has for high school football.
“After our game, our kids became Bryant supporters,” Harris said. “A lot of them headed back to War Memorial Stadium to cheer them on to the state championship. I think that was awesome. That was one of the good things that came out of the Salt Bowl.”
The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, which manages WMS, announced immediate changes to security protocol following the incident. Authorities used metal detectors, checked bags, and prohibited patrons’ congregating in the concourse. Subsequent Little Rock Catholic and Little Rock Parkview games took place without incident, as did the University of Arkansas home game with Ole Miss, and the six state championship games in December.
Stadium and school officials expect the same for the 2019 Salt Bowl with another record-setting crowd.
“We’ve had discussions in Salt Bowl committee meetings about filling up [War Memorial Stadium], more than 50,000 fans,” Bryant athletic director Mike Lee said. “That won’t change. I can speak on behalf of Bryant that we will be there. We are committed to supporting our cheer squad, dance team and football players and coaches.”
Both schools will enter the Salt Bowl with a better feeling than they had in August.
“We played at War Memorial Stadium twice after the Salt Bowl, and it was fine, and the Salt Bowl wasn’t even talked about,” Harris said. “[The incident] may be in the back of some of the players’ minds, and it will be talked about before next year’s game but our big concern will be getting ready for Bryant.”