Behind the Friday Night Lights

The time of year approaches when fans fill stadiums to cheer on their favorite football players and teams. It’s the love of camaraderie as much as it is the love of the sport that brings people together for Friday night high school football. It’s for hanging with friends and building community. From the players and coaches to parents and cheerleaders and band members, it takes many people to bring those Friday nights to life for all to enjoy. And the work isn’t over after the Friday night lights have dimmed. After ball players have packed up, the cheers have long dwindled and the crowd has left the stadium, Paul Tudor is there making sure things are properly cared for and shut down so the Benton Panthers can do it all over.

Paul is described as the Panthers’ “unsung hero.” He sets up the field for ballgames; makes sure everything is in working order before any events at the Sports Complex; drives older residents and people with disabilities to and from the parking lot for football, soccer, softball and baseball games; and opens gates, ticket booths and press boxes. 

“After ballgames he shuts everything down. He is the engine that is under the hood and rarely gets seen. But he is needed to make the whole thing run,” notes Benton Athletic Director Scott Neathery, who nominated Paul to be featured. 

Paul has lived in Benton all his life – 51 years. A 1987 Benton High School graduate, he came to work for the school district’s maintenance department in 1998. No stranger to football, he played in junior high, but playing team sports really wasn’t his thing, he says. “My passion was hunting, running dogs, fishing and anything outdoors.” 

His life’s twists and turns always pointed him toward team sports, however–just more as a spectator. He and his wife, Melinda Tudor, enjoyed cheering on her daughter, Bailey, who played all sports, with softball and volleyball as the top picks. Paul’s son, Will, who played football and track and now runs on the cross-country team, is also active in 4H and shows cattle locally and across the state. Not only has Paul enjoyed watching his own children through sports, but he also has watched many important students he’s known from babies “go through these gates to play some kind of sport.”

Paul was a bit surprised to find himself in the spotlight. “Being described as the engine under the hood makes me feel proud,” he says, “but I don’t do things for recognition. I do them because that’s my passion.” 

He adds, “You don’t do things for attention, you do things because that’s what you like doing. I enjoy my days getting ready for a game or event. I love the kids, the parents, grandparents, coaches, teachers and everyone.”

Anyone who knows Paul knows his love of talking, he says. His outgoing personality goes together with his job. “I very seldom meet a stranger and it doesn’t stay that way long.” Giving rides on the golf cart to anyone who needs it before, during and after games gives him much joy. 

“Not too many people who go to these games don’t have my cell number handy, and they end up with it before the night is over,” Paul says. “The fans keep me going and I’m always looking for a new face to give a ride to, or to help answer a question, or point in the right direction. People joke around all the time saying that Paul is Benton’s PR person. I just laugh.”       

 Possibly surprising to some, Paul doesn’t work during one of the biggest games of the season, the Panthers’ rivalry against the Bryant Hornets. The Salt Bowl is so big that it outgrew the Benton and Bryant stadiums long ago and is held at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. This game starts each season for Benton and Bryant. “The Salt Bowl brings a lot of fans and keeps that old school tradition rivalry going. I don’t get a chance to work at it but remembering what the rivalry was all about is still exciting,” Paul says.

 Paul’s favorite sport to watch is football, not surprisingly. This people person likes when people are around – the more, the merrier. “Football brings the most fans out and that’s what I love.” 

The most challenging part of Paul’s job is when things break and don’t go as planned. You go with the flow and keep going, he says. “Things happen and you just do what you can to get it fixed and get back on track.” No matter what challenges come his way, though, he says he plans to stay around a while longer. “I plan to be here until I am so old that I can’t go any longer or until the good Lord takes me home.”