This coming football season is unlike any other before it. It is a first for all, as we navigate our jobs, school, and sports during a pandemic. The Salt Bowl—the most anticipated game in Saline County—has been on many minds. At the time of this writing, the game is still set to go, with safety precautions in place.
There have been many players behind the scenes to give the Benton Panthers a somewhat normal pre-season going into the football frenzy. One of them is former Coach Rusty Davis, who has 18 years of coaching and teaching experience. Now, he’s Assistant Principal at Benton High School, but he comes at the new school year and upcoming football season with a player’s heart.
He notes that coaches thrive on consistency, and this season is anything but consistent. “I think the biggest challenge this year going into football season is trying to deal with the unknowns. These are unprecedented times we are living in and we are all trying to make the most of the situation. New information is coming out every day, and coaches and administrators are having to adapt.”
While consistency and routines have been thrown out of the window, he says, “We just have to attack each day with a positive attitude and try to make the most of the time we are given.”
The problems are the same experiencing this uncertain time from the administrative side, Davis says. “They just present themselves in a different manner. We are all trying to do the best we can for the kids with what resources and information we have at the time.”
As a first-year administrator, he says, “I don’t know any differently. It is a crazier time, but I don’t have any routines or preconceived notions be it in these times or more normal times. I feel fortunate to see things from this side.”
He has a new appreciation for administrators, too. “All the planning and the meetings and uncertainties and the burdens they carry for being responsible for students.” Especially during this pandemic, he says, “We’re learning something new every day. It’s a good challenge, though.”
Davis knows what it’s like to be involved with school and sports under “normal” circumstances. A 1997 Benton High School graduate, he continued playing baseball into college at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He played football in high school as well, but not his senior year because of back-to-back seasons ending in knee injuries during his sophomore and junior years.
“I spent a lot of time that fall working out and preparing myself for my senior year in baseball,” he says, “which paid off because I had the opportunity to pursue my baseball career at UA Little Rock.”
Davis began coaching American Legion Baseball in Benton during the summer while still in college and playing baseball himself. After graduation, his first coaching and teaching job was at Benton High School, teaching math and coaching boys’ basketball and boys’ soccer.
“I always loved sports and I quickly found out that I loved teaching, so it was a pretty easy decision to go into education,” he says.
Since 2002 when he joined the BHS staff, Davis has taught Algebra I and II, Geometry and 12th-grade math. “I was an assistant boys’ basketball coach for one year, then an assistant football coach from 2003-2019. In the spring, I was head boys’ soccer coach from 2003-2010 and head girls’ soccer coach in 2009-2010. From 2011-2020, I was an assistant baseball coach.”
The only thing Davis says we can expect this fall is “to expect the uncertainty.” And while he won’t be cheering and mentoring students from the sidelines this year, Davis says he will always admire what sports instill in kids.
“I love the competitiveness that sports bring out in kids,” he says, and “those tough situations that present themselves that allow good coaches to teach lifelong lessons. I love the opportunity that I have every day to be a positive influence on our players. Lastly, I relish the relationships that I have built with the coaches that I have worked with over the years. I’ve tried to learn something from every coach that I’ve ever coached with, and I’ve had the privilege of being around some really good ones.”
Staying true to his life’s priorities helps Davis be the best leader he can be. “I have always tried to coach with perspective and keep my priorities in line: God, family, school, sports. That can be a tall task at times, but I always thought, ‘If I can’t prioritize my life, how can I expect my players to?’”
The Salt Bowl may look and feel differently this year, but the same spirit will be there. The competition between the Benton Panthers and Bryant Hornets is more than a football game, Davis says. During his high school football tenure, Davis actually never got to play against Bryant because of those injuries during his sophomore and junior years.
“It is a representation of what is so great about high school sports: the sense of community, togetherness, and pride in your school. I consider myself very fortunate to have been associated with it for such a long time. There are very few things that compare to walking down the tunnel at War Memorial Stadium before kickoff in front of 25,000 fans.”