For almost 46 years, the Benton vs. Bryant game, now known as The Salt Bowl, has been a tradition in Saline County. To this day, organizers continue to innovate to make the event bigger and better each year. In these uncertain times and as we learn our new normal, Salt Bowl organizers press on with their main purpose of creating a memorable experience and continuing in the tradition of giving back to the community.
What started in the 1970s evolved into something much larger by the late ‘90s. Mayor Tom Farmer, then Athletic Director for the Bryant School District, recalls the moment he realized this game had the potential to become a countywide celebration. “We decided to move to War Memorial in 1999. Before we’d made that decision, I went to the superintendent and said, ‘Here’s the deal. We had 11,000 people at the last game. People were sitting on top of school buses and standing on top of buildings and the fire marshal is having a fit. We have got to move the game.’ The superintendent looked at me and said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work, we’ll miss you.’”
Gary James, Executive Director of the Benton Chamber and one of the original members of the Salt Bowl committee, remembers the uncertainty associated with hosting the game at War Memorial. “Can you imagine taking that risk of moving the game out of your county, and just having the foresight and vision for everyone to get behind it?” The vision started with a meeting between then Benton Athletic Director, the late Ronnie Kerr, and Mayor Farmer to determine if the game could draw 20,000 people to War Memorial in order to cover the cost of the renting the stadium. That was 21 years ago, and looking back we see that it was a tremendous success, Mayor Farmer got to keep his job, and the Salt Bowl has continued to grow both in attendance and community involvement. “Gary said we would eventually get to 30,000 people at the Salt Bowl and everyone thought he was crazy as a June bug, but here we are,” recalls Shane Broadway, who has been dubbed the “Unofficial, Unbiased and Unpaid Assistant Athletic Director” for both schools during Salt Bowl time.
Most attendees, whether maroon or blue, leave the Salt Bowl with memories of exciting plays or excitement for the team that gets to hold the trophy for the next year, but few of them know how much planning and preparation go into the game. The Salt Bowl committee meets year-round, sometimes as early as November. Planning kicks into high gear in the spring. The original committee started with just four ambitious people but has grown to over 25. “A lot of people ask me who is on the Salt Bowl committee and I tell them, ‘Anyone who comes to the meetings,’” Shane says.
Everybody has a key role in the event coming together smoothly. But in the end, the Athletic Directors for both schools call the shots, and according to Gary, “We all just support the two schools.” The AD’s handle many of the details no one really thinks about including ticket sales, booth announcers, referees, chain gangs, and pep rallies (and let’s not forget porta-potties), so they attend every Salt Bowl committee meeting to ensure everyone is informed and moving in the same direction.
Each year, the committee challenges itself to add something new. “One of the first big things was Gary’s idea of having the tailgate party on the west side parking lot. The idea was to get the banks and credit unions to partner to buy and cook hot dogs to give away at their own booths. That was the real game-changer; then, having a t-shirt and a theme each year took it to the next level—but giving out free hot dogs was huge,” recalls Shane. “It’s a unique sight, cooking 7,000 hot dogs in 100 degree weather. It’s amazing to see the grills from all the banks circled like chuck wagons and a sea of maroon and blue down the line of tailgate tents,” adds Gary.
Seeing families and friends together having fun at the tailgate party is what it’s all about, but according to Shane, it also gives Saline County businesses a chance to be seen. “For many businesses the Salt Bowl is the biggest event for them, as far as having eyes on their company. We created a venue for them to showcase their business.” The tailgate party, organized and directed by Diane Jester, has grown into over 90 vendors each year.
On Salt Bowl day the committee arrives at War Memorial at 8:30 a.m. to start setting up for the event. “There are a lot of logistics that go into making this happen. Most years if you ask me who won the game, I couldn’t tell you. Organizers never see a play; we are heavy on the experience part of it all,” says Shane, who coordinates everything from booth announcements to flyovers, ensuring that everything goes off without a hitch.
Although many hours of planning go into execution of the event, some years have been more challenging than others. “The year of the hurricane, we were in the stadium offices and it was raining so hard you couldn’t even see the cars two feet in front of you and the hot dog truck pulls up with 7,000 hot dogs. We had forgotten to cancel the hot hogs,” remembers Mayor Farmer. “Two thousand tickets were sold at the gate, in a hurricane, with a flood coming down. That speaks volumes of the event, that people are willing to sit through a hurricane. We all looked like drowned rats.”
The Salt Bowl committee has overcome many obstacles through the years but they always managed to “monitor and adjust.” “The lightning delay last year was challenging. The planes doing the flyover had to circle for over thirty minutes before it was safe to start, and then we had to coordinate the ROTC presentation of the flag and the national anthem with the flyover. That was also the first year with enhanced security,” Shane recalls. “There were eighty-nine security personnel operating from a central command center at the stadium.” These measures were taken after a fight in the stands at the 2018 Salt Bowl caused mass panic when someone produced a stun gun.
This year’s challenge with the Salt Bowl, as with all areas of our lives, is COVID-19. As of this writing, the future of extracurricular school activities is unclear, but the Salt Bowl committee is moving forward and planning for the game with a new normal. According to the committee, War Memorial management has been a great partner and Stadium Manager Justin Dorsey attends all the Salt Bowl meetings. The stadium will be in charge of executing any social guidelines Governor Hutchinson should mandate for athletic events. The committee is certain that there will not be hot dogs served outside the stadium this year, although they are moving forward in planning the tailgate party. “This event is for every resident of Saline County and we will monitor and adjust as needed,” says Mayor Farmer, and “We are going to rebound the next year and the next,” adds Gary. Whether it’s August, September or maybe even next spring, the Salt Bowl committee is determined to make it work.
Someone unfamiliar with the game may ask, “Why?” Why is this game such a big deal? Salt Bowl committee members understand that this event is much more than just a football game.
“What this is really all about is memories. Everyone who participates in some way will get to tell their kids and grandkids that they got to play in front of 30,000 people at War Memorial Stadium. That’s what makes it all worthwhile,” says Shane. The payoff for committee members is seeing how the students react when they walk out on the field for the first time.
From football players to drill team, ROTC, cheerleaders and band members, the experience is overwhelming and one they will never forget. “When you look at attendance, the Salt Bowl ranks right up there with bowl games. This is the largest crowd a lot of those kids will ever get to perform for,” states Gary. “It’s fun to see everyone who goes onto that field…they look around wide-eyed. It’s a life-changing experience for everyone there,” Farmer interjects.
In addition to creating lifelong memories for students, the Salt Bowl also gives back to the community through local charities. The committee included charities the very first year with a blood drive in honor of now Benton Athletic Director Scott Neathery, who battled leukemia. The Arkansas Food Bank is another organization that has benefited from the Salt Bowl through its enormously successful peanut butter drive.
Emily Gassman, Communications Director of the Arkansas Food Bank, (formerly rice depot), says the annual peanut butter drive goes a long way as a protein source and one of the top needed shelf items in local Saline County pantries and schools. “Thanks to the partnership of our local Big Red gas stations and our locally distributed Skippy peanut butter, we can rest assured our local schools and community pantries are stocked with the precious commodity.”
This year Goodwill Industries of Arkansas approached the Salt Bowl committee to be a part of this wide-reaching initiative. “There will be a donation drive at the Benton and Bryant stores. The district who donates the most will receive a financial award before kickoff to use in whatever way best serves a particular school or the district as a whole,” says Kerrie Nettles, Public Relations and Communications Manager at Goodwill Arkansas.
Salt Bowl committee members agree, “That’s what makes this work…we’re all family. Twenty years of the Salt Bowl have built a strong bond and unity among blue and maroon.”