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The Short Walk

‘For Arkadelphia, it’s kind of Christmas and New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day, all rolled into one’

Henderson State teammates walk to their “road game” at Ouachita Baptist. STEVE FELLERS PHOTOGRAPHY

One college’s water turned purple. Across the road, red marshmallows rained from the sky. A future state governor set the other school’s party ablaze. One time, a homecoming queen was kidnapped for three nights. And no one recalls where the drag queens buried the tiger’s tail.

Exploring the Ravine

Ouachita Baptist defeated Arkansas Methodist College, which would later become Henderson State University, 8-0, on Thanksgiving in 1895 in the first meeting between the two football teams.

In 88 matchups, only one has been played outside Arkadelphia. In 1931, the two teams met 90 miles away in Conway, Arkansas. Ouachita Baptist won, 12-0.

In 1949, Ouachita Baptist trailed 14-0 before Ike Sharp performed three successful onside kicks with seven minutes remaining. Otis “Magic Toe” Turner, later appointed to the Arkansas Supreme Court, kicked the game-winning field goal for a 17-14 victory.

A Henderson State graduate assistant coach was spotted videotaping Ouachita Baptist’s practice in 1999. He sped away in his car but left his camera, disguised inside a trash can. Ouachita Athletics Director David Sharp (the son of Ike) removed the video and returned the camera to the Reddies.

Despite the rivalry, a number of students and college athletes attend one university before transferring to the other. Auburn University football coach Gus Malzahn is one: Malzahn, who graduated from Henderson State in 1990, was enrolled for a semester at Ouachita Baptist.

This fall marks the 89th edition of the Battle of the Ravine. The pranks defining Division II’s oldest football series have been legendary. The football games have been extraordinary, too.

The rivalry pits Henderson State University against Ouachita Baptist University – two schools separated by two lanes of U.S. Highway 67, over which the visiting team walks to its opponent’s field on game day in the shortest road trip in football.

The ancestries supporting either side are entwined tighter than the kudzu that suffocates the nearby ravine from which the rivalry’s namesake was found. In Arkadelphia, Arkansas, you grow up cheering either for red or for purple. Yet credits transfer freely between the two schools, and students from one often take classes at the other.

Where else might you see the starting quarterback sit next to an opposing lineman in biology class?

“There’s just this tremendous anticipation because families are often divided,” said Rex Nelson, a Ouachita alumnus and the Tigers’ radio play-by-play voice for 33 of the past 38 years. “You’ll have a wife who went to Henderson and husband who went to Ouachita. For Arkadelphia, it’s kind of Christmas and New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day, all rolled into one.”

Tigers fans still express zeal about the 1975 matchup. Ouachita converted a fourth-and-25 play by 1 inch and scored on its final drive to upset a previously undefeated Henderson State team, 21-20. Reddies, meanwhile, point to as recently as 2013, when they emerged victorious after a triple-overtime affair to complete a second consecutive undefeated season.

Henderson State leads the series 42-40-6. The first game was played in 1895; the matchup was resurrected in 1907 and interrupted for World Wars I and II. Then, the pranks and vandalism escalated, and officials suspended the game for 12 years after the 1951 contest.

Nowadays, when game week arrives, school signs are wrapped in protective plastic, garbage bags or tarps. The Ouachita Baptist Student Senate publishes itineraries listing which class or fraternity guards the tiger statue each day, even though administrators have given up replacing the tail. It is, after all, still expecting revenge from the night Mike Huckabee and some buddies snuck onto Henderson State’s campus and lit the Reddies’ bonfire – 24 hours before the party was scheduled to get started.

Arkadelphia swells with pride for its rivalry and swells with people for the game; in 2014, 12,228 attended the Battle of the Ravine, slightly more than the city’s population. “We always laugh about it on the postgame show,” Nelson said. “It’s the one traffic jam each year.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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