It was 95 degrees and rising in Conway and the crowd was out early. Meat was smoking, speakers were blasting (Toby Keith, Kendrick Lamar). Faulkner County is dry, but Solo cups were filling up, with beer procured from surrounding counties.
For the first time in 53 years, it was football season at Hendrix College.
The last time Hendrix played a game, the Warriors topped the Ouachita Baptist Tigers 7-6 in November 1960. As described in the Ouachita yearbook: "A large crowd, enjoying shirtsleeve weather, saw the two teams battle evenly through most of the game even though Ouachita passed up several golden opportunities to win the tilt." Later that year, then Hendrix President Marshall T. Steel ended the football program.
Ever since, Hendrix has been a bit of an island in a pigskin-obsessed state, just as it's been a liberal enclave in deeply conservative Arkansas. The campus takes tongue-in-cheek pride in its funky identity. T-shirts reading "Hendrix football, Undefeated Since 1960" have long been popular among students and alumni.
When the students returned to campus this fall, it took just a few days for the campus bookstore to sell out of those shirts, which were about to become a relic. Football was back, and on Sept. 7, the Warriors took on Westminster College of Missouri in the newly built Young-Wise Memorial Stadium, putting their undefeated "streak" on the line.
The Student Senate purchased multiple orange-and-black Hendrix tents for the student tailgating area, in a parking lot across the street from the Wellness and Athletic Center. It was a carnival atmosphere in the hours before the noon kickoff, with hundreds of students hooting and hollering, the smell of overcooked burgers heavy in the sweltering heat. Someone strummed on a guitar. The Hendrix culinary club offered up sweet treats. Everywhere you looked, students played Baggo (still, with apologies to football, probably the official sport of Hendrix).
"This is the first year that I ever made a concerted effort to go out and buy a ton of black and orange stuff," said Neelam Vyas, president of the Student Senate, and she wasn't alone — nearly everyone was decked out in school colors. Kind of like ... well, a college football crowd! But with a few Hendrix twists. One student had a black "Mad Max" vest, a purple wig and a giant sword. A Warrior, presumably. Seeing him, another student commented, "I'm so glad we have a sword club."
It wasn't just students — the alumni were out in full force. One group of alums, unable to get ESPN Gameday on the portable television under their tent, opted instead for a pre-game screening of the film "Roadhouse."
"Swayze, bar fights, I'm in!" one shouted.
As the Solo cups emptied, they grew nostalgic.
"Things I never thought would happen in my life are happening," one said.
"This is good for us guys," a buddy said. "I never even went to school here but I kicked it here a few times. This is good."
Said another, "We had athletes in our day at Hendrix; they just smoked themselves retarded."
If you've ever tailgated at a Southeastern Conference football game, that morning at Hendrix was a familiar scene but from an alternate universe. There was the loony fun without the mania, the big spirit without the pitched anxiety. SEC tailgating always seems poised to explode into violence; Hendrix tailgating seems poised to explode into giggles.
The new Hendrix football team competes in Division III, which is a long way from Woo Pig Sooie. There are no athletic scholarships, and while the players are recruited athletes, they must meet the academic qualifications to get in to the school.
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