Rex Nelson: Remembering Legendary Coach John Outlaw (Updated)

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(Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with a video teaser of a new movie by Matthew Skinner who has announced his film on John Outlaw will be released in 2014. Rex Nelson says he has worked with Skinner. “It is going to the be a first-class production,” according to Rex.

For a complete biography on John Outlaw published upon his selection to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, please click here.)

It’s hard to believe it has been a year. It was Friday, Dec. 23, 2011, when I received the bad news.

I had decided to close the office that day. I was downstairs at my home, reading the newspaper and sipping coffee. My cell phone was upstairs in my bedroom charging. I went upstairs at about 9:30 a.m. and noticed that the phone was filled with messages. Reggie Speights from Southwest Sporting Goods Co. at Arkadelphia had been the first to call. Then, there was a message from Chris Babb, the Arkadelphia High School athletic director. David Sharp, the Ouachita Baptist University athletic director, also had left a message.

The messages were all the same: Coach John Outlaw had died that morning of a heart attack in Lufkin, Texas, following his morning run. I sat down on the bed, trying to absorb the news.

John Outlaw dead?

That couldn’t be. In my mind, he would always be that 26-year-old coach being thrown in the shower after winning the state championship at Arkadelphia in 1979. Each year when Christmas approaches, I’m sure I’ll reflect on one of the greatest young high school football coaches to ever grace a field in Arkansas.

Looking back, he was just a kid.

John Outlaw was 25 years old when the Arkadelphia School Board hired him in the spring of 1979.

I was even younger that spring – 19 to be exact.

I had gone directly from the playing field (my senior season as Badger center was the fall of 1977) to the broadcast booth for Arkadelphia games. That’s one of the good things about small towns. Opportunities come early in life. I had worked through high school as the sports editor of the town’s weekly newspaper, the Southern Standard, after having been given my first real job by publisher Robert Fisher. Following high school graduation in the spring of 1978, I was hired as the sports editor of the daily newspaper, the Daily Siftings Herald, and sports director of the Arkadelphia radio stations, KVRC-AM and KDEL-FM.

I would hold down two jobs while still carrying a full load at Ouachita. My father, never one to beat around the bush, told me I was crazy to try to do so much at once. But I was obsessed with sports journalism. I was tired most days, but I was satisfied with my choices.

How could you beat doing football play by play on the radio just a year after having played for the team? It was heaven on earth. And it would get even better. That’s because John Outlaw came into my life.

The Badgers struggled during the 1978 season, but Friday nights were still fun as John Claunch (my freshman roommate who died earlier this fall) and I broadcast the games. Saturdays were devoted to broadcasting Ouachita games and often trying to cover both Ouachita and Henderson State University for the newspaper. I would go to an afternoon game, jump in my car and race across the state to a night game. Like I said, it was heaven on earth.

Following the 1978 season, Vernon Hutchins resigned as head coach at Arkadelphia and was replaced by an intense, wiry assistant coach from the University of Central Arkansas with the memorable last name of Outlaw. He had graduated from Ozark High School in 1971 and gone on to play football at UCA, graduating from there in 1975. He worked under Coach Ken Stephens as a graduate assistant, received his master’s degree from UCA and was hired as a full-time assistant by Stephens.

Outlaw won me over the first night I interviewed him. High school football was big in Arkadelphia in those days, and the news editor was looking for local copy, so we led the front page the next day with his hiring. I wrote a long story intended to introduce the community to the new coach. Those would be the first of millions of words I would write and broadcast about John Outlaw and his Badger football program during the next several years.

I already had a sense he was something special. Writing four to five newspaper columns a week, I filled them with accounts of his offseason drills and previews of the 1979 season. The Siftings Herald came out five afternoons a week with no weekend editions, so the game story would not appear until the following Monday. We decided to put the account of Outlaw’s first game on the front page rather than the sports page, just like the Arkansas Gazette ran Orville Henry’s Razorback game stories on the front page. We never stopped playing the Badgers out front.

Arkadelphia lost early in that 1979 season to Ashdown and didn’t lose again. A victory over a highly ranked Camden team convinced the Badgers that they could accomplish great things. At age 26, in his first head coaching job, John Outlaw produced a state champion.

It’s hard to believe it has been 33 years. I can remember the Friday of the state championship game against Alma as if it were yesterday. I was on the air all afternoon at KVRC, doing what we called the Badger Countdown. After each record played (yes, kids, we had records and turntables in those days), I would announce how many hours and minutes to kickoff, helping build the excitement in the city to a fever pitch.

A couple of hours prior to kickoff, I left the KVRC studios on South Third Street and headed out to Henderson’s Haygood Stadium, where the game would be played. In those days, the Badgers would dress at the Goza Gymnasium across town (later named the John Outlaw Gymnasium) and bus over to Haygood Stadium for home games.

It wasn’t even close: Arkadelphia 19, Alma 0.

As soon as the clock wound down, I sprinted to my car and headed for the Goza Gymnasium while Randy Brackett and Sam Watson handled the radio postgame show from the stadium. We were pulling out all the stops and planned to do a live dressing room show with interviews of players and coaches. The jubilant players were throwing their coaches, trainers and others into the showers that cold night. It was a magical time. It was magical because John Outlaw was a magician when it came to handling teenage boys.

The record speaks for itself. Outlaw was 84-20-1 in nine seasons at Arkadelphia, winning another state championship in 1987 with a 14-0 team that became the first Arkansas school ever to be ranked in the USA Today Super 25. A prominent Arkadelphia attorney and close family friend, the late Otis Turner, had coached the golf team at the University of Arkansas while in law school there. One of his golfers was Miller Barber. After a successful professional golf career, Barber served on the school board at Sherman, Texas, and heard about Outlaw from his old college golf coach.

Sherman offered the Badger coach a huge pay increase. How could Outlaw not go and try to succeed in Texas, the top high school football state in America? And succeed he did. He was 57-21-1 at Sherman from 1988-94 and 162-46-1 at Lufkin from 1995-2011. That 303-87-3 record, much of it achieved at the highest levels of high school football, boggles the mind. Yet Outlaw’s lasting legacy will be the thousands of lives he touched. The kids who played for him loved him.

Doug Rice, who now lives in Texas, was one of the best high school linemen in the country when he played for Arkadelphia. Rice, who went on to play college football at SMU, said this of Outlaw: “I gave everything I had for him because he gave everything he had for us. I would have run through a brick wall for him. He was selfless. I always felt that his only agenda was helping all of us learn how to compete and prepare to win on and off the field.”

I had continued to do the Badger play by play on radio for the 1980 and 1981 seasons. By 1982, fresh out of college, I was covering sports for the Arkansas Democrat, begging to be assigned to Badger games whenever possible. Wanting to spread my wings beyond sports, I returned to Arkadelphia just before Christmas 1982 as the editor of the Siftings Herald. We put out a good newspaper in the months that followed. In statewide competitions, my column and our editorial page were named best in the state.

The general manager for whom I had worked as sports editor from 1978-81 had purchased the weekly newspaper at Prescott. During the summer of 1983, I informed the new general manager that I would resume doing the play by play on radio of Badger games each Friday night. He quickly said he couldn’t allow that since he considered the radio station to be a competitor for ad dollars. I went home, thought about it and came to a decision. There was no way I wasn’t going to resume broadcasting those games. The general manager, a California native, seemed shocked the next day when I handed him my resignation.

Being the Voice of the Badgers was more important to me at age 23 than continuing to be the editor of my hometown newspaper. I could always find a full-time job elsewhere. I did the Badger games on radio for two more seasons, 1983 and 1984. I was living in Washington, D.C., by Outlaw’s final two seasons as Badger coach, covering Congress for the Arkansas Democrat. Each Friday night in the fall, I would call my parents in Arkadelphia to see how Outlaw’s Badgers had done.

The advent of the internet made it easy to keep up with Outlaw during his years in Texas. I learned that his team’s game against the Woodlands on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011, would be telecast regionally by Fox Sports Southwest. I watched in my Little Rock home as Outlaw won his 300th career game. The coach cried during the postgame interview. He said that “300 is a number that really means nothing to me. When they put you in the grave, 300 wins don’t mean anything. What matters to me is each and every one of these kids out here and all the ones I’ve coached in the past.”

I was at the cemetery in Arkadelphia a year ago when they indeed put John Outlaw in the grave.

The morning after that 300th win, I had sent him an email that said in part: “I wish I could have been there. It reminded me of some great Friday nights long ago. You’re a special person. I was fortunate to be there at the start of a remarkable career by a remarkable man who has impacted thousands of lives for the better.”

He answered me within minutes. He signed his message simply “Coach.”

A huge crowd turned out for Outlaw’s memorial service in Lufkin. It was, after all, the school where he coached the longest. But it was fitting that John Outlaw was laid to rest in his native Arkansas soil. He always told me that he still considered himself an Arkansan. And Arkadelphia, where this amazing run began, held a cherished place in his heart.

On a Saturday afternoon earlier this fall, I stopped by the cemetery to pay a visit to the gravesite. Thinking back on the year 2011 – the year I lost my dad and my other childhood hero, former Ouachita football coach Buddy Benson – I suddenly felt very old and very tired. But then, as I stood by John Outlaw’s grave, I felt young again. I was transported back to the fall of 1979 when on wonderful autumn weekends I had the honor of broadcasting Outlaw’s Badgers each Friday and Benson’s Tigers each Saturday.

Yes, it was fun. Yes, it was magic.

In my mind, John was 26 again. I was 20 again.

Once more in my mind, Friday night pregame meals were at the Duck Inn in Camden and the Chatterbox in Magnolia. Once again, postgame radio shows ran far too long. As soon as one Friday night ended, we were looking forward to the next one.

I miss you, John. You were one of a kind.


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