The Helping, Healing Power of a Sporting Life, Arkansas



By Simon Lee

We live in a special place, and by saying that I don’t mean to leave you with the impression that I think other people in other states faced with a tornado tragedy like we faced here Arkansas the evening of Sunday, April 27, 2014, wouldn’t turn out to help how they could. But Arkansas is unique.

We really know each other here. Everybody knows somebody from somewhere else in Arkansas no matter where you are in the state.

“Where you from?” the question goes.

“Oh, I’m from Dumas,” is one answer.

“Really? You know [fill in the blank]?”

“Sure I do!”

“Yeah, he ‘n I played ball together in college. He was sump’em else, I tellya.”

All of us who grew up here or have lived in Arkansas for very long at all have this conversation regularly. It’s our version of “How about this weather?” as a conversation starter.

Vilonia and Mayflower and the rural parts of Pulaski County and Central Arkansas – these are not just towns and areas of a region of a state. They are like our boroughs – our Bronxes or our Staten Islands. Arkansas isn’t just a state. It’s like a big town, and we’re all neighbors here.

By trade, we cover the sporting life of our state and we’re proud of what we do.

When we launched Sporting Life Arkansas back in November 2012 we said this: “If you understand that sports in Arkansas is even more than tackles and blocks and dunks and homers and includes tee-ball, volleyball, swim meets, deer woods and eating some great food with good people, welcome.”

And this: “Our expectation is that, over time, we will create and deliver, a statewide, all-media destination for folks like you, whose lifestyles include sports fun, recreational pursuits, and sporting the best.”

Sporting the best. That’s what we have seen in the aftermath of those terrible storms that spring night. We have seen our special little state sport its best.

As Evin Demirel wrote the morning after the storms on his blog, The Sports Seer:

“Sports, obviously, hardly mean anything when the wounds are still so raw. But three years ago, they proved to be one thread in the story of the tornado’s aftermath- a physical recovery, which painfully, was largely wiped away last night… They found a way through the devastation before. And they’ll work together to do it again.”

The folks affected by the storm are working together, and they are also working with and accepting help from strangers, who aren’t really strangers because they at least know somebody who knows somebody who is need. So that stranger does what needs to be done to rebuild or relieve.

We have seen the power of sport during these last few weeks, like we saw it when another tornado ripped through Vilonia a few years ago, as Demirel wrote here in its aftermath.

Immediately after this year’s storms passed and the devastation was being surveyed, a group of student athletes from the University of Central Arkansas in nearby Conway mobilized and went in to do what they could. The whole UCA community got behind an effort called “Bear Boots on the Ground,” raising funds, gathering needed supplies and taking action.

A group of Reddie football players, led by quarterback Kevin Rodgers, who first tweeted about getting a group together to assist in relief, left Arkadelphia andhelping healing is the sporitng life slider headed for the Mayflower area the weekend after the storm. Not to be outdone, after a semi-final run at the Great American Conference Softball Tournament in Bentonville, Ark. over that same weekend, the Lady Reddie softball team also pitched in for relief efforts on the way back home to Arkadelphia.

The team decided before they even headed to Bentonville that they were going to help aid the Vilonia community on their way back. The Lady Reddies hooked up with members of Beryl Baptist Church from Vilonia, and together they spent the afternoon tending to the needs of community members.

“Even though our season ended yesterday, this was a chance for us to come together as a family one last time and be a positive influence,” Hannah Bender, a sophomore pitcher for the team, said. “It was something that every single one of us on the team wanted to do. One of the best things about the team this year was the unity we had, and I think it showed this weekend.”

The Arkansas State Red Wolves from Jonesboro helped, too, with a drive for goods collected in Jonesboro and delivered to those in need.

“Along with rest of the nation, our hearts go out to all the victims and their families who were impacted by the tornados and are now faced with the difficult task of recovery,” said Arkansas State Director of Athletics Terry Mohajir.  “We’re hopeful this relief fund drive will be well received by our community as we try to gather as many items as possible to help make a positive difference in their lives.”

And of course, the University of Arkansas Razorbacks stepped in to assist, too.

As part of the Razorback relief efforts,  Razorback student-athletes, coaches and administrators traveled to a Regional Distribution Center in Conway and assisted in the organization and distribution of food to the thousands of Arkansans who lost their homes in the storms.

Additionally, plans are being made for the Razorbacks to return to Mayflower and Vilonia later this summer for other relief efforts when more student-athletes are available to participate. These aren’t the only teams helping, not by a long shot, but they are a few good examples.

And who could forget Tuesday night May 6 at Dickey-Stephens Park? As our Chris Murray reported it:

A crowd of 8,041 packed into Dickey-Stephens Park, home of the Arkansas Travelers, on Tuesday night for what was certainly the largest assembly to ever see a high school baseball game in Arkansas. Sixteen people died as a result of the tornado, and more than 3,000 homes were damaged. Rescue, relief and cleanup has been ongoing since the storm, and will continue for some time. The tragic event even resulted in President Obama’s first visit to Arkansas since taking office.

But what took place on Wednesday in North Little Rock was a truly staggering outpouring of support, charity and well-wishes. Admission was free, though donations were taken at the gates. Additionally, all proceeds from concessions were donated to victim relief. Early estimates had the total donated at more than $100,000.”

Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema, men’s basketball head coach Mike Anderson and newly drafted and former UA football student-athlete Travis Swanson were in attendance to help support the benefit baseball game between Mayflower and Vilonia at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock.

The final score of the game? It doesn’t matter. As Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland said: “This is one of the greatest responses I’ve ever seen. We live in the greatest state in the nation. I just can’t get over the outpouring of support. It has been overwhelming. Tonight, we needed this. The community needed something to enjoy. We needed to unplug for a moment.”

Yes, Mayor Holland, your two towns – and the entire state of Arkansas, for that matter – needed that game.

This is the sporting life, Arkansas. It heals. It helps. It is important and it is who we are.

 * * *

Simon Lee is the publisher of Sporting Life Arkansas and owner of Lee & Stafford, LLC., a Little Rock company working with healthcare organizations to improve patient care through engagement, education and referral strategies. When he isn’t thinking about sports, patients or promoting his home state of Arkansas, you can find him playing a ukulele in his office.