LITTLE ROCK — If family feuds, storied pranks, Highway 7, and tradition aren’t enough, there’s a good football team for the calloused and a quarterback for the curious participating in the Battle of the Ravine on Saturday.
Before addressing Henderson State University’s nationally ranked Reddies or their stat sheet-stuffing quarterback, there are reasons why unique came up often during an early-week news conference promoting HSU vs. Ouachita Baptist University:
—The schools are on opposite sides of the highway, close enough that the visiting team dresses in its own locker room and walks to the game.
—A series that began more than a century ago was 39-39-6 until last year when OBU running back Chris Rycraw was stopped on the lip of the goal on the final play.
—The pranks, including the so-called friendly kidnapping of the Ouachita homecoming queen, various and sundry attempts to paint the OBU tiger and alter the fountain on the HSU campus, and branding a trespasser with a shaved "O" or "H," got so bad that the series was suspended for more than a decade.
Spice that background with an unbeaten team playing for a bye in the national playoffs and a quarterback who had to sell himself and you have the recipe for a must-see event.
To an outsider, Kevin Rodgers’ story is the cherry on top.
I know Henderson is a Division II school and that the Reddies play in the Great American Conference, but I marvel at Rodgers’ numbers. Even in a scrimmage, his 69 percent completion rate, and 39 touchdowns vs. seven interceptions would be noteworthy.
Playing quarterback in Rockwall, Texas, Rodgers was overshadowed by others in the area and was not recruited so he sent tapes to more than 30 schools. On the tape, Henderson coach Scott Maxfield saw a tall, kinda skinny kid with a good, quick release. That, plus a high ACT score, earned Rodgers an invite to Arkadelphia about 3 1-2 hours away. In person, Rodgers exuded leadership.
"For kids that age, he was very mature with a good football IQ," Maxfield said. "We felt like he had a good understanding of the passing game."
A couple of days after the visit, Henderson offered a scholarship. It might have been Rodgers’ only offer.
Redshirted as a freshman, Rodgers was penciled in to back up a senior in 2011. A month into the season, the offense was stagnant and Maxfield promoted Rodgers. Like any first-year quarterback, he had his ups and downs — nine touchdown passes and 10 interceptions — but he started six games and the Reddies won five.
A season later, he is poised, proficient at his progressions, with the green light to change plays. He’s also up to 215 pounds and this week, he is No. 1 in passing efficiency in Division II. Equally impressive, he has a 3.8 GPA in business administration and pre-law — he’s not necessarily going to be a lawyer, he just wants to expand his options — and he’s humble about his star status.
After the Oct. 27 victory over Southern Arkansas University, Rodgers put his arm around the second-best quarterback in the conference, SAU’s Tyler Sykora, and posed for pictures. Both were smiling.
On campus, Rodgers is almost embarrassed by the attention. When a Little Rock TV guy asked him to hype his own introduction, Rodgers was taken aback, but followed the script.
Watching Rodgers, Maxfield said, "You can’t really tell the difference, whether he’s thrown a touchdown pass or an interception."
Maxfield knows Rodgers is throwing against Division II players, but he also knows what he sees.
"I think a lot of teams at all levels would love to have him," he said. "He has a big-time arm and he’s smart. We as a coaching staff say we have a better quarterback than a lot of them we see on television."
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.