Jared Lankford: Character takes a lifetime to build, seconds to destroy

Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Jared Lankford

It was an offside call on Nov. 13, 1948, that infuriated thousands of Arkansas fans and caused the team to lose the game.

A chance to upset powerhouse Southern Methodist University was blown by the men in stripes on the field. Thousands of upset fans came onto the turf, seeking justice and retribution.

As one sports writer said, "The crowd surged onto the field so that the officials could not see the sidelines. There was some threat to the officials -- notably Referee Ray McCunoch."

As the crowd, with "ugly intent" surged toward the officials, Gordon Long, a Razorback captain and tailback stepped into the gap between the angry mob and game officials. He told the crowd to back up and leave them alone. He, along with the help of two other Arkansas players, escorted McCunoch and the other officials to safety.

For his selfless act, Long, a Monett alumnus, was awarded the 1948-1949 Swede Nelson Sportsmanship Award, given annually by the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston. The award is the fourth-oldest collegiate football honor in the United States, only topped in longevity by the Heisman, Maxwell, and George "Bulger" Lowe trophies. Until 1982, it was open to players across the nation. Now, only players in the northeastern U.S. are eligible.

According to its website, the Swede Nelson Sportsmanship Award is given to the player who demonstrates high esteem for the football code and exemplifies sportsmanship to an outstanding degree, both on and off the gridiron. According to Long, he only did what he thought was the right thing to do.

I've found that the easiest way to pick a fight or cause hard feelings is to start discussing sports, politics or religion. Some of the nastiest stories in history revolve around retaliation in the name of one of those three topics.

This week, a news story surfaced that the Mountain Grove school district had launched an investigation into a contaminant that was tossed into rival Houston's water cooler prior to a basketball game. While the district is still awaiting lab results to provide a definite determination, everyone has agreed that it wasn't Gatorade.

The headline of the story alone is enough to bring back red-faced memories of a similar occurrence between the Cassville and Monett girls' basketball teams. The story spread like wildfire, being picked up by Yahoo, Deadspin, Fox Sports, and New York Daily News.

To this day, there are still questions as to why some fans found humor in the event and why players would believe that the "prank" was a good idea.

UCLA coaching legend John Wooden once said, "Sports do not build character. They reveal it."

It wouldn't be a stretch to see Mr. Wooden's quote encompass fans, as well as players. Coaches strive to build up teams and players in an attempt to achieve great feats.

Sometimes, those feats are as simple as bringing the ball down the floor without turning it over, or winning just one game in a season.

Fans become invested. They set their own expectations. I have heard more than one fan lay out why a certain coach should be fired.

I understand that sports create fierce devotions and undying loyalties. On Super Bowl Sunday, I wanted to see

the Panthers win, because I cannot bring myself to cheer for Denver. But, I also know it was just a game I was watching.

I've given rides to rival fans, had a Raiders fan help me when I locked my keys in my car. I refrained from making the obligatory "all Raiders fans know how to break into locked cars" joke.

I was taught at an early age that character matters. As the wise man Solomon wrote, "A good name is better than great riches, and good favor is above silver and gold."

It takes a lifetime to build up one's name and character, but just seconds to destroy a lifetime of good.

I am not saying that rivalries, cheering sections and light-hearted ribbing should be squashed. But, like anything else, it can cause a lifetime of regret if abused.

It would have been easy for Long to have picked his way through the crowd to the locker room and never helped the officials. But, as he told The Monett Times in 1949, his conscience told him otherwise.

What may have seemed like a great idea at the time, to some individuals, instead caused a black mark that only time could heal.

Jared Lankford is the sports editor of the Cassville Democrat. He can be reached at sports@cassville-democrat.com, or 417-847-2610.

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