In the pantheon of the college football world, a trip to Arkansas State doesn’t rank very high on the list of dream destinations. And, if we’re being honest, Northeast Arkansas is hardly an exciting tourist draw. The broad, table flat expanse of the Mississippi flood plain features endless miles of cotton, corn and soybeans, but lacks the rugged beauty of the Ozarks to the west. Hemingway spent some time here, in nearby Piggott, Arkansas, the hometown of his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. Reportedly, much of his novel Farewell to Arms was written in a studio there. Outside of that little historical nugget, however, the greater Jonesboro area offers little to the wayfarer.
But if I’ve learned anything in my travels, it’s that every place deserves a visit. Every little corner of America has a story to offer, no matter how small or subtle, and it’s my calling to discover it. To leave no stone unturned…
After flying into Memphis, the nearest airport of measure, I set off on the hour long journey to Jonesboro setting a northwesterly course along Route 63. The rental car gods have bestowed upon me a gas guzzling Ford Explorer, and the black behemoth feels like a school bus compared to the cramped shitboxes I’m accustomed to.
I cross over the broad, tea colored, Mississippi River under the expansive double iron arches of the Hernando De Soto Bridge. The span, over 9,000 feet of her, is named after the famed Spanish explorer who first surveyed this stretch of the river in the mid 1500’s. The same Spaniard whose remains purportedly lie unmarked somewhere in the sand beneath those murky depths after his body was tossed in and sunk by his men. According to legend, after dying of fever he was “buried” (chucked into the river) in secret during the night; lest the ruse that he was an “immortal sun god” be spoiled amongst the subjugated natives.
In addition to the bridge, however, (and the general conquistador pestilence and brutality that early Spanish explorers wrought upon the new continent) the legacy of De Soto carries a far greater implication on the culinary landscape of America than most are aware, and, even, the very bedrock of the PigskinPursuit itself. Ironically, it is De Soto that is widely credited as the first European to introduce domesticated Eurasian swine to the North American mainland.
That’s right, DeSoto brought pigs to America. And we are forever in his debt…
A few of those first hogs DeSoto brought over undoubtedly escaped the executioners axe, and set off to run wild in the forested expanse of the New World. These pioneering pig “pilgrims” that made the trans-Atlantic voyage, and subsequently scampered off into the wilderness, would become the forefathers of the feral pigs or “Razorbacks” that have populated the entire Southern US since. So, perhaps, even a certain Arkansas football team owes their very mascot heritage to the bearded Spaniard.
One could further surmise, that during those initial days of Spanish exploration, after a long day of conquistadoring, some of DeSoto’s men took a long, mouthwatering glance at those portly hogs running around and got an appetite. One of them may have then glanced upwards into an untapped wilderness of virgin hardwood forest bursting with oaks, hickories, and cherry trees and put two and two together. One bright idea and a few blows of the axe later (for both the trees and the swine) and the enterprising bunch were tenderly roasting said pigs over a crackling hickory fire (thankfully, the electric smoker hadn’t been invented yet). And, voila, sometime in the mid 1500’s American BBQ is borne – partial courtesy of Senor De Soto.
According to legend, some twenty minutes later, Texans and North Carolinians began arguing over whose barbecue’ is better….
Arriving in Jonesboro, I take a quick breakfast at Presleys Drive-In, a forty year old staple of the Jonesboro dining scene. The exterior of the classic, red roofed, dairy diner is highlighted by expansive dark tinted windows, each of them hand painted with cartoonish pictures of hot dogs and banana splits. Elvis paraphernalia adorns the interior, small tchotchkes and statues, along with a few framed pictures and news clippings of “The King”. I order a breakfast platter of ham, eggs and potatoes for $6.05 and wash it down with a heavy Styrofoam cup full of chocolate shake.
The downtown portion of Jonesboro is an idyllic, if charming, one lane college town. An afternoon stroll along Main Street reveals a plethora of pubs, burrito joints, local clothing stores and bicycle shops. It’s the usual assemblage of college town commerce that you would expect for a school that quietly houses nearly 20,000 students. But what separates Jonesboro from some other peers in the lower echelons of the college game, is the surprisingly robust school pride featured throughout the village. Make no mistake about it, this is Red Wolves country, and you’ll find it boldly shouted it on every street corner. One can hardly walk a few steps without seeing wolf “paw prints” or a giant lettered “A”. Every shop window and store front in town is decorated with elaborate hand painted murals of the Red Wolf mascot, decked out in ASU logos, each of them touting slogans like “Howl” or “Wolves Up”. It’s one of the most prideful college towns I’ve encountered.
On a pristine afternoon, the Arkansas State campus is just starting to show signs of fall. The leaves are turning the first shades of rust, the lawns cropped and hay colored. It’s a sprawling, open, campus but still buzzing with students on a Tuesday afternoon. Like many other universities in the south, enrollment at Arkansas State has grown precipitously over the past two decades, and the architecture reflects that. New buildings abound here, evoking the conservative, precast concrete forms of banal higher education design. There are a few bright spots, however; the ASU University Museum, which features some nice collections of Native American artifacts, as well as exhibits on early Arkansas frontier living. Another museum, The Bradbury, is also a few steps away and is dedicated to more modern art collections.
With a few hours before kickoff, I channel my inner explorer and go on the hunt for some BBQ, settling on Demo’s BBQ, one of the only joints in town. Claiming “award winning” BBQ, Demo’s actually boasts two locations in the greater Jonesboro area, and the building here on Church Street is their mainstay shop. While the battered galvanized metal siding on the exterior has all the hallmarks of a classic southern BBQ joint, a row of gleaming steam trays greets me inside the door, and expectations quickly plummet.
I order my customary combo of brisket and pork ribs, which the counterman insists are carefully smoked over hickory. While that ruse may work on the unsuspecting greenhorn, I’m a steely eyed sharpshooter for bbq at this point in my career. And after a mass of gray, smokeless, chopped beef is summarily lumped onto my plate, I start looking for the ultimate act of desperation – sauce. Pork ribs, albeit smokeless, fare a bit better, they’re at least passable at best. But as I gnaw them from the bone, I can’t help but wonder what Papa DeSoto would think. After nearly five hundred years on the continent, I feel like his pigs deserve a proper smoking more befitting their heritage.
Pork fix satisfied, I zoom back over to the ASU campus, as a few of the Red Wolf faithful start dropping tailgates in the various parking areas surrounding the stadium. It’s quiet, as one would expect for a Tuesday night draw, but gameday access is a breeze, and I find easy free parking along Red Wolf Boulevard fifty yards from the stadium. Centennial Bank Stadium, formerly known as “Indian Stadium” prior to the ASU mascot change from “Indians” to “Red Wolves” in 2008, features a spectacular grove on its eastern flank. Towering pines and hulking oaks shade the grounds underneath, pre-game revelries occupy the various picnic tables and tents, while children slalom through trunks of the great trees chasing footballs. As the last few rays of amber light slice through the aluminum grandstands, leaves and shadows dance and flicker, the grove ethereal and mute in the fleeting moments of dusk.
I circle around the West side of the stadium, as the brassy ASU marching band begins filing towards the gates. The crowd thickens, forming a gauntlet on the asphalt walkway as the players walk through in their scarlet and black Adidas jumpsuits, exchanging high fives with outstretched arms as they march towards the stadium. It’s here that I track down a free ticket. “Here you can have this one, I got upgraded to the luxury boxes!” a guy proclaims when he sees my lone finger raised in the air. He hands me a glossy black ticket, the words ‘along with the others we’ve won!’ written in bold letters across the front.
Shortly after finding my seat, the Red Wolf mascot comes blasting out of an inflatable black tunnel on the back of a throaty Harley Davidson motorcycle, the players sprinting behind in a cloud of smoke. As one might expect, the stands are a bit sparse on a Tuesday night, and with swaths of open grandstands the stated attendance figure of 20,495 seems a bit generous. But the remaining fans that choose to attend on a Tuesday night are the die hard types, so they put up a decent home field advantage for the Red Wolves squad.
On the field, the Wolves take it to the Ragin Cajuns early. Quick footed Arkansas State quarterback Fredi Knighten carves apart the Cajun defense. Scampering around pursuers to extend plays, he finds seams in the defense, firing a pair of touchdowns in the first half. The ASU running back committee of Warren Wand, Johnston White, and Michael Gordon trade handoffs as they march downfield, contributors to the 306 yards of total rushing that the Wolves tally on the night. Even the ASU defense chips in, picking off an errant Cajun pass attempt and returning it for a thirty yard touchdown. The Wolves are on the prowl. At the close of the first half, ASU sits comfortably in command at 34-14, and it looks like a rout in the making.
But in the second half their momentum grinds to a halt. The offense sputters, and the defense softens. The Ragin’ Cajuns assert control. Led by standout dual threat quarterback Jalen Nixon who amasses 201 yards rushing, and another 253 through the air, ULALA intends to mount a second half comeback. The ASU student section does their best to will their team back to life. During the third quarter, they collectively bellow the ASU war chant “OOOO …..o.. OOOOOOO…” an exact copy of Florida State’s Seminole War Chant, and presumably a holdover cheer from the days of the Arkansas State Indians. Despite the chant, the Red Wolves play remains flat, and fans anxiously watch seconds dribble off the scoreboard. In the end, the Red Wolves manage to run out the clock, escaping with a dicey 37-27 win and extend their unblemished Sun Belt Conference record to 3-0.
In the end, Arkansas State is a pleasant trip. The grounds and groves surrounding the stadium would be an inviting place on a fall Saturday afternoon, and Red Wolves pride is alive and well in Jonesboro, adorned on every window and shop front in town. But if there is a bigger takeaway from my trip to Arkansas State, it’s that history can be uncovered in the most unlikely of places and every small corner of America has a nugget to offer. Clearly, any barbecue aficionado owes a debt of gratitude to those early Spanish explorers, and were it not for the soaring arches of the Hernando Desoto Bridge over the great river, I may have overlooked it. That’s what makes off the beaten track places like Arkansas State always worth the journey.
To pay my respects to Hernando De Soto for his contributions to the barbecue world, the PigksinPursuit will be tipping out a pour of my next Big Red in his honor….
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