Readers of last year’s great sports book “Horns, Hogs and Nixon Coming: Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie’s Last Stand” might have thought author Terry Frei attended either the universities of Texas or Arkansas at the time, or at least worked at the side of the Arkansas sportswriting sage Orville Henry if not on the staff of a major Texas sports section.
Rather, Frei – who is in Little Rock this weekend as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival – was just a child when Texas and Arkansas hooked up in 1969 in the “Game of the Century,” the epic encounter on Dec. 6 in Fayetteville that drew such dignitaries as President Nixon and Billy Graham and was watched on half the TVs in America. Few Arkansans, even ones not yet born, need no reminding that Texas won 15-14 with a fourth-quarter comeback.
Frei grew up in Oregon, a world away from 1960s Dixie football, where Alabama, Arkansas and Texas dominated the national polls yet there rosters and those of most other southern college teams were all white. His father was a coach, so Frei certainly picked up some football knowledge along the way. Professionally he’s worked as a writer for ESPN, the cable sports network based in Connecticut.
But as far removed as Frei might seem from the fray of 1969 – Vietnam, race relations of the time, Nixon, and most especially two undefeated college teams in the South – he captured it all with feeling and fervor, transporting the reader to that time. I relish sports, sports books and anything Razorback in print, and I couldn’t pick out anything Frei didn’t seemingly know and convey accurately about the game. Plus, as a kid at the time too, I was educated by Frei’s account of all the problems and protests – about the war, about campus race relations – that went on around the game.
The great sports books eventually aren’t about the game or its scoreboard result, but about the characters involved – on the field, in the stands, outside the stadium, around the country – and the times; books that appeal to more than just the sports fan. Frei’s account of an important moment of Arkansas and Texas sports history is great because of that and can mean something to the average reader off in Oregon or Connecticut.
He’s an example of what the first Arkansas Literary Festival was trying to do: bring together a long list of noted authors with varying themes, to appeal to any tastes. Looking at the list of those here for this weekend (see page 24), it appears they succeeded.
Frei, by the way, will speak at 1 p.m. at the Darragh Center of the Main Library, in the River Market.