Posted on Sun, Sep. 07, 2003

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Drawing The Line in rivalry
State border creates unique football game

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

 

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RON T. ENNIS | STAR-TELEGRAM

Texas High senior Chaniecy Nelson and classmates cheer the football team during a pep rally before the game against crosstown rival Arkansas High.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RON T. ENNIS | STAR-TELEGRAM

The Arkansas High Razorbacks take the field for their game against Texas High on Friday. The rivalry between Texarkana's two biggest schools started in 1912.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RON T. ENNIS | STAR-TELEGRAM

Arkansas High's Grant Hickerson, right, and Devin Neal shake hands with Texas High players after losing 31-12 at Arkansas High on Friday.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY RON T. ENNIS | STAR-TELEGRAM

Bill Keopple, in his first year as coach at Arkansas High, said of the rivalry with Texas High: "What I've learned since I came here is that it's all they talk about. Nonstop."

 

Officially, it is State Line Avenue. But around Texarkana, it's known as "The Line."

State Line Avenue splits Texarkana at the Texas-Arkansas border. It also serves as the 50-yard line for one of Texas' most unique high school football rivalries. Texas High and Arkansas High are more than crosstown rivals, they're across-the-border rivals.

"This one is not only who's the best in Texarkana; this is the state of Texas vs. the state of Arkansas," Texas High coach Barry Norton said. "I think that's what makes the thing really neat and different from the other ones."

Texas High is one of three high schools on the Texas side of town. But Texas High-Arkansas High is the game in town each year.

The game features Tex-arkana's two biggest schools, which have campuses less than four miles apart. The game has a long tradition, with the first meeting in 1912. And it has The Line.

"If there's talk about a game in the community, this is the one they're going to talk about," said Arkansas High athletic director Phillip Miller, who has been at the school for 15 years. "You can just about make a season by winning this game, in the community's mind. The coaches, of course, are focused on conference championships and state championships, but this is the game for the community."

Said first-year Arkansas High coach Bill Keopple: "What I've learned since I came here is that it's all they talk about. Nonstop."

It takes a full week to hold this rivalry. There were special events on campuses throughout the week. The coaches spoke at three community lunches and answered countless questions on radio and television interviews. "Unbelievable" is how Norton describes Texas High-Arkansas High week.

More than 8,000 jammed into Arkansas High's sold-out Razorback Stadium on Friday night as Texas High won 31-12 in the teams' 87th meeting. The night's dominant theme was unmistakably Texas vs. Arkansas.

It sounded like Texas-Arkansas. Arkansas High fans called the Hogs before their team raced onto the field. (Arkansas High fans proudly claim to be Arkansas' original Razorbacks.) Texas High fans sang along as the band played The Eyes of Texas.

It looked like Texas-Arkansas. Texas High's Tigers wore white uniforms with an orange "TEXAS" across the chest. Arkansas High wore red jerseys and white pants with the familiar Razorback dashing across their helmets. Orange flooded one side of Razorback Stadium, red the other.

People learn the importance of this game early in Texarkana.

Lawanna Tolliver, a 1972 Texas High graduate, teaches fifth grade at Wake Village Elementary School on Texarkana's Texas side. Her students sported their orange Tigers T-shirts Friday and talked excitedly about the game.

"They know it's the biggest game of the season," Tolliver said.

Well, there could be one bigger game later this season. Tolliver said her two middle school-aged sons said on the way to Friday's game that if the Tigers could return to the state final after winning the school's first state title (Class 4A Division I) last year, that would actually be a bigger game.

Norton, in his fifth season at Texas High, would have been proud to hear that.

"I told our kids in '99 that we have to have higher goals than just winning the Arkansas High game," Norton said, "because there are a lot of people that, if you win that game, then the rest of it doesn't matter. It means that much to them."

Fort Worth resident Ron Terry can attest to that. Terry was a senior captain on the Razorbacks' 1974 team that won the second of the school's three consecutive state championships. But Arkansas High also lost to Texas High that year, leading Tigers fans to declare themselves Arkansas state champions.

Terry has been able to attend only a handful of games, all in the first decade after he graduated from Arkansas High. But he keeps up with the rivalry through newspapers and phone calls from his mother, who still lives in Texarkana. He enjoys recalling his turn in the rivalry.

He remembers missing a tackle on a key punt return for a touchdown in Arkansas High's 14-0 loss in '74. He recalls the look on his girlfriend's face, a Texas High cheerleader who simultaneously celebrated her school's victory and shared her boyfriend's disappointment. And he says he will never forget the importance placed on the game.

Arkansas High fans, he recalls, treated the Texas High game as its own season.

"That was the game. Nothing else really mattered," Terry said. "The fact that we won state, great. What always amazed me was the emphasis put on that game. It was amazingly pressure-packed."

That hasn't changed.

Arkansas High senior quarterback Shawn Washington said he was "scared" before his first game against Texas High as a sophomore.

"There were so many people," he said. "I had butterflies. I didn't know what was going on."

The Line makes this game that important.

Just ask Jerry Black, who crossed The Line for the second time this year.

Black quarterbacked the Razorbacks to their 1973 state championship, one of four in the program's history. He also coached at Texas High for eight years in the 1980s. He left nearby Redwater, Texas, this year to become an assistant coach at his alma mater. He's back home now, he said. Sort of.

He still lives in Texas, so his car bears Texas license plates. And a Hogs sticker, too, he quickly adds.

"During this week," Black said, "it doesn't matter what license plate you have, you're wrong. And if you get caught on the wrong side of the state line, it can be a little rough."

The first three months he coached at Texas High, his wife, Paula, also a '74 Arkansas High graduate, refused to wash his orange pants. The first three years he coached against Arkansas High, his wife sat on the Razorbacks' side of the stadium.

"My family basically disowned me," he said. "They couldn't believe I went across that line."

The Line makes this game that important.

That's why a dejected Washington walked off the field Friday well behind his teammates, a towel covering his head but not his disappointment. He has two cousins on Texas High's team. The three have played out their own Texas High-Arkansas High rivalry on video games, with Washington playing as the University of Arkansas and his cousins as the University of Texas.

But this game, not to mention the pain, was real. Arkansas High had just lost to its rival for the third consecutive year. Washington will graduate without a win against Texas High.

One day earlier, he had said he and his teammates wanted this to be the best game they had ever played. He had talked about how the game's hype made this his favorite week of school. He had said that people he will never know, especially former Razorbacks who had lost to Texas High, were depending on his team to win.

"This game is so important to more than just the school and us," he said in anticipation of his final Texas High game. "It's our whole community. Everyone who went to Arkansas High."

But now his turn is over. Next year, it will be someone else's turn to defend his side of The Line.

Visiting Texarkana

Texarkana is two cities, in two counties, in two states. State Line Avenue runs north and south off Interstate 30 and serves as the Texas-Arkansas border, with two lanes headed in each direction and a turn lane in the middle. But the road becomes a circle on the edge of downtown, wrapping around the Post Office and Federal Building. It's the nation's only post office sitting in two states. The building was constructed in 1932-33 and features a base of pink granite from Texas and walls of limestone from Arkansas. A sign marking the border makes this a popular site for photo-snapping tourists. Texarkana claims the building is the second-most photographed courthouse in the United States, behind only the Supreme Court in Washington.