Tusk to Tail: Lessons from a 9,000-mile Hog trek
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Coming into Friday's game at LSU, Tusk to Tail had traveled more than 9,000 miles to follow the Razorback football team this season. Five of us had made it to every game, the last eight of which were losses.
This week the Hogs were 25-point underdogs, the largest differential that Arkansas and LSU fans could remember in the 21-year history of the post-Thanksgiving SEC rivalry series. This, combined with the prior week's overtime loss to Mississippi State, left most of us less than enthused for the trip.
Jack Clark, one of the five that had not missed a game, chose to spend the weekend at home with his sick father. That left just Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Mark Wagner, Craig May, Craig's brother Chris from Philadelphia, and Craig's son to drive to Baton Rouge on Thanksgiving night. My son and I made the three-hour trek from my in-laws' house in Mobile, Ala., on Friday morning.
Up through this year, the game has been played immediately following Thanksgiving, making the perfect excuse to spend the holiday with my wife's family. When the game was in Louisiana, we stayed in Mobile. When the Tigers came to Arkansas, so did my in-laws.
I have made the trip to Baton Rouge more than any other visitor's campus. I have not missed an LSU game since 2001. But this arrangement may have been ruined for the foreseeable future beginning next year, when the game moves to early November so that Arkansas and LSU can begin rivalries with SEC newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M, respectively.
Spending any extended period of time in Alabama is difficult for a Hog fan these days. As the state geared up for the epic Iron Bowl, the Auburn fans frequently greeted me with taunts of "War Eagle." I heard my share of "Roll Tide" as well, though most of the Bammers just shamed Arkansas fans with stares of scorn and contempt for weakening their strength of schedule.
By 7 o'clock Friday morning, I was barreling across portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana with my 11-year old co-pilot. Our destination was called Walk-on's Bistreaux & Bar, a Cajun fried sports bar named for the owners who had been on the LSU Basketball team in the late 90s as non-scholarship athletes.
By the time I met up with the rest of Tusk to Tail, orders of duck & andouille sausage gumbo were being served along with appetizers of alligator tail and a dish they call "Angels on Horseback" – Jumbo Gulf shrimp stuffed with an oyster, lightly fried & wrapped in bacon. Yum!
Most of us washed down the goods with beer, with the exception of Wagner, who had to shoot the game professionally, and Houser, who was recovering from an illness on antibiotics. Those two, along with the two children, had soft drinks. Mark made up for the missed gluttony by ordering Walk-on's signature dessert, bread pudding made from Krispy Kreme donuts.
Going deep into Louisiana is somewhat like visiting a foreign country. First, there are differences in the nomenclature. Arkansas has counties and medians on its highways.
Louisiana has parishes and neutral grounds. While I was in grad school, Fayetteville opened a Gentleman's Club. There is an establishment in the French Quarter of New Orleans called Live Nude Sex Orgy.
The people of Louisiana speak differently, too. After finishing lunch at Walk-on's, we poured the season's last round of John Dalys and ambled around for a bit. In front of the stadium, we met Ken Haynes and Randy Sonnier from Broussard, La. The men were as sweet as Mark's bread pudding, but their Cajun accents are as thick as the gumbo. I could not resist asking Haynes if I could take a video of him telling a joke or a story. He said he has a hard time recalling jokes, but told us a true story of occupational hazards and sandwiches (See the short video below.).
About 1:20 into the video, you can hear the literal catcalls of "Tiger Bait!" from some passing fans. This is another similarity to traveling in foreign lands. When visiting Baton Rouge, one has to fully expect to encounter some hostile natives. Tusk to Tail is a peaceful bunch, but there have been ugly confrontations in each of the previous trips to Death Valley.
Some encounters are as innocuous as these harmless taunts and jeers. Other times have escalated to near-violence, such as when the drunk student unexpectedly jumped in front of Clark's 6-year old son, cursing him face to face. So when we saw the roasted pig's head on a pike as we entered the tailgating grounds, we thought we were in for another long day.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a disastrous 3-9 season that set records of futility. The enemy stopped fearing us, or apparently giving us much thought at all. Short of the ever-present Tiger Bait chant, the home fans were downright hospitable.
So how would the Hogs respond? As Bob Dylan says, "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose." Arkansas came out loose and swinging hard, remaining tied or holding a lead for most of the game. When we punted the Tigers back to the 1-yard line with just under three minutes left in the game, it seemed like we had them right where we wanted them, which was literally just a few feet from our 7th row endzone seats. The Razorbacks had been relentless, and LSU was relying on a freshman quarterback after Zach Mettenberger had been knocked out of the game with a knee injury.
Over the past few weeks, I have heard and even said that several different moments or events defined this Razorback team or season. There were several people who felt that last week's overtime deflation summed things up in 2013, but I jokingly added that the kids who chose to play soccer rather than football at that tailgate held a deeper meaning, as well. And when a stiff gust of wind blew Tusk to Tail's decorative stuffed hog into the golf course mud, it was hard to argue the symbolism.
But when I look back on our 9,000 mile trail of tears, I think the image that will stay burned in my mind's eye is us having a ranked team on the ropes, then watching their wide receiver blast past our secondary to haul in the 49-yard game winner with just over a minute to play. That same play happened at different times in games against Florida, Auburn, and Ole Miss.
But the Hogs showed a lot of heart on this day in Death Valley. There was no quit in this team, just room for improvement.
Just when I'm almost out, they pull me back in.
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