State of the Hogs: Preston Carpenter

Preston Carpenter was famous for the Powder River Play, but blocking for the great Jim Brown rated at the top of his personal list.

Someone asked recently who taught me football. That's a pertinent question since I didn't play past a dislocated hip in the eighth grade.

There's no easy answer. I absorbed so much from so many through the years, including college players and coaches. If you ask enough questions and listen patiently, most will help.

But none may have provided as much free knowledge in such large doses as Preston Carpenter. The former Arkansas great passed at 77 last week. I have to thank him again for being patient with a young sports writer some 35 years ago.

I've thanked him many times, but it would not be right to say I had to ask many questions. Preston wanted to tell you what he knew. He didn't wait for the questions.

Carpenter is best known among Razorback fans for catching the pass from Buddy Bob Benson, also recently passed, dubbed the Powder River Play. At his induction into the Arkansas Hall of Fame, Carpenter's presenter said, "Preston, you sure got a lot of mileage out of one play."

It was a 66-yard touchdown play, the only one in a 6-0 victory over Ole Miss in 1954 that may have ignited the statewide pride in Arkansas football. It was a great play and it did give Carpenter plenty of notoriety.

"I didn't have to do much," Carpenter said. "I was supposed to decoy block on the safety when Buddy Bob went to the weakside on the sweep. But the safety came up so fast and just ran right past me. I was in the clear immediately. It was so open."

Carpenter got the ball 33 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and then ran another 33 to complete the play. The fans -- the first hard sellout in the history of War Memorial -- wouldn't leave the stadium afterwards.

The victory catapulted the Hogs to No. 4 in the national rankings and sent the state into orbit. The story in the Arkansas Gazette appeared on the front page in the news section from then on after that game.

So it was a new high water mark for Razorback fans. But there were other highlights for Carpenter in a Hog uniform.

Arkansas fans might also remember Carpenter scoring the first touchdown in the 20-7 victory over Texas in 1954. It came on a pass interception return. He likes to point to that, because he liked to talk about his defense as much as his offense.

But most in Arkansas don't know much about his time in professional football. I had the pleasure of hearing stories of his NFL career during hours in the stands at the old practice field at Conway High School. Preston's son, Todd, was the Wampus Cat tailback and a fine player.

I made the mistake once of asking Preston what was the toughest defense he had to block in the NFL.

"There is only one defense in football, the 4-3," he said. "Everything else is wrong. I could block any other scheme. The 4-3 was the best and it always will be because you can step into any other alignment and get help to stop any offense."

At that, he took away my notepad and started drawing plays and defenses. He had all of the answers with that 4-3.

"That's the best defense and I know I'm right because Paul Brown said so," he said. "Paul Brown was the best to ever coach offense and he understood the other side of the ball, too. He knew more, invented more and was so far ahead of everyone else. Things that people are doing now are still related to the way he drew it up and coached it."

Carpenter loved telling stories about another Brown. He said Jim Brown, the running back, was also the best ever at what he did in the NFL. Carpenter could have been jealous of that Brown. Carpenter was the Cleveland Brown's No. 1 draft pick -- 13th overall -- in 1956. He rushed for 942 yards and 12 touchdowns as a rookie -- the year before Cleveland took Jim Brown out of Syracuse.

"I was going to be their back, until they got Jim," Carpenter said. "It didn't matter to me. Hey, they'd fake it to Jim and pass it to me. You think I was going to be open? I loved that. I loved blocking for him, too. He was the best to ever play the game."

Carpenter moved around between fullback and tight end during the rest of his stay with the Browns and would eventually make the pro bowl with the Steelers in 1962. That wasn't what he called his NFL highlight in his 12 pro seasons.

"No, the best was what Jim Brown said about me," Carpenter said. "He did an interview when he went into the Hall of Fame. He said the best blocking back he ever had was me. Having Jim Brown say something like that is pretty good."

Physically, Carpenter was an impressive person almost to his last days. It's hard to imagine him gone. He was a hunk of a man the last time I saw him this time a year ago at a Razorback Club golf outing. He had massive forearms and hands. And the best news at any scramble was that you'd drawn him as a partner.

There were his stories, but also his golf. He could mash the ball and was good around the greens, too.

I can remember the summer during my days at the Tulsa World that word came that a Broken Arrow senior was going to try to make the Senior PGA Tour. I went out to his club, Indian Springs, for a round and was pleased to learn it was the same Preston Carpenter I had known from those Conway days. He had the game. And he went to the qualifying school, but didn't make it. He played poorly and was a near miss.

"I can beat those guys," Carpenter said. "I just can't get past the tour school."

I believed him, just like I did the first time he told me the 4-3 was impossible to block -- unless you had Preston Carpenter leading the way. Ask Jim Brown.

Preston Carpenter hauls in the pass that beat Ole Miss in 1954 on the Powder River Play.

File Photo

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