State of the Hogs: Thanksgiving

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As Bobby Petrino finished his last media duties on campus before heading to Little Rock for Arkansas' game with LSU on Friday, someone asked a non-football question.

"Coach Petrino, what are you thankful for?" pitched the man with the TV camera on his shoulder.

Petrino was clear about two things, the Arkansas coach is thankful for his job and to be in the Ozarks. And, he's thankful for family.

Then, he took it a step further when he brought up a talk he had with his Arkansas players earlier in the week. Petrino told them there should be someone back home that helped shape their lives, presumably parents. He encouraged each player to make a phone call to that important person "who helped get you where you are today." He added, "Be thankful you are in a position to shape the future of your life."

The plan for today was to write something footballish in advance of the LSU-Arkansas game. I wanted to compare the two fine centers in this game, the UA's Jonathan Luigs and LSU's Brett Helms. We'll get into some of that later.

The theme took a turn after hearing Petrino's challenge to thank someone who had helped them make it. Some would argue that I've yet to make it, or wish I hadn't. Anyway, I'm going to thank a few from my past.

Sadly, all are gone. I sometimes blame my father for putting me in position to be a journalist, but that would mostly be joking. It was probably because of him that I took this path, but it was probably because of two other men that I stuck with it.

It's hard not to learn a little about writing if you grow up in Orville Henry's house. You saw the way he poured himself into work, the long hours and the many nights he spent at the office.

But the men who helped me the most I found in Tulsa. Bill Connors, the late sports editor of the Tulsa World, hired me from the Conway Log Cabin Democrat in 1978. It was about three months later that I met Ed Beshara, the gregarious clothier who so often dominated my life with good thoughts and advice.

I learned a lot from all three. All three had strong religious backgrounds. My father was Lutheran, although he raised us (because of my mother's preferences) in the Presbyterian Church. Bill was a quiet Methodist. I say that because he never talked about his church, but I found out at his funeral that he never missed. Ed was Catholic, so devout that he never missed a mass no matter his travels. I attended church with him all over the country, noting, "I'm Baptist, but I can pray anywhere."

I'm thankful for these men. They were awesome role models. My father and Ed perhaps cussed too much and Bill was too nice. Otherwise, I can't name any other faults. They were good men and good to me for almost 50 years. Everyone should be so lucky to have that kind of mentors.

Bill helped shape the way I write. He taught me to make an outline after each game before typing the first word on your story. I don't always do it, but when I do, the fingers fly over the keys. The stories seem to be simpler and easily read.

One of the best things he did was to point out the coaches I could trust and seek out. One of the first he told me about was Merv Johnson at Oklahoma. I was fortunate that Merv was a friend of my parents from his days coaching the offensive line at Arkansas. He sought me out as much as I did him.

The best advice I ever got from a coach came from Merv. He explained the best way to watch a football game and I still stick to his method most games. You'll learn a lot.

Most follow the football. They see the snap, the watch for the quarterback to make the handoff, or they follow the ball in the air. You miss everything if you do that, Merv told me.

"Watch the center and don't lose sight until you realize where the play has gone," Merv said. "If you watch the center, you'll probably also see the guards. When they pull, you'll see that first. If they block the linebackers, you'll know that, too. The guards and the center will usually take you to the ball and you'll know before everyone else if it's going to be a good play. If those three men in the middle aren't doing anything, it's doubtful the backs get past the line of scrimmage."

Years after I'd left home, I relayed that info to my father. He said Merv had given him the same advice in about 1963. When home video recorders hit years later, my father said he'd re-watch every game he attended, doing exactly what Merv advised. With replays, you can cover a lot more than the three inside blockers and their assignments, but the idea is the same.

There will be times Friday that I focus on the two centers, Luigs and Helms. They are easily the SEC's two best at their position, perhaps the best in the nation. Luigs won the Rimington Trophy last year as the nation's top center. If he doesn't win it again, Helms might.

I've had fun getting to know Luigs the last five years. He's got a lot of credit for being a fine center, a true All-America. But he's also a fine person. He's always cheerful. Maybe it's those rosy cheeks, or the sparkle in his eyes. For those qualities, with a white beard and his big body, he'd make a fine Santa.

Luigs and his offensive mates will have their hands full Friday. This isn't the best LSU defense we've seen of late, but there are no problems with the front four. He'll have an all-day war, perhaps an easier time than his LSU counterpart. Helms draws a promising young freshman, Zach Stadther, pressed into duty before his time.

What those two will have behind them is some rank rookies. LSU will start a true freshman. Arkansas will start a redshirt freshman. These two QBs will need all the help they can get from their two senior centers.

The temptation will be to follow the quarterback's every step. I'm going to do my best to follow what I was taught and watch those centers. It's doubtful either school replaces Luigs and Helms with someone of the same caliber. They are both likely to play on the next level.

Expect both of them to play at a high level Friday. It should be a real treat.

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