In one small, crowded, noisy room Wednesday night at Conway Country Club, we saw and heard:
Hearty laughter and chatter, like kids on a playground.
A funeral preview that exuded life.
A homecoming without a game.
Dinner on the grounds without singing.
A family reunion with no boundaries.
Harold Horton, who won an incredible 84 percent of his games and multiple championships in eight years while University of Central Arkansas head football coach, returned to Conway after 22 years and it was like he never left.
Steve Strange Sr., with the help of many, arranged for a celebration of 50 years of coaching, administration and influencing and molding young men. Horton is retiring after his latest term of duty as head of the Razorback Foundation.
In contrast to the steady, grind-it-out offenses normally used by Horton in compiling a 74-12-5 record at UCA, the event was put together with the reception equivalent of a two-minute drill. Organizers searched old Rolodexes, new databases, tattered phonebooks and social media contacts in an attempts to find an address or phone number for everybody Horton’s shadow touched at UCA from 1982-89 and at career stops at DeWitt and Bald Knob. The process continued until just hours before the reception.
"We had three weeks to get it done before football season," said David Grimes, one of the worker bees. "Finally, word got around and people started calling us and we said, ‘Come on!’"
And they did.
They came from central Arkansas, eastern Arkansas, northeast Arkansas, southwest Arkansas, southeast Arkansas, northwest Arkansas — and beyond. In attendance were Horton’s former assistants at UCA, some of his teammates when he was a star at DeWitt High School, former coaching colleagues, former administrative colleagues, old coaching rivals, many longtime friends.
I counted at least two dozen men who had been or are head football coach. There were almost that many former or current school or college administrators. There were at least three or four dozen who are in various Halls of Fame. And several more who will be some day.
People who had not seen each other in 20 years mingled, laughed, told tales and shared life again.
Folks were older. Those little kids were grown. Horton’s son, Razorback assistant Tim Horton, left Conway as a decorated high school star, returned as a veteran and highly respected assistant coach with stops at Air Force, Appalachian State, Kansas State and Arkansas.
Many people of different eras and backgrounds connected again.
But rekindling relationships required nary a spark.
Loud chatter and joviality?
Strange tried to quiet and gather the crowd for a short program by clamoring over a microphone, "Can I get your attention please! Everybody gather around for a moment." He repeated as loudly as he could at least 10 times.
Finally, Horton got everyone’s attention with the familiar whistle he used to employ to gather his players together.
He had to do it three times.
"The thing that makes my heart smile the most is hearing and seeing young men in so many areas of life telling me, ‘Coach, I’m doing in life what you taught me on the field."
Former University of Arkansas All-American and Chicago Bears star Dan Hampton gave a video tribute to his position coach, noting his first experience with Horton was in a high school all-star game in which Horton gave his familiar mandate, "All we got to do is jack their jaws."
Horton classily thanked virtually everyone in the banquet room, noting that when he rode on a tractor in his childhood at DeWitt, he dreamed big dreams. "And my reality has exceeded my dreams," he said.
While most old stories tend carried the usual embellishment, the coach exaggerated one the opposite way. He pointed out Curtis Burrow, noting he had just missed a 63-yard field that could have won a playoff game (actually, it was the 1984 NAIA national title game with Carson-Newman, the first of two straight ties in championship games by the Bears). And actually, that last-season field goal attempt (no overtime in those days) was 71 or 72 yards, depending on the measurement. (The ball was teed up on the Bears’ 39 1/2 and fell short by about 5 yards).
While Horton’s memory faded a bit, his love of people has never waned.
Neither, even after more than two decades in some instances, peoples’ love for him and his family hasn’t either.
It was evident on a hot Wednesday night in July.
But the celebration wasn’t just about Horton — and that’s what made it so inspiring. It was an affirmation of community — of athletes, fans, friends, just plain citizens of Conway and small and larger towns in Arkansas whose bond with Horton transcended years and institutions.
Tommy Nabholz’s wife was there. That was a huge statement. Stricken with illness, friends say she hadn’t been out in public in four years. She boldly ventured out Wednesday night, sat at a table and enjoyed herself.
"Tommy called me a day or so ago and said ‘we’re coming,’" Strange said. "That’s special. That’s what it means to be community."
(Sports columnist David MCCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or email@example.com)