The University of Central Arkansas Bears will have their usual pre-game meal Saturday.
Dessert was served Wednesday night.
Sweet and sour.
Wednesday night was a time of reflection — of fulfilled hopes and shattered dreams; of marvelous times; of frustrating times.
Times of celebration. Times of consolation. Times of laughs. Times of tears.
A gauntlet of emotions.
Coach Clint Conque and his staff held the Bears’ annual senior dinner Wednesday.
All senior classes are special; this one was extra special.
It was UCA’s first senior class after the Bears made the full transition to NCAA Division I FCS and to become fully eligible for postseason their entire careers.
It’s a class that never experienced a losing season, recorded nine victories twice, including a Southland Conference co-championship and earning the league’s automatic playoff berth. The group help put together two NCAA playoff appearances, reaching the second round twice.
Along the way, they traveled for playoff games to two of the traditionally great and storied venues in NCAA FCS football — the University of Montana and Georgia Southern.
They fell flat in the cold of the mountains of Montana. They almost pulled off an incredible comeback in the plains of Georgia.
It’s a group that was part of two of the greatest come-from-behind victories in UCA history — against Sam Houston State and McNeese State.
It’s a group that led the Bears into their first-ever game against a Southeastern Conference opponent (Ole Miss), taking the game in the fourth quarter. It’s a group that almost fashioned one of the biggest upsets in UCA history — at Colorado.
These seniors have helped raised the level and prominence of UCA football, statewide, regionally and nationally. They were part of the highest national rankings ever achieved in NCAA football.
"Coming out of the transition, we felt we needed to hit the ground running and try to establish ourselves as a competitive program nationally, year in, year out," Conque said. "This class did that. They laid a foundation and built on the positive things we built during the transition."
They helped raise expectations to an all-time high.
They have also endured an unprecedented adversity this season, physically and emotionally, of any UCA football team.
Of those 12 seniors, three are not playing. A 13th, cornerback Dominque Brown (who tore an ACL against Colorado), will receive a medical hardship and should play next year.
Some, if they are able to attend, will accept their senior day plaques limping with the aid of crutches. Many have spent almost as much time this year in the hospital room as on the field.
The stinging turn of events accentuated with the loss of Karl Brady, who was poised to have his best season as a leader in the secondary. It magnified bigtime when Wynrick Smothers, one of the best quarterbacks in UCA history and the clear emotional and physical leader of the team, went down with a season-ending broken ankle.
Then, tight end Chase Dixon, who was beginning to take over some of Smothers’ inspiration and leadership roles, and probably the most improved player on the team, broke an ankle in the Lamar game.
With the strange ebb and flow on the roller-coaster of football, Saturday’s game between the Bears and Sam Houston State, projected in preseason as THE GAME in the Southland, is now a scrap for third place with only one advancing to the postseason. And third place isn’t bad.
Despite the discouraging turn of events, what may not be readily noticed is the trickle-down effect of the seniors.
Several underclassmen are now playing their best football. Junior linebacker Justin Heard, coming off a three-game suspension, has been all over the field, recording double-digit tackles in four straight games.
The seniors have helped raise the bar for those who follow them.
Bones were broken; chemistry was not.
That’s why this senior dinner, an informal time of laughing, sharing and crying, was special.
"We sit around and tell stories, some of which I’m glad I didn’t know about at the time," Conque said.
Those stories will bind these players forever, the kind that grow richer, more amazing and more exaggerated in years to come.
"It’s always interesting how candid the players are," Conque said. "And it gets emotional. I get emotional."
Certainly, this year there was discussion on benchmarks achieved, goals not fulfilled, possibly mirroring what life is about. Certainly, you would like to talk about what might have been, but a lot of things we couldn’t control," he said. "And there were a lot of things we could have done better."
What is undisputed is a group of stars created a foundation on stripes.
"There are a lot of great athletes, a lot of competitors in this senior group," Conque said. "They were able to do some things not many players who play Division I FCS football are able to do. ...
What might have been could have been wonderful.
What was and is has been pretty darn good.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum @thecabin.net. Follow him on Twitter @dmaclcd).