By Joel Phelps
NORTH 10TH STREET — It’s 30 minutes until midnight on a chilly autumn evening. A group of five college band students huddle and, to fend off boredom and chills, recollect the day’s events and share inside jokes.
Fifty-one weeks of the year, the fountain they’re guarding jets water upward in an inviting trance to entice prospective students to check out the campus of Henderson State University. But this week, the fountain is off and covered in black plastic sheeting to deter Ouachita Baptist University students from sneaking across the ravine and dumping purple dye into the waters.
Sabrina Moses is one of these Henderson band students who works in three-hour shifts, from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., to guard Henderson’s landmarks from potential vandals. But it isn’t just Henderson students on duty this week.
Across the ravine at Grant Plaza, it looks more like a music festival than a college campus. Tents line the lawn, music pouring lightly from inside. There’s the giggling of college girls playing a card game on the sidewalk. Some 40 students are gathered here, some of them playing corn hole while others are in a three-walled tent playing video games.
They started setting up camp on Sunday afternoon.
These Ouachita students aren’t singing “Koombaya” or camping just for the fun of it. Like their Henderson counterparts, they’re guarding a Ouachita landmark: the Tiger statue. Throughout the decades-old rivalry between the two universities’ football teams, a few brave Reddies have been known to wreak havoc on the tiger, whether it be painting it red or breaking and making off with its tail.
These days, with students from both campuses taking guard, it’s a little more difficult to make local legend with notorious pranks — several of them done in tasteful fun — but new traditions are being made. “We’ve got music, tents, we grill, play corn hole,” said Chris McCuistion, president of the Rho Sigma social club that oversees the guarding of the tiger. “We treat it like a true camping trip, except you have to go to class at some point.”
Meanwhile, at Henderson’s South Lawn, a pair of band students keep a sharp eye out, with an encompassing view of Henderson Street as some vehicles slow to a crawl before a driver or passenger screams out an anti-Reddie statement. Tonight, Shelby Owings and Alex Savage shrug off any vulgarities that echo across the South Lawn.
They’e objective is to ensure no one messes with the Centurium.
Checking on them for the evening is Nevada Mills, interim associate director of bands at Henderson State University. As a 2006 Henderson graduate, Mills has been in their shoes before and remembers pulling all-nighters before the game.
“I’ve spent my time staying up all night,” Mills said. “I would do the Friday night shift, and do it all. I’d feel terrible the next morning, but it was so much fun. Those are the things that we remember.”
Stories abound of pranks throughout the years, and Mills agrees that both Henderson and Ouachita students have either been involved in one or they at least know someone who has.
The tricky part is getting those pranksters to come forth with their involvement, even if the statute of limitations has passed.
“I do actually know somebody who took the tail at one point,” Mills admits, “and I know somebody who painted the tiger at one point.”
There’s the story of Henderson aviation students dropping red-dyed marshmallows from a plane onto Ouachita’s campus. There have been countless times throughout the decades that Ouachita students have dyed the fountain purple. Henderson students retaliate by vandalizing the tiger, which is now protected by an iron gate and under surveillance.
Before artificial turf was installed at both football fields, students would seed their school’s letters in grass and wait for spring to see their prank come to fruition. Nowadays, with students guarding their respective landmarks, the pranks have usually been limited to tossing red or purple “glitter bombs” on the opposing school’s campus.
At the fountain, Sabrina Moses hears on her two-way radio that Ouachita students have hit the baseball fields. All the students have Cam-Po (campus police) on speed dial, and they’re not hesitant to make a call. In short order, a Henderson officer pulls up, and asks if anyone has seen a vehicle matching the description of the one given.
The group at the fountain sees more action and traffic than the Centurium group, and they’re in prime position for a sneak attack from the pedestrian bridge spanning 10th Street. “Sometimes they will come across the bridge and glitter bomb the bridge, or get into a position where they can throw it over here,” Moses said.
At Grant Plaza, a man in uniform emerges, seemingly out of nowhere, and offers a warning. “OK, everybody, listen up,” says Marcus Jones, a Ouachita alumnus who now wears a badge for the Henderson Police Department. Jones urges the Rho Sigmas to call “anyone and everyone” they know and warn them that tomfoolery will not be tolerated this week, or else.
Will Broussard, Rho Sigma’s vice president, turns Jones’ attention to the upcoming game. “Who’s gonna win this weekend?” Broussard asks. Jones admits that although he’s a Tiger, he has close relatives pulling for the Reddies, so he couldn’t pick.
The Battle of the Ravine and its traditions have deep roots. It’s the only college football rivalry in America where the away team walks across a street to take on the hosting team. In a small town like Arkadelphia, it’s not uncommon for students to make friends from those attending the other school. But for one week of the year, they’re sworn enemies.
“I have a buddy who plays football over there,” Broussard said. “We talked on Sunday, and I said ‘Hey, man, I’m not talking to you until after the game, so if there’s something you need to say, say it.’ Friends turn to rivals, just for this week.”
Whether it’s a Henderson band student playing an instrument to an empty stadium at 3 in the morning, or a Ouachita student ringing the Victory Bell at the top of every hour, Battle of the Ravine and the week leading up to it makes Arkadelphia a unique place.
“I have to agree with that,” Broussard said. “It’s just the atmosphere, the camaraderie — everything is just amped up and everybody just brings it all together this week.”