Postcards from the Arkansas State Howl on Wheels Tour

Howl was headed to the bar, and I was in hot pursuit. “Howl! Can I get a picture? Howl!” But it’s a different atmosphere inside the massive Howl head. My words went unheeded. I was a man nearly fifty running after a stuffed animal. At last, I caught up to him at the complimentary bar. “Howl! Can I get a picture?”

Howl obliged. That’s why he’s here. We find the proper lighting and he delivers a few Howl poses and I click the damn photos. When it’s done, I fish a bottle of beer out of steel tub and position myself center stage, pausing first to deliver a pat on Tommy Walker’s massive shoulder.

The Red Wolf in his natural habitat

Jeff Reed is there. I tell him his hat is awful. It’s mandatory banter between us; he remarks on my lack of timeliness and I insult his dingy caps. I’m not even late. I’m right on time, like a wizard.

Matt Stolz (who in no way resembles Mike Balado) seizes a microphone and energetically welcomes the crowd assembled in the reception room of the ASU System Office. The majority of the contingency from Arkansas State are seated together – Butch Jones, Bryan Hodgson, Jeff Purinton and Todd Shields, all freshly sponged and pressed for the final leg of the Tour. Destinee Rogers hosts a table nearby, brimming with family and players from the team.

Stolz fires up the crowd with a slick video produced by the A-State Slick Video Team, then ushers Shields and Purinton onto the stage. As they settle into their chairs, I can’t stop staring at the centerpiece – the white football helmet with the reduced-sized Howl, a basketball, and a miniature carving of a wolf that may have been carved from the thighbone of a mastodon.

Matt Stolz interviews Jeff Purinton and Todd Shields in the time-tested Merv Griffen Style

Jeff and Todd are buddies. They praise system president Chuck Welch, then crack good-natured jokes at his expense. Together, they relay the department’s recent successes (Bowling, Track) while inflating the promise of football and basketball. Baseball is left unmentioned because everybody is in a good mood.

Destinee Rogers follows the brass, and she looks like a woman attending her own birthday party. She’s all cheer. All easy confidence. She introduces her family to us as though we’re all distant cousins passing through Little Rock for a visit. Among her guests is her sister, Wynter, whom Rogers poached from West Virginia during the off season. She regals the crowd with news of the roster’s recent additions, talking up the size. When her time is up, we’re all left believing in Destinee.

Destinee Rogers wins the crowd

Bryan Hodgson lumbers onto the stage wearing a brilliant white pull-over and a wry expression made mysterious by his thick black beard. Everybody wants to know about Derrian Ford. Everybody wants to know about Freddy Hicks Jr. Nobody asks for the story about Avery Felts’ house catching fire during his introductory phone call with Hodgson, but we get it anyway, and somehow it’s even more hilarious the second time around. Hodgson is a natural storyteller and a seasoned wit, and by the time he descends the stage, we’re all ready to suit up for the team.

Butch Jones is the grand finale. As always, he’s crisply fit and attired, somehow simultaneously projecting ease and unease. As he is prone to do, he waxes philosophical, expounding on the nature of winning, that cagey beast. To my surprise, he speaks confidently of his quarterbacks, leaning heavily to his latest signal caller J.T. Shrout, the transfer from Colorado. To everybody’s delight, he announces that the offensive line now averages 340 pounds. It’s the kind of news we wanted to hear; size matters. Lastly, he wisely tempers expectations by declaring this Year Two of his era, even if it’s really Year 3. First year was Year Zero, he explains. It’s the kind of word craft Jones is known for, but it doesn’t make it less true. His temperance oozes confidence.

On my way out, I see A-State SID Jerry Scott with a Red Wolves Foundation trucker cap in his hand. “Is that for me?” I say, and he hands it to me. (Only later do I realize that maybe the hat wasn’t intended for me, that maybe I just assumed Jerry Scott was handing me a hat and that he was really on his way to give a hat to somebody who actually deserved it.) He asks me what I thought of the Howl on Wheels event and I tell him what I think. I congratulate him on a successful event, and then I make a break to the elevator, my new hat dangling from my finger.

PHOTO CREDIT: It was difficult work