November 22nd, 2011 11:01 PM║ Posted By: MrSEC.com ║ Permalink
Tags: Evin Demirel, Legacy Hotel, LSU, Yet Uekman
Years ago, I bartended at the Legacy Hotel in downtown Little Rock. Most shifts were mellow, sparsely populated affairs, with plenty of time to read and chat with the hotel’s handyman. But that all changed one night, when a group from Louisiana rolled in, turning my dimly lit barroom into a din of joking, singing and emotional outpouring. To my surprise, the occasion for the gathering was a relative’s funeral.
As the head of the family rang up the tab with drink after drink, each further loosening the group’s tear ducts in alternating bouts of laughter and grief, I came to realize that for these people death didn’t mean quiet sadness. Instead, it was an opportunity for catharsis through celebration, apparently with screwdriver cocktails speeding the healing. It struck me how dramatically some Louisianans differ from other Americans.
The “Let The Good Times Roll” philosophy permeating so much of Louisiana also surrounds the state’s premier college football team. No. 1 LSU doesn’t have the snazzy uniforms of Oregon or Maryland, but it can boast the nation’s most colorful combination of players, coaches and fans. In the last four years, two Tigers quarterbacks have been been handcuffed for involvement in bar fights.
This season, safety Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu, with a nickname inspired by a mock nature documentary on YouTube, has spawned a cult following with his ball-hawking play. Coach Les Miles, dubbed the “Mad Hatter” for a love of trick plays, occasionally chews on grass during games. Thousands of LSU fans cover themselves with Mardi Gras beads, get soused, and turn games at LSU’s “Death Valley” stadium into Bourbon Street North.
For better or worse, this team – this state – wears its emotions on its sleeve. And usually, that gives LSU even more of a home field edge. Especially when LSU can again secure a place in the national championship game with a win over the nation’s No. 3 team.
But not this week.
There is no fathoming the death of Razorback Garrett Uekman on Sunday at his dorm in Fayetteville. From the outside, the 6-4, 254-pound redshirt freshman seemed the paragon of fitness. It seems any undiagnosed health issues would more likely appear while the tight end played football or even basketball, both sports in which he starred at Little Rock Catholic High. Yet Uekman’s roommate last saw him alive around 10:15 a.m. in front of a screen, playing video games. Another roommate found him about an hour later, unconscious and unresponsive.
Of course, it’s not supposed to be like this. The wound is still very raw for the many people who loved Uekman. His grieving family, friends and teammates must learn to deal with his death in their own way, on their own time. But, through the emotional and possibly spiritual turmoil that entails, there is an urgency for the team Uekman left behind.
Arkansas plays LSU on Friday afternoon in a game that is simultaneously seismic and insignificant.
As far as sports go, this is the state’s most important regular-season event this century. And as far as everything else goes, it doesn’t matter one jot. There are plenty people who would trade a win on Friday to see Uekman alive for just one more minute.
Navigating the Razorbacks through this dichotomy is a chief task for Bobby Petrino and other Arkansas coaches this week. Uekman’s death is only the most recent and unexpected in a series of challenges for Arkansas heading into the long-awaited showdown with LSU. While Arkansas has played its best ball of the season in the last three games, all those routs were at home.
It’s yet to be seen how much of their recent improvement in all phases will translate to the road, where the Hogs have struggled against Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Alabama.
The team Arkansas faces in Baton Rouge will unleash a defense just as dominant as Alabama’s. While the Hogs’ defense has recently tightened (buoyed by the returns of Jake Bequette and Tenarius Wright, who were injured in September), showdowns between dominant defenses and dominant offenses (but not great defenses) usually favor the defense.
LSU’s rugged, athletic defenders give Petrino one of his biggest tactical challenges of the season. He must also adapt to a short week of preparation, which usually favors the home team. Petrino thrives in meticulous, scheduled settings that would make a CEO proud, but now has the biggest emotional challenge of his coaching career. Time will be spent grieving (and honoring) Uekman that would usually go toward game preparation.
Petrino’s biggest task is channeling the extreme emotions coursing through his team. Passion from both sides will spill all over the field Friday. The crowd’s roar is sure to deafen, as the Tigers’ blitzes repeatedly rupture Tyler Wilson’s timing. With the upheaval of the past week, the whole thing will be tinged with a sense of chaos, as again and again the Hogs evoke Uekman’s memory on the sideline.
No matter Friday’s outcome, the Hogs have already suffered their biggest loss of the season. Whatever strength, whatever good, can be wrenched from its aftermath will resonate far longer than even a berth in the national championship game.
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