story by Aric Mitchell
Booneville, Arkansas. August 17, 2001.
Two-a-day football practices had come to a close, and a score of Bearcat teammates were on their way from an ice cream social hosted at Booneville High School to a private party off-campus. At 11:15 p.m., three players left the party in a 1987 Ford Escort.
Only one would survive the night.
Traveling down Arkansas 109, known locally as “Six-Mile Road,” driver Justin Thompson and passengers Matthew Oxford and Willie Goff hit a tree and came to rest in a roadside ravine.
Goff broke out of the back seat, suffering injuries to the chest and stomach, and ran for help. When he returned, the crushed car was engulfed in flames. Thompson and Oxford were trapped inside, rendered immobile, autopsy reports later said, by blunt force head trauma and smoke inhalation.
As the town struggled coming to grips with all the questions about how the accident happened, Head Coach Kenneth Rippy faced a unique and unwanted situation. He later admitted, “Football was the furthest thing from my mind at that point,” and there was talk around the town of 3,800 that the season wouldn’t happen.
Ultimately, the Booneville Bearcats decided to play on, agreeing it was what “Matt and Justin would have wanted,” said Doug Oxford, father to one of the deceased.
The first public appearance of the team wasn’t on the gridiron as usual, but at a joint funeral held at the First Baptist Church in the center of town.
Teammates gathered in a group wearing their jerseys, crying, holding one another, as hundreds of people filled the auditorium and spilled out into the church’s family life center to stand watch over the dual coffins at the front of the auditorium.
Nine days after they said goodbye to the beloved seniors, the 2001 Bearcats were a question mark in the eyes of the town. It was hard to care about football. Unless, of course, you were one of the 2001 Bearcats.
Against Yellville-Summit in the first game of the season, Booneville cruised to an easy 34-15 victory. The next week they stopped a solid DeQueen Leopards team 28-13.
The tears still fell.
Oxford and Thompson were never far from their teammates’ thoughts as they offed Mansfield 48-7 the following week and Ozark 49-11 the week after that. With two more easy ones ahead—a 57-24 rout of Subiaco and a 49-7 demolition of Waldron—they faced their toughest opponent to date in Dardanelle.
The Sand Lizards gave up three first half touchdowns to Booneville, but then proceeded to take over. Quarters three and four belonged to Dardanelle as they shut down the Booneville running game and outscored them 7-0.
Luckily for the Cats, it wasn’t enough. But it would be cause for concern as a fierce Clarksville Panthers squad and a tough playoff run lay ahead.
Booneville took the following week easy with a 60-35 victory over Paris, a game which found the second string playing the entire second half after the first team rang up a 47-6 score in the first two quarters.
The next week wasn’t so easy. In a back-and-forth battle, the Cats escaped 27-26 against Clarksville, thanks to three blocked extra points. Nathan Adair swatted the first one down, and backup quarterback Josh Holloway accounted for the other two.
The Cats had endured the worst nightmare a football team could endure and came out of it with a conference title. But there was more left to do.
The playoffs brought victories against Huntsville (28-0), Fordyce (39-6), Rivercrest (21-13), and Nashville (42-12). The semi-final contest was a rematch of 2000’s State Championship game, which Booneville won 29-21. It was their second trip in a row to Little Rock, but in spite of their position as defending champions, they were clear underdogs.
Warren, the challengers, had brutalized every team on the schedule, averaging 442 yards per game and 42 points. Led by All-Stater Reid McKinney, the Lumberjacks had finished off perennial powerhouse Pine Bluff Dollarway 47-13 in the semi-finals.
Following the State Championship contest, which occurred Dec. 9, 2001, Rippy told his team in an emotional locker room scene, “Honest truth. If we had a talent measure and an ability measure, they (Warren) were way ahead of us. We played with heart, and that’s what a Bearcat does.”
Rippy’s group jumped on their opponents early thanks to the rushing efforts of Ronnie Becker. The Cats stunned the Lumberjacks by drawing first blood and leading 13-7 at the end of the first quarter.
Booneville controlled the clock and made significant gains on the ground. Warren didn’t see the ball much, but made it count each time they did, outscoring the defending champs 14-12 in the second.
At halftime, Booneville clung to a 25-21 lead.
The third quarter saw the Cats with a slight edge, throwing up eight to the Lumberjacks’ six. Going into the game’s final stanza, Booneville led 33-27. That’s when things got interesting.
After tying the game at 33, Warren fell behind once again off a 20-yard Becker run. A missed extra point put the Cats’ 39-33 lead in jeopardy, especially when McKinney struck again for Warren with 3:52 remaining.
Luckily for the Cats, Warren kicker John Cooper missed the last three PATs of the night. Unluckily for the Cats, the third miss would come with the Lumberjacks' go-ahead touchdown.
Quarterback Brad West, leaning forward for a first down, lost grip on the ball. McKinney picked it up and ran 37 yards for the score with 2:04 left in the game. Booneville would not recover.
The Cats’ game plan was to control the pace. They did that with 359 yards of total offense, all on the ground, and an impressive 32:48 time of possession to Warren’s 15:12. What they couldn’t stop was the 551 total yards of offense the Lumberjacks would produce.
Despite the loss, however, Booneville had won a conference championship and rocked the 2001 State Champions, who were heavily favored to win.
Rippy, one of the program's most successful coaches, and one of only two to win a state title at the school, comforted his players following the loss.
“Matt and Justin would not be the least bit disappointed in you. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a bunch lay it on the line like you guys have. That’s the mark of a champion, and you are champions. Every one of you.”
In a post-game confession, Warren Head Coach Bo Hembree agreed. “Their kids played with a lot of heart. It was a shame one of the teams had to lose tonight.”