story by Aric Mitchell
Head Coach Frank Vines of the Alma Airedales had already built quite a legend by the time the 1997 season rolled around. He’d come close a number of times, and even won the school’s only state championship in 1980, but 17 years later, there was no repeat.
Enter fullback Adam Daily, quarterback Brett Bradley, the “Fearsome Four” defensive line, and the rest of the 1997 squad.
During neighbor Fort Smith Southside’s historic “worst-to-first” season, and even on the same day — Dec. 6, 1997 — Alma would have a chance to play for the Class AAA State Championship. And like Southside’s matchup with the 13-0 Cabot Panthers, they’d have to go through an unbeaten team to do it.
The Hamburg Lions were known for their passing game as seen in the arm of quarterback Jon Murphy. Murphy had thrown for 2,276 yards and 28 touchdowns going into the final game of the season. If the Airedales were going to have any luck at all, Vines knew he would have to rely on his “Fearsome Four,” consisting of Donnie Youngblood and Zack Dodd at the ends and Chad Roark and Jason Parker at the tackles.
Youngblood was out with an injury the first six weeks, and his return had not been enough to propel the 9-4 Airedales past Greenwood in the final game of the regular season. Of the four losses suffered by Alma to that point, Greenwood had accounted for two, and AAAA opponents claimed responsibility for the rest.
While they were a better team than their record indicated, they wouldn’t have a chance if they couldn’t force Murphy out of the pocket and “convince” him to make some ill-advised throws.
Vines was confident the boys could do it. In the weeks leading up to the championship showdown, they claimed much of the responsibility in victories against Monticello (33-15), Newport (24-0), and Malvern (32-7). Alma fans were confident the green-and-gold were coming into their own at the right time, but no one expected a blowout.
And they would not get one.
Hamburg drew first blood early in the second quarter thanks to the legs of Darryl Stokes, who hit pay-dirt with a draw play to give the Lions an early 7-0 lead. Airedale defender Ron Bennett’s pick would set up Alma’s first and only score of the half, which came on a run by Daily, but an unsuccessful extra point attempt held Hamburg’s lead to 7-6 at halftime.
In the third period, the Alma defense continued to make life difficult on Murphy, containing the passing game through a strong rush and keeping the Lions out of the end zone. By the end of the third, Daily would have the Airedales’ offense back in the end zone, but a failed two-point conversion left Alma with a dangerously slim 12-7 lead.
Finally, in the fourth, Murphy started to find his rhythm. In 15 plays, the QB marched Hamburg deep into Airedale territory in a drive that finally came down to fourth-and-7 at the Alma 21-yard line with a little more than a minute left to go.
For this last play, the Alma defense would not play it safe. They knew they needed pressure on Murphy, and so they brought it with a blitz that flushed Hamburg’s play-caller from the pocket. Looking for his shot downfield, Murphy threw right before the Fearsome Four caught up to him.
The ball sailed into the end zone, but an Alma defender slapped it away at just the right moment, sealing the Lions’ fate.
Vines’ 1997 squad delivered the school its second state championship. But in football, one is never enough; and the Airedales would come back one season later to shoot for a second consecutive title.