ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Every year in Camden, Ark., they play a high school football game that means a whole lot to local folks. For them, this is The Game--when the only two high schools in the town play each other and most of the 17,000 or so people who live there have a serious interest.
"Camden-Fairview," said Vince McBeth, who captained the latter in his senior year. "It was one of the biggest rivalries in the state. In the whole state. That was a big deal."
McBeth survived the wars on the Ouachita, and has since moved on to the Naval Academy, where he has been fighting every Saturday during the fall for the past three years. And this year, he's a captain again.
At Fairview, McBeth had many of the honors that Midshipmen frequently have--National Honor Society, student body president and more varsity letters than his chest could hold.
"There's one movie theater and about the only thing to do is spend time with friends," McBeth said of his hometown.
Many who grow up in the area stay.
"We all thought about leaving, and going to school in other places," McBeth said. "But the reality of that is somewhat small. For a lot of people the money was tight, and not that many could afford to send their kids to Harvard and Yale. So most do stay in the area and go to state schools."
McBeth's parents were both high school teachers, although his father died when he was 12.
"When you're a child, and you're so used to having both parents, it's not easy to adjust to losing one," McBeth said. "Teaching salaries in Arkansas are really low. But there was nothing that I wanted that I couldn't have, not that I wanted a whole lot. When I look back now, I can see my mother bore more of the hardship, but I didn't realize that at the time. It's not until now that I realize how much was on her shoulders."
The family seemingly thrived: One of McBeth's three sisters is a doctor, another a teacher and the other attends Central Arkansas on a basketball scholarship; his brother, who also plays football, is in his final year at Henderson State.
"I have to give credit to my mom and my older brothers and sisters," McBeth said. "They set the path. They said I can do whatever I want. That I didn't have to hang around in Arkansas, find a job, get married and have a family. They opened my eyes to the opportunities that do exist."
McBeth has been making the most of his opportunities here. On the field, he has done more pushing and shoving since he moved from the secondary to linebacker after his sophomore year.
"You're almost looking at two different players," McBeth said. "Last year I was like a rookie, a freshman who was still in the learning process. Now I'm a lot more comfortable, like it's the only position I've ever played. Last year I found myself thinking so much on every play, I was always a step behind. Now, I'm a lot more comfortable and a lot more aggressive. I know I can make big plays, and it's a matter of going and doing it."
Navy Coach Gary Tranquill sees quite a bit of difference in McBeth this year. "Learning the position is the thing," Tranquill said of the 6-foot-1, 226-pound linebacker. "Last year, he was not comfortable. Now, he knows what to expect and, combine that with his physical talent, he should be a lot better."
The position switch adds more responsibility.
"Linebackers are expected to make big plays and cause fumbles. The quarterback is seen as the leader of the offense. I see a linebacker as a leader of the defense," McBeth said. "I've always liked pressure. My mom always said I performed best under pressure. For example, I had a paper due on Monday, that I'd known about for four weeks, and I waited until Sunday night to get it done. . . . Do-or-die situations present more of a challenge."
The Navy defense responded to the challenge of the Virginia offense last week in a 20-10 victory. But then they have had confidence in themselves since they finished 1985 with a strong performance in the 17-7 victory over Army.
"We know we can play against the best and that we can be a dominating defense," McBeth said. "Last year, there were times when the defense would come off the field, and the offense would go and fumble or throw an interception. Last year, the defense would say to itself, 'Oh, damn, we have to go out again. Are we going to be able to hold them?' Last week against Virginia, the offense fumbled once, and you saw guys (on defense) jumping up. No one is apprehensive about it, and we're looking to get on the field as much as we can. I was kind of smiling because I was happy to go back out."
McBeth isn't the only native of Arkansas on the Navy squad. Reserve tackle George Williams is from Ward, and Athletic Director J.O. "Bo" Coppedge, from Blytheville (pronounced Bly-ville), keeps an eye on the boys.
"Let's put it this way," McBeth said with a laugh, "us Arkansans look out for each other."
"He looks after me real well," said Coppedge of McBeth. "He sure is an inspiration."