Directly north of Little Rock sits Faulkner County, an area with more than 100,000 residents. It is famous for the annual Toad Suck Daze in Conway, the county seat also known as “The City of Colleges” for its three post-secondary educational institutions.
From a gridiron historical standpoint, Faulkner County has produced multiple collegiate athletes, but surprisingly Conway, Greenbrier, Mayflower and Vilonia have altogether won only two state championships in football (Conway in 1964 and ‘67).
From scoring touchdowns in Super Bowl I to a Razorback great being on the cover of the Madden NFL 2012 cover – and so much more in between – here is a list of some of the all-time football legends to ever come out of Arkansas’ fifth-most populous county.
This is the first edition of Best of Arkansas Sports’ all-time, all-county team for Arkansas high school football in Faulkner County. A more expanded and complete version will be released at a later time.
QB Neal Burcham
Greenbrier | 2009-11 | 6-3, 185 lbs.
Burcham’s high school career sadly ended with an ACL injury in the final game of the regular season his senior year, but not before he became one of the top quarterbacks, statistically, Arkansas has ever seen. Burcham finished as the 14th-leading passer in state history (prior to the 2022 season), compiling 9,781 yards along with a solid 65% completion percentage. He led the Panthers to the semifinals of the Class 5A playoffs his sophomore year and was named the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sophomore Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 3,384 yards and 34 touchdowns. The Panthers made the playoffs each year with Burcham at the helm, an incredible feat considering they won only three games in as many seasons before him.
He gained national attention when he was named one of three co-MVPs at the 2011 Elite 11 Camp along with Tanner Mangum and Jameis Winston, the future Heisman Trophy winner and 2015 No.1 overall NFL Draft pick.
Burcham was the 46th-ranked quarterback in the 2012 class in the 247Sports Composite, 20th per ESPN, and signed with Southern Methodist University. After redshirting in 2012, Burcham started the final two games of the 2013 season and also the first two games of the 2014 season before suffering a season-ending injury.
Another quarterback worth noting is Adam Dycus, a two-time All-State performer who led the Mayflower offense from 2012-14 and as of 2022 is the state’s fifth all-time leading passer. Dycus finished his career with 12,162 yards along with 142 touchdowns (also fifth all-time) and led the Eagles to the quarterfinals his senior year.
RB Peyton Hillis
Conway | 2001-03 | 6-2, 250 lbs.
When Hillis was not running through or pulling defenders at Conway he was pulling trucks, something he was also noted for in 2012. Whether that was for a workout or other reasons is debatable, as it was not his own neighborhood this would occur, but rather that of a young female. “It was his girlfriend’s neighborhood, he was trying to impress her,” his high school head coach Kenny Smith said. “He would hook a rope to a dodge truck and he would pull it in front of her house.”
Nonetheless, Hillis was as strong as an ox and a devastating runner for defenders as a two-time All-State fullback in Smith’s Wing T offense during the early 2000s. Though he was also an outstanding baseball player, it was clear early on that Hillis was going to make his money in football, which he eventually did, as he earned all kinds of honors his senior year, including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Offensive Player of the Year, the Landers Award (equivalent to the Heisman Trophy for Arkansas high school football) and the Fox Sports Net “All-South” first-team. He was the 119th-ranked prospect overall in the 2004 class, according to the 247Sports Composite, and the top fullback in the nation according to national recruiting analyst Max Emfinger. Crazy thing was, as great of a back as Peyton was, he could have possibly been better had he been catching passes: “If anyone would have ever test drove him at tight end, he may still be playing,” Smith said. “He had phenomenal hands.”
Hillis could have gone to play college ball anywhere in the country, but ultimately chose the home state Razorbacks over Alabama, Florida, LSU, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Tennessee and Oklahoma (as a Sooner, he would have teamed with all-world running back Adrian Peterson). His time at Arkansas had its ups and downs and he never put up eye-popping stats, partly because of injuries and also the fact that he was there at the time of the Darren McFadden/Felix Jones combo, giving Arkansas arguably the greatest backfield in the history of college football. Hillis’ best season was his senior year, compiling 884 yards and 7 touchdowns, before getting selected by the Denver Broncos with the 227th overall pick in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft.
Hillis started eight games for Denver in two seasons, but the shining moment in his professional career came when he joined the Cleveland Browns in 2010 and rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns (tied for fourth in the league), which landed him on the cover of the Madden video game following a nationwide fan vote. However, that was by far the peak of his time in the NFL, as he hung around the league for four more years, but rushed for more than 500 yards only once before retiring in 2014 due to lingering injuries.
RB Elijah Pitts
Pine Street High (Conway) | 1953-55 | 6-1, 204 lbs.
Before he broke barriers on a national scene, Pitts was a star at Pine Street High School for the Polar Bears, where African-Americans from around his community attended school prior to integration in 1968. Pitts was famously known for removing his shoulder pads at halftime to put on a dry t-shirt to play either the tuba or trombone with the school’s marching band. Even though Pine Street only played against small-school competition, many programs across the country took notice of Pitts’ talents, such as Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin – Big Ten schools that allowed African-Americans to play on their team at that time. Other offers Pitts received were Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal (now Arkansas-Pine Bluff) Southern and Grambling State – coached by young, eventual legend Eddie Robinson.
Due to a previous relationship with Mike Summerville, who coached at Pine Street before Pitts played for the high school team, Pitts chose to attend nearby Philander Smith College. Summerville had become athletic director and head football coach at the Little Rock HBCU.
Following a successful career at Philander, Pitts had options once at the professional level. Though he was offered more to play for the Boston Patriots in a better situation as far as team success, Pitts chose to sign with the Green Bay Packers, an up-and-coming team coached by a legend in the making, Vince Lombardi. Pitts had a fairly successful career with the Packers, most notably scoring two touchdowns in Super Bowl I after helping shoulder the load while star running back Paul Hornung was out. Pitts’ pro career lasted until 1971 and included being part of Green Bay teams that won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls. He was also enshrined into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in 1979.
After the conclusion of his playing career, Pitts became a scout for a couple of seasons before entering the coaching ranks, where he mentored running backs, most notably Early Campbell during his time with the Houston Oilers, from 1974-1997. Sadly, during his time coaching the Buffalo Bills, Pitts was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which he succumbed to less than a year later. Pitts is a 1980 inductee of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame. Here is much more on Pitts’ full story.
RB Tim Horton
Conway | 1983-85 | 5-9, 170 lbs.
Horton came to Conway in junior high when his father Harold, who would win back-to-back football national championships at UCA in 1984-85, took the head coaching position for the Bears. Tim created a legacy of his own as a player, earning All-State twice while playing for the Wampus Cats and was also a great sprinter for the track and field team. For his outstanding efforts during his time as a Wampus Cat, June 13, 2019, was proclaimed “Tim Horton Day” by Mayor Bart Castleberry.
Horton went on to have an outstanding playing career at the University of Arkansas, serving as team captain and earning second-team All-Southwest Conference honors as a senior. He lettered all four years, highlighted by back-to-back SWC championships with 10-2 records his final two seasons.
Following his collegiate career, Horton began his coaching career at Appalachian State under Jerry Moore, who was an assistant at Arkansas during Horton’s final two seasons. Horton eventually returned to Arkansas from 2007-12 as a running backs coach. He played a huge part in signing the stellar 2008 recruiting class that would eventually help the Razorbacks reach heights it has not seen since. He also mentored the great running back duo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones during their final season on The Hill in 2007.
At the time of this publication, Horton is in his second stint at Air Force. He coaches running backs and also serves as the special teams coordinator. Previous coaching stops include Kansas State, Auburn and Vanderbilt. Horton was inducted into the Conway Wampus Cat Hall of Fame in 2019 and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2021.
WR Kannon Bartlett
Vilonia | 2019-21 | 6-0, 175 lbs.
Bartlett was a part of some of the best Vilonia teams in over a decade, helping the Eagles win 22 games from 2019-21. In his senior season, he caught 56 passes for 1,186 yards while compiling 20 total touchdowns – 15 receiving, three rushing and two on kickoff returns. A two-time All-State selection, Bartlett holds school records for receiving yards in a game (237), season (1,190) and career (1,647), along with the career record for receiving touchdowns (20) and the longest touchdown reception (97 yards).
WR Bryce Bohanon
Conway | 2018-20 | 5-10, 175 lbs.
WR Herb Grigsby
Mayflower | 2000-02 | 6-0, 164 lbs.
OL Colton Jackson
Conway | 2012-14 | 6-6, 295 lbs.
OL Tom Mabry
Conway | 1965-67 | 6-6, 260 lbs.
Mabry was a mammoth offensive tackle on the Wampus Cats’ state championship team that went 10-1 in 1967. Some of his prep accolades include being named to the “All-Southern” team and the Arkansas Gazette Super Team, plus he was selected to play in the 1968 All-Star Game following his senior year.
He went on to play for Arkansas, lettering from 1969-71 and making the All-Southwest Conference second team his senior season for the Hogs. He was picked in the eighth round of the 1972 NFL Draft by the New York Giants.
Following his time with the Wampus Cats, Ruple went to Arkansas and became a first-team All-SWC tackle for the Razorbacks in 1967, at which point he weighed 242 pounds. Following that season, he was selected to participate in the East-West Shrine Game and was ultimately taken in the second round of the 1968 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
OL Shannon Money
Conway | 1994-96 | 6-4, 300 lbs.
OL Robert Scott
Conway | 2017-19 | 6-6, 290 lbs.
OL Brett Shockley
Conway | 1993-95 | 6-8, 325 lbs.
DL Ricky Kersey
Conway | 1963-65 | 6-0, 200 lbs.
An opposing coach during his high school career once said of Kersey that he “just doesn’t stay blocked. If you get him down, you better sit on top of him.” Kersey was one of multiple players who had immensely successful football careers in the trenches, not only in high school but also at the next level. He was a vital piece to Conway’s undefeated state championship season in 1964 as a junior and earned honorable mention All-American honors from Coach and Athlete magazine following his senior year.
Kersey lettered at Arkansas from 1968-70. Despite weighing only 200 pounds, he earned All-Southwest Conference honors as a defensive tackle in 1969, when the Razorbacks nearly won a national title. He is a member of the University of Arkansas’ All-Decade Team of the 1960s.
DL Ernest Ruple
Conway | 1961-63 | 6-5, 223 lbs.
Ruple capped his high school career at Conway by finishing first in the discus at the Meet of Champions. However, he’s much more known for his prowess on the gridiron, where he earned All-State honors as a senior and played in the 1963 All-Star Game.
Following his time with the Wampus Cats, Ruple accepted a scholarship at Arkansas and eventually became a team captain as a senior in 1967, when he was named to the All-SWC first team. The Pittsburgh took him in the second round of the 1968 NFL Draft.
DL Steven Stone
Conway | 2002-04 | 6-6, 230 lbs.
LB Nick Cowger
Vilonia | 2002-04 | 6-2, 225 lbs.
Despite Vilonia limping to a 5-6 record in 2002, Cowger was one of the bright spots as a sophomore, eclipsing more than 120 tackles and 8 sacks, plus he had a pick-six. Cowger also took over the quarterback duties for the final five games of the season and averaged over 200 total yards each game and led the Eagles to their only state championship appearance of all-time the following season in 2003. The three-time All-State selection is Vilonia’s all-time leading tackler with 389. Playing collegiately at Central Arkansas, Cowger earned second-team All-Southland honors as a fullback.
LB Nick Huett
Greenbrier | 2019-21 | 5-10, 200 lbs.
DB Justin Hargis
Conway | 1991-93 | 6-1, 175 lbs.
Hargis was an excellent three-sport athlete who competed in football, basketball and baseball. As both a quarterback and defensive back in 1993, Hargis led Conway to the 1993 4A state championship game while intercepting 10 passes that season. He was named the Friday Night Lights Arkansas Player of the Year along with multiple other postseason honors as a senior and went on the letter two seasons for the UCA football team, where he led the Bears in interceptions as a true freshman.
DB Lerinezo Robinson
Mayflower | 1998-2000 | 6-0, 185 lbs.
Robinson was a three-time All-State performer for the late great George Jones, and also excelled in basketball along with track and field. He rushed for more than 3,000 yards, collected 300 tackles, intercepted 15 passes and had five total special teams touchdowns between punt and kickoff returns. Robinson essentially played everywhere in all three phases of the game other than in the trenches for the Eagles. He was utilized at quarterback his senior year, passing for 1,600 yards. Some of his other accolades included back-to-back Faulkner County Player of the Year honors, a 400-yards and six-touchdown performance in a loss to now-defunct Pulaski Oak Grove in the 2000 playoffs, and two state records for single-game tackles.
Following his high school career, Robinson accepted a scholarship to play for the Razorbacks, where he lettered from 2002-05. During his tenure at Arkansas, Robinson intercercepted five passes, including two against Louisiana-Monroe in 2004 and one he returned for a touchdown in 2002.
DB Greg Lasker
Conway | 1979-81 | 6-1, 200 lbs.
Lasker excelled on the gridiron, as well as track and field, helping the Wampus Cats win the 4A state track title his junior year in 1981 and also winning multiple individual events in his final year. He led Conway to an 8-3 record in football his senior season and won the Frank E. Robins Award for being the school’s outstanding athlete.
After accepting a scholarship to play at Arkansas, Lasker started at safety for four years, earning team captain, all-conference honors, a spot in the East-West Shrine Game and the Bruce Mitchell Award – all during his senior year. Lasker is a member of both the University of Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor as well as the program’s all-decade team of the 1980s, and his 155 interception return yards currently rank seventh all-time in Arkansas football history at the time of this publication. Lasker’s three-year professional career began after being selected by the New York Giants with the 53rd overall pick in the 1986 NFL Draft and they defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI in his rookie season.
KR/PR Bradley Long
Mayflower | 2003-05 | 6-1, 170 lbs.
SPECIALIST Lance Ellison
Conway | 1988-90 | 6-6, 205 lbs.
COACH Kenny Smith | Conway (1991-2008)
Smith was a sophomore offensive lineman on the undefeated 1964 Conway state championship team and led the Wampus Cats for 18 seasons after serving for seven years as an assistant on the staff under Buzz Bolding. Smith won six total conference championships and led Conway to the 1993 state finals in just his third year at the helm. He compiled a 129-75 record during his tenure and eclipsed double-digit wins four times.
Others worth mentioning:
- Rex Lovell led Conway to its first football state championship in 1964. It was a team that went 11-0, the program’s third – and last – undefeated season (others were 1946-47). Lovell went 42-14-3 in five seasons before leaving to coach the offensive line at UCA.
- Dennis Fulmer won a state championship in his first season as head coach at Conway. He coached the team three more years following the title, putting together a star-studded staff and compiling a 32-11-2 record before stepping down to become the school’s first full-time athletic director following the 1970 season.
Acknowledgments: Kenny Smith, Mark Ratliff, Brooks Beazley, Lerinezo Robinson, Drake Toll, Conway Wampus Cat Hall of Fame, Barclay Almanac of Arkansas High School Football
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