Leader Blues

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

SPORTS>> Rhinos bringing semi-pro football to town

Leader sportswriter

Football. It’s not just an autumn affair anymore.

The Arkansas Rhinos will bring semi-pro football to Jacksonville this summer as part of the North America Football League.

The Rhinos, who have been around since 2001, played their first seven seasons in Little Rock and feature several big names in state football over the past decade. They are led by former Arkansas Razorback Oscar Malone. Malone joined the Rhinos roster back in 2002 as a player, but took over head coaching duties in 2004 for departing Virgil Stargell. Stargell coached for two seasons when first-year head coach West Baker left after the first year.

Despite their short life, the Rhinos have already established a great deal of tradition, including five straight division titles in the Tennessee Valley Conference from ’02 to ’06, and an appearance in the NAFL semifinals in 2005.

The ’05 campaign proved to be their strongest, as Malone rebounded from a difficult 5-6 season his first year to lead the Rhinos to an undefeated 10-0 regular-season record. They were one game away from the championship game of the 117-team league when their year ended with final record of 13-1 and the southern region title.

Fast forward three years. The Rhinos are currently revving up for their opener on June 14 in Memphis. Arkansas will take on the Memphis Blast twice to start the season — the first on the road, and the second at their new home at Red Devil Field at Jacksonville Middle School on June 28.

Malone says the move to Jacksonville began as more of a suggestion.

“A lot of people, a lot of fans said to move to a football town,” Malone said. “There’s a lot to do in Little Rock, but nothing to do in Jacksonville. They said, if you guys move up here, we can support you guys, and you can make it your new home, and I said, ‘You know what, let’s give it a shot.’”

A short meeting between Malone and Jacksonville Middle School Boys principal Michael Nellums secured a home field for the Rhinos, and the team introduced themselves to the community with a media day appearance at Burger King on John Harden Drive this past Saturday.

The Rhinos hope to draw between 1,500 to 2,000 fans per home game.

Malone says that along with making it to the elusive NAFL title game and gaining more fans this season, one of the biggest goals is to differentiate the Rhinos from other Arkansas gridiron teams.

“We need to get over that hump,” Malone said. “This is our eighth season coming up. We’ve got a lot of fans, a lot of people.

We just need a broader group of people around the area interested. It’s outdoor football.

“A lot of people confuse us with the (Arena Football League’s Arkansas) Twisters. We’re semi-pro. There’s a big difference.”

The NAFL follows NFL rules exactly, with the exception of having instant replay. The season begins in mid June, and the regular season wraps up in late September, with the playoffs going through the month of October.

Marcus Yarbrough and former Jacksonville Red Devil Brandon Nelson will be vital to the Rhinos’ defense this season, Malone said. The cousins will split the field from the cornerback positions — Yarbrough on the left and Nelson on the right.

This will be Nelson’s first stint with the Rhinos. Yarbrough, a ’97 graduate of Little Rock Central, is a veteran of the team, and is beginning his seventh season. One of the team captains, Yarbrough has led the Rhinos in interceptions over the past several seasons.

“It seems like a pretty good move for us,” Yarbrough said. “Jacksonville seems to follow football pretty well, so we’re really excited about playing out here. We hope to bring in some big crowds, especially since we’re going to be right off the freeway.”

Yarbrough says that while there may not be any pay involved, his love of the game is more than enough compensation.

“It’s real fun,” Yarbrough said. “True enough, you’re not getting paid, but it’s really not all about payment. It’s really more about coming out here and having a lot of fun. As long as I still have some kind of talent left, I’m still going to use it. Plus, I just really like being around these guys. They’re a lot of fun to be around.”

Nelson is back in his hometown after graduating from the University of Arkansas, where he played briefly with the Hogs. He is now establishing a career for himself at UAMS Medical Center, and looks forward to donning the silver, blue and black of the Rhinos for the first time.

“Marcus was always saying that I could get on the team whenever I got back home,” Nelson said. “I’ve known Oscar for a couple of years. I was on the team at Fayetteville for a couple of years, and it didn’t pan out like I thought it was going to, but I still had it in me to want to play. It’s another opportunity to play football, so I want to take advantage of that.”

Nelson hopes that his hometown connections will help increase interest.

“I love being here, in Jack-sonville,” Nelson said. “It’s my hometown, and all my friends and family are here, so hopefully I can do some marketing and get some folks down here.”

Many Jacksonville fans are already quite familiar with the name Brandon Nelson. From 2000-02, Nelson was a star player for the Red Devils under longtime coach Johnny Watson. He made All-State in both his junior and senior seasons, and also played in the All-Star game his senior year.

With limited playing time on the UA squad, Nelson made the difficult decision to drop football to concentrate on studies.
But now that he’s back, Nelson hopes to enter the NAFL with a bang. Aside from his duties at corner, Nelson also hopes to assist Malone and the Rhinos coaching staff.

“I just hope to add stability and consistency,” Nelson said. “It’s kind of catch 22, where a lot of us were the guy on their high school teams, but a lot of us didn’t play much in college. So now, you get back, and most of us are around the same age.

“You have the same level of maturity trying to coach and play together, and sometimes you butt heads because everybody has different perspectives on how things should be done, and the one thing I want to bring is that cohesiveness — having everybody on the same page.”

As for the NAFL title, Yarbrough hopes the heartbreaks of the past will lead to an overall championship in 2008.

“We’ve been close, a few times,” Yarbrough said. “We just have to make it all the way this year. We seem to have a pretty good core of guys out here, and I think we have a pretty good shot at it.”