PINE BLUFF, Ark. - What started as a celebration for Arkansas-Pine Bluff after its thrilling 22-21 victory Saturday night over Southern soon turned ugly after the final play, with swinging helmets, thrown punches, fans throwing soda bottles and some coaches and players getting hit with pepper spray.
The game had a wild finish preceding the fracas.
First, UAPB took a 22-15 lead on a 14-play, 79-yard drive ending with a Dennis Jenkins touchdown run and two-point conversion pass with 1:30 remaining.
Then, Southern completed a mad drive for what looked like it would be a game-tying score. The 76-yard, seven-play drive ended with no time on the clock when quarterback Dray Joseph found Sylvester Nzewke on an 11-yard throwback screen to get the Jaguars within 22-21, pending an extra point.
But then, with the Jaguars set to send the game to overtime with an extra point, Manuel Canto, attempting his first PAT of the game, hit a line drive into the line of scrimmage, and UAPB’s Jarvis Webb blocked the kick, setting off a celebration on the Golden Lions sideline.
Immediately afterward, several Southern players were face down on the grass near the 3-yard line, visibly heartbroken. On the other end of the field, however, a wild slugfest soon erupted.
“I didn’t see anything. I had pepper spray in my eyes,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “I just saw the ground. That’s it.”
The fight began at 8:54 p.m. It lasted 10 minutes, until 9:04 p.m., when SU coach Stump Mitchell walked off the field with LaMarkius Pettaway, one of the players who was hit with pepper spray.
Dozens of players from both teams were involved in the fight. Before he was hit with pepper spray, Pettaway was seen swinging his helmet.
Others from both teams were clearly seen throwing roundhouse punches.
“This was an outstanding ballgame between two outstanding universities whose ties in both academics and athletics go back as far as I can remember,” UAPB Chancellor Lawrence A. Davis Jr. said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, following the game, things beyond our control happened that neither UAPB nor Southern can condone nor be proud of. The conference office is being provided video footage that will hopefully aid it in its investigation into this unfortunate incident.”
Coleman said he knew one of his players was hit with a helmet, though he didn’t know who hit his player, be it a Arkansas-Pine Bluff or Southern player.
Southern Chancellor James Llorens, who as at the game, said in a statement: “Southern University apologizes to our fans, the Baton Rouge campus, the city of Baton Rouge, our alumni and Arkansas Pine Bluff for the horrendous event that our football team was involved in after the game Saturday night. This is not representative of our student-athletes, coaches and Southern University and A&M College.
“This was a serious breach of our code of student conduct and we will make it clear to our coaches and players in all sports that this kind of action will not be tolerated. We plan to take appropriate disciplinary measures in this matter.”
Most players from both teams wound up in the fight, whether to break it up or to participate, just past midfield. UAPB Athletic Director Lonza Hardy said he saw Jefferson County (Ark.) sheriffs officers shooting pepper spray into the crowd, trying to disperse the mob.
“I didn’t expect this,” said UAPB offensive coordinator Eric Dooley, the former SU assistant, who was clearly dismayed afterward. “I just wanted a hard-fought battle by both teams, and for them to leave it all on the field.”
Coleman added: “I don’t know how it got started. I really don’t have comments on what happened or who started (the fight).”
SU defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert, one of several coaches who immediately rushed to break up the fight, was directly hit with the pepper spray; he retreated to a bench, where trainers helped him.
Linebacker Jared Detrick, also hit with pepper spray, was seen with emergency responders pressing down on his chest.
Moments later, trainers helped Pettaway peel off his jersey and pads and applied an oxygen mask to his face.
Gilbert, Detrick and Pettaway all eventually walked off the field on their own power.
Asked if he knew whether his players were all right, second-year coach Mitchell responded: “Yeah. I mean, other than being heartbroken because of a heartbreaking loss, I think everybody’s OK.”
Mitchell sidestepped most other questions involving the fight, though he commented on Pettaway: “I think he got a little bit of pepper spray, and when you have a little asthma, that probably triggered something there.”
Meanwhile, as the fight raged on, on the east sideline, fans of both teams fired soda and waters bottles onto the field.
Policemen led several fans away in handcuffs.
Southwestern Athletic Conference spokesman Tom Galbraith, who attended the game, said: “Commissioner (Duer) Sharp is aware that there was an incident. That’s about all I can say.”