I was fortunate enough to get to attend a roundtable at the Mullins' Library on campus the other night sponsored by the Washington County Historical Society to see Razorback greats Johnnie Meadors, Brison Manor, and Dennis "Dirt" Winston as they were joined by their close friend former trainer Dean Weber. It was an evening put on by the great authors and Hog historians Nate Allen and Hoyt Purvis of the journalism department. It was an evening that proved to be a special gathering of stories as told by each of the guests. What a fantastic evening!
There were many stories told, but the one that stands out in my mind is the one that tells how a player who didn't get to play his senior year of high school football due to the level of racial strife that existed in his community, and how he ended up as one of the truly great linebackers to ever wear the Cardinal and White at Arkansas.
Born on October 25, 1955, in Forrest City and raised in Marianna, Dennis Edward Winston grew up as a natural athlete. During his high school days at Robert E. Lee High School, Winston played for Coach Jim Banks on the varsity basketball team as a 10th grader. While in high school he also starred at linebacker and wide receiver on the football squad where he won All-State honors. Although he didn't play football during his senior year, he was highly recruited by the SEC, SWC, Big 10, and PAC 12.
Growing up in the Delta with its proximity to Tennessee, Winston had a real affinity for the Volunteers in Knoxville. However, during the recruiting period he ended up leaning toward OSU as his main choice. Back then players could commit to several teams in December prior to the national signing day in February. During December, Winston had commited to Eastern Michigan (recruited by Jim McKinley), OSU (recruited by John Little), Arkansas (recruited by Boris Malcheski - freshman Assistant Coach and Harold Horton), Tennessee, and Texas (recruited by John Woods) among others.
Winston's former high school football coach Charlie Moore had been the college roommate of Harold Horton which gave Horton an inside connection during the recruiting period. Winston tells how during basketball season of his senior year, he kept noticing this white guy in the stands at his games. Soon after he started noticing another white guy and he was wondering what was going on. It wasn't until later that Moore told him who Horton and Malcheski were. By then they had been following him around all season.
It was 7:30 in the morning on national signing day when he noticed there was a car parked across the street from his home. It was Malcheski and he wasn't going to let this one get away. As it turned out, the OSU plane was delayed into Marianna. Eastern Michigan recruiting had been stopped at the city limits by state troopers who promptly arrested Jim McKinley for speeding (right!) and threw him in jail. Tennessee and Texas were elsewhere. So... this left Malcheski to reel in his prize catch. By 8:15, Winston was a Hog for he had commited to the Razorbacks by signing on the dotted line in the principal's office. Since then, he is convinced that his parents, the Arkansas recruiters, Charlie Moore, and the principal all had a hand in him becoming a Hog. After all, how could this be left up to a youngster such as him to make this type of decision?
Winston joined the Hogs in the class of '73 as #55. This was only a year after Jon Richardson, the first African-American to play for the Razorbacks as a member of the varsity team, had broken the color barrier. Winston and his fellow teammates were truly groundbreakers in laying the foundation for making the Hogs a complete team where color had no bearing on talent.
As a junior with the conclusion of the 1975 season, #18 Arkansas played Vince Dooley and the #12 Georgia Bulldogs on January 1 in the 1976 Cotton Bowl Classic. Both teams sported identical records of 9-2-0 as Arkansas defeated Geogia 31-10. The weather was a warm 65F, sunny day featuring Scott Bull at quarterback, Steve Little at kicker, running back Ike Forte, and Dennis Winston at linebacker. The game was played in front of a crowd estimated at 77,500 and broadcast nationally on CBS.
Very little had gone right for the Hogs during the first quarter as they had only been able to accumulate seven offensive plays as the Bulldogs had taken the lead by way of a field goal for a 3-0 score. Midway during the second quarter, Georgia again scored through the air with a 21-yard pass from quarterback Matt Robinson to Gene Washington. However, after a Georgia Matt Robinson fumble, Steve Little would thread the needle with the football finding its way through the goalposts with fifty seconds left in the half. Georgia 10, Arkansas 3. Following the kickoff, Georgia again fumbled with the ball being recovered at the Georgia 13, although having only 25 ticks left in the half. With the clock running down, Ike Forte took it for 12 to the one and scored on the next play. Steve Little tied the game at 10. It was now halftime.
Not until the Hogs had put the game out of reach, did Georgia move the ball out past their own 30-yard line. The scoring dam was broken when, in the fourth quarter Scott Bull threw a 35-yard strike to Freddie Douglas to set up a Roland Fuch 5-yard touchdown run. Another Georgia turnover via pass interception set up Michael Forrest for a 1-yard touchdown dive. Following a Georgia punt, Ike Forte ended a 68-yard, 12-play drive with 1:16 left in the game to top off the final margin at 31-10. Arkansas won. It would be 24 years before Arkansas would win another Cotton Bowl Classic when they defeated Texas by a score of 27-6 in the 2000 Cotton Bowl.
Dennis Winston #55 will always be remembered as a true linebacker and ground breaker in laying one of the stones for the foundation of the program that has become the Hogs of today. In 1994 Winston was selected as linebacker for the University of Arkansas All-Century Team. In August of this year he will be inducted into the University of Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor. A deserving tribute for the man known as "Dirt."