Entertainment » Jim Harris

Fitz Hill’s good fight

Taking football and beating illiteracy.

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Many folks would love it if education could capture the amount of attention, and money, that football does in this state. It doesn’t appear that will happen anytime soon. Money will continue to pour into high school and college football programs by the millions, while others will try to raise the state’s education level with anything they can muster.

Dr. Fitz Hill, the first-year president of Arkansas Baptist College and a former star college football player and coach, learned long ago that he could use the public’s interest in football to make them aware of problems that usually go unnoticed.

For Hill, his pet project when he was the head coach at San Jose State University was illiteracy. It started simply enough. Hill was recruiting a player that couldn’t get into college because he couldn’t read. Another recruit joined Hill for breakfast one morning, and Hill soon deduced from the conversation that this player couldn’t even read the menu.

“I thought that was a travesty that a kid could go all the way through 12th grade and couldn’t read,” he said. “I consider myself a marketing person for fighting illiteracy. You promote awareness, and that’s what I’m trying to do. People bring awareness to diabetes, to HIV. Awareness of illiteracy is very low until you’ve experienced it.”

So, the coach decided, perhaps he could create a football matchup in which the proceeds were dedicated to funding programs to fight illiteracy. The first game featured his San Jose State team against Grambling State University, the Louisiana school then coached by former Grambling and NFL quarterbacking great Doug Williams and the preeminent football name among historically black institutions.

Hill, who grew up in Arkadelphia, played football at Northeast Louisiana University and Ouachita Baptist University, and eventually was the assistant head coach at the University of Arkansas under Houston Nutt, struggled in a no-win situation at San Jose State for three years, but writers across the nation took note of his efforts to build community support and attack problems such as illiteracy. When he returned home to Arkansas, Hill wanted to continue the fight. “We did not have a game like this here,” he said. “I thought, we can have a great game for a great purpose.”

And why not? While every corner of the nation has its illiteracy problems, illiteracy in the Delta region tops 40 percent of the population.

“When Toyota came and looked at Arkansas but didn’t want to put that factory in the Delta and went to Toronto instead, they said they needed pictorials to teach employees here to be able to work,” Hill said. “If we improve the literacy, we improve everything in our state.”

Crime in Little Rock is up, particularly the murder rate this year, and Hill attributes some of that to illiteracy. “Last year, that kid who threw the rock that hit and killed the woman who was driving on the Interstate, that kid was a dropout,” Hill said. “The first characteristic of a dropout is that the kid is illiterate, that’s why they drop out. They can’t read.”

Saturday, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Grambling State will play in the Delta Classic 4 Literacy game at War Memorial Stadium. On Monday, coaches from UAPB said the crowd could range from 20,000 to 30,000 fans. Kickoff is at 4 p.m., and gates open at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $35 on the east and west stands and $15 in the end zone. Stadium parking is $10.

“I believe this is a tremendous platform to bring these issues forward,” Hill said, “because a lot of times they are out of sight and out of mind.”

Hill has partnered with Marie Bruno and the Arkansas Literacy Council to try to raise $100,000 to fund illiteracy programs in 19 Arkansas counties. Hill said that even if that goal is not reached Saturday, the teams have a contract to play again next year. The fight will go on.

Call 244-0717 or visit www.deltaclassic4literacy.org for more information.

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