By Nate Olson | Photos by Sadie Rucker
Bladen Fike had become a national phenomenon, and he didn’t even know it.
After one of the worst weekends of his young life, Fike was taking an after-school nap. While he rested blissfully past the dinner hour, he awoke to a cell phone full of text messages and notifications.
Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss thought it fitting to use Fike’s error that cost Fayetteville a playoff win against Little Rock Central on his portion of the C’mon Man segment during ESPN’s Monday Night Football pregame show and belittled the high school junior on a national stage, saying, “Bladen Fike, you should have known the rules of the game. C’mon, man!”
“I woke up and had a missed call from my friend Isaiah Sategna (Fayetteville senior receiver and University of Arkansas commit) saying he was sorry about what Randy Moss said and not to worry about it,” Fike recalled. “I went right to Twitter where I had all of the notifications and saw (the segment). My dad called me after he watched it and I said, ‘This sucks.’”
That prompted Fike to craft a letter he posted on social media explaining the play and owning the mistake, promising the error wouldn’t be his entire story.
“That play popped into my mind constantly,” Fike said. “It still does, but once the season started, it doesn’t as much anymore — maybe once a week now. I just don’t want that play to define me. It will probably always be a part of my name. I think I have shown there is more to me, and now all I can do is help us win a state championship.”
He quickly got to work and got bigger, faster and stronger — and, like he promised, he got better, and Fayetteville won a 7A-West Conference title, its first outright league championship since 1963. The Bulldogs will play a 7A state quarterfinal game against Cabot on Friday night with hopes of playing for a state title at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium next month.
Last week, Fike, one of the state’s passing leaders, received his first Division I scholarship offer.
“We always teach our players to take adversity and use it in a positive way,” said Kent Laster, who was the Little Rock Central coach last year before taking the head-coaching job at University High School in Waco, Texas. “Look what happened to (Fike) and that program. It could have been a catalyst to get them to where they are now. A lot of good things happen after bad. (Fayetteville’s success) is an example of that, and I’m proud of the way Coach Dick and Bladen have handled it and give them my best wishes.”
With Fayetteville leading Central 35-34, Tigers quarterback Lawson Gunn fired a pass on fourth down that was just out of reach of receiver Parker Perry with 1:32 left. The Tigers had a timeout, but Fayetteville could still run out the clock.
Fike said Bulldogs coach Casey Dick instructed him when he went on the field to take a knee four times and run out the clock. That plan seemed to be working perfectly until the fourth-down play on Fayetteville’s 12-yard line when the game clock and play clock were separated by two ticks.
“I remember the play clock was at 28 seconds and the game clock was at 30,” said Fike, who owns a 4.0 GPA. “I remember in my head I was like, ‘I need to snap this right before the play clock ends and then take a knee.’”
Trying to pay attention to both clocks, Fike called for the snap and kneeled immediately. The game clock showed zero, but actually there were two seconds remaining as some of the Bulldogs players celebrated an apparent win. The Central coaching staff stormed the field and demanded that time be added. The officials directed the time keeper to add two seconds to the game clock and awarded possession to the Tigers.
“I snapped it two seconds too early. If I had snapped it two seconds later, the play would have been dead,” Fike said. “It was a mistake by me. I saw a guy coming off the line from the left, and I just kneeled.”
Central junior kicker Harry Wickoff lined up for a 29-yard field goal … and drilled it down the middle to give the Tigers a 37-35 win.
“I looked up at my dad in the stands, and everybody had their heads down,” Fike said.
Dick took responsibility for the play.
“It was just total mismanagement of the clock and not something that should be put in the hands of a 16-year-old,” Dick said.
Some of those offensive players who ran off the field celebrating were Bulldogs seniors who thought they had escaped to play another day in the quarterfinal round.
“That was the worst part for me. I thought (the seniors) were going to be upset at me,” Fike said. “Their careers were over because of me. But those guys were some of my best friends on the team. They told me not to worry about it. I think because we were such good friends, they were more forgiving. I was worried because that was the end of their careers. Everybody was really nice about it. That helped.”
On the other sideline, Central’s players and staff were understandably jubilant. But Laster and his staff also were sympathetic to the nature of the Fayetteville defeat.
“Of course, we were glad to be on the winning side,” Laster said. “That game could have easily went the other way, and I was preparing myself to console our team and congratulate Fayetteville.
“At the same time, we were just trying to put pressure on them, hoping to get the ball back and see how that would play out. I was proud of our players, but immediately our team and coaches went to console (Fayetteville) with how the tables turned so quickly.”
Fike said the Bulldogs locker room was dead silent as players fled in and put their uniforms to be washed as Dick sat on a bench nearby as “everybody was sad.”
“I just told him we were going to get through this together and next year he would be sitting in a different chair,” Dick said.
Fike’s father, Jason, tried to encourage his son and told him to try to “have some fun” and forget the game.
Fike spent the night at a friend’s house in hopes of taking his mind off the loss.
“I tried, but in the back of my mind, I was thinking about how I cost us our season,” he said. “It was tough to get it out of my mind. Everybody around me was great, though. They knew it was bothering me.”
Dick warned Fike after the game that the play might make him a popular target on social media.
Dick was a quarterback at the University of Arkansas from 2005-08. He dealt with controversy his sophomore season in 2006 when he was injured and freshman Mitch Mustain, a prep All-American from nearby Springdale, went 8-0 as a starter, only to see Dick take the starting job back. The dynamic with Mustain, Mustain’s high school coach Gus Malzahn, who was in his first year as offensive coordinator, and the other four Springdale freshmen made for a circus of a season and Dick was in the middle of it as a starting quarterback.
“I think at the time, Facebook was just beginning and social media was ramping up,” Dick said. “As a quarterback, you are in a position to get more criticism. This was a horrible situation that no one should have to deal with.”
But even Dick, who was a starting quarterback at an SEC program during the middle of turmoil and a losing season his senior year, might not have seen the negativity and criticism unloaded on his 16-year-old quarterback.
There were countless social media posts poking fun at the mistake. It took roughly an hour following the game for the clip of the mistake taken from Fayetteville’s live stream to hit Twitter.
“I look at sports this way: Coaches and players are judged on every mistake,” Dick said. “No other profession is like that. But everything coaches and players do can be criticized. A lot of the people talking and posting haven’t played football and don’t know a lot about the game.”
Realizing the play “had become viral so quickly,” Laster texted Dick the next day.
“I saw the negativity that was directed to the coaching staff and (Fike), and I wanted (Dick) to know I fully supported him and appreciated how hard (Fayetteville) played and how it could have been the other way around. I thought (Dick) handled it well.”
But the worst was yet to come.
On the Monday after the game, ESPN’s Monday Night Countdown show was previewing the Minnesota Vikings/Chicago Bears game. One of the show’s segments is ‘C’mon Man.’ It focuses on bloopers and other bizarre plays, normally featuring college games from the Saturday before and some NFL games from that week.
On this night, the narrator for the Fike clip was Moss, whose checkered and controversial past is well-documented. Nonetheless, ESPN and Moss had no problem with criticizing a teenager.
“Bladen Fike, you kneeled the ball on fourth down? You are supposed to know the rules of the game. Bladen Fike, you got eliminated from the playoffs because you didn’t understand the game. Man, quarterback Bladen Fike, you know what it is … Bladen Fike, you should have understood the game.”
“I was watching it live, and my first reaction was, ‘There is no way that is our Bladen Fike,’” said Sategna, one of Fike’s closest friends. “I was just confused at first and thought it was crazy that someone like Randy Moss would be disrespecting our quarterback in a manner like that, especially since it really wasn’t his fault. I didn’t think it was a good look for Randy Moss to be checking a high school player.”
Following the segment, Dick released a Twitter response backing Fike and taking responsibility. Then, Fike crafted a response that he ran past his parents and stepmother. Jason Fike said they suggested he change just two words.
The Fayetteville school district also began to craft a response, but Jason Fike asked them to stop. Jason Fike had conversations with a producer from ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast and ESPN’s director of communications but not with the executive producer of Monday Night Countdown.
There was never a public apology from ESPN or Moss, but the ESPN communications official did apologize to the Fike family. Jason Fike said his message to the PR person was “to highlight the positive things amateur athletes are doing and shy away from the sensational story.”
The far-reaching effect of the broadcast was evident last summer when Sategna and Fike were on vacation with family in the Dominican Republic. After a couple of other American vacationers discovered the two were from Fayetteville, the other visitors indicated they were familiar with the Fayetteville quarterback who was on the C’mon Man segment.
“Bladen said, ‘I am that quarterback,’” Sategna said. “They didn’t believe him, but he showed them. They were kind of embarrassed after that.”
It wasn’t long after the season was over that Jason Fike and his son decided on a training regimen for the offseason.
“We sat down, and he said, ‘Dad, what do I need to do?’” Jason Fike said. “He knew he needed a better understanding of the game and wanted to get bigger, faster and stronger.”
Jason Fike, a former Arkansas cheerleader and power lifter, prescribed a five-days-a-week weight training program at Fayetteville Athletic Club that would add to Bladen’s 5-foot-10, 158-pound frame.
Thanks to weight-gainer shakes and the weight room, Fike gained 35 pounds. He also grew to be over 6-foot-2. Jason Fike said doctors believe his son isn’t done growing. Jason Fike is 6-5.
Fike improved his bench press max from 215 to 285 pounds. His squat max went from 315 to 385.
“I got a lot stronger, and I went from throwing the ball around 50 yards to 70 yards,” Fike said.
Between lifting sessions he passed plenty with his dad and Fayetteville receivers.
To help with his speed, Fike turned to FHS alum and Arkansas standout heptathlete Brad Culp. Culp was a track and football star for the Bulldogs and held the all-time decathlon and receiving records when he left FHS in 2014.
Fike worked out with Culp two days a week from January through August, eventually clocking a respectable 4.6-second 40-yard dash time.
“That helped a lot,” Fike said. “I got a much quicker first step.”
The final piece to Fike’s offseason regimen fell into place in March when new Fayetteville offensive coordinator Jay Wilkinson began his tenure with the Bulldogs.
The Oklahoma native was well-known in Oklahoma prep circles. He was a quarterback at Tulsa under former coach Dave Rader before transferring to Northwestern Oklahoma State to finish his college career.
After graduation, he served as an assistant in the NCAA Division II ranks and then moved to high school football, where he was the offensive coordinator at several prestigious programs, including Tulsa-area juggernauts Jenks and Union.
His most recent stop was at Broken Arrow, where the staff orchestrated a state title run in 2018. He was fired last November after a 7-4 season, leaving the father of four in need of a job. He and Dick connected, and Wilkinson came to Fayetteville. He introduced a ‘Quarterback School’ at 6:30 a.m. two days a week starting in March. All of the school’s quarterbacks attended, and Wilkinson immediately saw Fike’s potential in the classroom.
“You could tell he played a lot of games the year before. He was like a sponge taking notes,” Wilkinson said. “When he was learning, it held his attention. With our other players, they weren’t new to the system, so there was a difference in seeing (Fike) absorbing all of this new information. It allowed him to grow. There are a lot of nuances.”
Wilkinson said his offense doesn’t have a name but features a no-huddle, wide-open philosophy that Fike embraced knowing he’d have a stronger throwing arm and better escapability in the pocket.
Wilkinson was vaguely familiar with the Fike kneel. A coaching colleague sent him a text regarding the play after Broken Arrow’s playoff win that same night, but in preparation for the next round, he forgot about it. While watching tape of Fayetteville when preparing for the job, he was reminded of the play.
“I told him, that was last year, and I am not worried about last year,” Wilkinson said. “I told him hopefully the next time we take a knee we have won the game. I think that was a relief to him. We can’t change the story, but we can write the end of it.”
Before the season, Fike and the Bulldogs had two immediate goals — beat Bentonville, which had won 14 of the past 15 7A-West Conference championships, and win an outright conference title for the first time in 58 years.
After a subpar season that was already disappointing before the playoff loss, pundits were high on the Purple Dogs and some predicted them to be the comeback team in Arkansas for 2021.
Fayetteville supported that notion by beating Conway in the opener. The Wampus Cats were expected to be a title contender, and the win seemed to be proof that things were headed in the right direction.
Then came a two-game losing streak. The Bulldogs lost 48-42 to Owasso — a perennial Oklahoma power located in the Tulsa area — and then dropped a 14-7 decision at home to North Little Rock, another state title contender and five-time qualifier to the 7A state championship game.
“Those two games were the only things this season that I wish could have been different,” Fike said. “I was a little off. I wish I had come out a little hotter in the first half of those games. We didn’t say anything, but Isaiah was a little hurt in the North Little Rock game and didn’t have that extra gear he normally has. That kind of hurt me a little bit. And the North Little Rock defensive line was aggressive. They were hard to block.”
Even so, the mini skid didn’t affect Fayetteville once the 7A-West Conference season began. Fike and the Bulldogs blew out eventual playoff qualifiers Bentonville West and Rogers, which won a first-round game, and Fort Smith Southside.
That set up a home showdown with rival Bentonville, which most believed would be for the conference title.
It didn’t look good for Fayetteville early, as the Bulldogs trailed 14-0 and Fike’s first pass was intercepted and returned into Fayetteville territory. The game became a nip and tuck affair, however, and the Bulldogs were able to secure a 42-34 win thanks to a 21-0 run midway through the third quarter. Senior defensive back Jaxon Taylor’s 49-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Fayetteville its first lead, 35-31, with six minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Bentonvile defense locked down Sategna, who didn’t catch a pass in the first half, but he did take an end-around 68 yards for a touchdown. Fike managed to throw three touchdown passes to three different receivers, and the Bulldogs celebrated by giving Dick a Gatorade bath moments after the horn sounded.
The win was momentous for a Fayetteville program trying to become prominent again in Dick’s third season.
It was the first time in 16 years Fayetteville had defeated Bentonville in a regular-season game. Fayetteville won state championships in 2007, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016 and is 5-2 against Bentonville in the playoffs during that time but couldn’t best the Tigers to win a conference title. No West team could, as Bentonville had won 35 consecutive league games until the Bulldogs snapped the streak.
“That was a big win, and it was one of our goals,” Fike said. “We knew we needed to win that game to accomplish another goal of winning the conference championship.”
The Bulldogs won their final three games handily to wrap up the conference title, and Fike was a major reason. His passing totals weekly were among the leaders in the state. He finished the regular season completing 188 of 293 passes for 2,876 yards and 36 touchdowns. In 2020, he was 98 of 189 for 1,779 yards and 15 touchdowns with six interceptions.
Jason Fike said the Central game helped improve some of Fike’s intangibles such as “timing in general and probably made him one of the best (in the state) about understanding timing in all facets.”
“I think the most important spot on a football team is the offensive line and second is quarterback,” said Sategna, who led the state after Week 10 with 68 catches for 1,353 yards and 14 touchdowns. “(Fike’s) improvement and development have been big in making our offense the best and helping us win.”
Dick was happy to see Fike with a reason to smile this season.
“It was one of those things that no one should have to go through, but he is a tough kid,” Dick said. “He is a big part of the reason we are where we are right now. He has had a great year and been a great leader.”
College coaches noticed Fike’s brilliant season and gains. He received his first Division I offer from Middle Tennessee State last week and hopes more are to come.
The team and personal success are satisfying to Fike, but the finality of his high school career has set in.
“It does feel good, but I wish I had more games to play,” he said. ”I only have three more (if Fayetteville goes to the state championship) with this receiving corps. They don’t get enough credit. Wherever I go to college I may not have a receiving corps this good. The offensive line deserves a lot of credit, too. I just wish we could do it all over again.”
Fayetteville plays Cabot, the No. 3 seed from the 7A-Central, in the quarterfinals Friday night. If the Bulldogs win, they will play the winner of Conway/Rogers. By virtue of holding the No. 1 seed, the next two rounds are home games.
This week marked the one-year anniversary of the Central loss. It would be natural for thoughts of that game to creep in as Fike steps on the playoff stage once again.
“I don’t think about that much now unless I see it on social media or something,” he said. “I am not going to let that hold me back. I was focused all season, and we are focused on Cabot.”
With a first-round bye, the Bulldogs have had two weeks to prepare for this game. With Cabot being a heavy favorite to beat Fayetteville’s conference rival, Springdale Har-Ber, they began preparing for the Panthers, Fike said. Cabot (8-3) will be a dangerous opponent, as the Panthers knocked off Bentonville on the road in the playoffs last fall and feature a talented defensive line.
Wilkinson is confident his quarterback will thrive under the pressure.
“I have seen all the work he’s put in, sitting in that classroom in the offseason since March, other than the dead week,” Wilkinson said. “In some aspects, he is almost an extension of the coaching staff. Before the season started, we talked about trust and how the players need to trust the staff and the staff trust the players. … He knows we have full trust in him to go out there and do it.”
When Fike sat down to write his response after the C’Mon Man segment, this is the position he was planning to be in a year later — in the playoffs with a chance to win a state title.
“Winning a state championship is a big goal and hopefully Randy Moss will see it,” Fike said. “That would be awesome for him to see it. Winning a state championship is the last remaining goal.”
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