FAYETTEVILLE — Ronnie Caveness Jr. didn’t remember his father as the rough and rugged linebacker who was the heart of Arkansas’ defense in 1963 and 1964.
Instead, he described Ronnie Caveness as a “gentle giant” off the field.
“He had the biggest heart of anyone,” Caveness Jr. said Sunday evening. “The greatest dad. Just a very quiet, humble man that would do anything for anybody.”
Caveness, a former Arkansas All-American and member of the College Football Hall of Fame, passed away Saturday after a lengthy bout with melanoma. He was 71.
The Houston native played linebacker and center at Arkansas under former coach Frank Broyles and was a key figure in the program’s success in the 1960s.
He earned first-team All-America honors from Football News in 1963, then first-team honors from The Associated Press, the America Football Coaches Association, the Football Writers Association of America and The Sporting News in 1964. He was one of the captains of Arkansas’ national championship team in 1964.
Caveness holds the Arkansas record for tackles in a game, collecting 29 against Texas in 1963. He amassed a school-record 309 tackles in consecutive seasons in 1963 and 1964 as well. Caveness also is remembered for his game-changing interception return for a touchdown during the win against Tulsa in 1964.
“We didn’t coach him,” Broyles said in May 2010. “We put him in the game and wished him well and told him to go to the football. That’s all we had to do.”
Caveness was inducted in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and, eventually, the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010. Caveness had to wait 46 years after his collegiate career ended to join the College Football Hall of Fame, but said at the time of his selection he was “humbled” to be part of the 2010 class.
“To be honest with you, I did not think it was going to happen,” Caveness said during a phone interview in May 2010. “Now that it has happened, I’m just … Elated is not the right word to use, but that’s the only thing I can think of.”
Caveness Jr. said his father’s health deteriorated shortly after ceremony.
Caveness, who also suffered from Parkinson’s disease and dementia, was in a nursing home six months after being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, according to his son. But Caveness Jr., called the Hall of Fame event his father’s “shining moment” because of the national title team’s importance in his life.
The 1964 Razorbacks will be honored during a 50th anniversary celebration during the weekend of the Alabama football game in September. Caveness Jr., said he’s sad his father won’t be there to enjoy the moment with former teammates.
But he added Caveness Jr., lived a few months longer than expected.
“We’ve been preparing for this for four months,” Caveness Jr., said. “It was time.”
The family will hold a celebration of Caveness’ life on June 5 at 2 p.m. at the Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock. Another former Razorback, Mark Henry, is the pastor of the church and will lead the celebration. Caveness Jr., said some members of the 1964 national championship team will be in attendance as they remember Caveness’ life on and off the field.