NATCHITOCHES — Membership in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame will grow by eight Saturday night, bringing to 330 the number of those who have been inducted since Mel Ott, Gaynell Tinsley and Tony Canzoneri made up the initial class in 1959.
And if 330 sounds excessive, well, there’s even more in the pipeline. We’ll get to that later.
Every induction class takes on certain characteristics, either by dominance of a particular sport (five from football in 2012), having a singular standout individual (Shaquille O’Neal in 2013) or maybe just in the attitude of those being honored.
This group, as much as any I can remember — and I’ve been part of the selection process for 40 years — represents the fabric of sports in Louisiana. Their varied backgrounds are what tie us together athletically.
Saturday night in Tiger Stadium remains the enduring iconic symbol of sports in this state.
Inductee Alan Faneca was one of LSU’s greatest offensive linemen before going on to a 13-year career in the NFL that will likely land him in Canton one day. But here on Thursday, Faneca talked not about that but about how much fun it was during his college days.
“There’s nothing better than when Tiger Stadium gets to rocking,” he said. “We were just a bunch of guys doing what we loved.”
Wouldn’t you have loved to be down there with them?
Tom Benson so disdained participating in sports that he once hired a ringer to represent him at an NFL golf outing.
But the self-made car and banking mogul from New Orleans used his financial wherewithal to purchase the Saints in 1985, probably preventing them from being sold and moved. He did the same thing to buy the Hornets (now the Pelicans) in 2012, assuring the state would keep its NBA team.
His ownership of the Saints has not been without controversy. But imagine how empty our sports lives would be without the teams he now acknowledges belong to the people of the state as much as they do to him.
Every athlete owes a debt of gratitude to a hard-working coach who helped mold him.
Few in this state have done that better than Pete Boudreaux, whose 46 years at Catholic High have produced 41 state championship teams in track and cross country, not to mention countless young men who have been influenced by a genial, gentle man who also gets the best out of his charges.
Just the fourth active high school coach to be elected to the Hall, Boudreaux is fully deserving. Not just because of what he’s done but because he represents hundreds and thousands of his peers who will never get the recognition.
There’s a long, long line of football stars from Louisiana.
Richard “Moon” Ducote was among the first.
Hailing from the tiny midstate community of Cottonport, Ducote left Louisiana to star at Auburn from 1915-17, and his efforts for an early pro team led Glenn “Pop” Warner to call him “the greatest football player I ever saw.”
A coach at Spring Hill College and Loyola who also was a top official, Ducote died in New Orleans at age 39.
“He was as fine a man as you or I could ever hope to be,” said John Rush, superintendent of the Mobile, Alabama, school system, of Ducote when appointing him to be athletic department of the system.
A life well-led, cut short far, far too soon.
You can argue that no accomplishment in the state’s sports history tops that of the Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters.
The Ruston school was a dominant power in women’s college basketball, not just in its early days but through the end of the 20th century.
Venus Lacy is the sixth player or coach from the program to be elected to the Hall of Fame. The national player of the year in 1990, she is Tech’s career leading in scoring average and was a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team.
Lacy’s career was cut short by injuries suffered in an auto accident that still curtail her ability to travel. But she made the trip from her home in Tennessee for Saturday’s ceremonies, making a stop in Ruston and bringing her son with her because she wanted him to be able to see what the Lady Techsters were all about.
That’s how much their mystique endures.
What kid who ever picked up a glove, bat and ball hasn’t dreamed of playing for his favorite big league team?
Shane Reynolds of Bastrop achieved that goal when he spent 10 years pitching for the Houston Astros before finishing up with stints in Atlanta and Arizona, winning 114 games and earning a spot on the Astros’ Walk of Fame.
“I was lucky,” Reynolds said of being drafted by the team he grew up rooting for. “But then if you love baseball and are able to make it to the top level, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing for: You feel very, very fortunate.”
How many of us was Reynolds speaking for?
Beryl Shipley’s time as the basketball coach at Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) ended with the school drawing a two-year death penalty from the NCAA.
But before that, his teams made a tremendous impact, not just for their accomplishments but for the social impact of being the state’s first desegregated team in a major sport.
That was in 1966, two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But incredibly, there was still opposition from some of the other colleges in the state until they finally realized that the tide of sports history had turned against them.
Shipley’s teams created a frenzied atmosphere at old Blackham Coliseum, one that carries over today in the pride and passion that UL-Lafayette fans show for their teams. Those are two pretty good legacies to leave behind.
The quality of Louisiana’s homegrown football talent far exceeds the state’s size.
Lutcher’s Lionel Washington exemplifies that.
After a standout prep career followed by one at Tulane, Washington played 15 seasons in the NFL, a longevity mark exceeded by only a handful of other cornerbacks. Twelve seasons as an assistant in the league followed.
Washington’s hometown thought so much of him that they named a street in his honor when he was just two seasons into his pro career. Washington has said that honor gave him a standard he always did his best to live up to.
Now back in his native state, Washington is co-defensive coordinator at Tulane.
Coaching in college for the first time, Washington said he is astounded at the level of talent he sees in Louisiana, not just in football but in all sports. No doubt some of them will one day enter the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
There’s already a long waiting list on the ballot, plus many others who aren’t in simply because they’re not yet eligible.
Could the Hall of Fame be more selective? Maybe.
But the strength of our state’s sports heritage somehow makes 330 with more to come feel like it’s too few, not too many.