Pioneering sports chronicler Russell Stockard died Saturday in Baton Rouge, his family confirmed. He was 92.
Stockard was the first sports information director at Southern University, the first SID of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the first black correspondent to write for mainstream newspapers in Louisiana.
Stockard was a 2008 recipient of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame's Distinguished Service Award. And in 2009, he was recognized with a National Association of Black Journalists' Sports Task Force Sam Lacy Pioneer Award.
Stockard is quoted on an inscription at his plaque at the Hall of Fame as saying: "I've lived a blessed life. I was always able to do what I wanted to do. You could write a script, and it still would never turn out this good."
Known by his initials “R.L.,’’ Stockard had a hand in several significant events in Louisiana sports history, the so-called “secret’’ basketball game between Jesuit and St. Augustine high schools, the first integrated prep game played in the state, and in the launching of the Bayou Classic, the annual football game between Southern and Grambling in New Orleans.
A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Stockard served in Europe in World War II, earned his degree in historical geography from Tennessee State. He started his career in government service in Washington, D.C., then taught for several years at Florida A&M before coming to teach at Southern. His last years were spent in Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina, in which he trudged waist-deep in water from his home in New Orleans East to the Superdome.
Just as most black schools in the early 1950s, Southern had minimal, part-time assistance in the keeping track of SU sports, their accomplishments, records, statistics, or even a way to reach the public at large to tell the stories of the Jaguars. Always an avid sports follower, Stockard would later say, “I saw a major need and tried to fix it.’’
He talked to A.W. Mumford, Southern’s Hall of Fame and then the athletic director, who agreed. Stockard got the job — to be performed without compensation and to be performed in addition to his academic professorship.
Getting things in order was one thing, but Stockard noticed very few others were aware. There still was little outside coverage from the mainstream media.
In 1953 he boldly marched into the newsroom of the Baton Rouge State-Times and asked to speak to sports editor Dan Hardesty. Stockard made the case the paper ought to consider increasing its coverage of Southern sports, particularly the football and basketball teams. He pointed out that other than scores and who scored touchdowns, there were no human interest stories, no background stories, and no columns providing in-depth insights on the powerful teams coached by A.W. Mumford.
“I think he was surprised that I read the newspaper,’’ Stockard said, “and was taken aback when I pointed out we were talking about a local four-year school approximately the same size as LSU, which got most of the coverage in the Baton Rouge media.’’
Eventually, Hardesty agreed. As a part-time reporter, Stockard would be the eyes and ears of Southern sports to the rest of the sporting world. “But,’’ Stockard later said, “I had to do my own stories, my own statistics, my own sidebars. If I didn’t do them, they just wouldn’t appear in the State-Times. So then I had a responsibility to do the job.’’
Southern coverage improved as Stockard reported on the Jaguars for the next eight years — until he got a chance to teach at Southern’s New Orleans branch, where he went in 1960.
The very day he moved to New Orleans, Stockard received a call from Walter Cowan, the editor of the city’s afternoon paper, the States-Item. “I understand you used to write for the afternoon paper in Baton Rouge,’’ Cowan explained. “I could use you.’’
For the next decade, again as a part-timer, Stockard covered not only Southern but Grambling and other SWAC schools as well as black high school sports, not only for the States-Item but also for Louisiana Weekly, an organ for African-Americans.
It was in that capacity that Stockard was instrumental in putting together the meeting of Jesuit (26-1) and St. Aug. (30-0), widely seen as the best two prep teams in the state but barred from playing by the segregation laws of the time. Sitting in the office of St. Augustine principal Fr. Robert Grant one day as the '65 season drew to a close, Stockard planted a seed in the principal’s mind: The regular season was over and both schools had more than a week before their respective state tournaments would begin. Why not play each other, (1) to stay sharp, and (2) to see who was really the better team.
Grant dismissed the idea, saying Jesuit would never agree. To which Stockard said he responded, “You never know 'til you try.’’
The game came off, but, because of the politics of the day, had to be played in secret at Jesuit, which could have been suspended by the LHSAA by playing an “official game.’’
The Purple Knights won easily 81-59, although it must be noted three of Jesuit’s top six players did not participate. Still, it was a landmark moment in Louisiana sports.
After that segment of his life concluded, Stockard became the first SID of the SWAC, then headquartered in New Orleans, where in the 1970s he also had a hand in putting together the first Bayou Classic with Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, Grambling SID and famed marketer Collie J. Nicholson and Southern athletic director U.S. Jones. It has become an annual football extravaganza in the Superdome.
“I guess,’’ he once said, “though I didn’t think of it in these terms at the time, I was kind of a pioneer.’’