NATCHITOCHES — Sometimes we yell against each other.
And sometimes we yell at each other.
But ultimately, we yell for each other.
Especially on this night.
The fabric of sports that binds this state in ways we might not even realize will be on full display here Saturday at the 56th induction ceremony of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
This is my 40th year attending the ceremonies, and each induction class takes on its own special characteristics. This one may have the deepest Louisiana roots of any.
Of the eight inductees, only Otis Washington is not a native of the state. But given that he has been a resident since 1955, when he was a freshman at Xavier, 60 years seems long enough to claim the former St. Augustine and Southern football coach as one of our own.
The rest — football’s Leonard Smith (Baton Rouge), Kevin Faulk (Carencro), Jake Delhomme (Breaux Bridge) and Pat Collins (Shreveport); softball’s Yvette Girouard (Broussard); horse racing’s Frank Brothers (New Orleans); and basketball’s Avery Johnson (New Orleans) — all first made their marks in their home state, sometimes crossing paths with one another.
But while their exploits may have taken them elsewhere, they all come back to where it started.
As Smith, a nine-year NFL player who prepped at Lee High, played collegiately at McNeese State and recently was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame, said of this week’s ceremonies, “I’m more proud than anything to go in for Louisiana. Home is a whole ’nother thing.”
At Thursday’s news conference that launched the weekend activities here, Allstate Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan, who will receive the Dave Dixon Leadership Award on Saturday, was struck by the inductees’ devotion to home — and how it has fueled their accomplishments.
“I felt like a newcomer,” said Hoolahan, a native New Yorker who is in his 20th year with the Sugar Bowl. “But who wouldn’t be impressed by this group? They are part of the soil that makes Louisiana sports so great.”
Of course, things have not always been so great otherwise.
Washington recalled how in 1967 St. Aug won its suit to be allowed to join the LHSAA. This was three years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act — and five years before a black football player took the field for LSU.
Sports — along with music — was the great conduit breaking down racial barriers in the 1960s. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen as quickly in Louisiana as it might have.
But Washington, along with Johnson, a St. Aug grad, makes this year’s induction class 50 percent black. That’s five times in the past nine years that has been the case.
In Louisiana, acceptance was slow. Hopefully in recognition that has not been the case.
Recognition for Brothers was longer in coming. The first trainer elected to the hall, he dominated racing at both ends of the state, winning nine conditioning titles at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City and five at the Fair Grounds in his native New Orleans.
The National Trainer of the Year in 1991, Brothers has moved on to become recognized as one of the prime bloodstock agents in the sport. But he has never forgotten how he acquired his love for races — by being taken to the Far Grounds on Thanksgiving by his parents when he was a child.
“And my grandfather was a bookie,” he added.
How ultimately New Orleans!
Like Brothers and Johnson, who may now be the coach at Alabama but will forever be considered a New Orleanian first and foremost, the Acadiana trio of Faulk, Girouard and Delhomme is particularly bound together.
Delhomme and Faulk found themselves on opposite sides in Super Bowl XXXVIII when Jake’s Carolina Panthers fell to Kevin’s New England Patriots 32-29, one of three Super Bowl victories for Faulk during his 13 years with New England.
“It’s was special knowing that two guys from the same place were both in the Super Bowl,” said Faulk, who played at LSU while Delhomme went to Louisiana-Lafayette. “And it couldn’t have worked out better since we won.”
They’re both back at home now, Faulk serving as an assistant football coach at Carencro and Delhomme working in his family thoroughbred business.
Girouard joked that she’s the only one of the three who has retained her Cajun accent.
That’s not surprising, considering she never worked more than 50 miles from home. First came 20 years at UL-Lafayette, where she created the program by begging, borrowing and literally stealing (dirt meant for a baseball field). And then there were 11 at LSU, where she helped design a $13 million stadium where the Tigers now play.
“I never got a chance to play myself,” Girouard said. “But I got the opportunity to help make things better for the young women who came along behind me and enjoy the opportunities they have today.”
When Girouard left UL-Lafayette for LSU, it left some Ragin’ Cajuns fans upset. But Girouard’s presenter Saturday will be Kyla Hall Holas, an All-America pitcher at UL-Lafayette under Girouard who was the first woman from her sport to be elected to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
So maybe time does heal all wounds. But not always.
Collins was an assistant at Louisiana Tech for 12 years on a staff that won three national championships before he was passed over for the head job when Maxie Lambright retired. Deeply wounded, he moved 30 miles down I-20 to Monroe as an assistant at what was then Northeast Louisiana (now Louisiana-Monroe). As head coach in 1987, he guided the then-Indians to the Division I-AA national championship.
But Collins, who has never forgotten the thrill of his teams beating Tech, advocates the series, which was dropped because of the high emotions that began during his time at ULM. He said he always cautioned players not to hate the Bulldogs, but to respect them.
Still, he advocates for the series to resume, saying, “If they did, everyone would realize how important it is.”
The man who hired Collins at ULM and the first Heisman Trophy winner from the state, John David Crow, died last week at age 79. He’ll be one of seven Hall of Fame members we lost in the past year who will be recognized in the “In Memoriam” segment of the program.
But sports in Louisiana goes on.
And the persons being honored Saturday — as have those who have made their way to this community on hot June nights for more than half a century now — can take pride in knowing they’re the latest in a long line of those who have made sports in Louisiana such an uplifting, binding agent for us all, and that there’s no doubt that will continue.