NATCHITOCHES — Why, it is often asked, is the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame located in such a relatively small place as Natchitoches (population 18,322)?
The simple answer is from the 1950s when the idea of a hall of fame took notion and especially after 1972 as the first induction ceremony was held in this scenic, historic community, none of the state’s larger cities were interested.
And now, thanks to the opening of the $23 million facility housing the hall and museum in 2013, it’s here to stay.
But in perhaps no previous year has this induction class had such a small-town feel about it.
Football’s Anthony Thomas and basketball’s P.J. Brown grew up in nearby Winnfield (pop. 4,840). They are only the second unrelated graduates from the same high school to be inducted in the same year in the hall’s history.
Just north of Winnfield, football’s Red Swanson was a native of Quitman (pop. 179), a community so small its high school hasn’t had a football team in decades.
In southern Louisiana, baseball’s Dave Malarcher grew up in the St. James Parish community of Convent (pop. 711) and baseball’s Ben Sheets is from St. Amant (unincorporated), which was definitely more rural in his early days.
Of the six Louisiana natives who will be inducted Saturday, only basketball’s Janice Joseph Richard, might have to be called a “city girl.” She was from Alexandria (pop. 48,426)
Even former Tulane baseball coach Rick Jones, a North Carolina native, is from a tiny community in his home state, Bennett (pop. 224.)
The only real outlier in the group is prep football coach Jim Hightower, a Southern California native who graduated from South Pasadena High.
But Hightower’s father grew up in Summerfield (pop. 122), where his prep basketball exploits were only later exceeded by perhaps the state’s preeminent small-town athlete, Karl Malone.
And Hightower’s first coaching job was at Catholic-Pointe Coupee in New Roads (pop. 4,871), where on autumn Friday afternoons many of his players would go home to help harvest sugar cane before returning for the game that night.
That’s country, Louisiana style.
Small wonder, longtime LSU announcer Jim Hawthorne, who is receiving the Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism on Saturday, was struck by the similarity of the backgrounds of this class.
“It just goes to show that no matter where you’re from, you can live out your dreams,” he said. “Everyone in this group didn’t let that deter them.
“In fact, it’s part of who they are. This is bringing it all back home.”
For Hawthorne, that’s literally so.
He grew up not far from here in Anacoco (pop. 866) in Vernon Parish and got his broadcasting start at KNOC, the campus station at Northwestern State, where he was a student in the early 1960s.
The other inductees have shared similar sentiments this week.
Brown, who graduated from Winnfield High six years before Thomas and went to play at Louisiana Tech before forging a 15-year NBA career, and Thomas, who was an All-America running back at Michigan before a seven-year NFL career, both praised their heritage.
“I tell people I now live in Atlanta,” Brown said. “But I’m from Winnfield, and I will always be from Winnfield.
“It’s my home.”
Thomas compared being a “Michigan Man,” with a “Winnfield Man.”
“You were never on your own,” he said. “Everybody raised you.
“And in Winnfield, you learned to be respectful and responsible. It made me ready when I went to Michigan and to the NFL.”
Swanson’s coaching career ended in 1950, long before Brown and Thomas were born. But they were precisely the kind of small-town players he was so successful at recruiting while an LSU assistant.
That included such talents as Baby Jack Torrance from Oak Grove, Joe Bill Adcock from Coushatta and Y.A. Tittle from Marshall, Texas.
Obviously Swanson never forgot what it was like to be from Quitman.
No person faced more obstacles toward making the Hall of Fame — or took a more unlikely path — than Malarcher.
He’s the son of a former slave who taught herself how to read and write so she should pass on those skills to her 10 children, including one who became a teacher to her siblings and the rest of the family since education opportunities for black youngsters in St. James Parish were almost nonexistent at the turn of the 20th century.
But with the help of his mother and sister, Malarcher made it to New Orleans University, the forerunner of Dillard, in 1916 and he later served in the Army in World War I.
Shortly afterward, he began a career in the Negro Leagues as a player and manager, earning the nickname “Gentleman Dave,” not just because of is conduct on the field, but because of his refined manners that included being a poet.
Although he spent most of career in Chicago, where he died in 1982, Malarcher was buried in Convent.
Sheets grew up not far away from Malarcher’s home, although obviously in different times and circumstances.
But the 10-year Major Leaguer and four-time All-Star said he never felt far from Ascension Parish.
“St. Amant was what you’d call a suburb of Gonzales, and it always felt pretty small to me,” he said. “Growing up, it never seemed like somebody from a small town would ever have the opportunity to make to the big leagues, and that’s why I don’t think I really believed it until the first day I did.”
Hightower, the second- winningest football coach in Louisiana prep history with 386 victories, has been at St. Thomas More in Lafayette since 1986.
But for 12 seasons before that, he was at Catholic-PC, being hired there after a year as a baseball graduate assistant at LSU.
The Hornets’ 1978 Class 1A state title, Hightower’s only one, still has a strong emotional impact on him.
“I loved the people of New Roads,” he said. “They were hard-working but also so full of life.
“Our early seasons there, people were happy win or lose. But when we won that championship, man, it was a great night in the community and for me.”
It’s Louisiana’s love of sports, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser noted this week that keeps fueling the membership in the Hall of Fame. Membership is now approaching 400.
“I don’t know where we keep getting such talent,” he said. “It must be something in the soil.”
No matter what in which corner of the state that soil happens to be.