The Louisiana Sports Writers Association

The LSWA

Paul Candies had a need for speed, a knack for success


By Lori Lyons

Written for the LSWA


Paul Candies may have made his fortune on the water with his ever-growing fleet of tugboats, but he earned his fame and notoriety on land with a bunch of really fast cars.

A small town boy from Des Allemands, Louisiana, Candies, who died in 2013 at the age of 72, was an entrepreneur who helped turn his father, Capt. Otto Candies’, company from a one-boat business into one of the largest marine transportation companies in the country. He also helped build another of his dad’s legacies, the International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, into the cultural and economic boon it is today.

But Candies also liked fast cars and the people who made them go. So, in his “spare” time, Candies became part of one of the most successful drag racing partnerships in history – Candies and Hughes, the name emblazoned in a signature gold leaf on stock cars, funny cars and dragsters, as well as the trucks and trailers used to haul them across the country.

The unique combination of impact on Louisiana’s sports world has resulted in the posthumous Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction of Candies on Saturday, June 30 in Natchitoches. Already a member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame, Candies will join world motocross champion Freddie Spencer as the only two motorsports figures enshrined so far in the state’s hall.

The Candies and Hughes team was a staple at the old Southland Dragway in Houma, giving generations of young men their own need for speed.

“They were my heroes,” said Houma native Steve Robicheaux, who used to ride his bicycle to the track to watch the fun and last year organized a Southland Drag reunion for old drivers, pit crew members and fans. More than 400 cars and 5,000 people turned out.

Robicheaux also grew up down the street from Leonard Hughes, the other half of the tandem, the one-time driver who kept the engines running and led the crews in the pits at raceways throughout the country.

“We had some good times,” said the now-80-year-old Hughes. “It beat working for a living.”

Back in the early 1960s, Hughes was racing a ’57 Chevy and “doing OK,” but he wanted to do more. The problem was, he had to actually work for a living, first as a mechanic at a car dealership and then in his own auto shop. When he finally connected with Candies, though, he was able to put in the time needed.

That’s because Candies was the business man, schmoozing his way around the tracks in search of sponsors.

“He was out getting us the money,” said the now 80-year-old Hughes. “He didn’t have nothing to do with the cars, which was good for me. I think he came to the shop maybe four times in all those years. That’s why it worked.”

Candies and Hughes won 45 major events between 1970 and 1994, including 28 NHRA titles in the Funny Car and Top Fuel divisions. Their reign started with the 1970 Gatornationals win in their new 1970 Barracuda and the 1971 Summernationals Funny Car win. With Ohio-native Mark Oswald driving, they would become the first team to win both NHRA and IHRA Winston championships in the same year.

The team finished with five IHRA championships, two NHRA championships and had nine top-five seasons. Both men were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1999.

“Paul was always at the forefront of racing because he attracted big sponsors, more money and he progressed the sport in that manner,” Oswald said. “He always had the nicest cars. He was the utmost professional, just like he was in business.”

That meant, Candies always tried to surround himself with the best.

“Certainly, he was the guy that helped further a lot of careers,” said Phil Burgess, the editor of the NHRA web site. “He made championship drivers out of a lot of guys. He had an eye for talent.”

Burgess said Candies was well known around the tracks as a friend to all and an all-around great guy.

“The guy knew how to meet people and how to impress people,” Burgess said. “Their cars were always well-funded – when they weren’t out of Paul’s pocket. He always had big sponsors. But he was just a regular guy. He was out there with a rag in his back pocket like everybody else. As well off as he was, he was just the nicest guy, a true southern gentleman. He probably set the high bar for gentlemen drag racers.”

But Candies’ home was on the water and his other love was fishing. His father Otto started the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo in the 1930s. Son took over in the 1960s and helped it become the annual event that draws more than 15,000 fishermen and tourists to the tiny island in the Gulf. Candies died four days before the 2013 event as he was preparing to host a group of friends on a fishing trip.

Candies also was known for his generosity. On the track, he would lend a hand or a tool to anyone, even opposing drivers. When Grand Isle was going through a major water shortage, he used his shipping company to bring water to bring water to the island. He also donated the land where the Tarpon Rodeo pavilion was built.

“Jefferson Parish and Grand Isle lost a tremendous ambassador,” Jefferson Parish Assessor and former Tarpon Rodeo president Tom Capella said at the time of Candies’ death.

The Candies name still lives on as Otto Candies, a multi-million-dollar marine transport business, which also sponsors the Hahnville High School American Legion team (Candies’ alma mater).

“The guy never forgot where he came from,” said Joe Tutone III, whose father, Joe “Big Joe” Tutone Jr. was a car dealer, fellow racer and personal friend of Candies. “The guy treated everybody like he wanted to be treated. He never acted like he was better than anybody. He was just a good, honest man and his two hobbies were drag racing and tarpon fishing.”


Cool Hand Lewie’s competitive spirit Cooks up Hall-worthy career

 

By Kevin Foote

Written for the LSWA

 

Many successful coaches in his sport are football minds who become great leaders.

 

Lewis Cook was a great leader who eventually became one of the best high school football coaches the state has ever produced.

 

The composure the 2018 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee has displayed on the sidelines of high school football games over the last four decades is now legendary.

 

And so are his record, his winning tradition and perhaps most of all the respect he’s gained from his players, friends, colleagues and foes alike.

 

“Lewie Cook was a natural leader,” said his lifelong friend Ronald Prejean from Rayne. “He wasn’t loud, nothing fancy about him, but he always had a presence about him.”

 

Cook officially joins the state Hall of Fame Saturday, June 30, at the induction dinner and ceremony at the Natchitoches Events Center, a football field away from the five-year-old Hall of Fame Museum at 800 Front Street.

 

As Prejean remembers, Cook’s leadership qualities were being displayed long before he ever imagined coaching in a game.

 

“I can remember on the school grounds at Rayne High School when Lewie was in the ninth grade,” Prejean said. “If trouble broke out, all it took was for Lewie to walk out and say, ‘Enough,’  or that little nod he does and that was it. He broke it up. It’s just this special knack he’s got to make people feel comfortable. It’s because he’s so genuine.

 

“People respected him. He always had a kind word for people, whether you were a standout athlete or a member of the chorus, whether you lived in town or lived in the country, Lewie always had good things to say about you and always had time to talk to people.”


Don’t confuse his calm demeanor and composure for a lack of fire to compete, however.

 

Still in his younger coaching days, Cook still dabbled in playing softball. Even after breaking his leg, Cook couldn’t stay away.

 

“I remember telling my wife (Faye), ‘I think I’m going to go play softball again,’ and she said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ ” Cook laughed. “I said, ‘It’s just an employee league. They just do it for fun.’

 

She said, ‘You don’t ever do anything for fun. You always have to win.’ ”

 

Sure enough, in his first at-bat of this new just-for-fun league, Cook finds himself motoring into second base.

 

“The next thing I know,” Cook remembers, “I’m diving head-first into second. As I’m shaking myself off, I look at Faye on the sideline and she’s shaking her head. I go, “I’m an idiot.’ ”

 

Indeed, underneath his calm exterior is an intensity many overlook.

 

“The drive to win and be the best, I think it’s always been there,” Cook said. “That’s how my dad was.”


In Cook’s mind, he’s a nice combination of each of his parents – Lewis Sr. and Josie.

 

On one hand, there was his father’s high standards.

 

“That’s how my dad was. He told me one time when I was playing high school basketball. He said, ‘You’ve got to make a decision.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘You either have to get better or get off the team. That’s embarrassing.’ ”

 

His mother, meanwhile, didn’t sweat the details.

 

“And with mom, it was, ‘Don’t worry about that stuff.’ My momma never took herself too seriously about anything. I remember she would get on my sisters, who would stay in front of the mirror for an hour to get ready for school, and she would tell them, ‘Nobody cares what y’all look like.’ Don’t worry about the little things.

 

“It put me in the middle. Maybe I’ve got a little of both sides, which probably isn’t all bad.”


The result was an even-tempered young coach who just didn’t accept losing.

 

In his 33 years as a head coach, Cook has led his teams to 31 playoff appearances, reaching the semifinals 18 times, the state finals 12 times and won four state championships. His career playoff record is 75-27.

 

Only J.T. Curtis has more state runners-up appearances than Cook in Louisiana prep football history.

 

His career record of 344-82 puts Cook as the third-winningest active coach ever behind Curtis and St. Thomas More’s Jim Hightower, as well as the No. 5 overall.

 

Cook is only one win behind Don Shows in fourth place and 22 behind third-place Red Franklin of Haynesville.

 

“He’s the consummate professional,” said Larry Dauterive, a longtime coach and former coaching mentor to Cook. “He’s got such a big heart and such a caring personality. That translates ions for the kids he’s coaching. They’re just drawn to him. He’s got that charisma about him.”

 

Dauterive detected a very young Cook had what it took to be successful.

 

“My advice to him was, ‘Be organized, have a plan and always do the right things to honor the kids,’ Dauterive said. “That’s what the same things Coach Faize Mahfouz taught me. Lewie’s thirst for knowledge was unparalleled. He would call me in the middle of the night. I just couldn’t do anything but to honor his passion.”


For the last two decades, few have witnessed the true greatness behind Cook’s success more than defensive coordinator James McCleary.

 

“He’s a man of integrity and his leadership is about sacrifice,” McCleary said. “He’s willing to put his own interest behind what’s important and what’s best for everybody else.”


McCleary first met Cook as a young graduate assistant in Cook’s second stint on the UL Lafayette coaching staff as offensive coordinator in the 1990s.

 

Instead of looking at McCleary as a nuisance, Cook immediately took him under his wing.

 

“It only took a couple of days to recognize how special he was,” McCleary said. “The next day, he remembers your name. ‘How you’re doing? What can I do to help you? What you want to learn today?’ It was all about what I needed.”

 

By that time, Cook had already turned Crowley High from a perennial loser into the Class 3A state champions in 1989.

 

Then after playing a big role in the progress of future NFL standouts Jake Delhomme and Brandon Stokley as the Ragin’ Cajuns’ offensive coordinator from 1992-95, Cook returned to Acadia Parish to coach his three sons – Lewis III Jeff and Stu – for the Notre Dame Pioneers.

 

During his two decades at Notre Dame, Cook has a spectacular record of 244-37, including three state titles. When he took the Pios to the Dome first time, Cook became the first coach to take two different teams to the Superdome Classic in the Dome era.

 

Over the years, McCleary feels many confuse Cook’s lack of outward emotion.

 

“I do think he is an emotional coach,” he said. “He does a good job of keeping it inside. He’s mentally ready and prepared to do the right things.”

 

That hidden emotion, however, rarely results in anger.

 

“Maybe once a month, he’ll toss a hat, but he doesn’t really get angry,” Lewis Cook III said. “He doesn’t really yell. I’m on the head-sets with me, and I’m telling you in an entire season, he’ll raise his voice three times or less.

 

“It’s not really in his personality to get all angry and yell and scream. My dad’s a competitor. He wants to win. But he’s not going to lose his composure. He’s always planning on how he’s going to overcome whatever obstacles he has. The guys who yell and scream lose the ability to reason, because they’re too caught up emotionally.”

 

Cook’s composure is also made easier to achieve because of his preparation.

 

”He’s so methodical,” his eldest son said. “He scripts out every play of every practice. That’s just not common. He’s got an above-and-beyond work ethic.”


In many cases, a prolific high school football coach with those high leadership skills is scooped up by the collegiate level.

 

After four seasons as Rayne High’s head coach, Cook did dabble in the college game as an assistant at his alma mater from 1981-84, and later spent four more seasons with the Ragin’ Cajuns a decade later.

 

But Cook’s mind always drifted back to the high school game.

 

“I kind of look at it as I guess I was always meant to be a high school coach,” Cook said. “I’ve always felt more comfortable compared to the eight years I had in college, although there’s the lure of college football. There’s always that temptation there.

 

“This wouldn’t have happened, if I had made that jump. Maybe the good Lord put me in the right place. Not that you’re in it for these honors, but it is nice to be recognized.”



Taking a big chance earned Jack Hains fishing’s biggest win


By Raymond Partsch III

Written for the LSWA


Jack Hains became Louisiana’s first Bassmaster Classic champion by taking a gamble.


Hains entered the final day of the 1975 Classic in Currituck Sound, North Carolina in fifth place on the leaderboard.


If the crop duster from Rayne was going to reel in the most prestigious title and largest purse in all of professional fishing, he was going to have to take a big chance on the last day of the three-day competition -- a day which featured frigid 40-mph winds and rough swells.


“The conditions were pretty horrific that morning but the fact of the matter the wind was diminishing,” Hains remembered. “Leaving the protective cove that morning the wind wasn’t as bad but the bigger problem was the tide and wind had pushed the water from the sound.  It was much shallower than the day before so immediately that was my dilemma. I went to an area that had been good for me the day before but it was dry so I went to another area where there was an old duck blind which I figured would have some fish.”


The then-25-year-old rookie caught a few decent fish around the blind, but it wasn’t going to be nearly enough to win the tournament so he decided to roll the dice.


“My other spot was across the big choppy water,” recalled Hains, who used seven crankbaits by famed wildlife illustrator and angler Cliff Soward. “I had to go out where it was going to be rough. It took a little while but I finally got around the bad water and it looked like I had a straight shot to my spot. The water was calm and I was just thinking ‘this is it.’ ”


It wasn’t, though.


The motor in his flat-bottom bass boat had started hitting the bottom and pretty soon it shuddered to a stop. Hains had unknowingly hit a sandbar and was now less than 100 yards away from a pier he had successfully fished during the practice rounds days earlier. He had no choice but to strip down, get out of his boat and push it back the 100 to 150 yards it had traveled through the sandy water.


“It wasn’t easy but I was 25 years old at the time, so what else was I going to do?” laughed Hains.


He got back in his boat, put on a snowmobile suit to stay warm, and then cranked up his motor and headed over to that pier. Even with the low tide, Hains still managed to boat three more fish, which proved big at the final weigh-in.


Hains would catch a total of 18 fish (weighing 45 pounds and 4 ounces) for the tournament to defeat 29 other anglers, including future longtime ESPN host Jimmy Houston, to become the first Louisiana fisherman to win a Bassmaster Classic.



“I remember thinking Jack Hains won the Bassmaster Classic,” said 2015 Distinguished Service Award winner Glenn Quebedeaux. “He was one of members of our Rice City Bass Club in Crowley which we started like four years earlier. Like me, he was one of the younger members.


“We had a bunch of older, local legends in our club,” said Quebedeaux, “and Jack, who was just getting into bass and tournament fishing, was like me — one of the most unlikely candidates to go on to win a Classic.


“But he worked hard at the sport, gobbled up all the knowledge he could from the older guys, and bam, he won the Classic.”


Hains would go on to qualify for seven more Bassmaster Classic tournaments, fished on the Walmart Fishing League Worldwide Tour, competed in 152 career tournaments, finished in the Top 10 a total of 24 times, finished in the Top 20 a total of 35 times and earned more than $300,000 in prize winnings.


It only seems fitting Hains would be enshrined among the state’s sporting greats, and only the third outdoorsman to be enshrined following Grits Gresham and Dr. L.J. Mayeux, when the 2018 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame class is inducted Saturday, June 30, at the Natchitoches Events Center.


“It is extremely humbling to say the least,” Hains said. “I am excited but I question being selected because of all the great people in the hall. I am humbled by the honor.”


Hains grew up in Rayne and fell in love with fishing by catching bream and bass in the pond on the family’s farm.


“I started out fishing and I used whatever they would bite on,” Hains said. “I always had a desire to catch those bass though. They were the king of the pond and I wanted to catch all those I could.”


But before concentrating on bass fishing, Hains dreamed of one day becoming a king on the diamond.


He grew up playing multiple sports (football, basketball, track) at Rayne High, but his passion was baseball.


Baseball is what Hains wanted to do with his life.


“To be honest if I had a choice of what I wanted to be,” said Hains, who was a high school teammate of fellow 2018 inductee Lewis Cook, “I would have been the starting catcher for the New York Yankees. I was going to take Yogi Berra’s spot.”


A career on the diamond, though, was not in the cards for Hains, and neither was life as a college student. After graduating from Rayne in 1967, he attended both McNeese State University and then University of Southwestern Louisiana (now known as UL Lafayette) to study agriculture but dropped out of both schools.


Hains’ desire to soar above the fields of Acadia Parish proved to be far stronger than anything he was doing in a classroom.


“I just wanted to go fly airplanes more,” said Hains, who got his pilot’s license at age 18 and would fly as a crop duster for his father. “I loved flying. It came so natural to me. You know it was like if you ever had bought a suit and you try it on and it fits perfectly? Flying planes was like that for me.”


It was during this time Hains began to spend more and more of his down time with a rod and reel in his hand.


“There were some people in Rayne that had bought some property over at Toledo Bend and were selling lots,” Hains remembered. “That was around 1971 and my daddy at the time decided he wanted a lot and to put a trailer on it.


“As a crop duster I would have a lot of off time in the fall and the early spring,” Hains said. “So, I spent a lot of time at the camp.”


Hains, who credits the late Theo “Topot” Morrow of Crowley for mentoring him as a bass angler, began fishing local and regional tournaments in 1971 and then eventually began fishing B.A.S.S. sanctioned events in 1975 — the year he won the Bassmaster Classic.


Hains though kept crop dusting when he wasn’t fishing all the way up until 1980.


Part of it was because he enjoyed flying but the other part was in those days — the payouts were not enormous. The champion of the Classic now collects a check of $300,000. Hains’ winnings in 1975 were $15,950.


“It wasn’t nowhere what it is these days,” Hains said. “Don’t get me wrong that check was big back then but the Classic was still new.”


Hains briefly left the world of competitive fishing in 1978 (to pursue business interests in the oil field) but still remained an avid angler and fishing guide. As the oil crunch of the 1980’s put many people out of work, Hains returned to competitive fishing in 1982 as he won the Southeast Texas Oilman’s Bass Classic on Toledo Bend.


“The oil field had gone down the tubes shortly after that tournament,” Hains said. “So I made a few phone calls and got back to fishing tournaments again.”


"When I found out the 1975 Bassmaster Classic champion lived in Rayne, it was a no-brainer to arrange a bass fishing trip with him for a feature story for readers of The Daily Iberian," said The Daily Iberian's longtime outdoors writer Don Shoopman, who has written about The Sportsman's Paradise since 1976.


"We fished Lake Dauterive-Fausse Pointe. It was his first time ever on the lake but he showed why he was a Classic champion,” he said. “He caught bass using both a spinning rig and a bait casting rig. I learned a lot. I still look at the photo of him with a bass caught in the 'borrow pit canal' between what is now Lake Fausse Pointe State Park and Lake Dauterive."


Hains would continue to fish professionally for the next two decades before retiring from the sport in the early 2000’s. He never won another Classic but his legacy as the first angler from Louisiana to claim the sport’s highest honor is intact.


"There was more to my respect for him than fishing," Shoopman said. "I realized real fast Jack, the man, was as good, as solid, as Jack, the bass fisherman. He was a God-fearing Christian. He was a man of his word and always, always had time to talk. I know that because for about 10-15 years we talked at least once a month about bass fishing at Toledo Bend and, naturally, life.


"I can say I was proud to know Jack before he was a Hall of Famer,” said Shoopman. “ And I'm even prouder now."


“What he did was inspire a legion of younger guys to get involved in bass fishing in general and tournament fishing in particular and the sport took off,” added Quebedeaux.


These days Hains spends his days serving as the Recreation Director for the Broussard Sports Complex but he still finds plenty of time for a little fishing from time to time and has valuable advice for any up-and-coming pro angler.


“I had been so close to winning other tournaments,” Hains said. “I had it won and the fish comes off. I had it won and my line breaks. It makes you realize that everything has to be perfect. After you fish in a couple of tournaments you learn you have to make the most of every minute you have out there on the water.”









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Irrepressible tennis coach Jerry Simmons always aimed for the sky


By Bruce Brown

Written for the LSWA

 

Jerry Simmons knew it was risky, but it was a risk worth taking.

 

He was 24 years old and wanted to be a head tennis coach, so he accepted the position at then-USL in 1971 and headed east from Texas.

 

The Ragin' Cajun program had gone winless the previous season, against lackluster competition, but the Amarillo native was undaunted. He managed a 10-11-2 inaugural campaign in 1972, then got busy winning consistently.

 

By the time he was through, Simmons had won 214 matches at USL and 278 more at LSU to become the all-time winner at both Louisiana schools, leading both to previously unheard of heights.

 

His rise from modest roots has earned him inclusion in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Simmons joins 10 others in the Class of 2018 to be inducted Saturday evening, June 30, at the Natchitoches Events Center, as the centerpiece of a four-day celebration beginning June 28.

 

In 1978, energized by Simmons' innovative Rolex Tennis Classic the previous fall, then-USL surged to a second straight Southland Conference crown and completed the season with all the finalists in both singles and doubles and total domination of the SLC Tournament at Cajun Courts.

 

Ten years later, Simmons' 1988 LSU Tigers finished No. 2 in the nation with a 27-2 record and a runner-up effort at the NCAA Tournament, earning Simmons National, Regional, SEC and Louisiana Coach of the Year accolades.

 

Simmons was the youngest coach ever inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s Hall of Fame – not surprisingly, 20 years ago in 1998.

 

Then in 2008, he was wrapping up a successful post as director of the USTA/ITF Junior Circuit, one of his favorite roles that stressed finding homegrown talent and preparing them for Grand Slam challenges to come.

 

And now, Simmons is taking his rightful spot in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame's Class of 2018.

Whatever it is about years ending in 8, Simmons made it work.

 

But it didn't happen overnight.

 

“I took a major chance because I wanted to be a head coach,” Simmons said of his start at USL. “There wasn't much in the cupboard, and we had no scholarships to offer at first. I got late bloomers out of junior colleges like Skipper Hunt, Carter Lomax and Umberto Izquierdo.

 

“Our schedule was terrible. We had lost to every directional school in Louisiana (0-11 in 1971). The biggest challenge was trying to convince the administration to give us any money.”

 

“We were his foundation for what he did later in life,” Hunt said. “We were there in his infancy years. He was a good facilitator, and he delivered on every promise he made to us. He promised us new courts, and by the time I left we had a state-of-the-art facility.”

 

Fortunately, tennis was booming worldwide and Simmons capitalized. An fund-raising exhibition match featuring John Newcombe and Cliff Richey drew 5,000 fans at Long Gym on campus.

 

A Cajun Tennis Association was formed.

 

Tennis clinics increased interest further.

 

The Cajun Courts complex was completed.

 

And the Cajuns began to win – 18-4 in 1973, then 18-12, 17-9 and 16-11.

 

Simmons, who had traveled to Lafayette with his uncle when he was 14, was making a home for himself.

Unflinching, he took his Cajuns to play powers like Texas, UCLA, Stanford and Cal to test them.

 

Then came 1977, when the Cajuns broke through to defeat rival Lamar in the Southland Conference tournament title in Beaumont, Texas. They would win the next three tournaments and five of the next six years, as well as going 26-0 in league dual matches through 1982.

 

Also in 1977, Simmons created the Rolex Tennis Classic, a 32-draw, elite college fall tournament that drew the nation's best players to Lafayette. Meals and cars were provided for teams, players stayed with local patrons and fans saw what could be.

 

“Jerry started so many things in college tennis that everyone does today, like the Rolex and his fitness training,” Paul Griffith said. “He never rested mentally, and he's still that way.

 

“We always had everything we needed to succeed – uniforms, equipment, travel, meals. He gave us the tools to do something with them. He took my style and made it better, did a good job of being flexible with his players.”

 

Properly inspired, the Cajuns swept the 1978 SLC tourney at Cajun Courts, with Griffith defeating Steve Hernandez for the singles title and the team of Gus Orellana and James Boustany beating Griffith and Hernandez in doubles.

 

“One of the most interesting things about Jerry is his great memory – his ability to remember players, matches, scores, locations with unbelievable detail,” Orellana said. “This has allowed him to recognize individuals with different talents and put together winning teams in the most competitive environments.”

 

“We had a great group of guys at USL,” Bryan said. “Most of us were 'next up' players – the kind who are told 'if we don't sign this guy, we'll sign you.' So, we played with a boulder on our shoulder.”

 

Tarek El Sakka became the best USL player in the Simmons years after playing Davis Cup for his native Egypt at age 14, and eventually won the Rolex, but many Cajuns were underdogs like Bryan.

 

Then, affter 11 years of growth at USL, it was time for more challenges.

 

Simmons moved east to LSU, a program with more resources but also one with a mandate to succeed.

 

“Bob Brodhead (athletic director) told me that if we weren't a top 10 program within three or four years, I didn't belong there,” Simmons said. “We were 8th or 9th in the Bernie Moore (SEC All-Sports) standings. In four years we won the Bernie Moore and were No. 2 in the nation.”

 

It helped to have fiery holdover Teddy Viator of Jeanerette (96-35 in singles from 1981-84), named LSU's top student-athlete as a senior, to build around.

 

New Orleans' Donni Leaycraft (135-38, 1987-90) became the school's all-time winner and was the NCAA champion in 1989.

 

Walk-ons like Ged Schwing of New Iberia and Hattiesburg's Mike Hammett were winners who fit Simmons' scrappy roster, while talent like Billy Uribe, Zac Blanchard, Mario Pacheco and eventual successor Jeff Brown helped the building process.

 

Simmons won quickly, going 19-9 in 1983, and led LSU to 13 NCAA Tournament round of 16 finishes in 15 years including the 27-2 NCAA runners-up in 1988. Tiger players earned 24 All-American and 34 All-SEC honors, 23 Academic All-SEC spots and won 138 SEC dual matches.

 

“Our breakout year was 1987,” Simmons said. “We beat No. 1 Pepperdine in the National Indoors semifinals, then lost to Georgia in the finals. Then in 1988 we were 24-0 outdoors, 9-0 in the SEC and were ranked No. 1 during the season.

 

“We only played seven guys, but four of them were ranked in the top 20. That gave us latitude with the lineup. That was a very good team.”

 

“We came together, supported each other, looked after each other,” Leaycraft said. “We knew we were destined for a possible championship.”

 

The Tigers were in prime position to earn a title when the match was moved indoors by rain, changing the entire tone of the match and opening the door for a Stanford rally with quicker pace and serve and volley.

 

But LSU was a factor on the national stage, thanks to Simmons.

 

“He changed college tennis,” Schwing said. “He had a knack for picking out a warrior, as well as the top players. Nobody outworked us. We had fierce competition in practice.

 

“It took a total commitment for four years, and it was so rewarding. No position was set, so that inspired you to work harder. That sends your game skyrocketing. Eventually our condition caught up with our talent.”

 

Players thrived in the blue-collar environment.

 

“I was on scholarship, but knew I had to work hard just to get a spot on the team,” said Leaycraft, who had to work his way up to No. 1 en route to an NCAA singles crown. “That extra work propelled me to the next level.

 

“The college experience exceeded my expectations. It was one of the most fun times of my life.”

 

LSU was still rolling when Simmons retired.

 

“When I left LSU, we were No. 9 in the nation and the top three players in the lineup were freshman,” he said proudly.

 

“Without a doubt, he was one of the greatest coaches of all time,” Leaycraft said. “He always had time for each individual, always tried his best. He would do anything and everything for his players.”

 

“He dreamed of being more successful all the time,” Schwing said. “That added up in the win column, and we won a lot of matches from behind.”

 

“We were always well prepared and in great shape,” Leaycraft said. And always prepared to fight.

 

Fittingly for a coach who recruited players with a warrior mentality, Simmons is a devotee of Generals George S. Patton and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as basketball mentor John Wooden.

 

Just as with those leaders, Simmons' players were always ready to join him in battle.



Toughness, tenacity, talent led to Stokley’s unique notification


By Dan McDonald

Written for the LSWA


Hundreds of athletes and prominent sports figures have been enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in its 60 years of existence.


None of them found out about their upcoming induction in the manner than Brandon Stokley did. But that shouldn’t be a surprise, since normal and typical have never been terms associated with one of the top receivers in Louisiana history.


That word on his 2018 induction came last September while Stokley was on-air, taking care of normal business on his weekday radio show on Denver’s 104.3 The Fan along with co-host Zach Bye. It was after two hours of the normal noon-3 p.m. broadcast that Stokley’s former coach and long-time friend Gerald Broussard walked into the studio, grabbed a microphone and told Stokley that his next on-air call was going to be a little different.


That call came from Hall of Fame chairman Doug Ireland, informing Stokley of his selection by the 30-member Hall of Fame committee. Two other Lafayette-based committee members followed up with on-air chats, and the next hour was filled with calls from colleagues such as college teammate and fellow NFL veteran and Hall of Famer Jake Delhomme, fellow 2018 inductee Reggie Wayne, and future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning among others.


“I didn’t quite know what was happening for a while,” Stokley said. “It kind of came out of the blue. It wasn’t anything I ever expected.”


Wife Lana also walked into the studio that day with sons Carson and Cameron, and she had also arranged for Stokley’s beloved grandfather Causby Hamic to be a part of the celebration by phone from his Crowley home. The radio station then honored Stokley with a reception after he wrapped up one of his most memorable shows – one that is still available on YouTube.


That day became even more poignant when Hamic passed away at age 96 last January. Stokley had previously lost his mother Jane during his senior year at then-Southwestern Louisiana in 1988, and his father, long-time Ragin’ Cajun head football coach Nelson Stokley, in 2010 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.


“Just the way it all came together made it special,” Stokley said. “With everyone that called in, my family there, it was a special, special day. It’s a memorable day to begin with, to think that someone considers you to be among the many great athletes and sports figures that have come out of Louisiana, but the way I found out made it even more special.”


While normal and typical may never have been used in descriptions, the word “special” keeps popping up any time someone who knows him talks about the man who has been the underdog all his life.


“There are some that I would have gone to see and tell about that kind of honor,” said Broussard, who flew from Lafayette to Denver to break the news. “For him, I would have gone anywhere.”


Broussard and many more Stokley admirers will be at the Natchitoches Events Center on Saturday evening, June 30, to see the induction ceremony for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018.


Broussard was an assistant coach under Stokley’s father for many years with the Ragin’ Cajuns, and coached wide receivers for part of that time when Stokley was on his way to becoming the most prolific receiver in Cajun history.


“Athletically, he was gifted when it came to quickness,” Broussard said, “but it’s the other part. He was just tough, mentally and physically. He never checked up as far as blocking somebody or getting up after a hit, and I never saw him short-arm a ball in his life. The mentality to go across the middle, that’s not something that most people have.


“He played his whole life that way, knowing he was going to get hit, and he didn’t care. He just went up and got the football. It takes a special person to do that, knowing the collisions you’re going to take.”


Those collisions were frequent given Stokley’s style of play, leading to more than his share of injuries during both his collegiate and professional career. One of those came in the fourth game of his junior season at USL, when he suffered a torn ACL against Texas A&M and missed the remainder of the season.


Stokley had only 20 catches for 248 yards and one score in that shortened season, one that left him with doubts about his football future after college.


“You kind of dream about being able to do that,” Stokley said of the NFL, “and I started thinking about that going into my junior year. At the same time, it’s the NFL. For me, it was can I really play and do it at that level, a different level than what I was playing at, so I was never quite sure. I didn’t know how NFL scouts and the front office folks viewed me.


“After I got hurt, at that time it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that you come back from an ACL injury like it is now. Back then, it was ‘will I ever be the same’ and ‘can I come back from that.’ A lot was up in the air, whether I could be the same player or not. There were some serious doubts.”


But Stokley had an ace in the hole on that front.


His future wife was also in the middle of a stellar athletic career of her own. Lana Jimenez was a two-time All-America outfielder for the renowned Ragin’ Cajun softball program and helped lead her team to two Women’s College World Series appearances. Those came on either side of her own serious knee injury.


“When you have that type injury it can wear on you,” Stokley said. “You’re grinding and you don’t see progress. But when you have somebody that has been through that process before, it helps you stay positive. Lana was a big part of me recovering, both then and later on. She played at a high level, and had to go through a knee injury. There’s nothing like sports and the adversity you face when that happens, and when your partner has been there and done that, they know what you’re going through.”


By that time, Stokley had produced two stellar seasons after redshirting in 1994, setting NCAA records for most receptions (75) and receiving yards (1,121) by a freshman in 1995. Those marks stood for years before Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree broke them, but Crabtree had an advantage – he was a starter.


Even with those gaudy numbers, Stokley didn’t start in his first year. Father Nelson, the second-winningest coach in Cajun history with 62 victories, made sure there were no claims of preferential treatment for his son.


“Being the son of a coach, that’s not easy,” Broussard said. “He had to overcome that every day. People may have thought he was playing because he’s the coach’s kid and wondered did he deserve balls thrown to him. He overcame all of that and never said a word, but I heard it from others. I didn’t have to defend him because he defended it by his play. I used to tell people, just watch him, he’s the best player we got.”


Stokley did come back with a standout senior year, notable for a 181-yard, three-TD game against Tulane only days after his mother’s death. Suddenly, the career underdog – he played only one year of high school football, when he led all Louisiana receivers with 80 catches for Comeaux High – was on his way to the NFL as a fourth-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 1999.


Ending his rookie season, he caught a 38-yard touchdown pass from Trent Dilfer for the first score in Super Bowl XXXV to spark a 34-7 win. It was the start of what became a memorable career.


“Just to be able to get there, in my first year, and then have an impact, that was great,” he said.

His best pro years came later after joining the Indianapolis Colts and long-time friend Manning in 2003. One year later, he caught 68 passes for 1,077 yards and 10 scores including Manning’s then-record 49th touchdown pass, as part of the Colts’ record-setting passing attack.


“Brandon is one of my favorite teammates of all time, along with being a close friend,” said Manning, who called Stokley the best slot receiver in the NFL during his stint with the Colts. “For him to keep that desire and that quickness as long as he did, that’s pretty rare for a wide receiver. He was definitely a matchup problem for teams.”


An injury sidelined Stokley for most of the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI winning season in 2006, and the following year he left for Denver – the city that became his permanent home even after stints with the Seattle Seahawks and New York Giants. The last of those came in 2011 when he suffered a torn quadriceps after only two games, and figured his NFL playing days were done.


That was before a February 2012 phone call from Manning, inviting him to join him for some throw-and-catch during Manning’s injury rehabilitation. A few weeks later, Manning slept in the guest room at Stokley’s house while visiting Denver in his free-agency tour. Stokley had no intentions of playing again, but he recruited his friend to join the Broncos.


“I never thought I would be part of the deal. I never asked him for that,” Stokley said. “That’s not why I wanted him to come to Denver. I wanted him to come because I love watching him play and I wanted my sons to go to games and watch Peyton Manning play.”


The Broncos needed a slot receiver, as well as someone to help guide a young receiver corps, and the club didn’t even need to relocate anyone. Stokley wound up catching 45 passes for 544 yards and five scores that year, becoming one of only eight players in NFL history to record 40 catches and five

touchdowns in a season after age 35. His last career TD catch came in a playoff game against the Ravens that year – a typical leaping, toe-tap, fingertip grab.


Ironically, and fittingly, Stokley went to back to his first club, the Ravens, for one final season in 2013 before announcing his retirement in November of that year.


“I never wanted to fail, that’s what drove me,” Stokley said. “I never wanted to lose, even in practice one-on-ones. I never felt like I’d arrived, and I always felt like I had to get better, that I always had to prove I was good enough.”


It was plenty good enough.



By John Marcase

Written for the LSWA


When Russ Springer meets a person, he can instantly tell where they are from.


If the person calls him "Russ," well, they could be from anywhere.


If the person calls him "Russell," they can be only from one place – Grant Parish.


As Russell Springer prepares to enter the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday, June 30 in Natchitoches, he credits a former Cy Young Winner and Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer for helping him see what was possible far beyond the town of Pollock.


"Being from the rural part of Grant Parish to where even other kids in Grant Parish joked about where I lived ... it's hard to say I can make it being where I'm from, because I never knew anyone who did," said Springer.


Springer's outlook changed thanks to a visit from the Grant Parish Library's bookmobile.


"I remember getting a book when I was kid," Springer said. "It was 'Ron Guidry – Louisiana Lightning.' I read part of it ... and it clicked. I never forgot it. This guy is from Lafayette, Louisiana. At the time, I didn't even know where that was. But, in my mind, I knew it wasn't too far from here. It doesn't sound like a whole lot, but at the time it meant a whole lot to me.


"I knew that if he could make it, so could I."


That Springer did. He pitched 18 seasons in the major leagues, matching Lee Smith for the most by any pitcher from Louisiana. Primarily a reliever, Springer appeared in 740 games, compiling a 36-45 record with a 4.52 ERA. Incredibly, his best years came in the latter stages of his career despite a devastating shoulder injury.


Over Springer's final seven seasons after turning 35, he was 17-16 with a 3.46 ERA. He was a member of three World Series teams, including Arizona's championship team in 2001, and the first Houston team to appear in a World Series (2005).


"To last 18 years in the big leagues takes talent for one thing," said Ben McDonald, a 2010 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee. "And you have to be fortunate with injuries. A lot of guys get out because of injuries, and I was one. You've got to be mentally tough ... It takes a lot of dedication. I know he had an incredible career."

Springer and McDonald arrived at LSU in the fall of 1986, but in differing fashion. McDonald came to LSU on a basketball scholarship, and was drafted by the Braves out of high school.


Springer also played basketball and baseball in high school at Grant High School, but it took some good fortune to be discovered.


One summer morning as his mother Diane was driving Springer and his siblings – brother James and sisters Jamie and Jana – to an aunt's apartment in Alexandria to go swimming, they passed by a major league tryout camp being held at Bringhurst Field. Springer got his mother to drop him off.


"Here I come in, 6-3, 160 pounds with cutoff blue jeans and hair down to my neck and looking like Tom Sawyer," joked Springer.


Springer made his way to the third base bullpen where the pitchers were working. He found the scout in charge and asked to pitch.


"He looked at me and smirked and said why don't you stand by the fence. When everybody else is done, I'll let you throw a couple," Springer recalled.


After the registered pitchers finished, the scout dismissed the catcher and guy holding the radar gun. Springer reminded the scout of his promise.


"He rolled his eyes and said OK," said Springer.


It took less than six pitches for the scout to recall the radar gun.


"The radar guy came back and I was throwing 94 miles an hour on a side mound with cutoff blue jeans at 16 years old," said Springer. "Next thing you know, I'm getting scouts at my games."


Springer played three seasons for LSU. As a freshman, he set a then-SEC record for strikeouts per nine innings at 14.5. As a junior, he and McDonald helped lead LSU to the College World Series, where Springer earned a win as the starting pitcher and McDonald the save against Miami.


Springer credits teammates Mark Guthrie, Stan Loewer and Barry Manuel, among others, for helping him adjust to college life. He credits McDonald for pushing him to be the best he could be.


"We had a healthy competition and pushed each other," said Springer. "It didn't matter if we were running or pitching or whatever.”


"It was a match made in heaven," said McDonald. "We were two very competitive people. If he struck out eight one night, I wanted to strike out nine the next."


Springer was drafted by the Yankees in the seventh round in 1989. Despite making just three starts above A ball, the Yankees called him up to the major leagues in 1992.


A starting pitcher his entire career, the Yankees used Springer out of the bullpen. During the offseason, he was traded to the Angels as part of the Jim Abbott deal.


For the next four seasons he bounced between being a starting pitcher and a reliever. After being traded to Philadelphia, Springer had had enough.


"I told them I can't do both and be good at either one of them," said Springer.


The Phillies told Springer to decide on which he'd rather do.


"I think they 100 percent thought I was going to be a starter," he said. "I said the hardest thing for me was to sit those four days between my starts. From the time I told them I wanted to be a reliever, I never started a game the rest of my career."


Springer's career bounced him all over the country. He tried to pick franchises near his home. When he first became a free agent, he jumped at the chance to pitch in Houston, a 4½-hour drive from Pollock.


In 2000, Arizona offered a multi-year contract in a warm climate and with a contending team. However, shortly into his second year (2001) with the Diamondbacks, Springer knew something was wrong.


"All of a sudden, my shoulder is killing me," he said. "I have what I consider a high pain tolerance because of the different injuries you go through as a professional athlete. It was hurting to the point where I couldn't keep my shoulder in socket. I'd throw a baseball and my shoulder would come out of socket."


Springer had an MRI and a visit with one of the premier orthopedic surgeons in the country. After looking at the test results, he told Springer, "If I open you up and see what I see on this MRI, I'm not even gonna fix it. I'm just gonna close you up and tell you to have a nice life, you're done."


It wasn't what Springer wanted to hear so he left and consulted with an Arizona doctor who told him he would fix whatever he found wrong. However, the surgeon could not guarantee he would ever pitch again.


"I said, ‘That's all I ask. Just fix what you find,’" Springer said.


When Springer woke up from surgery, the surgeon listed everything he had fixed: torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, tightened up the shoulder capsule, removed the bursa sac and shaved the acromion bone.


Springer spent the following year in Central Louisiana rehabbing. Six months after surgery, he began playing catch. A few months later, Springer called his agent to find work, but not in the majors. Springer wanted to go to Puerto Rico.


"Everybody knows what kind of injury I just came off of," he said. "I've seen those guys come into camp and they really don't take them that seriously."


Springer wound up as the closer for a team. One of the opposing managers was St. Louis coach Jose Oquendo.


"The next thing you know, I have the Cardinals call and offer me a legit spot on their team," he said.


But the next season, Springer would not attend spring training, instead focusing on his family following his son Jake's Autism diagnosis. After things settled at home, Springer's wife Kelly told him to go back to work. Russ Springer told his agent he would only pitch for Houston.


The Astros signed Springer and called him up in time to help the Astros win 36 of their final 46 games to earn the NL Wild Card. Springer had a 2.63 ERA in 16 games, and the Houston franchise won its first postseason series. A year later, Springer and Houston found themselves in the World Series.


Springer retired after appearing in two games for the Reds in 2010 due to injury.


"I'd come back and pitched nine years after the doctor told me I'd never pitch again," he said.


Springer said a key to his longevity came from emulating his father James' work ethic.


The other reason he was able to last nearly two decades in the major leagues? Kelly Springer.


"She was my high school cheerleader and was always there for me and wanted me to pursue my dreams," said Russ. "She never got caught up in the major league lifestyle. Once we started having kids, she was an awesome mom to Karlee and Jake. The way she dealt with my son at an early age when we knew he had issues … she would never cut into my time of going to the gym or playing ball. She handled it."


As his induction to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame nears, Springer has found himself looking back over his career and taking joy in things not found in box scores.


"I was able to hold games, pitching in relief, behind some guys who are in the Hall of Fame right now – Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine," he said. "The highlight of my career basically was grinding out a career and playing in some big games, but unless you are there, you don't realize how hard it is to get there, and how hard it is to stay there.


"To play as long as I did is something I'm proud of."



By John Marcase

Written for the LSWA


When Russ Springer meets a person, he can instantly tell where they are from.


If the person calls him "Russ," well, they could be from anywhere.


If the person calls him "Russell," they can be only from one place – Grant Parish.


As Russell Springer prepares to enter the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday, June 30 in Natchitoches, he credits a former Cy Young Winner and Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer for helping him see what was possible far beyond the town of Pollock.


"Being from the rural part of Grant Parish to where even other kids in Grant Parish joked about where I lived ... it's hard to say I can make it being where I'm from, because I never knew anyone who did," said Springer.


Springer's outlook changed thanks to a visit from the Grant Parish Library's bookmobile.


"I remember getting a book when I was kid," Springer said. "It was 'Ron Guidry – Louisiana Lightning.' I read part of it ... and it clicked. I never forgot it. This guy is from Lafayette, Louisiana. At the time, I didn't even know where that was. But, in my mind, I knew it wasn't too far from here. It doesn't sound like a whole lot, but at the time it meant a whole lot to me.


"I knew that if he could make it, so could I."


That Springer did. He pitched 18 seasons in the major leagues, matching Lee Smith for the most by any pitcher from Louisiana. Primarily a reliever, Springer appeared in 740 games, compiling a 36-45 record with a 4.52 ERA. Incredibly, his best years came in the latter stages of his career despite a devastating shoulder injury.


Over Springer's final seven seasons after turning 35, he was 17-16 with a 3.46 ERA. He was a member of three World Series teams, including Arizona's championship team in 2001, and the first Houston team to appear in a World Series (2005).


"To last 18 years in the big leagues takes talent for one thing," said Ben McDonald, a 2010 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee. "And you have to be fortunate with injuries. A lot of guys get out because of injuries, and I was one. You've got to be mentally tough ... It takes a lot of dedication. I know he had an incredible career."

Springer and McDonald arrived at LSU in the fall of 1986, but in differing fashion. McDonald came to LSU on a basketball scholarship, and was drafted by the Braves out of high school.


Springer also played basketball and baseball in high school at Grant High School, but it took some good fortune to be discovered.


One summer morning as his mother Diane was driving Springer and his siblings – brother James and sisters Jamie and Jana – to an aunt's apartment in Alexandria to go swimming, they passed by a major league tryout camp being held at Bringhurst Field. Springer got his mother to drop him off.


"Here I come in, 6-3, 160 pounds with cutoff blue jeans and hair down to my neck and looking like Tom Sawyer," joked Springer.


Springer made his way to the third base bullpen where the pitchers were working. He found the scout in charge and asked to pitch.


"He looked at me and smirked and said why don't you stand by the fence. When everybody else is done, I'll let you throw a couple," Springer recalled.


After the registered pitchers finished, the scout dismissed the catcher and guy holding the radar gun. Springer reminded the scout of his promise.


"He rolled his eyes and said OK," said Springer.


It took less than six pitches for the scout to recall the radar gun.


"The radar guy came back and I was throwing 94 miles an hour on a side mound with cutoff blue jeans at 16 years old," said Springer. "Next thing you know, I'm getting scouts at my games."


Springer played three seasons for LSU. As a freshman, he set a then-SEC record for strikeouts per inning at 14.5. As a junior, he and McDonald helped lead LSU to the College World Series, where Springer earned a win as the starting pitcher and McDonald the save against Miami.


Springer credits teammates Mark Guthrie, Stan Loewer and Barry Manuel, among others, for helping him adjust to college life. He credits McDonald for pushing him to be the best he could be.


"We had a healthy competition and pushed each other," said Springer. "It didn't matter if we were running or pitching or whatever.”


"It was a match made in heaven," said McDonald. "We were two very competitive people. If he struck out eight one night, I wanted to strike out nine the next."


Springer was drafted by the Yankees in the seventh round in 1989. Despite making just three starts above A ball, the Yankees called him up to the major leagues in 1992.


A starting pitcher his entire career, the Yankees used Springer out of the bullpen. During the offseason, he was traded to the Angels as part of the Jim Abbott deal.


For the next four seasons he bounced between being a starting pitcher and a reliever. After being traded to Philadelphia, Springer had had enough.


"I told them I can't do both and be good at either one of them," said Springer.


The Phillies told Springer to decide on which he'd rather do.


"I think they 100 percent thought I was going to be a starter," he said. "I said the hardest thing for me was to sit those four days between my starts. From the time I told them I wanted to be a reliever, I never started a game the rest of my career."


Springer's career bounced him all over the country. He tried to pick franchises near his home. When he first became a free agent, he jumped at the chance to pitch in Houston, a 4½-hour drive from Pollock.


In 2000, Arizona offered a multi-year contract in a warm climate and with a contending team. However, shortly into his second year (2001) with the Diamondbacks, Springer knew something was wrong.


"All of a sudden, my shoulder is killing me," he said. "I have what I consider a high pain tolerance because of the different injuries you go through as a professional athlete. It was hurting to the point where I couldn't keep my shoulder in socket. I'd throw a baseball and my shoulder would come out of socket."


Springer had an MRI and a visit with one of the premier orthopedic surgeons in the country. After looking at the test results, he told Springer, "If I open you up and see what I see on this MRI, I'm not even gonna fix it. I'm just gonna close you up and tell you to have a nice life, you're done."


It wasn't what Springer wanted to hear so he left and consulted with an Arizona doctor who told him he would fix whatever he found wrong. However, the surgeon could not guarantee he would ever pitch again.


"I said, ‘That's all I ask. Just fix what you find,’" Springer said.


When Springer woke up from surgery, the surgeon listed everything he had fixed: torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, tightened up the shoulder capsule, removed the bursa sac and shaved the acromion bone.


Springer spent the following year in Central Louisiana rehabbing. Six months after surgery, he began playing catch. A few months later, Springer called his agent to find work, but not in the majors. Springer wanted to go to Puerto Rico.


"Everybody knows what kind of injury I just came off of," he said. "I've seen those guys come into camp and they really don't take them that seriously."


Springer wound up as the closer for a team. One of the opposing managers was St. Louis coach Jose Oquendo.


"The next thing you know, I have the Cardinals call and offer me a legit spot on their team," he said.


But the next season, Springer would not attend spring training, instead focusing on his family following his son Jake's Autism diagnosis. After things settled at home, Springer's wife Kelly told him to go back to work. Russ Springer told his agent he would only pitch for Houston.


The Astros signed Springer and called him up in time to help the Astros win 36 of their final 46 games to earn the NL Wild Card. Springer had a 2.63 ERA in 16 games, and the Houston franchise won its first postseason series. A year later, Springer and Houston found themselves in the World Series.


Springer retired after appearing in two games for the Reds in 2010 due to injury.


"I'd come back and pitched nine years after the doctor told me I'd never pitch again," he said.


Springer said a key to his longevity came from emulating his father James' work ethic.


The other reason he was able to last nearly two decades in the major leagues? Kelly Springer.


"She was my high school cheerleader and was always there for me and wanted me to pursue my dreams," said Russ. "She never got caught up in the major league lifestyle. Once we started having kids, she was an awesome mom to Karlee and Jake. The way she dealt with my son at an early age when we knew he had issues … she would never cut into my time of going to the gym or playing ball. She handled it."


As his induction to the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame nears, Springer has found himself looking back over his career and taking joy in things not found in box scores.


"I was able to hold games, pitching in relief, behind some guys who are in the Hall of Fame right now – Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine," he said. "The highlight of my career basically was grinding out a career and playing in some big games, but unless you are there, you don't realize how hard it is to get there, and how hard it is to stay there.


"To play as long as I did is something I'm proud of."



Wayne’s diamond dreams gave way to fabulous football talent


By Joel Erickson

Written for the LSWA


Reggie Wayne left such an indelible mark on his teams that it’s hard to imagine him playing for anybody else.


For example, when Ed Reed thinks about the first time he met Wayne, he thinks about heading home from his own high school football games, flipping on Friday Night Football and marveling at the John Ehret receiver who seemed to create his own highlight package every week.


When he went to Miami, Wayne was the main target on the Hurricanes teams that lifted an iconic program out of the hell of NCAA probation and set up a national championship run.


And in Indianapolis, Wayne became a key piece in a Peyton Manning-led passing game that redefined offense in the NFL, then stuck around for 14 years, the rare NFL player to spend his entire career with only one team.


Funny to think how close the silky-smooth receiver with the flytrap hands came to cementing his legacy in other locales, instead of the places that led to this year’s induction in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, June 30 in Natchitoches.


“I don’t think there’s any athlete who doesn’t want to feel appreciated or respected,” Wayne said. ‘There’s been so many greats that have come out of the state of Louisiana. Just to be a part of that, it’s an honor.”


Wayne’s bloodlines seemed primed for football. His father, Ralph, played linebacker for Grambling in college, then spent his career as a football coach at O. Perry Walker in Algiers.


But the sport that first captured Wayne’s heart wasn’t his father’s.


“Football just wasn’t my thing,” Wayne said. “I grew up watching Ozzie Smith and the Cardinals. I wanted to play shortstop ever since I was small.”


Wayne grew up playing shortstop and third base, at least until football got its hooks into him when he got to high school and saw the bright lights and the passionate fan base that followed John Ehret football.


Every once in a while, though, he wonders what might have been.


“I don’t have any regrets in my life,” Wayne said. “I don’t, but if there was one that I can take out, it’d just be, where would I be baseball-wise these days? Because I thought I was fairly decent.”


Obviously gifted, Wayne joined a John Ehret team that initially wasn’t suited to his talents. When he started playing football in high school, he was a running back and quarterback, trapped in an option offense. He spent his first two years of football on the perimeter, mostly blocking.


Wayne started to wonder if he should leave John Ehret.


“I was kind of like, ‘You know, I can go to O. Perry Walker where my dad’s at, and they throw the ball every play,’” Wayne said. “They’re three and four wides every play. I kind of kept it to myself and told some friends that I was debating on doing it, and a couple of those friends went to the coach and told him there was a possibility that I was going to leave.”


The ball came to Wayne so many times the next week that he remembers telling his coaches to back off just a bit.


And when the ball started coming Wayne’s way, so did the schools. Recruits are allowed to take five official visits; Wayne took three, in part because some of the biggest schools in the SEC didn’t realize what they had on their hands. Tennessee pulled his offer right before he visited, telling Wayne they’d given it to another receiver; Florida told him the Gators didn’t think he was fast enough. Another visit was a courtesy to a former coach at Oklahoma State.


For a little while, Wayne was committed to LSU, at least until he got a call from Miami wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson.


“I’d never thought about Miami; they were on probation at the time,” Wayne said. “I pretty much had my mind made up, and he was like, ‘Give me a shot. Just one chance.’”


How Johnson convinced Wayne is up for debate. Now back in his second stint as the Saints’ receivers coach, Johnson is pretty sure he sealed the deal by offering Wayne some pointers on a post-corner over the phone, pointers that led to a touchdown the next week.


Reed also remembers Johnson putting the two prized recruits together in the car on a long drive and letting them build a relationship that carried weight when they took a visit to LSU together, and Wayne could tell Reed wasn’t feeling his state school.


Wayne has a different explanation.


“It was a big family,” Wayne said. “I saw something I didn’t see at LSU or Oklahoma State.”


Wayne went to Miami, roomed with Reed and instantly made a mark on the program.


“He was on a mission,” Reed said. “His first year was all his doing. All his will. All his goals for himself were to be the best receiver, make all the catches, every last one of them that came his way.”


Wayne caught 48 passes as a freshman, breaking Michael Irvin’s record for catches as a freshman. From that season forward, Wayne was a devastating target, a player who had a knack for coming up with catches in big games and still holds Miami’s record for receptions in a career, with 173 over four seasons.


The best part was that Wayne got to cap his career with three catches for 49 yards at home in a 37-20 Sugar Bowl win over Florida, the team that told him he was too slow.


“In 35 years of coaching, best hands I ever had,” Johnson said. “If you watch some of the catches he made, some of the plays he made against the Florida States, teams like that.  … Whoever we played against, this guy made plays.”


Indianapolis drafted Wayne with the 30th pick of the first round in 2001. In hindsight, he couldn’t have landed in a better spot. At the time, though, Wayne wasn’t sure that was the case.


“I knew about Peyton and all that stuff, but when I got there, they’d really only had one winning season,” Wayne said. “I didn’t know anything about the Midwest. … And also, you know, my rookie year, I had Jim Mora as my head coach. … He didn’t even want an offensive dude, he wanted a defensive guy, and they went and drafted me, so I had to get used to all of that.”


But Wayne fit with the Colts better than anybody could have known. Manning was already establishing his legendary work ethic, Marvin Harrison had the same personality, and the Colts added a receiver who was ready to get right in there with them.


“There was no secret why he was as great as he was,” Colts teammate Brandon Stokely said. “It’s because of the way he worked. He didn’t come into the NFL his rookie year and have a superstar season, but he worked his way to becoming a great NFL receiver.’


Wayne caught 27 passes as a rookie, 49 in his second, 68 in his third, broke through with a 77-catch, 1,210-yard campaign in his fourth season and never looked back. From that moment on, he was one of the most devastating weapons in a Manning-led offense that dominated the NFL.


Being drafted to Indianapolis ended up giving Wayne a third home to go along with the New Orleans area and Miami. Wayne spent most of his 14 seasons with the Colts playing for the same quarterback, the same coach, in the same offensive scheme. Off the field, he had time to build relationships and sustain them, eliminating off-the-field concerns and racking up numbers as he chased the game’s ultimate goal, a Super Bowl prize Indianapolis picked up in Super Bowl XLI.


“Once you’ve got it, it was all good from that point on,” Wayne said. “I loved everything about it. I think we all did. There was no team in the decade that won more games than us. That was a testimony to all the work we put in. Now, we damn sure don’t have enough rings to show for it, but we do know we were a pretty good group.”


Along the way, Wayne established himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL.


While his old Miami roommate built a career as one of the best safeties the NFL has ever seen, he relished his meetings with Wayne, a player he always knew was destined for stardom at the game’s highest level.


“Reggie was really ready for the pros, he was ready for it in college,” Reed said. “His precision route-running, his mentality of knowing the game, knowing what was going on, being able to communicate with his other receivers and his quarterback, his mind for the game was on a whole ‘nother level.”


Wayne, who retired after 14 seasons, 1,070 catches, 14,345 yards and 82 touchdowns, is still around the game. An analyst for the NFL Network, Wayne has also dipped his toe into following in his father’s footsteps as a coach, testing out the waters as a volunteer coach for the Colts this offseason.


And as the dust settles on his remarkable career, Wayne is starting to reap the rewards of his brilliant play. A member of the University of Miami’s Sports Hall of Fame since 2011, Wayne will enter Louisiana’s Hall, then take his place in the Colts’ Ring of Honor in November.


All that’s left is a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a possibility that is difficult to handicap, given the recent explosion in receiving numbers.


“I don’t worry about it,” Wayne said. “I told you what matters to me: what my teammates think of me as a person and as a teammate, and what my opponents think about me every time they played me.”


Stokely believes Wayne’s a Hall of Famer. So does Reed.


If and when that honor comes, and even if it doesn’t, after the mark he left on three cities, Wayne’s place in the history of football is safe and secure.


The Wright stuff:  championship success has been a constant theme


By Paul Letlow

Written for the LSWA

Larry Wright’s epic basketball journeys always seemed to reach the same destination. 

No matter where he played, from Richwood High School to Grambling and into professional ball, Wright was always part of teams that won big. 

“Winning has always been number one for me since I can remember starting to play at an early age,” Wright said. “Even as a small kid going to the rec center, winning was always the number one deal with me.”

Wright was a two-time Parade Magazine All-American at Richwood and won a Class 3A state championship in 1972.  He transferred to Western High School in Washington D.C. as a senior and his team won the city championship. Grambling won the 1976 SWAC tournament championship with Wright starring as the conference player of the year.  

Drafted in the first round by the Washington Bullets in 1976, Wright joined the franchise that won the NBA championship in 1978. 

Wright finished his playing days as an international star, delivering a European Championship for Italy’s Banco DiRoma in 1983-84. 

For all of his accomplishments, Wright has finally earned induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2018. He and 10 others will be enshrined at the annual induction dinner and ceremony at the Natchitoches Events Center on Saturday, June 30.

“He’s had a storybook life,” said son-in-law Damon West, who is head coach at Rayville High School. “You’ve just have to put the pieces together.” 


Important people along the way shared Wright’s story, starting with his mother Recie Hollis. He watched as she worked multiple jobs to provide for her family. Larry Wright was the sixth of nine children. 

“I wanted to do my best to be a winner,” Wright said. “It comes from seeing my mother raise nine kids by herself. Seeing her get up going to work every day and never complain about anything. She always told us that if we were going to do something, do it your very best.


“She never allowed us to come home and complain about anything. I think I get that from Mother. Watching my older brothers play football at the powerhouse, Richwood High School. I used to go to practice with them and watch them. I went to games and watched football games. Once upon a time, Richwood won 66 in a row under the legendary Mackie Freeze.”

At Richwood, another important figure entered his life. Hershell West, the man who would become his high school coach and mentor, spotted Wright in the gym when he was in junior high. 

“I first saw him as an eighth grader,” West said. “He was a small player but a competitor. He was just a winner.”

Wright said West encouraged him to pursue excellence in basketball in a way no one ever had before. 

“Nobody ever showed interest in me the way he did,” Wright said. “He saw me play and he said to me that if worked at it, I could end up going to college on scholarship.”

West, who had been a great player himself at Grambling, told Wright that he had a future in basketball if he would put in the work. 

“Nobody had ever said anything that encouraging to me,” Wright said. “After he said he said that to me, I’d make a daily visit to his class so he could talk to me about the game of basketball. I was like a sponge. Whatever he said, I would listen at it.”

Wright became vocal about his goals, which included earning a college scholarship and reaching the NBA. 

“I remember one day in ninth grade, I told him I’d make it to the NBA,” Wright said. “He said if I believed it, I could do it. Never from that day until I went to the NBA did I put a basketball down.”

Wright suffered a broken arm in 10th grade and Richwood lost in the playoffs but he came back with a vengeance in his junior year as he averaged 28.9 points per game. At Richwood, Wright paired with Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Sammie White in a dynamic backcourt. White went on to play wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL. 

“I still believe to this day, we were the best pair of guards to play in the backcourt in north Louisiana history and probably in state of Louisiana,” Wright said.  “In 1972 we won the state championship. I think we were 35-1.


“We lost one game and it was on a controversial call where one guy called the basket good and the other guy called it no good, to Jonesboro in Jonesboro. Never forget, we were all in the dressing room with our heads down crying. Hershell said, ‘We’ll get them again at the end of the year.’ We got 'em again and made good. We went on to Alexandria and no game was close.”

When Wright learned that he wouldn’t be eligible to play a full senior season at Richwood because he was turning 18 in November, West arranged for him to move to Washington to play for future Grambling athletics director Robert Piper at Western High.  West and Piper were close friends and former teammates at Eula Britton High in Rayville and at Grambling. 

“They ruled against me and said I’d only be able to play the first semester in high school,” Wright said. “Again Hershell West stepped in and called Robert Piper. It wasn’t a semester situation. It was an age situation.” 

Another Louisiana Hall of Famer, Grambling football legend Ernie Ladd, put Wright on a plane to Washington as he left the state of Louisiana for the first time in his life. 

“I stayed with Mr. Piper and we won the inner city championship in Washington D.C.,” Wright said.  “I left Richwood where I made All-American and went to Washington D.C. where I also made All-American.”

Grambling’s legendary coach Fred Hobdy promised Wright a scholarship when he was in10th grade and that offer stood two years later. Wright, who wanted to follow in the footsteps of West and Piper, turned down other college opportunities to play for the Tigers. 

“I could have gone to any school in the country,” Wright said. “But Mr. West went to Grambling, so I wanted to go to Grambling.”

Wright enjoyed three great years at Grambling  and was two-time selection to the NCAA all-small colleges team. Wright was the SWAC Player of the Year as a junior with a 25.4 scoring average for the Tigers’ SWAC Tournament championship team.


“He was very unique,” Wright said of Hobdy. “You go to Grambling, you’ve got to go to class and get an education. Basketball was secondary. The second thing that was unique about him is that he was an outstanding fundamental coach. He got you ready for every aspect or facet of the game.”

Wright declared for the NBA Draft as a hardship case and was a first-round pick at 14th overall by Washington. 


“Larry is one of the best small players I ever scouted,” general manager Bob Ferry noted in the 1977-78 Bullets media guide. 


Describing Wright’s style in their 1977-78 preseason scouting report, the Bullets noted: “He loves to play, isn’t afraid of anything. Best example of his fearlessness. He saw Boston Garden for the first time on Nov. 5. It was the Celtics first home game, they passed out championship rings, raised all the flags. Larry came off the bench, scored 23 points, including six for six from the foul line in the final 28 seconds.”


In just his second pro season, Wright teamed with1988 LSHOF inductee Elvin Hayes on the Washington Bullets’ 1978 NBA Champion squad.

“Larry and I accomplished one of the great accomplishments in sports,” Hayes said. “We were with the Washington Bullets and had a great team. Larry was a part of our championship.”

Hayes, another Rayville native, had crossed paths with Wright before. 

“I met him one time when I was in high school at Richwood,” Wright said. “He was with the San Diego Rockets. Coach West brought him to Richwood. He played against us and talked to us about being a player. It’s unreal the way it happened. One day I would win a championship with Elvin Hayes.”

Wright and the Bullets battled through the playoffs. 

“We were down to the San Antonio Spurs three games to one,” said Wright who celebrated the 40th anniversary of their championship with a reunion back in Washington in 2018. “I’ll never forget, Dick Motta made the statement that ‘the opera’s not over until the fat lady sings.’ We heard him when he said it. We knew we were a good team. We came back and eventually won the whole thing.”

In four seasons with the Bullets, he scored 2,489 regular-season points in 297 games (8.4 points a game), averaging between 9.3 and 7.3 points a game each season.

After playing six seasons in the NBA with the Bullets and Detroit Pistons, then spending a year away from basketball teaching in Monroe, Wright had a chance to return to the court in Europe. 

The Italian team Banco DiRoma wanted an American player who could help them take down the team led by star Mike D’Antoni, now head coach of the Houston Rockets.  


"Larry was an offensive guard, a natural born scorer, a fighter," Italian coach Valerio Bianchini said in a 2013 interview with Euroleague.net. “He was not a pure point guard, but a mix of point and shooting guard and that only made his potential higher. His fighting character came from his difficult childhood, marked by family poverty. He was a very responsible man and he always cared a lot for his family and helped them a lot." 

Wright delivered as promised as he led Banco DiRoma to the Italian championship in 1982-83, winning Italian Player of the Year honors in 1983. One publication named him the European Player of the Year in 1983-84 when he led the team to the European title. He became such a star in Italy, he had his own signature shoe line by Diadora. 


“It was really something that as a boy growing up in Louisiana, I never thought about the opportunity to go to college on a basketball scholarship, then get drafted in the first round of the NBA, win a world championship, then go to Rome Italy and win a championship where they hadn’t won in 40 years.”

After ending his playing days, Wright would work as an NBA scout, then return to Grambling as head coach before becoming a high school administrator. 


Though those years, he won in his role as a father too. Wright’s family had the right stuff when it came to sports. 


Son Larry Jr., played for West Monroe High School’s first state championship team, signed with Notre Dame in football and finished at Louisiana Tech. Daughter Ashana won four straight conference championships playing for the Grambling in basketball and son Lance played football for the Tigers. Daughter Imani Wright starred at Florida State and was a WNBA draft pick earlier this year.  


“I’ve got the greatest kids,” Wright said. “Some special kids.”


In a wonderful new chapter to his story, Rayville High School, where Wright serves as an assistant principal, went undefeated in 2017-18 and won a state championship. The Hornets are coached by Damon West, Hershell’s nephew and Wright’s son-in-law. West employed the same up-tempo attack at Rayville that Hershell West and Hobdy ran when they were coaching. 


 “He’s played the game on every level and won on every level,” Damon West said. “There are a lot of things we talk about and he’s been through it. That’s been a real plus for me.”


For Wright, his Rayville connection just brought everything full circle -- in the same year he enters the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. 


“All the people responsible for me being who I am were people from Rayville,” Wright said. “When I was offered the job as social principal at Rayville High School, it was a no-brainer. It came full circle. People like Hershell West and Robert Piper put me under their wings and helped me become the man I am today. I wanted to come to Rayville to see if I could help somebody.”




Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award Recipient

Gleason stares down adversity, provides aid and inspiration

 

By Ted Lewis

Written for the LSWA


When Steve Gleason received the devastating diagnosis in 2011 that he had contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, he could have, understandably, accepted his fate — that his condition was terminal, usually within a couple of years.

But as Gleason, then 34, later put it, “Most people who have severe disabilities are expected to fade away quietly and die.

“For me," he said, "that was not OK.”

Indeed not.

That wasn’t the Steve Gleason who had already beaten the odds to play eight NFL seasons, primarily on special teams, and gained Who Dat immortality in 2006 with his blocked punt in the opening minutes of the Saints’ return to the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina.

Or the one who had met and married New Orleanian Michel Varisco after his playing career had ended. They found out they had a child on the way shortly before the diagnosis.

Or the one who remained decidedly health conscious after his playing days were over, practicing yoga and obsessing about his diet.

There would be, as he later so pointedly put it, “No White Flags!”

“It’s easy to start questioning whether God has this plan and why this plan would include getting diagnosed with this disease,” Gleason said when he went public with his condition on the fifth anniversary of his blocked punt against the Atlanta Falcons. “And that’s when you can start why-ing yourself to death.

“More than that I’ve thought, what does this mean, how does this help me fulfill my purpose in life? If we have one beyond being a cog in the human machine, mine is to inspire people and that’s pretty cool. I would like to motivate the world.”

He’s certainly working on it.

The 2018 Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award winner, who will be enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, June 30 in Natchitoches, has become the world’s leading ALS activist.

His Gleason Initiative Foundation helps provide the latest mobility and communication technology for both those with ALS and other neuromuscular diseases, including securing permanent government funding for speech generating devices through what is called “The Steve Gleason Act.”

It also rewards grants for those who cannot afford what Medicare does not cover plus aiding those in other countries.

The foundation additionally provides “adventures,” for ALS patients, so that they can share Gleason’s passion for travel and immerse themselves in other cultures.

Through Gleason’s efforts, the Team Gleason House for Innovative Living, which provides housing for up to nine persons featuring the latest technology, opened in New Orleans in 2013.

That same year, Gleason also launched Answer ALS, a cooperative effort of all ALS research entities which to date has gathered an estimated 20 trillion data points in the search for a cure for a disease for which there is no known cause or prevention.

The largest-ever ALS research project has already furthered the realization that there are several forms of the disease, leading to better treatment and trials in the quest for a cure.

Showing his parental side, Gleason now sponsors life skills camps for youngsters.

There’s also the incalculable amount of awareness Gleason has created around the world concerning a disease which afflicts some 30,000 Americans with the numbers growing as the population ages. He’s directly raised millions as well.

With hundreds of thousands of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook followers, Gleason’s impact has certainly gone far beyond New Orleans and any level of recognition he received as a player, although his status as an ex-NFL player did initially open doors.

The Gleason’s have opened their lives personally as well.

A highly-acclaimed 2016 documentary, “Gleason,” showed in sometimes painful detail how he's coped and then persevered even though ALS robbed him of his mobility, then ability to eat and finally to speak except through eye-movement recognition equipment.

The development of that equipment helped come about through his relationship with Bill Gates, a major benefactor of the foundation. Gleason even persuaded the world’s richest person to take part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and has applied to go into space.

People have named their children after Gleason and engraved his image on their bodies. One man was inspired to lose 200 pounds and run a marathon and others have re-established relations with parents and siblings because of him.

Many more have reached out to Michel for being so open about the difficulty of being an ALS caretaker and loved one.

Gleason has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram and maintains very active presences on both.

All of that Gleason has accomplished while remaining dedicated to living life to the fullest with Michel and their son, Rivers, plus a large circle of friends — many of them former Saints’ teammates and family members who have traveled to exotic locales despite his physical limitations.

On a recent day, Gleason met with representatives of a company which has developed a device which would cut the number of devices needed to help patients clear their lungs from five to one and that evening attended a Pelicans NBA playoff game with Michel and Rivers.

“Steve has his hand in everything,” Michel said. “He does more than almost anyone I know, and that’s without being able to move or communicate with ease.

“And Rivers thinks it’s just the norm that his dad comes to his school or his games even if he’s different from the other dads.”

Gleason has an explanation for it all.

“It’s always been my choice to live life with a purpose,” he said. “That did not change with ALS.

“I think adversity provides us with opportunity. I happen to have been dealt more adversity than most people. So the way I see it, I have a greater opportunity to impact others.”

Small wonder Gleason has been nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal by senators and congressmen from both Louisiana and his home state of Washington.

The nomination recently received the necessary two-thirds support from the Senate to move forward for a final vote from that body.

“Steve Gleason was a hero for Saints fans and now he is a hero for all Americans as he finds hope and meaning in overcoming disability and creating greater opportunity for others who are disabled,” Louisiana senator Bill Cassidy said in announcing his sponsorship of the legislation to attain the medal.

Others share those sentiments.

Ian Davis, an Australian oncologist, was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, the same year at Gleason, and, at 33, was even younger (ALS most often strikes men over 40).

Inspired by Gleason and with his planned career taken away, Davis started his own foundation dedicated to raising ALS awareness.

“I always thought I would make a difference and leave my mark within my chosen profession,” Davis said. “Steve showed me another path where I could use my knowledge and passion to make a difference.

“What Steve has done and what Team Gleason is doing and will continue to do is changing the ALS landscape completely.”

Added Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whose foundation has been a major donor to Gleason’s, “What Steve has done with a tragic situation is incredible.”

Prior to contracting ALS, Gleason was best known for his blocked punt and the ensuing touchdown which produced the most emotional, if not the loudest eruption of noise in Superdome history.

The Saints beat the Falcons 28-3 that evening and went on the franchise’s first NFC title game four months later.

Gleason, who started only one game during his career, said the play was a catharsis for the city and cemented forever the relationship between the Saints and their fans.

A statue of Gleason’s iconic block entitled “Rebirth,” is on the plaza of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“The people had spent the previous 12 months being devastated, frustrated and angry,” he said. “This was their chance to release all of those emotions and to let the world know the City of New Orleans was back.

“To me, blocking that punt was a symbol of the people of the region to return and rebuild. We, the players, were a representation of them.”

Gleason added that the fight against ALS is similar to post-Katrina New Orleans.

“The ALS community has felt largely ignored over the decades,” he said. “Knowing we are helping push advancements in technology and equipment that aids in independence and quality of life is powerful.”

Gleason is the first to point out that he has hardly been able to accomplish what he has alone.

Blair Casey has gone from a personal assistant during the later years of Gleason’s playing career to head of the Gleason Initiative, and Clare Durette has gone from volunteer to coordinating the Answer Aids efforts.

There are others who act as either personal caregivers or volunteers for the foundation.

But the person Gleason credits most is Michel, who not only has remained as his side as wife and mother of Rivers through their trials and tribulations. She frequently is the leader of foundation efforts at the grassroots level.

“I don’t think people can understand the toll ALS can take on relationships,” Gleason said. “Michel and I have worked hard to understand each other’s pain and needs.

“She’s amazingly resilient and a champion. She absolutely 100 percent deserves to share any recognition that comes my way.”

For Michel’s part, while acknowledging that Steve and she having to go through life with ALS is not the path in life they or anyone would choose (a particularly poignant moment in “Gleason” shows her crying about how she didn’t want to have to deal with it), she has come to accept it.

“I never saw myself in the public eye, even though people knew Steve,” she said. “So sometimes it’s been very bizarre for me to be in this situation that has become the reality of our lives.

“But Steve was always going to make a difference in the world. And we have this incredible platform to help others.”

Gleason agrees.

“Before I was diagnosed with ALS, I always tried to be a good steward of my time on earth,” he said. “And despite all that’s happened, I love my life.

“It hasn’t been easy. But it’s been awesome!”



 


Distinguished Service Award Recipients

A semi-humbled Kenneth Hobbs scoots into the Hall


By Teddy Allen

Written for the LSWA


The day Kenneth “Scooter” Hobbs found out he was going into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame — and no, it’s not because he played cornerback at a speed just north of idle for the Springhill High School Lumberjacks — I texted congratulations.

“I’m humbled,” he texted back, “…almost.”

You can pretty much wrap the story and put a bow on it here because that is the heart of The Tale of Scooter. Scooter is clever and funny and deservedly un-humble, but that’s because he pays dues, works hard, and tries. Scooter actually cares. So the writing prizes and achievement awards keep coming for this 39-year veteran of the LSU beat and Lake Charles American Press, a man who has done so well because, like one of his faves, LSU legend Skip Bertman, he has this silly notion that sports and life in general should be, well, fun.

Because of the joy he has brought his fellow ink-stained wretches, along with the information and entertainment he has so consistently shared with his readers, Scooter (I just can’t write “Kenneth” or “Hobbs” since I don’t even know THAT guy) will become a member of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame during the Induction Dinner and Ceremony for the Class of 2018 Saturday evening, June 30 at the Natchitoches Events Center. He and Lyn Rollins are recipients of the 2018 Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association.

Since the announcement in the fall, recognition has rolled in like river fog over Tiger Stadium or the Hoover Met. Scooter threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the LSU-McNeese baseball game this spring in Alex Box Stadium — “I went with my three-seam Bud-heavy changeup,” he said — and held both teams hitless in his one pitch of work. The Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office honored him, as did the state legislature with a resolution during its spring special session. (“Now we know why they called a special session,” Scooter said; he might have even actually meant it.) There’s even been talk that Class Clowns of America, Inc., and The National Dangling Participle Society are thinking of presenting him with lifetime achievement awards.

He’s kind of a big deal…

As we’ve mentioned, we could stop now and you’d have the heart of the story. But we like gravy, so we’ll write some more. A few of his friends can write some of it and Scooter will write most of it: makes sense. Besides, you can’t stop a story like Scooter; you can only hope to contain it. So…

Scooter: “I went to LSU with the lame-brained notion to be a genuine architect. On the list of possible jobs, alphabetically it was right after Archer. But that dream lasted about two days before reality and trigonometry set in. Meanwhile, in freshman English classes, my smart-ass themes kept being the ones the professor read to the class and I kind of liked that… Once I started working for The Reveille (LSU’s student newspaper), that was it — I was hooked, hopeless. Before that, I remember sitting in the student section in Tiger Stadium and spending half the game gazing up at the press box and wondering what glorious times it must be up there. Remember, I was pretty naïve at the time…”

Lake Charles golf buddy Jimmy Mitchell: “In the 19th hole, people are throwing one-liners at him just to get a response. And there’s no telling the direction he’ll go... He was born in the wrong generation; if he’d have come along in the 1930s, they’d have a Scooter Hobbs Bowl, like they had a Grantland Rice Bowl. That’s where he needed to be: with one of those old typewriters and a little flask by his notepad, a cigarette dangling and his snap brim hat tilted. But they shot him forward too soon; I just look at him as a failed experiment.”

His first job out of college is where he works now. Scooter: “Just west of the Atchafalaya, my car broke down on I-10 on the way to the job interview. I had to hitchhike to Lake Charles and was a bit weather-beaten by the time I got there. After the interview, the editor, Jim Beam, told (then-sports editor) Bobby Dower, ‘I don’t know how that guy is going to handle our dress code,’ which at the time included neck ties. Fortunately, he let Bobby make the decision. That was the start of a lifelong friendship; Bobby and I were quite a team.”

Whenever daughter Jennifer Hobbs — Scooter reminds everyone often that Jennifer is “THE city engineer for the city of Missouri City, Texas,” — would complain that Scooter was out of town for some event that all her friends’ dads made, he’d say, “Yeah, but how many of them had Shaquille O’Neal pick them up over his head?”

“As much as he works and as much as he was gone, ever since I was a little kid, every night he was home he’d hang out in my room until I kicked him out,” Jennifer said. “He wanted to know everything that happened to me that day. He was the only dad who did that.”

The two had a standing dad-daughter supper date on Thursday nights when Jennifer attended McNeese. After she graduated, whoever was paying for supper got to pick the place. “It was kind of our thing,” she said. “He taught me how to play blackjack on my 21st birthday; stayed up ’til 4.”

She decided to pursue engineering and not follow in her dad’s writing footsteps because, “uh…there’s no money in journalism?” (The daughter of the father, right?) “I just loved math as a kid,” she said. “That’s the funny thing: Dad helped with my English homework all the time. I’d give him my term paper and he’d write red ink all over it. Then I started coming to him with math problems. I think it was sixth-grade algebra when he said, ‘I don’t know how to help you anymore, Boonie …’”

“I think he’s a good writer because he’s witty and perceptive,” she said. “He keeps up with pop culture and everything else. He writes so a child can read it on one level and an educated adult can read it on another level. All my friends in high school would read him and laugh.

“He’s a charismatic guy,” Jennifer said. “Oh, and you won’t catch him without a Budweiser or a Diet Coke in his hands; which one depends on what’s going on…”

He’s been Scooter, “except for one persnickety junior high teacher,” he said, since he was six weeks old; nobody remembers how it started. But don’t let the playful name and attitude fool you: he’s a guy you want with you in life’s foxholes. Former American Press intern Glenn Guilbeau, who now covers all things LSU and New Orleans Saints for Gannett Louisiana papers/USA Today and has roomed with Scooter all over the South, has seen his friend fix a laptop with a paperclip, pull stories or expertly edit them when they involved “kid” athletes getting into minor trouble, and sternly say “That’s not funny” and walk away from a table of friends when a racist joke was told.

Still, as Guilbeau points out, “He IS the only ‘adult’ still referred to as ‘Scooter.’” So it’s no surprise to find out, according to Guilbeau, that Scooter “leads the SEC in Interruptions,” that he could once tell you every storyline of All My Children, that when a hotel front-desk attendant told him on the phone that the middle-of-the-night alarms were not pranks by kids but a tornado warning that had been ongoing for the past two hours, he said, “Two HOURS? Well hell, we might as well RIDE IT OUT!,” and finally that he is a “connoisseur of the sea cruise and an underrated foodie who recommends Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Le Kliff in Puerto Vallarta” and, always, “Le Budweiser.”

And it’s no surprise that, in the spring of 1985 after LSU football coach Bill Arnsparger asked him how his honeymoon had just gone, Scooter went full-coach mode and said, “I don’t know; I’ve got to check the film.” Or that, when told by an NCAA Women’s Basketball media relations person that he couldn’t be credentialed to cover the LSU team in the Final Four in New Orleans because he didn’t cover the first two rounds of the tournament, Scooter said, “Ma’am, I didn’t cover the first two DECADES of the Women’s NCAA Tournament.”

He got the credential.

He’s covered LSU’s two most recent football national championships and all six baseball titles in Omaha, Neb., where he no longer needs to use a GPS. (“I think I can legally vote there.”) Because of his perfect-angle, by-chance seat in the auxiliary press box in Sun Life Stadium in Miami during Super Bowl XLIV, he was probably the first person in America who realized Tracy Porter was about to intercept Peyton Manning for the game clincher, giving him “the one column — ‘Saints Win Super Bowl’ — it never occurred to me I might write,” he said. And once covering a high school football game fresh out of LSU, he turned around from the bench at halftime to go back to the little press box and unknowingly ran into a dance line member who “did the big high-kick thing…right into my very personal, private-type area,” he said. He sprawled, the girl screamed, “but,” he said, “the fans seemed to really get a kick out of it.”

And that’s what’s always been most important to Scooter: the fans. As their eyes and ears and noses and hands and heart, he’s been loyal and given them their money’s-worth plus a bit more. A final example of that is from his favorite event to cover, the College World Series, where he almost missed the Warren Morris home run in 1996, only the most famous homer in college baseball history.

“The guy before him struck out for the second out and I was going to get a head start on the elevator,” Scooter said. “I figured if he singled and tied the game up, I’d just take it back up. But as I stood up I suddenly remembered the story Pete Finney used to tell about how the New Orleans media conglomerate all missed Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard FG because they were in the press box elevator at the time.

“So,” he said, “I sat back down.”

That’s half the battle, and who ever knows how much longer any guy will keep pulling up a chair? Scooter, unscripted as usual, certainly has no clue.

“Just the thought of having to write one of those ‘farewell columns’ keeps me trudging along,” he said. “Unlike some sports writers, I do consider it work. Most of the days do at least closely resemble work.

“But,” Scooter said, “this job does mean I never really had to grow up. I guess that’s why I never got a grown-up name.”




Lifelong passion for broadcasting drives Rollins to peak of his profession


By Bob Tompkins

Written for the LSWA


During the LSU-Rice semifinal game of the NCAA Baton Rouge baseball regional in 2016, the Twitter universe flashed some buzz regarding the play-by-play broadcaster for the game that was broadcast on ESPNU.

“Who’s the play-by-play guy in Baton Rouge? What a classic baseball voice,” tweeted Aaron Fitt, a national writer and editor at D1Baseball.com.


“Lyn Rollins,” tweeted a fan from New Orleans, “is a national treasure.”

“Flat as a fritter,” tweeted another fan from Alexandria, quoting Rollins. “Someone please write a book of all Lyn Rollins-isms please.”


A native Alexandrian and resident of Pineville, Rollins is being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Saturday, June 30 in Natchitoches as a broadcasting winner of the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism.


It’s a career he felt called to as a child.


“I distinctly remember as a 10-year-old or younger, listening to the radio at night before I went to bed –- clear channel AM radio stations all over the country in the ’50s,” Rollins said, sitting in the coffee shop of an Alexandria bookstore. “I thought it was magical to hear someone who was in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Des Moines, Denver, Atlanta.”


Most of those nights beside the radio, though, young Lyn was listening to St. Louis Cardinals baseball games on KMOX-AM, “the Voice of St. Louis,” and future National Baseball Hall of Famer Jack Buck was the announcer.


“I am a bit of a radio historian,” said Rollins.  “I think I’m rooted in the subject. It’s something I truly enjoy, something I wanted to do from an early age.”


Rollins got his start in broadcasting as a freshman at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, working at KNOC, sweeping the lobby, emptying trash cans and doing other odd jobs.


“I got to know Norm Fletcher, the longtime voice of Natchitoches high school sports and Northwestern sports,” he said. “I expressed a desire to get involved, and he asked me to be a spotter for him in football and to work the stats. I jumped at the chance. I’d wear a headset and I’d pretend I was doing a game when he was doing it.”


That extended to the basketball season, when he progressed to handling the broadcasting during halftime for Fletcher. Meanwhile, as a student at NSU, he was a print journalism major -- a “marvelous background,” he said, “for having broadcast skills because of requirements for efficient use of the language and the pressure of deadlines.”



As someone who blossomed under the tutelage of Fletcher and later succeeded him as the Voice of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, Rollins has always wanted to “use language well” because that was a trait of sportscasters of the time such as Jack Buck, Bob Prince, Lindsey Nelson, Al Wester and Red Barber, all of whom, he said, were “wordsmiths.”


A 1973 NSU journalism graduate, Rollins is a four-time Louisiana Sportscaster of the Year (selected by peers in broadcast and print journalism). For a few decades, he was Alexandria’s premier play-by-play broadcaster in high school sports, especially football, and he was the Voice of the Alexandria Aces minor league baseball team over two spans of the team’s existence, both in the Texas League in the ’70s and in independent leagues in the ’90s and early ’00s.


“Doing minor league baseball in small town America is a joy,” said Rollins, who’d open his Aces’ broadcasts with, “Welcome to baseball in small town America.”


Through those years, he found a groove for calling baseball.


“It may sound corny, but there’s something wholesome and lasting about (baseball),” Rollins said. “It connects us to the past.”


It also provided a bridge to his broadcasting future, thanks to Ronnie Rantz, a former star athlete for Holy Savior Menard who pitched at LSU under Skip Bertman and played briefly for the Aces in 1995.


“In the fall of ’97, I started putting together the Jumbo Sports Network,” said Rantz, the chief executive officer and president of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. “I wanted to set a pretty high bar. I needed a play-by-play guy, and the usual suspects like Jim Henderson (Saints) and Jim Hawthorne (LSU) were taken. This was 20 years ago, a different landscape for sports TV with not as many options as you have now.


“I immediately thought of Lyn,” he went on. “He knows his stuff, he’s done this all his life. He jumped at the opportunity and was really instrumental in securing sponsors to make sure our games got on the air.”


Rollins, who has a master’s in journalism from LSU, was the primary play-by-play man for Jumbo Sports’ groundbreaking baseball telecasts at LSU and other state schools. Rollins and Rantz did the broadcasts for the 2001 NCAA Super Regional baseball series between LSU and Tulane at Zephyr Field in Metairie in what would be Skip Bertman’s farewell as LSU’s legendary baseball coach.


“The Friday night game (won by LSU) went extra innings,” said Rantz. “After 10 p.m., it had a 25 rating, 35-40 shares, in the New Orleans area, which is unheard of. It’s the highest rated college baseball game (in a local market) in Louisiana history for sure, and possibly for the country.”


Rollins seemingly hit full stride during those broadcasts when, because of the size of the audience, thousands of fans in the state were introduced to the broadcaster who graduated from Bolton High School in 1968 and worked for one year as a sportswriter for the Town Talk in ’76-77.


“Lyn knows baseball -- he played it, called it (as an official), gets the nuances of it,” said Rantz.


“He has some quirky lines –‘hotter than a Rolex in a pawn shop’ is my personal favorite.


Some others: “hotter than a fire ant on a fever blister,” “he covers more ground than kudzu,” and, “if this at-bat goes any longer, you could count the growth rings in the bat.”


Northwestern State fans came to know Rollins as the Demon Sports Network play-by-play man from 1993-2003. Last fall, during an NSU football game broadcast on Cox Sports Television, NSU president Chris Maggio presented Rollins the university’s prestigious Nth Degree during a surprise halftime visit.


“Lyn has risen to the highest levels in his profession,” said Maggio at the time.


Jeff Brenner, the executive producer of Cox Sports Television, hired Rollins in 2003 as part of a collaborative effort between LSU and CST to televise LSU sports events.


“He reached out to us about doing some work,” said Brenner. “Knowing how much history he had in the state … we needed someone who could bring that out in a broadcast. Lyn is very professional, he cares about his broadcasts and about the kids he’s broadcasting about. He’s never put a kid down because he knows they are still students.


“People will joke about him – some of his puns or his sayings, but that’s what makes Lyn Lyn. He makes you laugh, he makes it fun for you, or he’s going to tell you something you might not have known.”


It was good timing being hired for that CST job in 2003, as Rollins got to follow LSU’s football team, which won that season’s BCS Championship under coach Nick Saban. He also covered LSU’s 2007 national championship season under coach Les Miles. Rollins said the LSU-Georgia afternoon game in ’03, won by LSU when Skyler Green caught a late TD pass on an improvisational route, “one of the most exciting games with which I’ve been involved.”


Rollins has made the drive from Pineville to Baton Rouge more than 1,000 times since 2003.


Kevin Wagner, who oversees LSU’s responsibilities with the SEC Network as LSU’s assistant athletic director for network operations, hired Rollins four years ago to be LSU’s lead announcer in SEC/ESPN network events.


“Even though Lyn lives in Pineville and has to drive a lot,” said Wagner, “because of his love for LSU and his interest in broadcasting LSU events, it was never an obstacle for him, whether it was a soccer match or a big-time basketball or baseball game.”  

Ben McDonald, a Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer as a former LSU and major league pitcher, has done many baseball broadcasts with Rollins and has won acclaim nationally for his insight and style as a studio or broadcast booth analyst for college baseball.



“I got into broadcasting kind of by accident,” said McDonald. “Lyn taught me more about broadcasting just by doing games with him and listening to him. He’s responsible in a lot of ways for me getting to where I am.


“No doubt this is a business, and we take it seriously,” McDonald continued, “but Lyn always stresses baseball is a fun game, a kids’ game. He keeps it fun, keeps it light. A lot of (play-by-play) guys I work with carry computers around with them. Lyn flies by the seat of his pants in a lot of ways.”


“I’ve never met someone who has done so many sports (as a broadcaster),” said Brenner. “He’s willing to drive to maybe Ole Miss or Mississippi State for a football game and then cover a soccer match or a softball game on campus, sometimes when no flights are available.


“You don’t get that a lot anymore,” he continued. “If someone can’t make a flight, they won’t take the job. He never misses an athletic event over a matter of travel difficulties. His passion of needing to be there and not wanting to disappoint the LSU fans, his fans, drives him. He definitely has a passion about his profession.”