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By Jason Pugh
NATCHITOCHES – A new look for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony did not change the emotions that flowed from the 11-enshrinee class that officially joined the hall Saturday night.
Aired live on Cox Sports Television for the first time, the ceremony featured question-and-answer sessions with each inductee that deviated from the traditional acceptance speeches.
That didn’t mean the emotions and thank yous were any different than in previous years, especially those delivered by two inductees who were unable to join their classmates at the Natchitoches Events Center.
Dave Dixon Leadership Award winner Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints safety who delivered a franchise-altering blocked punt in the Saints’ post-Hurricane Katrina return to the Superdome, has battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in the public eye for more than six years.
Part of Gleason’s video introduction was his “Dear World” video that originally aired in 2015 on the NFL Network.
“In 2011, I was diagnosed with a hurricane of a disease,” Gleason’s computer-modulated voice said. “ALS. Terminal death. Two-to-five years. Like this city’s levees in 2005, my invincible body failed me … We simply must be steadfast, maniacal idealists. When the world sees tragedy, idealists see opportunity. When the world folds its hand, idealists double down.”
Despite battling the disease that has no known cure, Gleason has doubled down on his charitable efforts.
Described by his father-in-law, Paul Varisco, as a man for others, Gleason helped found the Team Gleason Foundation that has helped numerous affected by ALS live more traditional lives.
“Steve was an adventurer,” Varisco said. “He wanted them to know they didn’t have to sit around and do nothing. The foundation provides life-changing adventures. We document them and raise more awareness.”
For Pollock’s Russ Springer, the awareness and adventures of an 18-year Major League Baseball career began with a book about another Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer, Ron Guidry.
During a childhood summer in Grant Parish, Springer’s mother drove him to a nearby bookmobile because “she wanted us to read a book during the summer,” Springer said during a taped interview.
“I was looking through the sports books and saw Ron Guidry, the ‘Louisiana Lightning’,” said Springer, who was unable to attend because of a medical situation involving his 19-year-old son who suffers from autism and epilepsy.
“This guy’s from Louisiana, and he’s wearing a Yankee uniform. I scanned it, well look at the pictures mostly, and saw he’s from Lafayette. I never heard of Lafayette, but in my mind, I thought it’s got to be pretty close. I’d never known anyone from our area who had pitched in the big leagues, but I thought, Ron Guidry’s from Lafayette, and he pitches in the big leagues. If he can do it, so can I.”
After setting the Southeastern Conference record for strikeouts per nine innings, Springer pitched 18 seasons in the major leagues, playing on three World Series squads including the 2001 title-winning Arizona Diamondbacks. His 18-year major league odyssey matched fellow Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Lee Smith for the longest career by a Louisianan in the big leagues.
Along the way, he left his mark on clubhouses from Phoenix to New York.
“The qualities he brought to each team, what he brought to the clubhouse, the bullpen, holding things together, he was like another coach – a mentor to other players,” said Louisiana Sports Writers Association member John Marcase, who accepted Springer’s award on his behalf. “He still gets calls from players who were young guys when he was finishing his career. They’ll ask him, ‘Do you see anything?’ He’ll say, ‘Yeah, you’re doing this or doing that.’ He’s like an instant pitching coach.”
It often takes less than an instant to know when Lyn Rollins is calling a sporting event for CST, ESPN or the SEC Network.
Described as “no one better at turning a phrase” during his introductory video, the man whose many “Rollinisms” spice up an ordinary game was very straightforward and sincere in his thanks.
“This is where my career started,” said Rollins, who learned at the microphone of fellow Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism winner Norm Fletcher while a student at Northwestern State. “I’m so happy to be here.”
While Rollins was sincere in his thank you, he reached into his timeless bag of stories to honor his career.
“There’s a Chinese story that in the rural areas when a baby is born, its parents will kiss the baby on the part of the anatomy they want them to have success in,” Rollins said. “If they want them to be a scientist, they kiss them on the forehead. If they want them to be an athlete or a runner, they kiss them on the knee. If they want them to be a skilled mechanic, they kiss them on the hands. I don’t know what part of my anatomy my parents kissed, but I’ve been able to stay afloat (as an independent contractor) for 15 to 16 years.”
Along the way, Rollins has inspired others while often drawing quizzical looks from his broadcasting partners. Make no mistake, those “Rollinisms” are part of his charm and his personality that has made him one of the most respected college baseball voices in the nation.
“Without him, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunities to do what I’ve done in the past few years,” former LSU ace, Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer and current Baltimore Orioles broadcaster Ben McDonald said. “I’m thankful for Lyn Rollins. He redefines ole school. That brief case and that flip phone go many many moons back. I love my SEC and ESPN staff, but my favorite guy to work with is Lyn Rollins.”
While Rollins turns phrases on air, his fellow Distinguished Service Award winner Scooter Hobbs, sports editor at the Lake Charles American Press, does so as smoothly as a tailor-made 6-4-3 double play – even if he takes his time to make a point.
“I read his columns from top to bottom,” longtime McNeese Sports Information Director Louis Bonnette said. “It may take me five or six paragraphs before I know what he’s writing about – maybe 10 to 12, maybe 15 to 16 – but by the end, he pieces it together. It’s good reading.
“I know here in Southwest Louisiana, there aren’t too many sports fans who miss his columns, especially the LSU fans. That’s what he does and what he does best. They read every word and they believe every word he writes about the Tigers, probably because most of it is true.”
Hobbs found his calling for journalism while in college at LSU, working as a Friday night stringer at the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate where former sports editor Bud Montet and he struck up a friendship.
It helped the one-time Springhill High School Lumberjack cornerback and golfer find his niche.
“A moment that will never be explained,” the rarely serious Hobbs said after being announced a member of the Hall of Fame. “This is the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame as I understand it? There’s a contingent of my old Springhill Lumberjack football and golf teammates wondering what the hell they’re doing here tonight.”
Hobbs became serious when discussing his mentor and good friend at the American Press, the only place Hobbs has worked since graduating from LSU.
“Bobby Dower hired me right out of college,” Hobbs said of his late friend. “He was two years older than me at the time, but he was 100 years more mature than I was. It was so rewarding, because he was always the boss and the big brother figure. We figured it out together. We were a heck of a team for a while. We really were.”
While Hobbs and Dower were a heck of a team in the journalism world, a pair of former Indianapolis Colts receivers who made history joined their home state’s Hall of Fame within minutes of each other.
Wayne and Stokley were part of a 2004 Indianapolis receiving corps that became the first and only NFL offense to have three receivers record 1,000-yard seasons with at least 10 touchdown catches each.
And at one point in each of their lives, pro football careers seemed less than likely.
Wayne’s first love was baseball as he dreamed of catching line drives more than touchdowns, but his father’s persistence led him to the gridiron where he developed into one of John Ehret High School’s most notable players.
“I think you have a great argument for the greatest face of that program,” Wayne’s high school coach Billy North said. “He epitomized a great young man with Christian values and hard work. I know the next interview that I do for Reggie will be for the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton. He’s a hard-working, loyal guy. That epitomized the type of player and person he was.”
Wayne spent the duration of his 14-year NFL career in Indianapolis, forming a dymanic receiving duo with Marvin Harrison, catching passes from his fellow New Orleanian, Peyton Manning.
“I always felt a real connection with Reggie,” Manning said. “That proved itself on the field. He was always reliable, always answered the bell on Sundays. He was reliable and accountable. It was a real honor and privilege to call Reggie Wayne a teammate.”
Wayne was the model of consistency on the field, but he credited his success off the field to the foundation his mother and father formed at home, one that continues today with his wife and three sons.
“The ultimate thing is my wife,” said Wayne, who is in his second year as an NFL Network analyst. “She’s the real Hall of Famer in my family. A lot of times when I’m not home, she gets the kids together on her own. Last week, she took two of my boys to their first sporting events because I couldn’t be there. I know I don’t tell her enough, but I love her. She means everything to me.”
Family meant everything to Stokley, the son of former then-USL coach Nelson Stokley.
The dichotomy of being a coach’s kid was inherent in Stokley, who described himself as a quarterback “who couldn’t throw the ball 10 yards” as a sophomore at Lafayette’s Comeaux High School. After taking a break to focus on basketball and baseball as a junior, Stokley returned to the gridiron as a senior, setting the tone for a college career in which he became the first NCAA receiver to average 100 yards per game in a three-year stretch.
“You could tell Brandon was special,” longtime Ragin’ Cajuns Sports Information Director and Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Dan McDonald said. “I always tried to take time to talk to every incoming freshman, and you could tell Brandon was so mature. That was probably from being a coach’s son, which is something a lot of people overlook.”
Before an NFL career that saw him catch the opening touchdown in the Baltimore Ravens’ first Super Bowl victory and snare Manning’s record-setting 49th touchdown pass of the 2004 season, Stokley was thrilled to spend five seasons with his father.
“Coach’s kids don’t always get to see their dads all the time, so to spend those five years with him was really, really special,” Stokley said.
Seeing Stokley in college and later the pros meant seeing a large contingent of his family and friends, a group that left its mark wherever the Cajuns or his pro teams played.
“Everywhere we went and played, all the towns, I had an entourage that would show out in force,” Stokley said. “They would wreck the town. I want them all to stand up. I wouldn’t be here without every one of them. I’m so appreciative of their love and support. Thank you. You are appreciated.”
Larry Wright could commiserate with Stokley’s feelings.
Wright was one of nine children raised by single mother in Monroe. He parlayed the lessons learned their into a championship career at Richwood High School, Grambling, the NBA (Washington Bullets) and overseas in Italy.
“I know she’s looking down on me tonight,” Wright said. “She taught me the value of hard work. Regardless of what anybody says about you, continue to work at whatever you want to be, and you can be that. She got up and went to work every day, raising nine kids by herself, I had no reason to make any excuses.”
After his playing career, Wright became an educator, a coach and a principal. He called his children and his wife his greatest accomplishments.
“There were a lot of personal highlights, being a first-round draft choice and things like that,” he said. “The thing that means so much to me, the fact that my wife, my kids, all of them, went to college. All of them received scholarships, and all of them graduated from college. That means more to me than anything in the world.”
That message has been passed on to the next generation of Wrights.
“He was always a winner,” his son Lance said. “His attitude, his work ethic. I remember him telling us stories about playing the fields with a mule in Richwood. Things like that instilled a work ethic that spilled over into whatever he did.”
Winning was in Jerry Simmons’ blood as he built then-USL and LSU into high-level men’s tennis teams. He did so by being on the cutting edge of training.
“It all started with coach Simmons,” said Donni Leaycraft, who played for Simmons at LSU. “We were one of the hardest-working teams and it showed. He made sure we were prepared for every match. We didn’t recruit some of the same players they had in California, but coach Simmons made sure we were in better shape. He was like a second father and a mentor to me. It wasn’t just making sure I was well-prepared for each and every match. He was a huge inspiration to me.”
While with the Ragin’ Cajuns, Simmons turned the program into a team that went 6-0 against SEC opponents, nearly scaring away the competition.
“I was in Japan teaching tennis,” Simmons said of when he got the call to coach LSU. “We were doing so well against the SEC that year (at USL). We were dangerous. We were getting dangerous, and they were going to play us. (At LSU) they had a built-in SEC schedule. They had to play us.”
Simmons carried the mantle for tennis into the Hall in the 2018 while Jack Hains became just the third outdoorsman in Louisiana’s athletic shrine.
Hains became Louisiana’s first Bassmaster Classic champion, capturing the title at Currituck Sound, North Carolina, in 1975 by topping 45 pounds during the tournament.
A baseball fan who hoped to one day unseat Yogi Berra as the New York Yankees catcher, Hains drew parallels between being a successful fisherman to other sports.
“It’s about work ethic, knowing what your objectives really are,” the Rayne native said. “My competition never was in another boat. It was swimming, so I had to be better at defeating my competition. Just going out and catching fish wasn’t going to do it. I had to go out and catch the big one.”
It was quite a landing for the one-time crop duster, whose profession allowed him the freedom to become such a standout in his field.
“He had such a meteoric rise,” said LSWA member Glenn Quebedeaux, who fished with Hains in a bass club in the 1970s. “What would the equivalent be? He would be a regular hacker on the golf course who joined the club and played the club tournament and a couple of other tournaments. Then, four years later, he’s standing on 18 at Augusta with his arms in the air.”
Hains wasn’t the only Saturday inductee with a unique combination in his background.
Paul Candies put together one of the most dominant runs in drag racing as part of the Candies and Hughes teams in the 1970s.
Helping steer those teams to NHRA championships and a slew of national-event wins wasn’t enough. Candies also helped transform the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo from a small-town affair into a nationwide draw.
Two of the late Candies’ sons, PB and Brett, have continued his legacy and have pushed the family’s NHRA win total past 50 while maintaining the rodeo’s significant growth.
“The rodeo blew up when he took over,” former LSWA President Brent St. Germain said. “Why it’s going so strong is because of Paul Candies. He helped it expand into more than a regional tournament.”
Along the same lines as other inductees, Candies’ drive came from his family.
“His mother and father gave him the foundation to build his racing, fishing and work career,” Candies’ son PB said. “The work ethic they instilled in him from Day One worked 100 percent of his life.”
Said Brett Candies, another of Paul’s sons: “His passion to succeed (is his legacy). Whether it was in business, drag racing, the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodoe, his family or his life, his passion was to succeed.”
Notre Dame High School head football coach Louie Cook’s success can be measured in the 344 career wins and four state championships, but it is the intangibles that endear him to his friends and players.
“It couldn’t happen to a better guy,” Cook’s friend Ronald Prejean said. “You ask Louie and he’ll say he’s just an ol’ football coach. He doesn’t really understand what he means to people, the lives he’s changed. When Louie was coaching at Crowley High, he would spend his own money to buy food for his players who would take it home if they didn’t have supper. That’s what he’s made of. Whether it’s a star player or a kid at the end of the bench who needed something, Louie would fill that need.”
In turn, his players have filled up Cook’s win totals and Notre Dame’s trophy case.
Still, it has been Cook who has seen the rewards that come long after the Friday night lights have faded into the distance.
“The one thing we talked about the least is winning,” Cook said. “We try to impress on the kids if you do the right thing and work hard, the byproduct is success. We tell them the scoreboard is on when we come into a stadium but they turn it off after we leave. It’s just a game. Once they leave from us, the scoreboard from life goes on and it never goes off. It’s up to us to handle our responsibilities for the outcomes of their lives.”