by Jason Pugh
NATCHITOCHES – Thursday afternoon’s opening news conference for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction weekend was full of shock and awe.
The shock came, nearly word for word, from several inductees who recounted their surprise at being selected for inclusion in the state’s sporting shrine. The awe came from their varied and accomplished careers that – as a group – span nearly a century and brought together standouts from nearly every corner of the Bayou State.
“It’s very hard to put into words, but it means the world to me,” said longtime Episcopal High School cross country coach Claney Duplechin. “I remember when I got the call, I was in shock. It was like, ‘Wake me up from this dream.’”
The architect of a state championship juggernaut boys cross country program that won 25 consecutive state titles, Duplechin was one of 11 inductees or award winners who took the podium inside the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum to celebrate their impending induction.
All but the family of Dr. Eddie Flynn were in attendance at Thursday’s opening news conference, presented by La Capitol Federal Credit Union.
Once the initial shock wore off for each of the members of the Class of 2022, the gratitude flowed.
“This is pretty much the icing on the cake,” said Pro Rodeo and Cowboy Hall of Fame member Steve Duhon of Opelousas. “When Mr. T. Berry (Porter) got in three years ago, I didn’t know they had a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. I thought it would be good to get in there one day. I’ve been in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, all I can do now is watch the grandkids grow up and hope they do the same.”
Before Duhon, a three-time world champion steer wrestler and eight-time National Finals Rodeo competitor, became renowned for his rodeo performances in a 14-plus year career, he played one season of football at LSU, lending another touch to an induction class filled with Tiger ties.
Six of this year’s inductees, including Duhon and Duplechin, competed at or attended LSU.
A pair of Lady Tiger athletes made their first public Hall of Fame appearances, fittingly, on the 50th anniversary of the passing of the landmark Title IX legislation that opened doors for female athletes.
Both national champion gymnast Susan Jackson and dominating softball pitcher Britni Sneed Newman came to Baton Rouge from Texas. Their separate paths to Louisiana sports immortality shared similarities.
“If you know Texans, you know we’re proud to be from Texas,” said Jackson, a 4-foot-11 fireball who was a 12-time All-American (11 first-team selections), a three-time national champion, the Roy F. Kramer Southeastern Conference Female Athlete of the Year and LSU’s first Honda Award winner as the nation’s top gymnast. “When I first came here, I always said, ‘You can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the girl.’
“I was very wrong about that. I came to Louisiana, and Louisiana adopted me as one of their own. It is half of me now.”
While Jackson raised expectations for individual and team performance for the program her coach D-D Breaux, a 2017 Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inductee, built, Newman helped raise the LSU softball program virtually from the ground up.
A menacing right-hander who mowed down hitters from behind a pair of yellow-framed Oakley sunglasses, Newman was the catalyst for LSU’s first Women’s College World Series run in 2001.
A Houston native, Sneed was a four-time, first-team All-SEC pitcher and a two-time, first-team All-American selection who left Baton Rouge as the SEC record holder in wins (120), ERA (0.89), shutouts (55), opponents’ batting average (.147) and strikeouts per seven innings (9.8).
Much like Jackson followed Breaux into the state Hall of Fame, Newman does the same, having spent her final two seasons playing for Yvette Girouard, a 2015 inductee.
“Yvette Girouard, we know she’s a legend, but she’s really, really a legend,” said Newman, now an assistant softball coach at Baylor. “To be able to play for somebody who laid the foundation for the sport, one of the many pioneers, it’s truly an honor to call her my coach. I learned so much from her that I still use today in coaching.”
Jackson and Newman share an alma mater with Kyle Williams, a Ruston native and defensive tackle on LSU’s 2003 national championship team.
Williams, meanwhile, was beyond appreciative of following former New Orleans Saints All-Pro guard Jahri Evans in the order of honorees Thursday afternoon, having shared the NFL field of battle with Evans.
“It was really important for me to represent Ruston, Baton Rouge and the LSU community,” Williams said. “When I moved to western New York, it was really important for me to represent the state of Louisiana well. I’m extremely honored and excited. If you’re someone like me, I’m a back-page guy. I’m going through the list of inductees and saying, ‘I remember seeing him or I remember seeing her play,’ but there’s one name that stands out.
“I’m really excited to go in with so many talented, driven people, but especially going in with Jahri, who is a contemporary, is really special.”
Williams was a known commodity going from Ruston High School, which he helped lead to a state title-game appearance, to LSU, but it was in Baton Rouge under the watchful eye of a college coaching legend where he felt his career “go vertical” for the first time.
“The foundation of my career was laid before that, but LSU is where it started to go vertical,” Williams said. “Look at the quality of coaches we had. One who sticks out as I look back it is (former LSU strength and conditioning coach) Tommy Moffitt and the challenge he threw at you every day. Everyone knows coach (Nick) Saban, but the engine that drove that team and challenged us every day was Tommy Moffitt. The mental toughness, how to go about your day, what is required of you to be at your best, that was all learned in Baton Rouge.”
Evans would have fit well in Moffitt’s system, but the Super Bowl champion took a much different route to the highest level of football.
A broken leg suffered while playing basketball kept Evans off a football field for two seasons, including his true freshman season at Division II Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. That trauma did not stop Evans from becoming a bedrock of the most successful era of New Orleans Saints football, an 11-year career that began in 2006 when the fourth-round draft pick started for the Saints, who reached the NFC Championship Game that season.
“I’m very fortunate and blessed to be here,” Evans said. “There have been a lot of accolades I’ve received, but this one is awesome. The state of Louisiana has a lot of great athletes and a very rich history in sports. Look at this place alone. I’m very honored to be in it.”
Evans shook back from that broken leg with a little help from a piece of paper.
“After I broke my leg, I was telling some children at the Maxwell Football Club, that I had a note that said I would play this year, I would play in college and I would play in the NFL,” Evans said. “I’ll take two of those three. I got back on the field my redshirt freshman year and never looked back.”
The sixth Tiger in the Class of 2022 is former offensive lineman Eric Andolsek, a Thibodaux native who was killed 30 years ago today when a flatbed truck veered off La. 1 and struck him while he was cutting grass at his Thibodaux home.
That accident cut short a promising career in which Andolsek helped the downtrodden Detroit Lions reach the NFC Championship Game and seemed to be building toward even more of a crescendo.
An All-Pro who opened holes for Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders, Andolsek was equal parts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, according to his brother, Andy, who spoke on behalf of the Andolsek family Thursday.
“When he was not on the football field, he was everybody’s best friend,” Andy Andolsek said. “My sister can vouch for that. We lived in the country. The three of us would play – baseball, basketball, football, whatever. He didn’t want to lose. Even at a young age. When you’re playing or having fun and it wasn’t sports or anything competitive, he was a teddy bear. He was a great guy, a great friend and a great brother. We all miss him.”
Andolsek is one of three posthumous inductees in the Class of 2022.
The other one with family on hand Thursday is baseball coach Tony Robichaux, who built championship-level programs at his alma mater McNeese and later the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Robichaux, the owner of Louisiana’s college baseball wins record, made his mark professionally leading the Ragin’ Cajuns to the 2000 College World Series and the 2014 edition of the Cajuns to the unanimous No. 1 ranking. He died of complications arising from a heart attack on June 23, 2019, at age 57.
A quote machine, Robichaux left behind a legacy of “Robe-isms,” nuggets of knowledge and life sayings based on his personal philosophy. His No. 36 was inescapable in May as the Cajuns rallied to a Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship in which UL Lafayette won its 36th game of the season in a contest that ended at 4:36 p.m.
“He did a lot of interviews, and he opened most of the time by saying it’s an honor and a privilege,” his oldest son, Justin Robichaux, said. “To have this in the state of Louisiana, it meant something to him. He took it on the chin a lot. To watch him build a program at McNeese and to see what he developed at the University of Louisiana and to be a man that set a flagship of integrity, moral compass and character, that’s what 36 means to us. It is an honor and a privilege.”
Teddy Allen, a wordsmith with a knack for a homespun phrase and an everyman persona, would say the privilege was his.
A love for sports – and a trip to a South Carolina-Clemson football game at age 10 – led one of the two Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism winners to his chosen craft.
“I come from a town of 750 people in South Carolina,” Allen said. “We got The State (newspaper) from Columbia on Sunday. There’d be a picture of Wake Forest or Clemson or The Citadel, and it would be in color. I couldn’t believe this stuff was happening.
“I was 10 years old and these guys in town took me to the Clemson-South Carolina game in 1970. South Carolina clocks the Tigers, and we’re standing on the hill in the stadium, which is enclosed now. These guys are 24, 25, 26 years old. Why they took a 10-year-old kid? I don’t know. I’d never seen so many colors. I didn’t know there were that many people in the world. It immediately captivated me.”
Whether it has been his award-winning game stories or his columns that involve a dose of daily life in the South to interviewing the headless woman at the state fair – “That was a tough quote,” Allen quipped – Allen has brought that sense of wonder and joie de vivre to readers across the state and the country.
While Allen traversed the country during his sports writing career, his fellow DSA winner carved out a career in the rural areas of Louisiana.
Garland Forman built his Hall of Fame career for the work he did at some of the state’s smaller papers, building up an award-winning resume that was much bigger than the communities he served.
“When (Doug Ireland) called me in November to tell me I got the Distinguished Service Award, I was shocked and surprised,” Forman said. “My 40 years in newspapers have been with weekly newspapers. I didn’t think a weekly guy would ever get this award. I’m honored, humbled and blown away by everything. When I got to town, it was even better.”
Like most journalists, Forman was happy to be “on the other side of the camera” during his career.
The same can be said for Jay Cicero, the recipient of the Dave Dixon Sports Leadership Award.
A Shreveport native and graduate of Louisiana Tech, Cicero began his career working with the Shreveport Captains after meeting team owner Taylor Moore after Cicero graduated from Tech.
He left Shreveport to work at the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation and after a brief stint with the New Orleans Zephyrs – “I was the only guy in New Orleans with Minor League Baseball experience,” he joked – Cicero returned to the foundation and serves as its CEO.
In his role, Cicero has been responsible for the success of the New Orleans Bowl, which is in its third decade of existence, as well as helping land, plan and get ready for the Super Bowl in 2025. That game marks the 11th Super Bowl the city will have hosted.
“It was a shock when (Ireland) called me several months ago to let me know I had been selected for the Dave Dixon Award,” Cicero said. “What an honor to receive something in the name of Dave Dixon. He was an amazing man, incredible energy. So creative. He came up with the name of the Saints. He dreamed up the Superdome. He was a man who was a force to be reckoned with but a friend to everyone. To be honored with an award in his name is very humbling.”
The 12 inductees in the Class of 2022 officially will take their place alongside their fellow state legends Saturday night at the induction ceremony at the Natchitoches Events Center. The ceremony begins at 7 p.m. and will air live on YurView TV and via web stream at www.lasportshall.com and on YouTube.
Watch the full replay of the 2022 Press Conference here on lasportshall.com