Photo: The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2023 (front row L to R) Paul Mainieri, Ron Washington, Lori Lyons, Walter Imahara and Bruce Brown. (Back row) Paul Byrd, M.L. Woodruff, Walter Davis, Matt Forte, Alana Beard and Wendell Davis (Credit: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services).
Written by Jason Pugh
NATCHITOCHES – Thursday afternoon was about “R and R” for 11 members of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2023.
This “R and R” session, however, was not about rest and relaxation. Instead, the focus of the annual induction press conference inside the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum was on the inductees’ reactions to their moment in the sun and the relationships that drove them to or were created along the way in their Hall of Fame careers.
Some of those kinships even had a direct tie to Hall of Fame weekend itself, such as the case with 2023 inductee Paul Mainieri and his college coach, New Orleans’ Ron Maestri, a Class of 1994 inductee.
“I thought about that when (Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation President) Ronnie (Rantz) and (Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Chairman Doug Ireland) called me,” said Mainieri, who led LSU to the 2009 College World Series championship and five CWS appearances in his 15 years atop the Tiger program. “I had flown down from South Bend, Indiana, because Mase was being inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, and I wanted to be here to honor him. I learned so much from Mase in my two years of playing for him – about handling players, promoting your team in the community, about what it took effort wise. At that point in my life, and to this day, he is probably the second-most important male figure in my life as far as guiding me through my baseball career and coaching career.”
Mainieri is one of five members of the Class of 2023 with ties to LSU, joining fellow Tiger baseball players Paul Byrd and M.L. Woodruff, standout football receiver Wendell Davis and Olympic jumper Walter Davis.
Although Mainieri’s relationship with Maestri began roughly an hour east of Baton Rouge, his tie to Woodruff was formed in the LSU baseball locker room long before the Tigers were among the nation’s elite.
Wodruff and Mainieri came into LSU as freshmen together before making their mark as baseball coaches.
Mainieri has the 2009 national title to his name, but it was Woodruff who made winning championships an art form, skippering Parkview Baptist to a remarkable 11 state championships in a 23-year span from 1986-2009.
“After the announcement, Paul was so gracious,” Woodruff said. “He came up to me after the pairing party for the golf tournament and said, ‘M.L., we’re in the locker room at Alex Box Stadium, and someone says, ‘Two of you guys are going into the Hall of Fame.’ He says, ‘Do you think they would have picked us?’ Absolutely not.”
Although not related, Walter and Wendell Davis played into sharing a last name.
“First of all, give it up for my brother, Walter” Wendell Davis said after following Walter’s speech before reflecting on his record-setting career that came in a time that long predated the current pass-happy era of college football.
A Shreveport-Fair Park High School product, Davis was recruited primarily by north Louisiana colleges – Northwestern State, then-Northeast Louisiana and Grambling State – before LSU came in “at the last minute.”
The marriage produced two All-American seasons for Davis, the 1987 SEC Player of the Year as a senior, a career built off a pairing of unsuspecting stars – Davis and his quarterback Tommy Hodson. Davis then produced a six-season NFL career with the Chicago Bears that was cut short because of an injury in Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium that still resonates.
“I look pretty unassuming – you wouldn’t think I played football if you met me on the streets – but Tommy was worse than that,” Wendell said. “Tommy was a skinny kid, great basketball player. You see him on the street, you wouldn’t think he was a player. He was highly recruited, and I thought, ‘I need to get to know him.’ As a redshirt freshman, Tommy and I would work out all the time. We’d lift weights, and we’d go to the field. We’d go up and down the field – I’m running routes and he’s throwing the ball. The hope was this chemistry would carry over into a game. Fortunately, it did. He gained confidence in me, and he knew where I would be on the field. He was very instrumental in me doing what I did.”
While Wendell Davis found success in a team sport, stepping away from basketball led the 6-foot-2 Walter Davis to a track and field career that took the native of Leonville to Barton County Community College in Kansas, back home to LSU and around the world with berths on the 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic Teams.
A prep basketball standout, Walter said the individual nature of track and field played a role – as did a coach who mentioned the plethora of 6-2 basketball players and the dearth of 6-2 basketball players who had his track and field ability – into pushing him onto his Hall of Fame path.
“One reason I left basketball was if someone missed an assignment or missed a layup, it was a hack on the team,” he said. “If I went to a track meet and I lost, I have to look in the mirror. That’s on you. That’s why I really stuck with track and field. I don’t have to depend on anyone but myself.”
Right-handed pitcher Paul Byrd, a 14-year major-league veteran, rounded out the LSU-tied contingent. Byrd’s relationship with the Hall of Fame goes right to the top as he was Tiger teammates with Rantz, who noted Byrd was his first former teammate he was able to honor as an inductee.
A school-record 17-game winner at LSU in 1990, Byrd grinded his way through more than a decade in the major leagues that included a 1999 All-Star selection that led him to mingling with National Baseball Hall of Famers at Fenway Park and a 2007 American League Division Series-clinching win against the New York Yankees.
Byrd remained humble throughout his time at the microphone, nearly speaking about fellow inductee Ron Washington as much as himself. Byrd, now a television analyst calling Atlanta Braves games, and Washington, Atlanta’s third base coach and gilded infield instructor, have developed a friendship that was clear from Byrd’s speech – although it started around the time Mainieri first visited Natchitoches.
“Ron Washington, where are you, buddy?” Byrd asked. “When I got called up to the big leagues in 1995, you don’t remember this. I was playing for the New York Mets. I’m not that good. I’m just trying to bob and weave and last as long as a I can. I’m always told I’m too short, and I don’t throw hard enough. I get called in the office and get told I’m going to the big leagues. All my teammates are hugging me and giving me five. Wash’s energy is unbelievable. He makes working hard fun.
“You don’t remember this, but you told me, ‘The big leagues can change you. Don’t let it happen to you. Stay humble and keep working hard.’ Ron Washington can handle success. All that he has accomplished has not changed him. Thank you for that.”
While Washington has remained the same since leaving New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School in 1970 to start a 10-year playing career, he has been a change agent and self-described “ambassador” for baseball. The Crescent City native said he always played above his age group while growing up, and it didn’t take long for him to have the Texas Rangers punching above their typical weight class in his first Major League Baseball managerial job.
Under Washington, the Rangers won at least 90 games in five seasons and reached the franchise’s first two World Series, capturing American League pennants in 2010 and 2011. Washington finally summitted the mountain in 2021, capturing a World Series title with Atlanta in his 51st season in professional baseball.
It was the relationships Washington built – and the vision he had – from Day One that built a budding dynasty in North Texas.
“When I arrived in Texas, my first meetings were with scouts, and out of the blue, I talked about winning a World Series,” Washington said. “They thought I was crazy. They did. I had the ring sizers, and I was sizing them up. I believe belief is powerful. When you believe and you can put action to that belief, you can get things done.”
Belief was a two-way street that led Matt Forte to the door of the NFL – one he kicked in and enjoyed a decade of top-tier performance with the Chicago Bears and New York Jets.
Forte, a Slidell native, was set on playing football in the SEC, but when the offers did not materialize, he followed his father Gene’s footsteps and signed with Tulane. Flashes of his potential were evident in his first three seasons, but a knee injury late in his junior year – and a coaching change – provided the impetus for a school-record 2,127 rushing-yard season as a senior that led him to become a second-round pick of the Bears.
Forte’s two-a-day workouts put him on a path to the Hall of Fame and to a fast friendship with the Davises, who were the targets of a good-natured shot from the former Green Wave standout.
“It means a lot, especially as a Tulane alumnus around all these LSU people,” Forte said. “Let y’all know, Tulane, we’re up here, too, especially y’all (Davis) brothers over there. When I got the call, I was honestly not expecting it. I was underrated my whole career. I didn’t consider myself underrated. I just think maybe overlooked, but it was God’s plan. Getting this honor at the end of a career was really sweet, because I feel my entire career, some people get their flowers while they’re playing or they come in with a lot of hype.
“I never bought into the hype. I’m glad I didn’t have a lot of hype around myself, because if you don’t turn out to be good the hype doesn’t mean anything. I’d rather be consistent. This was the cherry on top as far as the career I had.”
Consistency was a synonym for Alana Beard’s basketball career.
Four state championships at Shreveport’s Southwood High School led to an All-American career at Duke where she also won the Wade Trophy before playing professionally in the WNBA and overseas.
That career, which began with Beard playing against her older brothers as the only girl, led her to play in 27 countries. It was her relationship with her prep coach, Steve McDowell, she credited with being the linchpin for her globe-spanning career.
“Those Southwood years simply defined who I became,” Beard said. “I decided to play organized basketball in the seventh grade – I was too shy to do so in the sixth grade. That became my journey. That became my love especially when I understood that I had the opportunity to take a burden off my parents’ shoulders. Basketball could be the vehicle to take me where I eventually wanted to go. It wouldn’t have happened without my parents and the foundation they instilled in me, but also with Steve McDowell, the legendary coach at Southwood. I knew I wanted to play for him because he had a championship culture already there, and I had a desire to be a champion.
“I knew choosing Southwood would be hard. I knew the players there were better than me, but that motivated me to want to be one of the best. Any time I think about my success, Steve McDowell is synonymous with that because he taught me the fundamentals of the game. He taught me respect. He taught me discipline. I’ve carried that with me throughout my life.”
While the other eight competitive-ballot inductees carried competitive scars from outcomes that didn’t go their way, world champion weightlifter Walter Imahara’s career was forged in a different setting.
A Japanese-American, Imahara and his family spent three-and-a-half years in a World War II internment camp in California. Instead of a jaded worldview, Imahara took his pleasant disposition – and dogged dedication – to then-Southwestern Louisiana Institute and helped the Bulldogs win an NCAA national championship.
More importantly, Imahara, now 86 years old, found a longtime home among a group of people who treated him like one of their own.
“I was born in California, but I’ve lived in Louisiana for more than 80 years – Louisiana is my home,” said Imahara, who graduated from Baton Rouge’s Istrouma High School in 1955. “When I went to Southwestern, you have to remember, I was like the only Japanese-American on campus. People there were not prejudiced. They were of a Cajun background. How could they be prejudiced?”
Those relationships simultaneously define Acadiana and its 2023 Distinguished Service Award in Sports Journalism honoree Bruce Brown.
A longtime fixture at the Daily Advertiser, Brown was a staple at Lafayette-area sporting events – community-wide or ones with a national focus. In addition to being a talented on-deadline writer, Brown said he enjoyed focusing on sports that didn’t always draw the eye of the greater public.
And while he made Lafayette his home, he had a perfectly pithy response to his honor.
“I think the full quote was ‘Get out of town,’’ Brown said of learning of his DSA selection. “It was unexpected. You don’t live for such a moment, but you take them when they come that’s for sure. I don’t write for the acclaim. I write for the athlete, for the kid. That’s the way I always approached it.”
While Brown wrote about barrier breakers, his fellow DSA honoree broke them herself.
Lori Lyons climbed the ladder at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, starting as a clerk in 1986 before becoming a two-time Louisiana Sports Writers Association Prep Writer of the Year and the second female LSWA President.
During her time as the Times-Picayune’s prep sports reporter in the River Parishes, Lyons chronicled numerous Louisiana Sports Hall of Famers, including 2017 inductee Ed Reed. Now her name – and biography – stands alongside Reed and the other statewide legends in Natchitoches.
“I have been coming to this event for 30 years,” Lyons said. “I have sat in the audience and cried while people like you stood on that stage and tried to explain what it means or how it feels and what an honor it is. Now it’s my turn, and as good as I am with words, I don’t have the words to do it.
“It is humbling. It is surreal. When I punched my name in that computer database and saw my name and my picture … I saw Walter Davis and said, ‘Come here. You have to do this.’ Then I saw his face. Then I saw Wendell Davis and said, ‘Come here. You have to do this.’ That is the most amazing experience so far of this whole thing.”